About half way through the La Meridiana paperclay workshop in Certaldo, the farm on which I’d secured a WWOOFing position cancelled, because they had enough people for the work available. This is not really supposed to happen, so I was a little panicked. There were now ten unplanned days in my trip, until I was due to be in Carrara. Virginia gave me her extra ticket to Pisa because her boyfriend drove down from Luxembourg. I didn’t really need to go to Pisa, but it’s surprising how many people consider it a major destination in Tuscany. You can do Pisa in a day, two days if you want to checkout the seaside and the churches, three if you go to each lingerie shop.
At the Hostel, I met two consecutive (unacquainted) Brazilians. Rachel’s doing her MBA in Greece and Brazil – majoring in the economics of the calcium bicarbonate trade, and Mila’s studying Social Economics in Hamburg. Mila and I toured around the city taking pictures and eating gelato. At the (world’s oldest) botanical garden she showed me some of her uber-sweet vaulting techniques, and we visited the sea side.
Wandering Pisa, I emailed the WWoofing place directly, and asked for pro-tips to secure a proximate farm and fast. It worked! They gave me a heads up on a place called Casa Voltole – a few hours South by train, in Magione. After calling Annie and establishing a connection, I hopped the earliest train and arrived in Umbria with relief and a touch of anxiety, since I didn’t know these farmers and…well that’s reason enough.
Annie met me in Magione and we went to the grocery store. I found pickled peppercorns, and some wine from Magione for like 2 Euros. Also a section for Peet Food. At the Villa I met Ranaan, Annie’s husband and their cats: Brownie and Acheroo.
At Casa Voltole, figs ripen in a rotation, so there’s always a few ready, and the plum tree sheds by the hour. Giant snails all over the place. I gave them a raku snail, made in Certaldo, to be a blessing on their home. They had several beautiful versions of Hamsa – a hand with an eye in it.
On the first full day, I woke up early and jogged the road to pick blackberries for Annie – she didn’t have time to gather them and I wanted to share them for breakfast. I saw an outrageous yellow and black zebra stripped spider and smile-ran home. All the fruit in Italy is sweeter, like it’s already been in jam and then come back to the vine. The Tuscan sun is no laughing matter; I was squinting at searingly beautiful panoramas through the biggest sunglasses my face could support, slathered in 50 spf and I still returned with olive skin, frosted hair, but not sweetened.
Their neighbour wanted to widen his right of way adjacent to the backyard vegetable garden so we were left with a big pile of rich soil to move. The threat of rain made it look heavier so we shovelled for a couple hours moved whole pile. During this unexpected and cheerful hard labour, ice broke and they knew I would work for them until I fell over, gladly.
Rosemary bushes are perennial in Italy and A&R used olive and oak leaves to mulch the soil around the plates, which were staggered with Cypress – lining the steep drive up to their villa. A type of viney weed infests the soil with an enviable flexibility and endurance. There was no name given to this plant.
I made a salad with pickled peppercorns and Ranaan lined them up along the edge of his plate because I put in waaaaay too many (I Love Them). I didn’t put the hand salted capers in, this time. Also, Annie showed me how she makes pickled lemons, plum jam – but not the plum cake!
Annie keeps her brined lemons on the counter in a wire-hinged glass jar. Annie and Ranaan’s tiled Umbrian Villa is always warmer than my wooden Atlantic Canadian apartment. The Israeli method is to quarter and thinly slice lemons then add them -plus some salt- to a mature batch by pushing firm yellow triangles under the murky, squintingly pungent potion of juice and salt. As a slanted exchange, I showed Annie and Ranaan how to make grilled cheese sandwiches. I picture them returning from a strenuous harvest in the olive copse, enjoying cheese toasts as they ping pong Hebrew, laughing.
They introduced me to the olive grove I got some instruction from Ranaan, then he handed over the telescopic saw and the tiny hand saw. I brought my own water bottle, gloves, and music. I immediately spoke to the trees, looking for some connection to the place the needs of the tree’s harvest.
All those hot days I wore denim pants and work boots, thwarting all manner of spikey thing. Asparagus stalks, Really Tall Milk Thistle, Blackberry vines, and the threat of snakes. They also said there was a wolf, wild boars. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them, but prickles? Galore.
“Make it cup shaped” Ranaan told me, “like it’s overflowing”.
Day three I tell Ranaan I talk to the trees and he says that’s what Luigi does. I only saw Luigi once, but it doesn’t count because we passed him in a car and we could not stop – Acheroo got a bladder infection and needed veterinary assistance immediately. Luigi is an expert at Olive trees, and he, “did not say my pruning was bad”.
So, by the fifth tree, I was madly in love. These trees are bonsaied to be easily harvested. The trunks are very wide, and while the main branches are few they’re several arms thick with hundreds of minor – non fruitful “suckers” to be cut. The goal is to provide the tree with maximum light and energy for the fruit. I put a piece of the mug Cara and I made together in the tree so it will always be there. One misty afternoon I saw a faint, fleeting, prayed-for rainbow, while listening to Wonderful Rainbow by Lightning Bolt. I cried. Times like that have become more frequent in my life: crying from being so grateful and so sad.
I had my own little suite with a bathroom. Thick sturdy walls of stone and earth held me and tight, heavy windows with groaning large shutters. I felt very safe and sound in the hills of Umbria. Every morning, a herd of goats and sheep tear down the hill and swarm the blocked area around the villa while the Shepard talks on this cell non-stop. I noticed because he had to yell a bit over the cacophonous twinkle of 65 bells on 65 hoofed beasts. He didn’t notice when the herding dogs came over the rickety crick fence to Annie and Ranaan’s plum tree and ate them from the ground – a minor offence, but still.
They speak Hebrew to one another, so I always knew when they were talking to me. Imagine too that they’re retirees from the Isreali IT sector, so: google chrome in Hebrew while I prune their olive grove blaring house music. We talked about movies we’d seen, but never watched one together. They showed me how to transplant plants, with root hormone, soil and a 2L plastic bottle – cut in half.
The smell of Italy is Wild Sicilian Thyme. Marking every place I visited with mini, purple, mighty flavours and flowers. Considered a weed by some, but it’s the gift of oregano (the purple tasting kind), plus chamomile, rosemary and – I think – savoury. Uuugh, it’s complicated, fresh and perfect.
We went on a day trip too, and we still email one another. They harvested over a tonne of olives from the little orchard they manage. I think it’s only 15 trees. When I left for Carrara we were all a little teary because we truly enjoyed the work and life we shared.
I had wild thyme in my hair, two suit cases and a lot to write. Four hours later I was two Steves at the train station in Carrara. The next morning I found the marble I was looking for as a part of Steve Shaheen’s Tuscany Study program. Next on the blog: Carrara Marble: Mediterranean: meet the Mountains, Mountains: meet Michaelangelo.