[I plan to write a different post for every farm I visit. More than going to Italy, I’m visiting small parts of people’s lives for 2-4 weeks each. Volunteering through farming is a very different way to ‘travel’ because you worry about money way less, you live with locals, you can treat it as an apprenticeship, and you actually have a relationship with the food you consume, instead of having a typical tourist restaurant experience and seeing sights. The only sights I want to experience are people, for the most interesting thing I have ever done is get to know another person — and I suppose that will always be the case.
I fully expect every farm and family to be different, which makes more sense than trying to make any generalizations about “Italians” as a whole. So I cannot really answer the question “So, how was Italy?”; therefore I apologize in advance 🙂 I find the more I get to know people, the less I can make any final conclusions about them… the more we know, the less we judge; the less we judge, the more we live… ]
From Jan 9-25, I was in Monteleone Sabino, working at Ozu Cultural Centre (www.ozu.it)
It’s very easy to fall in love with the olive tree.
Before I realized it, I was swept up, lulled, enchanted — enraptured by her branches, her succulent olives and her graceful leaves. Yes, I believe in the olive tree, and I would be honored to care for her — for better or for worse, through sickness or health — even though she doesn’t need me. But maybe that is what love is: to love them without feeling the need to possess them, without being jealous when they love — or are loved — by others at the same time, for,
“there is more self-love than love in jealousy” – La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 324
Monteleone Sabino (‘mount of lions’, ~60 km east of Rome) is quite the quaint mountain town. The houses next to where I am are mostly stone-hewn cabins with chimney and sheds, most situated next to their own olive groves and vineyards. Wild herbs are not hard to find: my hosts pick rosemary,
bay leaves, chili peppers, and various berries in the spring. When we have to go into the town to buy something, we talk of going “down to the village”.
This town was very isolated for centuries, as a road connecting it to another town was just built only in 1970. Before that, there was just one gravel road, that farmers used to get from town to town, by mule, which took around 6 or 7 hours to reach the end of. So, yeah, barriers can enclose us in bubbles if we let them. The surrounding towns share similar fates, so every region has its own distinct character, pride, cuisine, and dialect.
You can see a large swath of the Apennines, the mountain range that runs down the middle of Italy, from my bedroom window, as the fog sweeps over, and snow blankets the summits (when it rains here, there’s snow up there). It’s all very idyllic, really — even more so than you’d imagine. The winds are robust and howling, but the best part is all the birds that you can only find here in the mountains. How they maintain such a magnificent chorus through the entire day is beyond me. Davvero, che fortuna.
It’s almost depressing how difficult it is to capture the natural beauty — the many-sided beauty that you can feel, see and hear — of Monteleone Sabino; no matter how expensive the camera is, some moments and landscapes simply refuse to be captured, even as you beg otherwise.
Yet, the desire to capture moments may be totally misguided in itself: the camera can easily prevent us from living in the present, as we try to bottle up the past. Can you even imagine a world without photos? Whether traveling or at a big life event, everyone wants to see the pictures. It almost seems that if you did something and didn’t take photos, it didn’t really happen. “Did you document it?” Everyone else wants to share the experience with you and you want to bottle it up for yourself — which is fine, but a world without photos is well worth imagining, if only because it did once exist, and still does for “primitive” tribes everywhere.
**Do photos make it impossible to live in the present?** (… as I drown in irony…)
Why not just stare and appreciate? I frequently enter spiritual raptures, and feel I can’t fully appreciate certain trees, dragonflies, bees, or pinecones — even after I’ve stared at them for hours. And believe me, I’ve tried. — And I will keep trying, because who ever succeeds at fully appreciating their mother(s)?
My hosts are Enrico Blasi and Paolo Simoni, and Ettore, their 6 year old who drags me to watch Kung Fu Panda, Storia del Giocattolo (Toy Story), and I Puffi (he’s obsessed with the smurfs). They regularly hosts artists and writers at their place, a cultural centre where they hold art and cooking classes in the summer. Tracy and Christina, my fellow volunteers were great, too, and it was a privilege to get to know them, and I hope we keep in touch.
Here is their description of the farm:
“We have 3,5 hectares of land with 350 olive trees, fruit trees and a vineyard, 60 km from Rome. The land is very steep in places and has been abandoned and is therefore overgrown with blackberries. Help needed with clearing, maintenance and with pruning the olives and vines. The woodland needs clearing… Meals are sometimes organic but are principally made using local produce, and we buy from farmers and the supermarket. We collect wild vegetables and fruit.” ( paraphrased)
We’ve had some interesting conversations so far: concerning different interpretations of original sin, ideological differences between America and Western Europe (someone said, “America has the very best and the very worst of the West”), the distinct cultural and linguistic differences between regions in Italy (it’s really like a bunch of small city-states, similar to India, where every region has its own flavors of cuisine and dialect), and why Monsanto is ruining the world, and i fascisti nuovi in some parts of Italia and many, many more…. If I could list them all, they wouldn’t nearly be interesting enough!
The 6 cats (hard to catch them all at once) gather for warmth most mornings, as they leer at Balu bothering them.
They (not the cats :p) patiently correct my Italian, and I help them with English (though they need less help than me). Even though I understand very little, it’s so useful to just sit there and listen to the intonations and inflections of the language. Accent means so much, especially in Italian. A little Italian goes a long way, and actually trying to make legitimate conversation beyond basic etiquette and ‘standard phrases’ is totally unexpected. It really opens up people who would otherwise treat me as just another tourist (American tourists are notorious for not trying to speak the other language), even if I stumble over trivialities and sound like a total dunce (which I always do). We say we don’t want to learn a language unless we can use it, but I really think it’s because we don’t want to look ignorant and awkward, as we are reduced to communicating solely by gestures and facial expressions, and constantly trip over subtleties that are so obvious to the native.
Pride goes before destruction, the Scripture says, and the fear and failure of learning something new is the classic example. We collect excuses in our closets, some have grown stronger over time as we’ve rearranged and redecorated them for new and improved cases, while others sport cobwebs as we’ve matured past them. Or maybe some lose their savor because the situation which supported them has changed, and not us?
“When our vices leave us we flatter ourselves with the idea that we have left them” [La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 192]
— and usually we manage to be proud of our excuses, as if they were born from logic, and not cowardice. As if our excuses were always won with hard-earned effort, and were last resorts when we have tried everything we could. I mean, really, what is the difference between an excuse and a reason?  Clear questions rarely get clear answers, while unclear questions get none. Certainty dies a thousand deaths, but only if we are honest. I’ve seen people keep certainty on life support; for them, it is more important that certainty live than they flourish.
“Oil” here always means olive oil, and we put on everything, which is great for two reasons: healthy and great taste. The olive oil is so good it’s absurd: aroma, texture, etc; I truly felt spoiled and indulgent. Il pranzo (lunch) is usually some variation on pasta, zuppa o i panini (panino is singular) — and lunch is almost always an event, to say the least. We picked wild broccoletti (totally unrelated to broccoli) for lunch and had guests over. We had espresso before lunch, wine during, scotch after, then another espresso. “Lunch” was from 2-7pm. Lunch at someone else’s house was from 1-6.
In Italiano, “pizza” refers to the style of bread that is prepared, irrespective of what is put on it. I’ve had pizza with le patate e il rosmarino, or with nothing but l’olio d’oliva e salsa di pomodori on it — no cheese or “toppings”.
The main antipasto throughout the day is freshly baked pane con olio e sale. Sometimes we soak fresh chili pepper in the oil, which gives a reddish, succulent hue. Wine is always there as an drink option, so now I’ve had wine for lunch every day, which in the states would be considered irresponsible and eccentric, if not downright alcoholic.
Fruit is the typical dessert: tangerines, mandarins, blood oranges, apples. My kind of people.
On a Saturday, they laid out a big block of wood on the table, spread polenta on it, then poured tomato sauce, sausage, and other meats on it, then gave everybody a fork, then “Cin cin!” (Cheers). That was the Southern style of polenta, then we had Northern style the next day of mixing it all together and eating like porridge.
Also, I eat a lot of pepper (by my host’s standards), so they laugh at me. We grind the peppercorns by hand with something that resembles a small cudgel (a baby version of the one Cain used to kill Abel) and stone chalice.
The farm mainly produces olive oil, some they sell, but most for themselves. Lesser crops are wine, vinegar, various fruits.
Picking olives is quite peaceful and fulfilling. The raw olives are not usually eaten, but can be, and are spicy and bitter; the flavor is not at all what you would expect. They taste nothing like olives on American pizza or salad; I brought up the subject of olives in America and my hosts laughed with derision. With ebullient contempt, Enrico describes American pizza as ‘something on top of something else’.
If the olives are not pressed immediately for oil, they are cured. Curing the olives is a way to make them edible by placing them in salt for ~20 days to drain the bitterness, and then soaking them in olive oil, in a tightly sealed jar.
Pruning, the strategy of removing and shaping branches to alleviate the task of picking, is more of an art than a science. 50 different people can prune the same tree in 50 different ways, and they can all be “right”. Pruning is also related to health of the tree and quality of the oil, but mainly is done to make the picking process easier. At its best, pruning is a highly strategic and refined process that takes a while to get used to, because it seems counterintuitive: you’re killing parts of the tree to make it healthier. It seems another case of humans doubting that nature has its own intelligence. — But as I have more experience with it, I learn more about it, so I will keep an open mind.
I used a shovel to dump our firewood ashes around each of the trees. Apparently, forest fires are a natural occurrence, and have been discovered to increase plant and animal diversity through regenerating the soil — so we pour ashes as fertilizer to imitate nature. It seemed weird, but it made sense.
How some tried to talk me out of this:
I was warned repeatedly that “farm work” would be tedious labor that I would quickly become bored with. I needed a higher quality of intellectual work to sustain my brain! Farming is not for the illustrious ‘Stanford’ graduate! I shouldn’t sell myself short! I deserve better! (And obsession with money and social status hovers in the background of all these retorts and concerns). I don’t know what I want to do as a career, but it’s telling how many people seem repulsed and startled by the idea that farming would even be considered as a worthwhile career choice. We have so little regard for those who produce our food because most of us have no knowledge or experience concerning the process — we just want the result. We treat our food like we treat our internet browsing: we want a friendly and seamless user experience with little regard to who makes that experience, and how they work their magic. We want our food affordable and in a convenient location down the street, but we can’t (or don’t want to or know how to) grow it ourselves — the local supermarket has many of us in a chokehold, unless we can afford the farmers’ market.
In a way, knowing everything you can about your food is so basic, because your diet literally makes and sustains your body. Only the healthy are rich.
What a tired, false distinction between types of labor: that physical labor is less skilled than labor that pays well and needs a ‘degree’. Nearly all physical labor is consistently degraded as ‘unskilled’ labor, and farming is no exception. Sustainable and organic agriculture, for yourself or as a business, requires an extraordinary amount of strategy and patience: so much can go wrong, and you have to foresee all of it, or bear the brunt of the consequences — just like any other highly-touted, well-paid job.
On the contrary, the work is rewarding and stimulating. And even when the days are rough and long, it’s such a bonus to be outside in the fresh air. My body may be exhausted, but being outdoors and doing work that matters is a great combination. And what could matter more than food? Work for food — not for money to buy food, but work directly for food — is the only essential work there is. — And so there is nothing more important than the quality of our food and the relationship we have with it.
On a side note, Balu is having a terrible day:
So, yeah, I miss this place and the people, and already thinking about returning.
Next? I’m going north to Tuscany region, but I am in Roma from 1/26-2/1.
Tell me your thoughts.
 Since when did practicality mean so much? Everyone enjoys things that are “useless”. But enjoying is the point! Usefulness is only useful in moderation.
 Maybe, the difference is that an excuse is something that neither party accepts as a valid reason. And we only concern ourselves with our excuses for failures and not successes, which, tangentially, reminds of something Mill said, “… success discloses faults and infirmities that failure might have concealed from observation…”