14 September, 2013

WWOOF: Bicycles of Florence

While ambling through the side streets of Florence, marching along the ancient stone roads, bicycles of all shapes and colors are seen everywhere. As Florence will be hosting the World Cycling Race Championship in just a couple weeks, I thought I would pay homage to the bicycle culture found throughout the city. Classic, modern, or just plain shabby, it seems like everyone in Florence gets around by bike. Being a bike enthusiast myself, I was almost as captivated by them as much as I was by the historical buildings of the Renaissance.

More on my trip to the city center soon to come....

WWOOF Days 4 & 5: Farm & Food

For those unaware of what WWOOFing is, I guess you might wonder what it is exactly that I'm doing here in Italy. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms whose objective is to bring volunteers and farmers in need of a helping hand in contact with one another. In exchange for room and board, a WWOOFer is expected to work various jobs on the farm depending on their experience. Being someone who loves the outdoors, nature, and gardening, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to learn a bit about organic agricultural processes and what it means to live off the land. That and the fact that I desperately needed to get out of the city, and my thoughts took me to, where else, but Italy. 

The farm sits amongst the hills of the Tuscan valley about 17km from Florence. The nearby village is a tiny thing, whose train station consists of two platforms, and whose main street is so small that in passing, just a blink and you'll miss it. The town seems to be in a constant state of siesta. The busiest areas are the bazar and market where shop owners, still donning their aprons, can be seen sipping on espresso while chatting with the regulars. Don't expect any sort of "run-in, run-out" shopping here. Everyone knows everyone, and what normally would be a five minute trip turns into thirty after being filled-in on what's going on with So-and-so.
The farm itself was built in 1459. Yes, you read that correctly. At over 550 years old, the house stands unyielding to the effects of time, as if it sits upon some sort of fountain of youth. Of course if one looks a bit more closely the centuries of passing footsteps can be seen in the depressions of the stone staircase.  Giant cracks in the walls  and uneven flooring shed light on it's age, but don't detract from it's beauty in any sense. The expression "if these walls could talk" definitely comes into play here.

Most of my time working here has been spent in the garden pulling up weeds and pruning the plants where needed. I've already finished with the tomatoes and have now begun work in the strawberry patch. As I Ferngully my way through, ripping and tearing, I can't help but have pity for the poor creatures that call these weeds home. What must be a war zone and absolute chaos for them, is pure tranquility to me. There's something about digging earth, sitting amongst the trees, with nothing but the sounds of nature and chickens to keep you company that brings about an indescribable sense of peace. (Or maybe some people might say insanity, depending on what you think about chickens keeping you company...)

Another incredible meal...and this was just the entrée!
This sense of tranquility is probably heightened by the fact that I'm eating the best I've ever tasted in my life. Theresa and Mathilde are without doubt the best cooks I have ever had the pleasure of eating food from (sorry dad!). And this is no exaggeration. The daily lunch and dinner menu is like going out to a five-star Italian restaurant, but better. This is home cooked, fresh from the garden cooking, all the recipes learned of course from father, grandmother, and so on. Each pasta dish, cooked to al-dente perfection is topped with a made-from-scratch sauce, be it from cherry tomatoes or a subtle marsala. Every tender slice of beef marinated in some sort of delectable sauce, melts in your mouth releasing an audible "mmmm"(....and all this coming from someone who typically doesn't eat red meat).
I've already asked that they come live with me in Geneva and be my own personal chefs. I think my roommates wouldn't mind. Too bad they've politely declined. ;)
Home-made pasta with parmesan butter sauce topped with truffles.
Sunset from the farm.

09 September, 2013

WWOOF Day 3: Initiation

The first morning Donatella thought she would break me in easy to the farm work by taking me to collect blackberries. This seemed like an innocent enough task, but she warned me to wear long sturdy pants because the bushes are covered in lots of prickly thorns. "Dammit, I shouldn't have left my jeans at the apartment!" I declined Mathilde's (one of Dona's daughters) offer to borrow some of her pants, and slipped on a pair of thick tights. We then headed into the thicket, gloves and buckets ready. After a few minutes of excited berry-picking (they were EVERYWHERE!)

Donatella told me I could explore a bit on my own, so I climbed to the top of an ancient stone wall where I found hundreds of plump, gleaming blackberries just waiting to be picked. Caught up in the delight of my find, I became a bit careless, not paying attention to the low hum and buzz around me. Oh but look at those juicy, mouth-watering blackberries! I popped a few in my mouth, turned to another bush, reached in and grabbed.....a hornet's nest.

I'm sure the ensuing scene must have been quite comical. Something out of a Whinnie the Pooh story, I'd say. Bumbling me, drunk on blackberries and fresh air, stumbling upon a swarm of hornets. It didn't take long for me to snap out of my stupor. I practically tripped over myself and the thorn-laden branches to get out of there, running and swiping at the angry buzzing in my pursuit. I got about 10 meters away before I felt a sting on my upper inner thigh: one of the bugs had penetrated the tights. Guess I should have taken Mathilde up on that offer. Thankfully I'm not allergic, but Dona sent me back to the house for treatment anyway. Upon arrival, Dona's two daughters Mathilde and Therese were waiting for me with freshly picked leaves torn up in their hands. "Rub this on the wound," they said. I had already heard about this magical plant from Vincenzo, Therese's boyfriend and farm hand, and well, it definitely lives up to its reputation. Within only a minute or two the pain went away completely and even the swelling diminished significantly. Who needs Tylenol when you've got magical plants?!

After my run-in with the hornet's nest, I spent the remainder of the morning in the tomato garden. One of my main jobs while here will be to pull the weeds and care for the plants (and pop a tomato or two when I'm feeling hungry). Since I've been here, I've been following Vincenzo around, who has been very generous in sharing his knowledge of the farm. He explained to me that when growing tomatoes, one must clip away all the "female" plants that start to sprout from the main plant. Basically, from the seed grows a dominant plant or the "head", but as it grows females sprout from it, sapping it of nutrients. The females look very similar to any normal branch from the leader plant, so you have to know what to look for. The way to think about it is that a female is like a whole new plant growing, so if the nutrients are having to be dispersed to several different plants, then the quality and size of the tomatoes diminishes. This could explain my many failed attempts at tomato-growing. That and the birds...

07 September, 2013

WWOOF Days 1-2: Journey from Geneva to Firenze

The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind of learning experiences, and I've only JUST arrived here at the farm, having yet to don a pair of work gloves. No, I'm not talking about farm-related learning (not yet at least), I'm talking about traveling, and more specifically doing so alone.

I consider myself to be a fairly-traveled person. I say "fairly" because I don't yet think that I qualify as "well-traveled." Anyway, the point is, I'm not a newbie at this, and yet the amount of rookie mistakes I've made since even before my departure is enough to tempt me into revoking my "fairly-traveled" card. Yikes.

It started with the packing. Typically, I'm the person who has lists made and bags packed at least a week in advance before a big trip. This time however, as I was smack-dab in the middle of exams for university, I found myself scrambling at the last minute to even think of what I needed. "I'm WWOOFing," I told myself. "I'm gonna get dirty." Which lead to me overpacking, and a friend subsequently advising me that, instead of taking 10 pairs of everything, just....you know, wash them. Duh. So I took his advice which lightened up my pack ever so slightly.

Second blunder: not paying close enough attention to the fine print on my tickets. As a frequent user of the Swiss train system, I just assumed that travel in Italy would be the same: buy ticket online, print out the order confirmation and go.


Roughly 185mph.
I got a real scolding from the conductor as we left Geneva. He even threatened that I pay for a new ticket or get off in Lausanne. After breaking down in hysterics and explaining that I just finished exams week, he found a bit of compassion for me and I managed to escape a hefty fine or worse: no vacation at all. A similar incident happened on my last leg of train-hopping in Firenze. By this time I was running off of a little less than 2 hours of sleep, and had abandoned all aspiration of making the 19km trip to Vaglia by bike. So with the help of an agent, I bought my tickets. However, she failed to inform me of the very important next step: having your ticket "validated" by a ticket-punching machine (seriously, what's the point?). Of course, me having no idea, hopped straight onto the train only to have the conductor scold me yet again. "First time riding train in Italy?" he demanded through his thick Italian accent. "Si, prima...uhh, first time, yes." He proceeded to ask me another three times if it REALLY was my first time (at least I LOOK like a seasoned traveler, ha!), and after much assurance that it indeed was, he left me off with just a warning, leaving me to escape yet another fine.

Zebra Hostel, Milano
Several other things in concession managed to make the first 24 hours of this trip a bit of a nightmare. I managed to get completely lost in Milano around 11:30pm, riding around on my bike with my over-stuffed pack (on the upside though, I got to see some beautiful places I would have otherwise missed).  Being without iPhone nor GPS, I printed out a Google Maps itinerary ahead of time, but I ended up abandoning it after I realized it was taking me in the wrong direction. I opted to ask for help instead

At check-in to my hostel, I learned that they had overbooked and therefore placed me on a mattress on the floor. The mattress was comfy enough, but the team of half-naked rugby players snoring and farting from the neighboring beds managed to keep me from any sort of sound sleep. Looking back at this incident, I'm a little peeved with myself for not having demanded a bigger refund.

Outside of the little train station in Vaglia
Lastly, and I know this sounds very "city" of me to say this, but I wish I would have known that the 5km from the main road to the farm is an unmaintained gravel road, pocketed by holes and miniature boulders. When I told the family that I would be bringing my bike to use during my free time, they must have assumed that I was bringing a mountain bike because unless I'd like to learn to fly like Superman, there's no way my little road bike can make it down the mountain. Had I had known this, I would have opted to leave Bumblebee at home.

But none of that matters anymore because I've arrived! I'll be spending the following week on this lovely little farm tucked away in the Tuscan valley, where I'm hoping to "get back to basics" so to speak, and find a bit of silence. After only a few hours here, I think I should be able to manage.