August 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was sitting on the ground the other day, in the dirt between the rows of the vegetable patch, picking green beans and yellow peas, and talking to a guy from Australia, who is now studying in Sweden, just outside of Copenhagen, which is one of my favorite cities. As we dug underneath the leaves of the plants, searching for our small treasures, we talked about how this was this third attempt at an undergraduate degree, having started his studies twice in Sydney and consequently dropping out. The first time, he said, he was the middle of an economy lecture when he realized he didn’t want to be doing what he was doing and decided to leave the room. And so now we found ourselves all scratched up from moving wood and trimming vines and sitting in the dirt of a farm in Piemonte.
If you told me a year ago I would be spending the last two weeks of my summer on an Italian farm, waking up at 5 a.m. with the crowing of the rooster, running at the sunrise to the next town over — where you might find another corner store and bar — and tossing and turning in bed in the scorching heat of midday before the evening shift of work started, I would have laughed in your face. As I type, I am sitting in the back of a rickety old caravan, driving up the twisting roads into the mountains, on our way to tomorrow’s market. This morning, I was setting out jams and honeys at another market in Alba, going around to the other stalls to taste pungent organic goat cheeses, slurping out the middles of stringy green figs from sticky hands while walking down the alleys of Alba, white truffle country. My forefingers are red, cut and bloody from hours of cutting out the rotting spots of apples, fallen before they could be picked, and my legs are covered in long red stripes from where blackberry branches have been ripped across them. But there are four containers fill of tiny, sweet blackberries to sell at the market, and a blackberry clafoutis sitting in the kitchen cupboard leftover from dinner last night.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time. Maybe it’s not really mine either. But there are moments when, covered in sweat, you feel like it might be worth the effort; brief, small moments when it seems like the world has turned itself right side up again. Sitting in the back of a tractor, after three long hours of moving chopped wood close to the house in preparation for the winter, with the wind in my face, my body jumping with every dip in the dirt and gravel road, just might make it worth it. The bite of half a purple fig, the very first one off of the tree, handed to me by the grandmother of my new “Italian family” while berry picking at noon and a spoon of hazelnut goat milk yogurt while sitting on the hammock after driving home from the market. The minute you walk into the one bar in town, a twenty minute uphill walk from the farm, and grab a beer from the fridge, imported from Germany, and ignore the strange looks from men who have spent their entire lives on a stool in that bar. Dipping your hands in the washing basin next to the grocery store, where you can pick up the bare necessities (many types of sausages, milk, and chocolate hazelnut cream filled cookies to name a few) and watching the German and Swiss motor bikers cruise by, the bikes practically parallel to the ground as they round the curves in the road. Scavenging for wild blackberries on the walk home from town, hoping they really are wild, or that at least the neighbors won’t notice us. The red sun rising and falling and collapsing into bed at 10 p.m., exhausted and drunk from the two liters of wine plunked down on the table at dinner. Or maybe it was the spoonful of hazelnut gelato, made from fresh cream and hazelnut cream, the specialty of the area for which there is an entire festival next weekend, from a small teacup at the end of a drawn-out dinner, that seemed to emerge from the storeroom out of nowhere, that really got to me.
The farm makes you crazy, crazy from the heat and the exhaustion, and the never-ending lists of tasks to be completed, and the feeling that you could never shower enough times in one day, or ever escape the sounds of the roosters and the dogs barking and jumping on you and licking your sweat, crazy from the need to get out. It might be the hardest thing this city girl has ever done, committing to two weeks in the middle of fucking nowhere. And strangely, it’s not the work that’s getting to me, not the long hours spent weeding in the sun and the repetition of tossing large branches, some covered in thorns, into the back of the tractor. It’s not the fact that this house is filled with strange smells — most not all that enticing — or that I have been turned off of apple butter forever after seeing the state of the apples that are used to make it, let’s say the cast-offs of better times. Rather the hardest part of this place is feeling like I have been thrown into the work without being welcomed into the home, that they smile and say you are part of the family and then get angry when you don’t understand vague instructions given in halting French, or worse, instructions in Italian to which you can only stare back blankly. The hardest part is hearing the woman tear into her husband after every little thing that goes wrong (and even just when he is slow on the uptake) and having to choke back a second piece of the blackberry clafoutis, which is, after all that, far too cloyingly sweet and made with even the hardest, dried-up berries, because she couldn’t bear to sacrifice any.
So yes, I had an alternate ending to this story, and this post. I had a couple of paragraphs written about not quitting despite being far out of my element. I had paragraphs written about the golden sun setting as I sat in the back of the caravan and about the universal language of the kitchen. But the people and the shouting and the snapping got to me. It’s a beautiful region, filled with mountains and valleys and cresses and rows of grape vines that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I’m leaving. Sometimes you just have to pick up and leave.