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  • Of wwoofing and online dating

    Posted on July 14th, 2010 Sheila Yair 10 comments

    wwoofThere are some striking similarities between these two supposedly very different features of modern life. The first one is the fact that when asking someone whether he or she has participated or done one or the other, in both cases the answer would probably be no. With wwoofing that is probably correct since very few people do actually go and break their back for some valuable experience in a field, pardon the pun, where everybody knows there is no money to be made, a career where the more you do, the deeper in debt you get. With online dating, likewise, most people will claim no participation. That of course presents a statistical improbability because the dating sites are filled with profiles, photos, updated photos and newly revised updated profiles. Likewise the membership fees are being paid by somebody.

    In these next few paragraphs I will show some more similarities, as we have been wwoofing for the last three months. Since of course as the rest of us, I never had anything to do with online dating I will base my knowledge on, ahh a good friend who did it, yeah a very good friend of mine who has lots of online experience. Yes and just for the record, I am aware of a certain impersonator who has had my photo with a description very similar to myself up on one of those sites. I am looking for that guy, and he has a huge lawsuit coming his way, but he conveniently left only my email on the profile, which makes it hard to track him down. But anyway, of course none of you came across it since you don’t…

    Anyway the core principle of both comes down to the fact that you are trying to attract someone for a very major mutual purpose through a few modest lines of text. I mean you want to find the one person you are maybe going to spend the rest of your life with, the one you will be with more than your parents, friends and relatives all through a little photo and some sentences about what you like to do. Even if you take the term literarily and just plan on dating you are still getting involved with another person, with a total stranger who you might let in to your car your house or even your life. That is quite a big ordeal to fit in a few lines of text. You are painting a whole house with a toothbrush so every bristle counts. With wwoofing it is the same, you are a farmer who is going to rely on total strangers to take care of your goats or to pick your tomatoes or to clear your vineyard. You will let them in to your farm, your business, all based on some online copy. So you have a very small hook to try and fish a big one.

    wwoof2You see from the get go we are dealing with a non linear challenge here. There is a lot at stake in both scenarios and we only have very limited means at our disposal. Thus the words themselves take on a nonlinear character. In accordance with the imbalance between resources and final goal, the words themselves start signifying more than their meaning. When we say for example in an ad that we are an active person we mean we do go on a hike once a year. If we really wanted to describe ourselves as active we would need to use the term very active or extremely active. A farm that says ‘family atmosphere’ means you might get to eat indoors with the family. If you actually want a warm family you have to look for the word, ‘extremely warm’ or, ‘we will integrate you in our lives’. That will probably mean someone will talk to you after work hours. ‘The farmer speaks five languages’, means he knows the local language plus, ‘how are you’ in two other tongues. So in both cases we have to utilize our good friend exaggeration.

    Due to the limited opportunity to impress, one other crucial tactic is everything is only good. We need to sell ourselves, because we do not want to date someone unworthy or have a lousy wwoofer feeding our sheep. So nothing, I mean absolutely nothing is wrong. If you are unemployed, well you are currently seeking private ventures or are in the midst of a brave career change. If you are totally unsocial, well you are unique. Overweight is curvy, unattractive is intelligent etc. exactly the same on the farm side of things. ‘Lots of interesting activities’ means hard 10 hour days where the chores are never ending. ‘Beautiful countryside surroundings’ means you will be 8 miles from the nearest village and good luck if you need the internet. ‘We prefer working by hand’, well remember that you are the hand so that means even though there is a tractor it is much cheaper to send you with the load of olive branches.

    The next important thing to remember is that you want to stand out. Everybody is looking for a date or a free farm hand. Italy itself has a 50 page list of farms. That almost qualifies as a novel. Is there a single wwoofer who read the whole list? I doubt it. A search for a decent good-looking intelligent person in the ages 35-40 yields about two thousand to three thousand possibilities, depending on which site you are using, your friend I mean, and how far you are willing to travel. Well that too is quite a lot of reading material. You might find yourself outside the realm of dating by the time you read them all. So people list what is special or unique about themselves. If you are into avant-garde German movies from the 1930’s and find yourself watching them daily you might for the sake of compatibility mention it in your ad. Here for example are a few farms that put this last technique to very good use.

    “In the heart of the Tosca Emiliano Appennines at an altitude of 1000 m we try to live in harmony with the sky, the sun, the animals, the woods and each other. We are part of the community of the Elves”.

    “The World Peace Garden, two hectares (6 acres) of organically cultivated fruit and olive trees, vineyard and vegetable gardens. The Garden is a New Time Land Base using the 13 Moon 28 Day Galactic Synchronometer. It’s aim is self-sufficiency and the practical application of the Law of Time, a means of reharmonizing the mind to natural cycles. The social organisation is according to the Dreamspell Earth Families. Living structures include small limestone trulli and lamie”.

    “This is a nudist farm but WWOOFers do not have to participate. Help needed with the olive harvest (November/ December), in the vegetable garden during the summer”.

    wwoof3Well now that you have exaggerated as much as possible, listed all your shortcomes as amazing traits, and thrown some uniqueness in to the mix it is time to wrap it all up with a photo. The human being is a graphic creature. Even those of us who think of themselves as non-graphic, we always gravitate towards the picture. A picture is worth a thousand words, well we look at the picture for a few good seconds before we even notice those thousand little words. National geographic, marvel comics, the funnies they have all cached in on that characteristic mannerism of humans. This might be argued as the most important part of the profile. This is where most people will put great emphasis. And as with the words there are also tricks to be had with the images. We have all heard, from our online dating acquaintances, about people who have a 10 year-old photo on their ad and when you meet them they look like the parent of the person in the picture. Was it just neglect or forgetfulness? I think not. We all know the tricks, a hat hiding a forehead that almost reaches the back of the neck, a fuzzy face shot a picture of two very different looking people without mentioning who is the one in the ad. I mean my poor friend has seen it all. There are even, believe it or not, people who post no photo and just leave the default cartoon outline of a face. Do they really think they will get any responses? Not to be shallow, I know looks are not everything, but you are making a big decision here and you want all the facts. Would you answer a help wanted ad that had no mention of the salary or what you would be expected to do? “ A really great job, really you will love this. This is what you were looking for, call us 1 800 blk hole”.

    Well with the wwoof list you do not place photos but you are allowed to have links to your web site which will be filled with lovely images of kid goats, fruit trees in bloom and yellow wheat fields. No pictures of logs being hauled or 60 goats being milked by hand or acres and acres of vegetables being weeded. And sure if the farm is a little run down go ahead and stick a picture from the 80’s when that coat of paint looked really fresh. All is fair in love and wwoof.

    But the similarities do not stop there. There is the responder, the person who liked the ad, the wwoofer who actually wants to work on your farm. Well again we are confronted with a major persuasion campaign through a limited amount of text. You like the person or the farm but you don’t know how many replies they get and you want to be noticed. So all the same methods from above apply. We have found ourselves claiming to have lots of farm experience (you know, we have been to several farmers markets). We claimed we work very well with animals (there are many squirrels in central park). We love the country side (why we have been living in New York City for years), etc. But at times we had to brace ourselves and curb the exaggeration because both to a farm or a date you do not want to seem over enthusiastic. Heaven forbid they might think you are desperate.

    So, to our first farm whose ad read as follows,

    “60 hectare farm with pasture, olives, vines, 130 sheep, goats, pigs and a vegetable garden. There is also a small campsite, guestrooms and a restaurant. We produce cheese and pasta (with our own label) and offer cooking classes.”

    We wrote back that we love goats and cheese have worked in a bakery and on several farms and are very hard workers. Well we figured with that many goats and sheep, a restaurant and a cheese label we were bound to learn some good food teachings. I have already written in this blog how that worked out. Yes that was a nice lure they had there, very colorful and runs on the water just like a tasty bug, we swallowed it hook and all. We didn’t fall in to that trap, we jumped in, head first. So we learned that these ads should be read with a grain of salt, heck read it with the whole salt shaker. Our next ad was someone who undersold himself. We were looking for a smaller farm, no label no restaurant, just a down to earth farmer who want some help.

    “Il Trebbio is a 40 hectare farm situated in the Casentino valley at an altitude of 500 m where Federico, Caterina, Stella, (8 years old) & Mohammed cultivate olive trees (400) and cereal and forage crops for their goats and pigs.”

    wwoof4The ad seemed like a no frills farm. We were on the rebound and anything would do. We wrote that we were available and looking for a farm. At the train station there was this online date feeling that my friend has described to me, you are waiting for a stranger in a public place. You are not sure what he or she looks like and you start looking at all the faces, especially of those who are lingering. Is that guy leaning on the wall the one? How about this one who looks as if he is looking for someone? Should I walk up and ask them if they are Federico? Should I just sit there? What is he going to be like? We already agreed that if the farm wasn’t good we would leave after one day. We have an excuse prepared much like a person who has an emergency call ready to be made in case the date goes bad, “ahh I am so sorry it is my work I have to go…”. Federico arrives and picks us up. He is not the chattiest person, but we are on the rebound. Awkwardness is expected on a first date. We arrive at the farm and he shows us to our room. It is a beautiful room with a big bed, exposed wooden beams, antique furniture and attached private bathroom. We came from a tiny caravan with a 400 meter walk to the shared toilets. Yes this date has taken a turn for the better. Caterina and Federicao are lovely people, they are funny and interesting and very nice. We have many common things to talk about. We fold the pre-arranged excuse nicely and tuck it away, we won’t be needing it here. The days on the farm are long but there is not much to do as Federico has a very efficient system with the animals. Most of the time we follow him around asking if we can do anything? To which he usually replies “it is all pretty much taken care of”. So we do as he does and stare with admiration at the animals. He has the most beautiful goats and he treats them all like pets. They are very used to people and often come up to you for a pat. We spend a lot of time at the kids’ pen where the little ones are exceptionally playful. It sure beats hauling a ton of olive branches for a cold unappreciative farmer. It is very hard to leave this farm but we have come for dating and we do not want any long term relationships for now.

    We go on two more ‘dates’, in central Italy and in the south. One of the farmers is a walking encyclopedia and he teaches us all about bees, goats, cheese making and alfalfa growing. It is all in Italian so we try hard to keep up. If we could only have real life subtitles. But nevertheless we learn a lot from the 20% we do understand. The other farm is in the very south of the heel of Italy. A different country, very Mediterranean and extremely laid back. There were days where we asked the farmer if we should milk the goats and he said, not today it is already late or to hot or there is no cereal for them. They were very warm and hospitable but laidback almost to a point of neglect with the animals, the 40 goats and the pack of 9 scraggily skinny dogs.

    Although we were only in four places and only for three months, we have seen many diverse ways of running a farm. Many distinct ways of husbandry and cheese making. Many different attitudes towards life and working the land and producing food from it. We have worked through the seasons from the snow patches in Tuscany to the hot dry days of Puglia. From a farmer waiting for the rain to stop so he can put his potatoes in, through a farmer who cut the hay and hopes there will be no surprise rain shower, to a farmer who has all he’s vegetables coming up in march and is actually stocking up on hay for the bone dry summer months. We have worked through emotions from neglect and coldness to openness and friendship. We made cheese, bread, pasta, honey, syrup, lemon curd, along with cultivating olives, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, green leaves and peppers. We fed and took care of goats, sheep, horses, cows, chickens and pigs. We have journeyed through the labor of our legs, hands and backs to where our foods are born, to where all our recipes’ ingredients originate. We were dating mother earth for a good three months.

  • A simple pizza recipe

    Posted on June 7th, 2010 Sheila Yair 6 comments

     pizzaPizza is one of Italy’s greatest successes. It is probably the most recognizable symbol of Italy. With all due respect to Michael Angelo, Da Vinci, the architecture, Rome and all its emperors, Vivaldi, Verdi, Porsche, Ferragamo etc. (I will run out of virtual ink here if I go on) the pizza is by far more present in our day to day life. What entered your conciseness first as you were just beginning to recognize and categorize the world around you? Was it the Sistine chapel or pizza? Was it a Vespa or a slice of melted cheese over tomato sauce and crust? And needless to ask here which one had you desired more. But even as adults the pizza plays a big part in most of our daily existence. A big $1.50 part. Even a classical violinist probably is confronted with pizza as often as he or she is with the fine notes of the four seasons. A car enthusiast sees that cheesy treat more often than an Alfa Romeo, Fiat or Ferrari.

    So all that said, here is a simple recipe to make this fine example, pillar should I say, of Italian culture. The great thing about pizza is that you can make it as simple or elaborate as you want. It is like a platform, a base, on which you can set off your culinary imagination and let it run wild. For this one, the ingredients are fairly simple as we are making a simple pizza. So all you need is a little plot of land, some water and plenty of sun. This is the point where some of you are scratching their heads, but I implore you to read on. By the end of this post a pizza shall be had. So you want to start at least 5 years ahead of the desired serving date, 5 years before your planed pizza party (for those of you who hate planning you can give or take a few days). At which point you should go ahead and plant two olive trees (note that if your plot is big it would be highly advisable to plant more than two trees). The olive tree is quite an amazing one. It is tightly intertwined with human civilization. It was one of civilizations first accomplishments as the cultivation of olives, or evidence of such has been found as far back as eight thousand years ago. It is very strong, bares fruit for hundreds of years, needs very little water and is highly resistant to pests. So for very little effort on your part it will grant you the best oil known to man and as if that is not enough some fine aperitifs. The latter can also be used as a pizza topping. Since we are talking about food I won’t get in to the wood qualities and how perfect it is for sculpturing and carving little souvenirs for tourists. Great, so we planted two or more of this extremely efficient and valuable tree. Now we wait for a few years, it will be between 3 to 4 years before the olive bares fruit. But we don’t have to sit and twiddle our thumbs. We can prune the trees to make sure they grow evenly and get enough light on all branches. We can turn the ground around them and fertilize them. We can even water them to help them through the first few vulnerable years. Make sure you collect all the branches and leaves you cut, we will use them later in this recipe.
    Ok now we are two years before our pizza dinner, it is time to get a goat. Note that a cow is also possible and can be substituted here according to taste. I will stick to the goat since this is a simple pizza and a cow would be slightly more difficult to raise and keep. Now goats like olives are also amazing. They are the first animal man has domesticated. Albeit being domesticated for the longest time, they are still by far the most curious of farm animals. They are very intelligent, they bond with their fellow farmer and they can eat most any plant, even some thorny specimens us humans don’t dare touch. Now this is one of the best parts of this recipe, so enjoy it. You raise the goat, taking care of it, feeding it, taking it out to pasture, seeing it interact with nature and watching it grow. The goat will become a companion of yours, you can confide in her and she will listen to most of what you have to say. It will require daily attention but soon you will find it hard to imagine life without a goat. This recipe is getting better and better isn’t it. Ok we are one year before the pizza, mmm I can already smell it. The olives trees have olives and the goat has matured and it is time to get her pregnant, like any mammal, she won’t produce milk otherwise. So as you harvest your olives, look for a good Billy goat to get your cheese process started. A goat will usually be pregnant for 150 days, it is a very precise animal when it comes to gestation. We are getting closer and closer.

    At this point the recipe will split in to two. Depending on where you live, or rather in which climate you find yourself and your plot of land. If it is a very cold climate you want to plant your wheat the spring before the pizza. That way you can harvest it in the summer or fall and save it for the big event. If you live in a warm environment you can wait till late winter, plant the wheat and have it ready right around pizza time. If you are not sure which climate you are in consult the nearest thermometer, you do not want temperatures below freezing once the wheat has sprouted. I feel a bit like a broken record but I am obligated to say of wheat that it also is an incredible plant. Extremely nutritious while also being the source of flour which can be the base of many great dishes. The wheat once again is one of the first crops man has cultivated and it is one of the first signs of civilization. Makes you wonder, is it just a coincidence that the basic ingredients of a pizza were the first crops to jump start civilization, was civilization just a means to realize a subconscious human desire for pizza? Or is pizza the end result of any civilization, is it the base of progress? Were these last ten thousand years of science, war, art, technology, religion, politics etc. only about pizza? That is definitely food for thought but lets go back to food for digestion. Lets do some math here. An acre of wheat yields around 26 bushels of grain. A little less if you are using older varieties, but lets use the above as a guideline. 26 bushels should put you in the capacity of making about 1400 loaves of bread. Since we are only making one pizza we really just need around 4 square meters of wheat for our crust. But since this is such a basic product with so many possibilities attached to it we should probably plant some more. Go ahead and plant according to your own consumption. Make sure you turn the ground thoroughly and leave no weeds, we want the wheat to grow with as little competition as possible.

    It was all fun and games up to now, but here is where we are going to have to multi-task. Like every good cook we are going to have to carefully plan everything so that it is all ready at the same time, I mean if we have everything but the cheese or everything but the sauce we really do not have a pizza. So let’s concentrate, it has been a very nice four and a half years but now we start to boogie. The olives are picked. We have crushed most of them to get the oil out. We pressed it and stored it in our cool cellar. Some of the olives we slit and put in brine. We made sure to use one tablespoon of salt for every cup of water. Our goat has given birth to a beautiful kid goat, we should attend to her and make sure the kid is drinking enough milk and the mom is well. After a few days we can start milking the goat and use the milk for cheese. We want to bring the milk to 40 degrees Celsius and put some rennet or enzyme. We can also add some of our favorite cheese culture but it is not necessary. We let it sit for an hour and then cut the coagulated milk into small cubes of about one cm. We place it in a draining dish in the shape of our choice and let it sit. Over the next few days we should salt the top, bottom and sides. Now we will let it sit for about 3 months in a cool place, checking on it and flipping it every now and then. Gusts of fresh milk fill the kitchen air, you are starting to smell the very first odors of your pizza. Now we are about 3 months from the actual pizza and the excitement builds. Push has come to shove, shovel that is. It is time to plant some vegetables. You want to prepare the garden before planting. So lets turn the soil and make sure there are no weeds. Then lets put some fertilizer. The goat has supplied us with that and we can mix it in with the compost we have been preparing. Once the area is covered, we turn the ground again, water it and let sit for a few days. Now lets put a few tomato bushes, one or two types of pepper, hot pepper, eggplant, some basil, oregano, garlic and onion. You should probably seed them in a greenhouse or any plot of land protected from wind and heavy rain. Once they are out and about 2 cm tall transplant them. Leave them now to grow, checking every once in a while to see that they have enough water. Eggplant, tomato and pepper have deep roots so check under the surface for wetness.

    Things are really bubbling now. Mother nature is diligently preparing all our ingredients. Like any good chef, we want to check on things as they cook, so lets lift those pot lids so to speak and keep weeding the garden and look for any pests, weed the wheat, milk the goat. The pizza odor is getting ever more present especially when you smell the tomato bushes and the basil plants. We are getting there.

    Now we are a few days before pizza and the wheat is ready to cut. We will cut it and let it dry in the field. When it is dry we will separate the grain from the stem. Now we can grind it in our stone grinder. For those of you who are unfortunate and only have a coffee grinder that will also do. Of course we grind the whole grain with its shell to get a lovely light brown whole-wheat flour.

    It is the night before pizza, when all through the house

    Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

    Well maybe not stirring but we are definitely mixing. We took today’s fresh milk and put some rennet or enzyme in it along with the optional mesophilic culture. We stir it well and let sit for the night. We mix the dough for the starter. We put two cups of flour to one cup of water, to which we add some yeast, half a teaspoon will do. Mix everything together and let it sit covered overnight. Now yeast is readily available in the air that surrounds us. So if we prefer to use the generic one, we should make the flour and water combination a little earlier and let it sit for 4-7 days while constantly adding water and flour. The next morning the dough should be bubbly and the cheese should have separated from the whey. Lets get 3 big tomatoes from the garden, cut them to cubes, and cook in a pot with some finely chopped peppers. Once it is watery we add salt, black pepper, oregano, basil, chopped garlic and a pinch of sugar. We let it cook on a low flame to absorb all the flavors. Lets add a cup of flour and a quarter cup of lukewarm water to our dough, add a quarter tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt and knead it. Kneading will release the glutton in the dough and make it more elastic. We don’t want to over knead it so it stays airy and fluffy. A good 6-8 minutes should do. After that, lets shape it as a ball and let rise while covered. Lets slice the eggplant thin and lightly fry it, chop the onion and sauté it, slice the peppers and roast them. So many words for putting stuff in a pan. With all the above, we want to make sure we cook them just enough so they are soft. Lets collect some of those dry olive branches we have lying around from the beginning of the recipe, the leaves of course we gave the goat as that is one of their favorite foods. We will light the branches in our wood brick oven and get it up to around 400 degrees. Again for those unfortunate people who cook with gas, a regular oven will do. Lets take the dough ball out, it should have doubled in size by now. With a rolling pin we flatten the crust and shape it. This is the point where you decide upon a thin or thick crust pizza. Generally the thinner the dough the thinner the crust. Now you can toss the dough up in the air several times and roll it on your arm but those steps are not absolutely necessary. You can achieve the desired crust with a rolling pin alone. Once we have that done lets spread the sauce, and grate some of the hard cheese and fresh cheese. We place the eggplants, peppers, onions and olives on the cheese. We can also put some hot peppers if our taste calls for it. The oven should be nice and warm now so lets carefully slide the pizza in to it and let it bake for about half an hour. Now you better sit down. Take a deep breath and pull your creation out of the oven. Before you are 5 years of collaborated teamwork between you and nature, before you is a pie that some say is the base of progress, a hidden subconscious desire that has pushed humans towards civilization. Before you is a delicious simple pizza ripe with flavor and ready to please. Think of all you did these past five years to deserve such a delightful treat. Enjoyment is guaranteed.

    So that is the simple pizza, now I am guessing some of you out there might have a simpler way of doing it, I have even heard crazy talk about this hut that has ready-made pizzas. But to me this is a nice and simple way to enjoy the best of Italian culture. Hope it was helpful.

  • Buongiorno Italy

    Posted on May 20th, 2010 Sheila Yair 4 comments

     monteI always liked traveling by train. To me train travel nestles between romantic and adventurous. In a long snake like vehicle you cut through the land. The train itself is a very spoiled means of transportation and it likes its tracks fairly straight. So a lot of preparation and work has to go in to the laying of the tracks, bridges, tunnels, passes, etc. but the result is a very smooth ride for the traveler. And to top that, trains usually carry with in them the most comfortable seats in the most pleasant compartments. I mean much more comfortable than plains or buses.

    So we decide to take the overnight train to Italy. We want to look Italy in the eye as we go through it, not from above, start off our relationship on the right foot. It is also a lot better for the planet. I find it amazing that in the midst of global warming and on the edge of peak oil, flights cost a fraction of any other means of transportation. A ticket from Paris to Rome is only €10. Of course they will go out of their way to make that flight inconvenient. A bad hour, a far airport with only one train or bus that go there and many hidden extra charges. But still the price is quite amazing.

    So we nestle in to our compartment, it is shared with 4 other people, something we didn’t realize when we booked the ticket. The domestic trains in France are very nice. I have taken a few through the Alps, passing through beautiful scenery, in and out of mountains and valleys in the most comfortable settings. The international trains are not quite up to par. More run down and the compartments are smaller and more crowded. So as we walk in to our train we are reminded a bit of our India travel. But soon enough we open up the bunk beds. Sheila and I get the very top ones, we are lying next to each other reading and watching a movie on the laptop. Our eyes slowly close to the soothing rhythm of the train in motion. When next we open our eyes we are in Italy. We pass the area of Milan which seems very industrial but shortly after we are surrounded by fields and farms on our way to Florence. I have never understood where the term rolling hills come from. Hills are present, high, sturdy maybe wavy but they never roll. Like a fact in the landscape they don’t budge. But here in Tuscany they definitely seem to roll. With green and yellow waves of crops swaying between patches of forest with white dirt roads trying to hold the whole scene down like ribbons. Like a Van Gogh painting there is an abundance of motion in something that supposedly is still. I am pretty sure the person who came up with the phrase rolling hills was sitting atop one of them here in Tuscany.

    We arrive in Florence at 10 in the morning. A quick look at the map reveals that most of the attractions are right in the center, a few blocks from where we are. So we check in our bags and off we go. Florence like a lot of colonial cities gives you an impression of a small town when you walk in the center. Narrow allies lead you through beautiful two story houses with only the churches and cathedrals rising high. We have our fist Italian lunch, a slightly known Italian dish called pizza (I believe no introduction is necessary). Afterwards we sit in a trendy café overlooking one of the plazas. Sheila has a tiny espresso coffee and I have a very good beer, ahh this all seems very Italian. We walk around a little more and then head for our bus which is conveniently located a few blocks away. We are both a little nervous as we have never “wwooffed” before. WWOOF is a worldwide organization that connects organic farms with volunteers. You offer your help in whatever is needed and in return you get room and board. What will be the help we will offer? What will the family be like? Will it be too hard? All these questions run through our minds and occasionally make it out our mouths as we roll through the Tuscany scenery. The wife has told us to get off at Montepulciano and wait, for the husband will be a little late. We asked if there is anywhere in particular we should wait and she said just wait at the bus stop. We are drooped off at an impressive little medieval looking town and we wait. Neither one of us has mastered Italian but we are both pretty sure this is Montepulciano. After nearly an hour we start doubting how well we understood the driver or the wife. But we are two foreign looking people with two big backpacks and if we are actually in Montepulciano we can’t be missed. The time passes and still nothing. Finally a car arrives with someone yelling the name of the farm. We nod excitedly. The man seems quite aggravated as he has waited at the bus station, a few blocks away, for a while. We told him the bus driver let us off here and that we are very sorry but he still seems quite upset. He then goes right on to tell us how many wwoofers say they will stay for two weeks and then leave his farm after a few days and how most young people these days are worthless and don’t know how to work, especially young American wwoofers. We both nod awkwardly. I think to myself we are wwoofers, we are American and we both are kind of young there buddy… and by the way I loved your latest book “things to say when you first meet people”. Sheila tries to defuse the tension by saying how famously good Montepulciano wine is. He snaps telling her that the popular one is the cheap one that only carries the name Montepulciano and is actually produced somewhere else, while a real Montepulciano wine is very expensive and is consumed only by people of class. Sheila retreats to silence. Yeah I also loved your book “Wines of the world, not just for snobs”. I am obligated to pull out the old favorite topic, the one that never fails, the weather. You see we have tried calling the farm all last week from France but their phone and internet was down because of a huge snow storm two weeks ago, there is still snow on the ground here and there. I tell him “it was very cold a few weeks ago here”. Not so much he replies. This has been one of the coldest winters on record in Europe and he says not so much? What is he a freaking polar bear who landed in Tuscany and wonders where all the seals and penguins are? We continue the rest of the way in silence. And yes of course I also loved your book “Two years in the Sahara, not so warm, three years in the north pole, not so cold”. I hope the wife is nicer or at least not as bitter. We finally arrive at the farm and are let off at our trailer. It is a very cozy camper and we feel a little lifted from the ride. Why we didn’t just turn around right then and there is something I will never understand. There will be many more times where I will wonder that so from here onwards I will just write the first letters WWDJTARTAT.

    We walk around the farm, see the animals, the barn and surroundings. The place is surrounded by hills with olives, vineyards, green fields and old Tuscany style farm houses. You can see two old medieval looking towns with their high cathedrals and walls in the distance. It is beautiful around here and we both feel glad we are in Italy.

    Dinner is a little discomfited as we are briefly introduced and then all go on eating without much talking, only a little amongst the family in Italian. If the snow storm wasn’t so cold the feeling at the table qualifies as freezing. We sit at a very long table with the family all gathered at one end, the mother and father and their four sons, while the help, three wwoofers and an Albanian worker are on the outskirts. All the food, water, wine and condiments are centered where the family is and every little thing you want needs to be passed to you. So after you ask for the pasta, the salad, the olive oil and the vinegar you figure I am not going to bother the person next to me any more, I will have the salt tomorrow, I will try the black pepper some other time, I will drink water after dinner. The dinner includes pasta with ricotta cheese, bread and a big bowl of lettuce that they call salad. Now I think to officially call something a salad you need at least two vegetables otherwise it is just a bowl of whatever vegetable is there. I jokingly ask to pass the lettuce and sheila elbows me. We go back to our trailer, we are still hopeful and say we will make the best of things. WWDJTARTAT.

    The next morning we wake up at 6:30am to help at the barn. Ulise, the friendly farmer, has about 100 sheep and 22 goats. He milks 70 of the sheep and 20 of the goats all by hand. Well when I say he I mean him and Shima, the Albanian worker. The two of them in the morning and Shima alone in the evening. Those are a lot of udders, 90 for Ulise and 270 for Shima. I have seen farms with 40 goats or less that have a milking machine. Milking here takes about an hour. There is also no milking stand and the animals roam freely as you milk them, you know just to add to the challenge. The sheep you milk sticking their head between your legs, bending over their back to reach for their udders. It looks like backbreaking work, literarily. So I volunteer to help with the goats, with them you can crutch behind the goat and milk. No stool of course as it seems Ulise has a very bad relationship with convenience. I tell Ulise I will help with the goats, he being friendly as he is says only if you know what you are doing. Can someone be any friendlier? As I start milking I can hear my mom telling me to be gentle, not to pull so hard. She also asks the goat how she is doing calling her usually mama, she will reprimand them if they fight with each other or get impatient with me and move before I finish milking. With some of them I have to stop mid way and chase them around the stall, as they don’t always listen to my mom. She is probably only talking in my head and they can’t really hear her. But for me it is nice to hear her. I have never seen goats being milked like this and you really have to sometimes beg them to let you milk. After milking is done we feed the animals and give them water. Sheila has to go in with two heavy buckets of grains and beans. The sheep that are very hungry swarm all around her. Sheep are usually a very timid animal but not at 7am when they are ready for breakfast. It is one slim human equipped with two buckets against a tidal wave of 100 sheep. Sheila doesn’t look to comfortable but she manages very well. The goats are a lot easier to feed as they seem to have a little more dignity and even though they are probably just as hungry as the sheep they don’t swarm around you. They will however come from behind you and nibble at the bucket or your pants. The last animals to be fed are the pigs which are kept in two fairly small cages. It is a walk down a steep hill to feed them. If I thought sheep are aggressive the pigs are down right vicious. The adults jump up on the edge of the cage snarling and foaming at the mouth. I hate to see animals in cages but right now that is one barrier I am glad to have between me and the pigs. I maneuver quickly to get the food from the buckets to their feeders while trying to keep my extremities intact and attached to my body, pigs eat anything, especially when hungry. After that we go have a quick breakfast. Sheila is still a bit shaken from the sheep and I still see the pigs foaming in my mind. After breakfast it is back to the barn to let the animals out to their different pastures. They all know where to go and need very little human intervention. As I follow them each group to their appropriate field I see some more of the beautiful surroundings. The hills, the vineyards, the olive groves and some houses I haven’t seen before. Shima is with us and in his broken Italian he tries to explain the routine, the neighboring farms and the area in general. It is so nice to be outside, to work with animals, to work with the land. Your associates are mother earth, the weather, plants and animals. This bliss and tranquility is quickly cut by our next task. We are facing a pile of wood which we have to trim and then walk up and down the hill to throw the little branches and back to the house with the logs. We have a little axe and clippers for the job. The pile is big and seems to never go down but after a few good hours and a lot of back and forth walking and branch chopping we start seeing patches of earth below the wood. Now we have to start lugging the heavy logs and carry them to the house. I have stumbled upon a little secret which I will share here with you… farm work is not all fun and games. After stocking him with wood for at least the first two month of winter, the friendly farmer Ulise comes out and sends us to the olive grove. He doesn’t even seem to notice the huge pile of wood that has disappeared and transformed in to nicely piled fire wood on the side of the house and a huge mound of branches near the compost. He seems to think the wind just blew it all nicely in to place. In the olive grove, this is pruning time, we are instructed to collect all the branches that were clipped off and make huge piles at the end of the grove for the tractor to pick up. We do this for three days straight in three different olive groves. We must have collected a ton and a half of branches. After three 10 hour days there were 8 piles, 6 tractor loads of olive branches. If olive branches symbolize peace there was enough there for total global peace for the next 50 generations, we just needed a few thousand white doves to carry all of it. I can’t even begin to explain how monotonous the job is. Sheila would get under the trees and collect all the branches making little piles and I, the human mule, would bring them to the big pile. Branch after branch until some of the piles started looking like big walls. One of the piles we built could be seen all the way up the road, from a kilometer away. I looked at some of the little branches and then up at the big pile and thought how this whole monstrous heap is made out of tiny leaves. How anything big is really just a bunch of smaller things. How a tiny leaf with the help of a million others can create something huge. As I philosophize in my mind of small and big I tell the leaves that I collect that they can be part of a bigger thing… wow, OK now I am really losing it, I am giving a pep talk to a leaf in the middle of an olive grove. Help. This whole situation reminds me of the Paul Auster’s book “The Music of chance”, where the two characters gamble their freedom away in a poker game and find themselves enslaved and cutoff from the world. You see we have no internet and according to Sandra the wife their phone is still out of order. We are also 8 kilometers from the nearest village. We are trapped here forever, or at least until we finish pilling half of Tuscany’s olive branches. WWDJTARTAT.

    But the monotony is broken and on the forth day we are taken to an old vineyard a few kilometers from the farm. Shima and I dig holes in the ground and then place heavy cement poles while Sheila has to yank and free the vine branches that were pruned. The other two Italian women can’t believe that Sheila is working without gloves but as we were not told what we are going to do, we didn’t come prepared. Ulise drives off saying he will look for gloves for Sheila but never returns. We find out the next day that there is a huge box of gloves right in the garage and Ulise, the friendly caring farmer, just didn’t want to drive the extra 5 minutes to drop them off. So Sheila yanks vines the whole day without gloves as Shima and I do work that would make even a tractor sweat. After the poles are in place it is time to stretch wires between them with our bare hands. Neglect has roamed freely and uninterrupted in this vineyard for quite some time. You see this vineyard belongs to some guy in Rome who hires Ulise to maintain it who throws his wwoofers and Albanian guy to actually do all the work. So there is not much care or thought about the work. There is an absence of wire stretchers, light weight poles, clear rows and many more things that can make life easier in the vineyard but most of all, this vineyard is lacking attention. On the way here we pass a vineyard that is owned by an old man. He is always out walking between his vines, tying them, pulling them, fixing them. His place looks meticulous, a total opposite from where we are working. We do this for three days battling a forsaken vineyard trying to make it look better and somewhat functional, pouring our energy and sacrificing our body parts to give it some life. At this point between the free range milking and the bare handed wire stretching I can barely feel my left hand. My fingers constantly feel num as if circulation was cut off. Sheila says I probably hurt a nerve but I think my fingers just preferred to put themselves in this stupor so as to not witness the labor they are forced to do. WWDJTARTAT. All this time we continue to nourish our hungry bodies through dinners with freezing cold atmosphere, the polar bear family at one end and the help at the other with everything having to be passed down and practically the same meal twice a day every day. Some type of pasta with ricotta, a bowl of lettuce and bread. You see all these ingredients are pretty much the cheapest food available. And that is the level of appreciation Ulise has for his wwoofer help. I start thinking of taking some beans and corn from the goats and sheep and cooking them for myself to have one decent meal, but I have no access to a kitchen. After the vineyard is up and standing it is time to collect more olive branches. We do that for a few more days and then take our first day off. The wwoof website states that you work for 5 to 6 hours a day and take one or two days off a week. So we worked for 9 to 10 hours for 8 days. Our main mission now is to get out of this farm. You see naïve and optimistic as I am I thought this is Italy, not some remote village in the Himalayas or some small town in the Amazon jungle. We will get to a farm and from there through their phone and internet arrange the next farm. That way if we like a farm we can stay longer and if we don’t like one we can cut our stay. But there is no phone and no internet and the closest village is 8 kilometers away. So we walk the 8 kilometers to Montepulciano hoping there will be internet there. Montepulciano is as I said before a beautiful medieval village built on a hill. It is a very touristy place known for its cheese and wine, not as well known for its cyber cafes. We go from cheese shop to wine store asking about an internet place. The people on the top of the hill send us to the bottom of the hill and the ones on the bottom send us back up to the top. We go up and down till siesta time where everything seems to instantly close. If you ever want to film a since fiction end of humanity total disaster movie with scenes of abandoned cities, Italy during siesta time is the place to do it. Between 1:30pm and 4pm there is no one to be seen. All the Italians have left Italy and only a few confused tourists are left to roam the empty streets. At 4:30 someone directs us to the tourist office which we passed twice but it was closed. It is open now and finally we find the one location with internet. But we only have half an hour as the one daily bus that goes towards the farm left and our ride leaves at 5pm. Otherwise it is 8km walking back. We quickly scan the farm list to take updated phone numbers. We didn’t quite escape but we have a few numbers, now all we need is another free day and a phone. We will both come out of here alive I promise Sheila. This is not the Paul Auster book. We arrive back somewhat discouraged but at least we had a good lunch and a day of rest (only about 8km of walking and then 4 more going up and down the town, but with no olive branches on our backs). We continue doing the olive groves with an occasional stop to chop up fire wood. One sunny day I go down the steep hill to feed the pigs. By now I have already developed a system where I throw a scoop in one direction and as they all run foaming to see what it is, I can quickly unload the bucket in the other side of the feeder. As I lean in to unload their bucket of breakfast, zap, I find myself flying back 2 meters. For a split second I don’t understand what happened. Ulise, the friendly caring and thoughtful farmer has turned on the electric fence. But of course I should have some how figured that out and it does not require him to actually warn anybody. I am all shook up as I climb back up the hill.

    It is now getting close to Easter and we are told there is no public transportation for 4 days. You see I was raised in Israel, I thought Easter was a one day thing. I didn’t know there was Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and heck lets just take one more day off Monday. So on one of our excursion to collect olive branches in a far away grove we escape to a near village. There is a public phone so we look for a store that sells calling cards, of course no store sells them. So close but no cigar. The next day we escape to a further but slightly bigger town. Now here we find a phone with a shop next to it. A public phone, by now, seems like such an amazing convenience. We can actually dial and talk to the outside world, we can break the curfew of communication. We call the one farm we know is good. It is a farm that was recommended by other wwoofers. They don’t answer. I want to hold out for that farm and not call the others because I want to ensure our next experience is a good one. We can’t fall again on a bad farm. I wait an hour, calling every 15 minutes but nothing. I have to get back to the olives. The next day again I try calling them and no answer. I call a few other farms but they are full and the one farm we want still doesn’t answer.

    It is Easter now and we take our second day off. Sandra the wife is very mad at us claiming we shouldn’t have taken Easter off since there is so much work and it is not fair on our part. We just look at her. I could start a whole 5 hour discussion about how unfair every single day of our stay here was but it is Easter and our day off so I just stay silent. We walk to another village, we always walk there is never any ride offered on this farm. The only rides that are offered are to take you to a place of work. We have a very nice lunch that includes no ricotta and no lettuce and off to the phone. We finally contact a farm not far away that needs two wwoofers, we are close to tears with joy. We tell them we will arrive the day after Easter (otherwise known as thank god Easter is over Tuesday), once public transportation is renewed. On our last day on the farm, we go in the evening to the old gentleman who works his vineyard with such care. He lets us taste his wine. It is very good. Of course it would be. It is filled with passion, tradition and care. It also tastes of fruit, vanilla, berries, oak and all those other things wine enthusiasts always look for. We buy 4 bottles as we are very happy to leave the farm. At dinner we are told that no one can give us a lift to the road where we can catch the bus. It is a whopping five minutes by car and I can totally understand these people, they are extremely busy. We will need to walk the 2 hilly kilometers with all our bags. Oh well at least we know our work here is well appreciated. We say good bye and leave early in the morning. We walk to the road it is heavy and long but we feel light, with every step we are further from this farm. We catch the bus and after a few busses more we arrive at Arrezzo (the town where life is beautiful was filmed). I call the next farm and Federico tells us to go enjoy Arrezzo and he will come pick us up from the station. We walk around a bit, take some photos and have a big pizza for lunch. He comes and gets us. I still can feel every meter of distance we are putting between ourselves and the last farm. When we get to the new farm we are shown to a beautiful room with exposed wooden beams and antique furniture. Hard to believe that only this morning we were walking away from the worst farm in the world and now we are settling in to the nicest farm in Italy, but we don’t know that yet.

    click here to see photos