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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.