I don’t know when I first heard about WWOOF — Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Although the movement is more than forty years old, I probably learnt about it around the time when we all seemed to become more interested in the true cost of agricultural industralisation. I started to meet people who were involved with organic farming and permaculture, and read books by Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Having lived in cities my whole life, my understanding of food production was fairly limited, and my consumption of it was in many ways fairly mindless.
Living in Italy this year for my bioethics degree, I naturally started thinking about food again, and joined WWOOF Italia to look for the right opportunity to volunteer on a farm to have a hands-on learning experience. So that’s how, a few months later, I ended up on a farm in the rolling hills of Italy’s beautiful Marche region to have one of the best learning — and eating — experiences of my life.
Turned up on a day where there was a special feast. People from a women’s group, neighbours, friends, musicians. There’s a young couple with three little kids and the mother is younger than me and has an amazing body for someone who’s borne three babies. She seems so relaxed about parenting, a real ‘Earth Mother’ type, and I find myself admiring how comfortable she seems to be in her own skin.
Everyone’s brought big plates of food: cold pasta dishes, leafy and lentil salads, cheeses, salami, bread, sweets. My contribution is a homemade fig cake from Croatia, bought from a local market stall in Vis. Apparently there is a ‘mercatino’ (little market) on-site today, but I don’t see any of it because I have a long sleep after lunch, tired from all the travel. But I wake up in time for the big dinner at a long table, where a gigantic pan of wholeweat spaghetti is on offer, with a fragrant sauce made from tomatoes, vegetables, cheese and a bit of ginger. All accompanied with a big salad and free flowing wine.
Sitting in the garden, the al fresco dining is magical, surrounded by beautiful mountainous countryside. Around me are Italians, Germans and German-speaking Italians who speak a dialect as their mother tongue — I barely knew these northern Italians existed, growing up so close to the border with Austria. And then there’s me, a random Vietnamese-Australian who only knows a little bit of Italian after forty hours of classes and a few months of living in Italy. Not being able to understand a language forces you to listen more and I’m quiet here, reticent, different to my usual chatty self. I can understand various words, some of the German and even some of the words used in their German dialect because of my Dutch vocabulary. But together it’s all one big linguistic mess. The conversations range from organic farming to bioethics to medicine. Across the table from me is a German ophthalmologist who splits her time between Munich and her little Italian getaway. I get to know a bit more about Hilda and Franz, my hosts, who moved here to the Marche eight years ago. Hilda grew up on a farm whereas Frans came from a medical family. His father was a doctor and his two brothers had followed suit. So he seems to be the ‘black sheep’ of his family, though actually his father had been a passionate gardener too.
There’s a bit of folk music and impromptu dancing, and an older woman smokes a joint in a chair on the lawn. Others play various parlour games while some of the children run around naked and free. I’m in an alternative reality.
Woke up to a breakfast of bread with homemade jams at a long wooden table. Today’s jobs are harvesting onions and weeding the peppermint patch (spearmint). The soil is hard, lots of clay – I work with bare feet and a hat on my head, not dressed quite right. Sweat drips from my nose and sunscreen runs down my face. Afterwards, I lay out the onions on a big sheet of tarpaulin so they can dry in the sun. I feel productive and practical, and I start having doubts that maybe I’ve been living the wrong way the whole time. How else did I turn into someone so doughy and over-educated? Meanwhile, this all feels…real, and I wonder if I would ever be able to live more like this someday. The way my hosts have created a big farm and garden from scratch, renovating two old homes so that they’re both beautiful and functional. It’s all so impressive and I don’t know that I’d ever have energy for all that. My living quarters are incredible, where they normally have paying guests interested in ‘agriturismo’. I love the jumbo shower head that douses me in water. The bathroom has pretty flowers painted onto the walls, and it was one of the last tasks their eldest daughter did on her last visit before she went back home to Australia where she’s married with two kids. It’s great to hear their impressions of where I come from, and to hear about their daughter’s life which is so different to mine.
A huge lunch of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, oil, sesame seed, oil; a plate of cucumber and potato slices, chives, oil, salt; some delicious fritters; a big green salad with ingredients from the garden like onion, green onion and little slices of radish. Every bit is mopped up with the bread. The water at the table is flavoured with mint leaves in a jug that has a couple of energy crystals. They’ve been extra generous to include me in their lives like this, showing me a glimpse of their world. I tell them that I’ll make a Vietnamese dish to thank them. Before I take my afternoon nap, I read a few chapters of A Short History of Ukrainian Tractors from the bookshelf.
The garlic harvest is a healthy one, two barrows full, and I sit on the grass brushing off all the bits of clay like it’s the most natural thing in the world even though I’ve never done it before. Perhaps harvesting is something basic and hardwired. Some of the garlic has been chewed through by unnamed creatures that had gotten into the pungent flesh. The last job of the day is picking green beans off the stalk to eat later. They grow a huge variety of vegetables and plants on their small farm, experimenting with what works with the climate and the soil. No pesticides of course and it actually seems totally ridiculous to me why you would need any.
Dinner is piadini (flat bread) with salami, cheese, lettuce, tomato, accompanied with a sauce of basil and parsley in oil. “How does our dialect sound to you?” Hilda asks me, another of many conversations we have about their dialect, which is a real source of fascination. The young family gets up from the table to get ready to leave after their short stay and I spend a little bit of time playing with the perfectly blonde three-year-old daughter, who’s curious about me.
Harvesting oregano took me a while, though luckily it wasn’t so hot. Franz eventually finishes the rest and quickly. I accompany Hilda to harvest lettuce and zucchini with some kitchen knives, and we end up with almost five kilos of lettuce which she’ll give to a neighbour — different kinds, all the names of which I don’t know. None of them iceberg! Some of the zucchini are monstrously large — and we cut some edible flowers for our salad at lunch, which also has carrots from the garden. It goes perfectly with the bread and big plate of ricotta with chives mixed in.
After the afternoon nap — something I never do in my normal life — it’s onto harvesting lavender, to go to their little distillery to yield essential oil. The weather is erratic — sunshine then rain, sunshine then rain — and there are points where I harvest even as the rain comes down. Then the sun comes out again and I can feel the heat, and the rain evaporates off my skin.
Dinner is me cooking but it isn’t quite the success I was hoping for. But they’re appreciative of my efforts and I used fresh eggs from their chickens for an omelette flavoured with organic soy sauce, along with some shallot pancakes, and a stir fry of mushrooms, capsicum and onion. All served with brown rice. My attempt at Vietnamese with what’s available at hand.
The days are spent so pleasantly that before I know it, it’s time to go to bed again. A week ago I was drinking cocktails in Croatia and now I’m getting up early on a farm each day and working. I also know what ‘biodynamic’ means now, because I was shown how the calendar works. I love both travel experiences in totally different ways. How strange my life is; but it’s also very sweet.
Today it’s hoeing a field of carrots, onions, celery. I discover later that I had overlooked the celeriac, which looks a lot like celery from above except for the white bulbs poking through the earth. I finally know what a lot of plants look like after a lifetime of just eating them.
I haven’t explored the property much so I go over to the man-made lake with a caravan parked by. The plants in the small adjoining body of water function as a kind of filtration system. I walk over to the shed where Franz is packing in the lavender, and I watch the whole process start which is actually quite exciting. I’ve always loved lavender, and now I get just how much is needed to produce a little bit of oil.
After a lunch of rice salad with capsicum, cheese and onions, I go straight into starting on the oregano that had been harvested the day before. The rest of the day is devoted to sorting out thousands of stems of oregano, to be eventually tied into tight little bunches. It’s the most relaxing thing in the world to sort out oregano while bingeing on history podcasts about Rome, Vienna, China, the world.
Dinner is goat on the barbecue served with beans and fennel, and the rest of the the ricotta with chives. The ricotta had actually come from a man in a van selling cheeses and meats who drives around to all the properties in the hills. Hilda and I have a little dessert together, a soya custard with cream that I whip, and Franz gets ready to go over to a friend’s house to watch a World Cup match. It’s been wonderful getting to know them both, and have so much time to talk about anything and everything.
As I’m falling asleep I hear the sound of wasps making nests outside the window and other strange insect noises. I’ve encountered all manner of insects while on the farm but they don’t bother me in context. Because I grew up a little disconnected from nature, I’ve never liked insects and always thought I had a phobia. But I don’t have any fears here, even when insects buzz around my ears while I’m working.
I’m not quite as disconnected from the world as I thought I would be here — I still have wifi access but it’s a little limited and in fact, I don’t have much time for it. But it’s nice to still be able to message friends far away and especially Josh who’s in China for his birthday and I feel very sorry that I could not be there with him.
I’ll finally finish the oregano today. My attention to detail means I don’t work fast despite Franz and Hilda trying to get me to stop being so perfectionist about it. But honestly it’s so satisfying this way and I’m being stubbornly slow. Throughout the day between other tasks I manage to finish sorting the massive pile and we hang the bunches up to dry. I breathe a big sigh of relief…until I discover a whole other pile of oregano stems on another table in another part of the property! Franz must have harvested that while I wasn’t looking.
I get roped into cleaning the kitchen, a mammoth task that Hilda has undertaken because of a huge group of guests coming, two families with children. Of course they need an income, so I help out. I clean jars, packing things away. I scrub oven racks that transform from black to the original silver colour. We clean while listening to Rai 3, one of the public broadcasting networks, and because it’s in Italian I’m not really listening. I keep hearing something about Palestine repeated at every news bulletin. It’s only later I realise it’s about the most recent Israeli strikes, which only a week before an American traveller had told me about on a bus in Vis. Israel had been his first stop on a three month adventure, which was exactly when this latest conflict started.
It’s raining and suddenly cold, and I cover up for the first time all week by wearing long pants. Franz jokes that it’s most clothes he’s seen on me since I’ve been living in shorts all week. The three of us have lunch inside for a change, where it’s warmer, a big salad with delicious spirali pasta with parsley, tarragon, sage, chard and cheese.
Tonight’s a bit different because I’m invited along to pizza night at a friend’s place nearby. A lovely home and garden that provides new vistas on the region, and it’s sunny again, though still a bit chilly. The gathering is something of a German expat community, plus others who’ve been welcomed into the fold. Like a British woman named Cynthia, though everyone pronounces her name ‘Chin-sia’. She makes valiant attempts to speak Italian, which is great to see. Everyone’s been living here for years, and it’s a lifestyle choice they’re all trying to maintain.
I watch the hosts make pizzas for a little while before I work up the courage to ask if I can make one too. The dough is so soft and springy and I’m gleeful as my little margherita goes into the oven.
I talk to quite a few guests that night and people are always surprised when I say that I’m married. And of course it’s strange that a married woman would be in the middle of the Italian countryside without her husband who is thousands of kilometres away in a remote part of China. One woman asks, “Why did you marry?” and it’s soon clear that she’s not in a conventional partnership either because she and her partner had only married two years ago after 25 years. It seems that if something happened to either of them in Italy, their de facto relationship is unrecognised under Italian law.
I end up in a wonderfully long conversation with a woman from Germany who’s worked as an actor for more than 20 years, because we have lots to talk about. Turns out she’s also written two radio plays, and I tell her that I tried for the first time recently with a short one that went to air. Even though I’d already eaten a lot of pizza, I greedily eat dessert as well. Meanwhile the pizza keeps coming long after everyone’s had their fill.
On the way home we see a deer in the headlights, just as the street signs warn.
I wake up a little late and they joke that I’m hungover. But it’s actually because I stayed up late the night before, a phone meeting at midnight. I have some bread with butter and homemade jam – and we discuss that it’s actually the non-Italian way to have jam with butter. It’s funny that the German-speaking Italians have some very different habits. As usual, there’s delicious tea in the morning, which I buy some to later give to a friend in Vienna.
The calendula flowers are blossoming. It’s beautiful work, picking off their heads and putting them into a wicker basket. My hands are sticky and covered in a sweet orange smell from the flowers. I wash them in the artificial pond after I finish the first batch, then continue to pluck till it’s all gone. Franz says it’s important to pluck flowers in bloom to encourage the rest to blossom in coming days. I lay them out on a drying tray by the house, the flowers from the start of the week now dried enough. Calendula is for Hilda’s tea mixtures.
I finish the process I’d started with the onions, which are now mostly dried to be stored or used, the outer bits ready to be peeled away. I’m completely covered in onion peel and dirt but it’s nice work under the hot sun. I finish up and come back to the kitchen, where it’s almost time for lunch. Today it’s two big salads plus leftovers from the last two days.
I’m sad to be going already. 2014 was somehow my year of living with couples and it was one great household after another, all in totally different ways. It’s such a privilege to be invited into these homes, giving me different dimensions of domestic life, observing the little in-jokes and the different rhythms of married life. I instantly felt at home with Hilda and Franz who’ve been together for more than 35 years. As someone who’s been only married for a bit over a year, I feel like I have a lot to look forward to.
It’s time to pack up my things and get ready to go on my long overland journey to Vienna. Car ride to Pergola, bus to Marotta, train to Bologna, overnight train to Vienna. The car goes past fields of sunflowers – ‘girasoli’ – but they all seem to be the same height. Franz says they might well be GM crops. I love the beautiful round bales of hay, and seeing a bit more of small town life in this part of Italy.
“It was so nice to have you,” Franz says, as we hug at the bus stop.
It’s so heartbreaking to keep connecting with people who live so far away because I have to keep saying goodbye.