In lieu of buttons, I agonized over missed conjugations. My French was growing more fluid by the day; I could hear the ways I was settling into the oral gymnastics of the language—the easy rapport, the improving lilt in my speech—even in the face of my ever-mounting frustration. The vineyard labor grew less taxing by the hour, through sheer repetition. And all the while, the tenderness amongst our particular clan of volunteers, no longer strangers, was always calcifying into something more poetic, more substantial.
It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I’d never felt more beautiful — or perhaps, that beauty, as a noun, took on a wholly different texture. It felt like getting taller, or aging backwards. Tasted like Riesling, freckles, French verbs. Like sitting down for dinner, outdoors, at a table set for twelve.
Naturally, when I did clock my own image—in a rearview mirror, or perhaps in the black of my phone screen—it was never as I’d imagined. Whatever glowing, rustic ideal I’d (optimistically) constructed was always off-kilter: There were twigs caught in the velcro of my jacket, stains on my shirt, grape remnants smeared across my chin, whole chunks of hair left free from my bun. I never looked familiar—or at least, I never looked as I felt. My expectations were always misaligned.
At the end of les vendages (French for wine harvest), once our grapes had been pressed and collected in full, our sentimental goodbyes traded, I checked myself into a hotel in Paris. With two days to spare until my flight home, metropolitan life felt both glaringly normal, and utterly impossible. I bathed for longer than six minutes for the first time in weeks, feeling cleaner than perhaps I’d ever felt in my life.
Then, per tradition, I began to get dressed, giddy with excitement at the prospect of impractical footwear. I wore black tailored trousers, untouched at the bottom of my suitcase since my arrival, with a cropped sweater, layered necklaces, penny loafers, ribbed socks. I traded the sweater for a sleeveless, knit tank, then a men’s button down, then back to the sweater because, at the mercy of a mirror, one might as well assess options, calculate for some best case scenario. In my reflection, I stared, somewhat awed, at the cleanness of me; the fully formedness. It was almost disappointing how quickly I could revert to this prior version of myself, this particular presentation.