Farming in Italy: The Life of a Volunteer

Two English-speaking twenty-somethings set out to experience Italy on a meager budget. They found a network of organic farms willing to give food and lodging in exchange for labor. This was bound to be a rich interaction with Italian culture and custom.

Surely, Rachel and Chris thought, it would beat hanging around together in a hotel room. Little did these young adults know the range of experiences would allow them a taste of homemade zucca (squash) ravioli, teach them to say wheelbarrow carriola and challenge them to sell cheese at a farmer’s market.

Their first farm was nestled in the foothills of the Alps near Lake Como. On approach, the roads got successively smaller and finally turned to dirt. For the first week, rain fell and created a mist over the terraced land. With machetes and weed whackers, the Americans worked to thin thorny blackberry bushes. They were unsupervised but motivated by the need to feel healthy through exercise and fresh air. After work, they prepared dinner and read by the fireplace with kittens on their laps. The running water was unheated so they avoided the shower.

For their second week, the farm supervisor explained a new work project: removing sprouts from potatoes. Chris and Rachel were shown a dark storage shed with 40 overflowing milk crates. Crouching over the bins, they worked and sang show tunes (often just repeating the chorus.) A few hours into the first day of Potato Duty, three dusty farm workers picked up Chris in a tractor and set off to prune trees. Chris worked with them for the duration of the week.

When the boss asked Chris for a progress report on the potatoes, Chris suggested he ask Rachel. Though she was standing right there, the boss immediately changed the subject. There had been signs of sexism earlier in the week, but this was the most overt. And so, Rachel started taking better care of herself by doing two hours of yoga each morning before cleaning potatoes. During lunch, she would read or take a leisurely walk in the hills. Since she was considered invisible and her work unappreciated, she allowed herself these luxuries to make the most of her time.

The guest bedroom on their next farm (located in world-famous Tuscany) was offset from the farm owner’s house and, therefore, had a separate entrance. One window spanned an entire wall, granting a view of endless farms stretched over hills. The owner warned about a particular stray dog that had been hanging around for a few days. After dinner that night, Chris and Rachel encountered a shivering puppy, wet from rain. While they wanted to respect the owner’s wishes to ignore the dog, she became the focal point of their conversation. Rachel reasoned, “We can’t let her get used to the comfort of being inside. Then she’ll be even worse off when we leave and she again becomes a stray.” Their discussion ended when Chris asked theoretically, “What’s better — one night of comfort or never having known comfort at all?”

They smuggled the puppy into their bedroom and dried her with terrycloth towels. Within minutes, the puppy, who they aptly called Smuggles, nestled into the blankets and fell asleep. Since the work projects were mundane (cleaning a shed, feeding the pig, making dinner for a large family and scrubbing the dishes), the highlight of each day was time with Smuggles. By the end of the week, Smuggles would launch herself excitedly onto the bed before Rachel and Chris even had their shoes off by the door. Upon saying goodbye to the farm owner, the Americans confessed about the stray sleeping with them in the guest bedroom. He laughed and said, “OK. I give in. My kids have been hassling me all week. They want to keep her.”

Cheese production was the specialty of the final farm these Americans were scheduled to visit. They were surprised to pull up to a castle standing majestically over a large grass lawn. The perimeter of the lawn was lined with two-story red brick houses, behind which they could see the barn. Fabio and Paola, owners of the farm and entire property, explained it was once a flourishing village. They run it as an Inn during the summer months when the coolness of stone is refreshing. Chris and Rachel were shown to a bedroom complete with decorations, flowers and faucets providing hot water.

Dinner on the first night set a precedent for the weeks to come. Starting at 8:30 p.m., neighbors and friends arrived to the large dining room. Many bottles of wine were opened and finished. Pasta and meat was served in generous proportions. A bowl of raw fennel salad dressed in oil and vinegar was passed around last. Because some of the dinner guests spoke English or translated, Rachel and Chris felt included and welcomed (as well as ignorant for knowing only English).

At 7 a.m. each morning, the Americans volunteered to help Fabio hook each of the 30 cows to the milking machines (5 cows at a time). The milk byproduct called whey is unusable in cheese production and is, therefore, breakfast for the pigs. By 8 a.m., the Italian hosts were having their breakfast of espresso while Chris and Rachel ate to fill the stereotype of Americans as Big Eaters. They couldn’t resist the fresh dairy products so they consumed creamy yogurt mixed with just about anything.

Depending on inventory and upcoming demand, Fabio would teach how to make a certain type of cheese. For ricotta, he showed the technique of filling rectangular molds with hand-fulls of loosely formed cheese. As the water drained, free-standing rectangles of ricotta would emerge. Fabio and Paola teamed up to demonstrate the craft of making Mozzarella. First the milk was heated to a specific degree while enzymes were added. Then Fabio handled a bundle of the hot cheese in his arms. He squeezed to create sections about the size of a fist. Paola’s job was to sever the fist-sized ball of cheese from the larger mass and let it drop into a bucket of cold water. She used only her fingers to “mozza” (cut) the section of cheese. She made it look easy but after only 5 minutes, Chris’ fingers ached.

It was fun for Chris and Rachel to learn the business side of cheese production. They helped to slice cheese, place it on the scale, and wrap it neatly in pretty paper for sale. Every three days they would do this to fill orders for delivery to local businesses and residences. At the farmer’s market, Paola acted as the liaison to the customer and she would translate their order into English. One cold afternoon working at the farmer’s market, Paola and Fabio wanted to warm up in a coffee shop. They trusted the cheese stand with Chris and Rachel. Customers quickly caught on that these two light-haired people could only understand gestures. As the customers pointed to a type of cheese, they used the thumb and index finger of the other hand to indicate the desired quantity.

One night at 2 a.m. there was a knock on the guest bedroom door. Fritz, the only full-time employee of the farm hurriedly exclaimed, “You don’t want to miss this! Come on!” The Americans jogged in their pajamas behind the fast-walking Italian in knee-high rubber boots. The three arrived at the barn just as a mother cow was tenderly licking her new born baby. The barn was decibels quieter than ever before, as if all the animals knew something sacred just happened. In the morning, Fritz would determine if the baby was a boy (to be sold for meat) or a girl (to be raised on site for future milk production). Rachel and Chris were relieved when Fritz declared the baby a girl. A step was added to the morning and evening chores: fill a 1-liter plastic bottle with fresh warm milk to feed the calf. While the baby focused on sucking the bottle’s nipple, Rachel pet her neck and kissed her forehead.

Food was often a topic of conversation. Fabio found it hilarious that Chris buys pasta in a supermarket when “it’s so easy to make fresh!” To demonstrate, Fabio mixed flour and eggs in a bowl, rolled it loosely on the table, and cut the dough into squares. He filled each square with ricotta cheese, pressed the edges, and dropped each into boiling water for a minute or two. Each tortellini emerged as perfection.

On the day of American Thanksgiving, Chris and Rachel agreed to cook dinner. They explained that without turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, the meal would not be “traditional.” Even if they had access to all the standard food, they would not have known how to prepare the feast. Instead, they presented a meal they did know how to cook: butternut squash soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and stir-fry. The Italians chuckled and appreciated the effort.

When Rachel and Chris returned to the U.S., the two mailed a box of Macaroni and Cheese to Paola and Fabio. You know the box: 8 ounces of macaroni noodles with a packet of bright orange powdered cheese food. Upon receipt, we know the Italians laughed and nodded in understanding of the differences in culture.

Rachel and Chris were glad they had chosen to volunteer throughout their vacation. Though not every moment was fun and easy, they had expanded their comfort zones by experiencing something new. And, most importantly, they made friends and family along the way.

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