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  • 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