30 October 2005

Like sand in an hourglass...

I'm in the Last Three Weeks Countdown here. Can you believe it? It feels like three days, even, as though I need to start thinking about packing.

It will fly by, of course; it has been already. There's been little time to write in these full late-autumn days... The interns threw a cook-out 2 weeks ago which was a raging success and drew a large crowd from the "Spannocchia family," I spent a weekday shopping in Siena's open air market, I day-tripped to a non-existent olive festival in Tuscany with a guest here and one other intern, I joined a group to watch the Siena-Firenze soccer game one evening at the local Circolo (apparently rowdiness is saved for the stadium), I was one of 7 who travelled to gorgeous Gubbio for Altrocioccolato (a fair-trade festival featuring the obvious, as well as other foods, crafts, and events), art classes continue, and I spent this weekend with a new hot little number: a speedy, shiny, red rented bike. Everythingiswhizzingbynow. Pack! It! In!

Carrie, our program director, suggested that we might want to make a list for ourselves, to record all the things that we want to see or do before leaving. I can't really fathom such a list. I've done so much here already. I've seen a wild cinghiale, a huge porcupine lumbering across the road in the dark, taken many of the farm's walks, seen the view from the tower more than once, asked the cooks for recipes, met the old men of legend that still work here, biked Tuscan roads, driven the same, bargained in markets, bought leather boots, eaten something new... Everything is gravy, for the most part, until I hit my travel month from late Nov- late Dec. Then, the push to see and do: the South of Italy, perhaps Croatia, definitely Venice, Bologna, the Lake Region in the North.

It'll be so good to get home in Dec and relax...

"What is?"

What language do I speak?

When I open my mouth, I don't quite hear Italian. But it doesn't exactly sound like English most days, either - just ask anyone I try to converse with. Far beyond my elementary years, I've developed my own language. I am between languages.

I'm not alone. I hear it when other interns speak. I am reassured by others who have "been there" that it is ok to both speak quasi languages, and that it will pass (into what, though?). I guess I should soak up this phase while I can, no?

I caught myself dreaming in Italian on the way back from the hot springs the other night. Or rather, I dreamed about me trying to speak Italian, parsing out sentence after sentence; it was very real life! More often, I have Italian conversations in my head (what will I say if Carmen asks me about the ingredients in today's lunch?), run through vocab, or think about what I actually said that made Angelo give me that funny look. If nothing else, I try to learn a new word or phrase every day, either by necessity (I never imagined myself looking up "cubic meter" in my Italian-English dictionary), or through a random flipping in a dictionary or book (yesterday: dappertutto/everywhere; today: fuori rotta/off course). All of this together is so much better than my years of high school Spanish...

One of the more difficult, but fascinating, aspects of learning a new language immersion-style is realizing how I feel about myself within the process, and also how I am perceived by others. Mostly, I feel like a different person, and see that I come across differently to Italians than I do to people I can readily speak with in English. I am often quieter in Italian company, less gregarious...when inhibitions are down, I'm an eager speaker, though I'm aware of my grammatical mistakes, if not the halting in my speaking. I speak on.

I do hate that my skills in English spelling seem to be on the slip right now. I remember the pride I felt in Mrs. Hill's weekly spelling bees! Is it always that one must lose something in order to gain another?

I dislike more that I can only know people *so* well here - the workers, other Italians I meet. I've enjoyed gaining a new sensitivity and a new perceptiveness when interacting within the language barriers, but it doesn't make assessing someone's experiences, intelligence, or intentions any easier. I do appreciate that the sentiment of "you just have to laugh" carries through other cultures and languages...

16 October 2005

Oh miale...

Of course the pigs got out. The pigs always get out.

There are, give or take a dozen, 80 pigs at Spannocchia. They are separated, somewhat, by age, and so therefore by size. Today, it was the middle-sized (middle-aged?) pigs that were loose.

I learned that the pigs were out when I was finishing the last of this weekend's Animali duty. I had fed the chickens and gathered their eggs (15 Oct, 24 hens, 18 eggs). I was saving the sheep and outer-penned baby pigs for last, forcing myself to first climb the long, steep walk up Pig Hill. I hadn't gotten far at all when I came across Riccio, the farm manager, on one of the tractors.

"Erin!"

He yelled my name with that Italian accent that makes it sound more like "Eddin,"like a shot from the mouth. "The pigs, they are out..." He tapered off his point in his famous Riccio way, leading me to immediately formulate 20 ends to his sentence, 20 questions about the pigs, in addition to the one I already had about the sheep - was he the one who let them out this morning (follow-up questions: Why? And why didn't he tell me at some point in order to save me the trip out to Casetta?).

He pointed to our right and I saw 15 good-sized pigs moving at a steady clip towards us. "Try and lead them...there are pens on the left...you can.....eat the chestnuts. Don't feed box 7."

This is a normal conversation with Riccio.

The tractor was roaring, Riccio was squinting at the pigs, squinting up the hill, and I responded to all of this with the best tool I have learned to have at the ready here: a knowing nod.

Riccio will undoubtedly later ask why you did something ("Why you do this?"). He asks half with accusation, half with sensitivity, as though he is about to bestow a great lesson to you on some tenet of organic farming or animal husbandry. The nod is the best way to get him past his initial explanation (an re-explanation) of something, move you into the hotseat of figuring out what it is you are actually supposed to do, and can often inspire confidence to help you move forward.

I nod.

Riccio stands about 6 feet, and wears a thick crown of curly light brown hair, for which he gets his nickname ("Curly;" his real name, we have learned, is Bruno). He has small, friendly blue eyes which are framed by oft-raised eyebrows, and he seemingly smiles all the time, even when making his Exasperated Face. Exasperation happens a lot on the farm - between the animals, various independent-minded workers, a constant turnover of intern help, equipment and vehicles in various states of disrepair, and the dynamic Tuscan weather - and Riccio's responses are great: a somewhat indifferent throwing of his hands, perhaps, a brief, high-pitched moan from his throat, though most often an "Oh miale..." (Oh pig), or "Ochh Madonna..." (Ochh Madonna). These are his exasperation/swear words; he adds an exclamation point when he needs the emphasis.

Riccio knows more random American songs than any American I know, and he sings them often. Also often, he uses his own lyrics. At dinner the other night, he managed to work the phrase "Don't Worry, Be Happy" into the conversation. He plays the guitar in a Tuscan folk band, which the interns will have the pleasure of hearing in the near future. Riccio has two lovely, curly-haired daughters, Sylvia and Serena, and his fabulous wife, Daniela, also works for Spannocchia, more on the administrative side of things. They all live across from Pulcinelli. I wonder how often they actually see one another.

On our second or third weekend here, Riccio took me and three other interns to a peace march between the cities of Perugia and Assissi, a two hour drive away. He wouldn't let us contribute to a gas fund (though he finally caved to our cacophanous female protestations and let us buy him gelato), and he talked to every random street vendor and booth attendant that stopped him mid-step. He wears no condescension, and jokes as much as possible. If Riccio were an American, he would live in California or the mountains of North Carolina, wear Birkenstocks, and be a favorite amongst the locals. He is certainly a favorite here.

He knows how to do just about everything. Except communicate with precision.

He roared off in the tractor, leaving me with the trotting pigs. I grabbed two olive switches from the ground and began to holler at the pigs, finding a good position for moving but not scaring them back the way they had just come. Miraculously, we made it up some of the hill without losing critical mass to the stepped terraces of olive trees. Pigs can lose their train of thought (and locomotion) quickly, unless it involves food. Blessedly, someone had left a huge gate open on one of the terraces, and the pigs began to file in. Good enough, I thought, shooing the last ones in, and closing the gate. As I wandered on up the hill to feed the others, I found myself stepping over tons of freshly-fallen chestnuts. Perhaps Riccio had wanted me to try and push them further up the hill...by myself....

I like feeding the pigs, really I do. But it's one of those tasks that is often ruined with too much thought about it. Like running. I used to get up at 5:36 in Louisville, in order to drive over to the park and meet up with the gang for the 6:15 run. Not painful at all when you're moving as soon as the alarm goes off, holding on firmly to the stupor of sleep as you slip into the running clothes you laid out the night before. Grab your packed bags, lunch, and go. You wake up either in the car when the familiar chimes of NPR arouse your conscious, or at some point in the run itself, just in time to congratulate yourself on a fantastic morning and a job well done. With the pigs, you can't think about the heavy slop buckets you haul up the steep, steep hill, the sweat and shortness of breath that you gain, or even the dust that you stir up and then breathe when filling the grain buckets. Rather, you call out to Lapo, Sally, and Bea - "Vieni qui" - and talk to those trusty dogs about the fog that the morning hills are wearing, or the late afternoon sun hitting the silvery olive trees. You focus on dropping the buckets and beating the pigs to the feeding pen gates, so you don't have to then chase them out and listen to then scream in protest (they will scream enough as it is).

You find the rhythm and routine to feeding animals that really really really love that you are there to care for them (hear the screaming yet?). They let you know. Then, after filling the troughs with farm-milled grain and water (to slow and aid their digestion) you watch them feast, pushing, shoving, kicking, standing in their food, squealing at one another, and you nod knowingly. The pigs are fed.

09 October 2005

Cinque Terre, ees good eenough for mee...

I went to Cinque Terre last weekend (23-25 Sept), with Nick, Kate, and Kirsty. CT is a 3 hour trek north up the coast, beyond Pisa. We took a bus from Rosia to Siena, then trains from Siena to Pisa, switching in Empoli, and continuing from Pisa to La Spezia, where we had a hotel reservation waiting for us. The travel there really wasn't as difficult as it might sound; all the connections were right on and on time. It had been a long day, though - if only finding that waiting hotel room had been as easy as the woman at the other end of the phone line had indicated it would be. I think we called her three times between the train station and the hotel, and La Spezia is not that big. It's hard when all the streets sound foreign, and when many aren't even marked with a name, dontcha know...

La Spezia was very beautiful, stony and cobbled like you want a small Italian town to be. It appeared well-stocked with interesting (and likely expensive) shops, cofee bars, and small dogs. I can't comment much on the nightlife, cause this old girl opted for immediate sleep while the others went out in search of a beer. I slept pretty poorly in a cot-like bed that inclined at the head end, but was still able to sleepily laugh into my morning as I used the bathroom, which was obviously built for dwarfs. It was tiled and tiny, even on the claustrophobic side. Caught a good view of my knees from the mirror OVER the sink.

We stumbled out of La Spezia as quickly as we could, trying to pack our backpacks for the most comfortable day of hiking possible. Walking to the train station, we popped in a cafe for a coffee and stocked up on focaccia, a traditional treat of the area, and one that abounded in our weekend path. We reveled in the salty-ness of the bread, of course. For good measure, we ate some sweet morning croissants as well, finding out exactly what kind of filling they had as we bit into them; I have yet to see a marked pastry case in Italy.

We caught a quick train from La Spezia to the first town of the CT, Monterossa. We planned to take the hiking path from village to village, an easy-ish trek that takes about 5 hours straight through. We factored in extra time for gelato, wine, and/or beer in each place.

Monterossa is the easy end of things, as far as walking goes. It starts with a paved path, some of it covered, known as Lovers' Lane. I took pictures of the views immediately - ocean panoramas, graffittied walls (and plants!), and high-heeled shoes on several of the women.

Stillettos soon gave way to thick legged Nordic folks, fast moving armies of khaki-clad Germans, and day-tripping American and Italian tourists. Soon there were fewer people in general, as the terrain grew more uneven, more rocky. I really began to sweat under the day's sun in my jeans and tank top.

We stopped in Corniglia, village 3, for lunch. A chalkboard scrawled with Italian foods caught my eye in one of the narrow streets, and - like in A Wild Sheep Chase (a Murakawa novel I just finished reading) - I just knew this was where lunch needed to be eaten. We waited for the 1pm opening time to come around, then waited some more. I positioned myself at the door and watched the owner arrange chairs around the tables. I caught myself licking my lips in anticipation. We definitely rushed the door when it was cracked open.

We feasted and fatted on local white wine, hearty bread, an antipasto of veggies under oil - sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, artichoke, mushrooms, olives - then dug into main courses: pasta al pesto for Nick and Kirsty, tagliatelle con frutti del mare for Kate and me. All the pasta was fatto a casa. Yum yum! Worth the wait and salivation. We pressed on, digesting en trail. After a gregarious start, wine was ringing in my ears.

By the time we reached the 4th village, Vernazzo, my knees were shaking from the large steps down the steep mountainside, and I was in desperate need of water. I (somewhat crabbily) shook off Kate's insistence that we begin to look for a room for the night, and made for the nearest gelateria. A giant bottle of water and the best gelato I've had in Italy were just the restoratives I needed. I tried a scoop of pineapple gelato, and a scoop of Sciacchiatra, a sweet wine of the region. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmm. I would return to Vernazzo in a heartbeat, if only for the gelato.

When I felt like myself again (myself in Italy again?), I found that I didn't want to walk anymore. I joined Kate's enthusiasm for finding a room, and we began calling the phone numbers we saw posted on doors advertising rooms to let. We pressed buzzers. All to no avail; there were no vacancies. One woman responded to my bell buzzing by sticking her head out of an upper floor window. "Ciao! We are full. I think it is impossible. There are no rooms in Vernazzo tonight." What? No available room on a Saturday night in a tiny, bustling, touristy beachfront town?

We consulted our guidebook and considered other towns. After just a few phone calls, we finally found room at a hostel in Levanto, a short train ride from the Cinque Terre. We hopped the train after wandering and getting our fill of Vernazzo, ready to drop our bags at the hostel and find some dinner. We decided to arrive at the last Cinque Terre village via train the next morning.

Levanto was nice enough, though it seemed something of tourist overflow for Cinque Terre. I definitely had the grossest pizza while there, a little ditty called the 4 Seasons (which season is hot dog, I wonder? And which is canned mushroom?). A bad year, perhaps. Starving, I ate it all. We downed some decent house red wine with the funky food, and slipped out into the night (after the man at the cash register cut us a deal on our meal...? The total came to 63 or 64 euro - "60 is ok," he said. OK!) We found a bar down the street where we topped off with grappa, and then we headed to the waterfront to splash in the Mediterranean because we could. It was a very pleasant evening to a long day.

Assorted Details

Since I'm not able to write each day, I forget that I need to provide updates on this and that. Please remind me.

Coco Bello, the formerly sick little lamb, is now very much better and kicking around with the other 5 lambs. They rule the school, to be sure, just ask them. They all like to nibble on my clothing when I'm in their pen in the mornings, and Fregona, the little horned one, likes to ram my leg with her head. Always a pleasure.

The damn ram is still on the lam. No definite word on what we'll do with the frisky harem at the end of the intended 30 day separation period.

What else?

Made some great, crusty loaves of bread in the still really really hot pizza oven the other Wednesday night. Stayed up a little late to pull off the feat, but it was overall a small price to pay, especially after being met in the kitchen by two other interns who were still up and more than happy to dance around the warm loaves. Their excitement over the new bread was soooo wonderful. I was also overwhelmed with happiness at the chance to cook something again - it's been a long while (all these 4-course meals being served to me...). The bread baking will continue, and I'll likely begin to skip a dinner or two, just so I can cook for myself now and again.

01 October 2005

This is not a vacation...

Did I mention I had a busy week? I cut out of the grape harvesting early on Monday, to help make dinner in the Villa kitchen, as one of the cooks was out ill for the day. After 2 1/2 hours of prep work and embarassingly little Italian comprehension (it really does depend on who you are talking with!) with the other Italian cook, I sped to Pulcinelli to compete for a shower, then raced over to the Villa's library with the other female interns for our first art class. There is a resident artist here at Spannocchia, Pascale, who spends some of the year here, being creative, and some of the year in England with her MP husband. They are both dear people.

I believe Pascale is French-Canadian; she is surely 5 months pregnant. She radiates positive energy, and charmed us all with her hypnotic voice and poetic turns of phrase. She mused philosophical on the art-making process for us, discussing the habits of the different hemispheres of our brains and how art is often a struggle between what you see and what you know. "The mental process in creating art can cause some discomfort, as it is halfway between seeing and knowing," she murmured, occasionally sprinkling some Italian phrases into her French-accented lecture. After being lulled into a relaxed state, we armed ourselves with pencils and drew and drew and drew. For 2 hours we sketched each other, working mainly with continuous line drawing. "Abandon yourself to the line," Pascale instructed. The soundtrack to Amelie played in the background.

Almost energized by the experience, Kate and I bolted to the main dining room of the Villa, to prepare for the dinner service. There are a series of rotating weekly duties for the interns, and dinner is one of them (others include lunch duty, cleaning Pulcinelli, weekly presentations, etc). Dinner duty entails setting the table for however many folks have reserved for the evening (this week we averaged 50 a night, or more, the highest numbers since we've been here), serving each course, keeping water and wine bottles stocked on the tables, cleaning up, and answering odd and annoying questions from guests who often didn't listen the first time, or else hadn't looked around (sorry, but it's true! what about "family-style" don't they understand? sad that "family-style" has become such a relic...?). The blue-ribbon question of the week: " Can we serve the salad course first tomorrow evening, cause I didn't have any room left on my plate, or in my belly." Or something ridiculous like that. Dinner this week passed in a flurry of setting up, serving up, and attempting to shut up (and smile) when questions like that came rolling along. Handing out bottles of wine like candy from a parade float seemed to divert questions and made guests forget that, no, I don't have an extra set of arms to accomodate their passing/fetching needs. I'm really looking forward to just eating next week.

When my weeks are packed tighter than my bags...

There were no dead birds today.

When I swept the narrow courtyard behind Lucia's office - sweeping being part of the weekly trash & recycling gig - there is usually a lone dead bird, laying amongst the detritus fallen from the tower crenellation above. Back in the far corner of the courtyard, the various droppings and debris, and perhaps a lone dead pigeon mingles in my senses with the smell of the aging prosciutto legs hanging in a room nearby. It can get a bit pungent, though by now, it's a familiar smell, and nearly comforting. Nearly.

No bird suicides this week, though. It's been too beautiful for such nonsense.

Cool mornings, when the fog clings to the hills and wraps around the olive trees, have given way to warm afternoons, those dressed in that orange Tuscan glow and with a visibility beyond the rooftops of Siena. Sweater weather is upon us. Is anyone else wondering how it is October already?

We were lucky to have such amazing weather this week; it is Vendemmia, or grape harvest, at Spannocchia. I was told as much Sunday night, upon my arrival back at the farm after a weekend away at Cinque Terre. Got back from a full weekend, and stumbled into my fullest week here yet (and it just wont end - I have weekend duty...).

Monday brought a full day of work - our usual afternoon Italian class and educational presentation were cancelled as grapes took precedent. Rumor had it that rain might be on the way for later in the week, which would likely worsen a mold (mould, Bruce) problem in the vineyards, and reduce our grape crop this year, so the pressure was really on to complete the Vendemmia. Snip, snip, snip it was in the vineyard, a labor that brought most of the Spannocchia workforce out together in the fields, a really nice change from the norm.

Bilingual conversations streamed forth, as did song, and squeals when spiders or wasps fled the grape clusters we held in our hands. Fingers turned purple and sticky. My knees grew tired. Our orange buckets filled quickly as we traversed the rows in a buddy system: one person on either side, no row left uncut. We were joined in the vineyard by a photography class on Monday, and a painting group on Tuesday. On Wednesday, gray clouds rolled in just before lunch, and so we picked up the pace, dodging the raindrops that began to fall. It poured rain while we were inside eating, but the sun was out an hour later, the normal start of the afternoon work period. We waited a short time for the moisture to evaporate, and then were back out. My shoes formerly known as Gore Tex champions now get wet in the morning (and afternoon) dew, and I've taken to wearing (and LOVING) tall Wellies. Can't wait to add some to the ol' shoe collection.

In the three and a half days of Vendemmia, we harvested four types of grapes total - two white, the primary one being Trebbiano, and two red, the primary one being Sangiovese. There are other assorted grapes growing at Spannocchia that are used for eating and cooking, we found out on Thursday, when we had the Vendemmia pranzo. This special lunch celebrated the harvest in general and the close of our harvesting work specifically. Two long tables were set up outside for all us purple-stained staff. We ate fried polenta slices topped with gorgonzola cheese, vegetarian lasagne, cabbage with olives (some of the best cabbage I have had ever...), beef cooked with fragolina grapes ("little strawberries"), salad, and schiacciata con l'uva - a traditional Tuscan flat cake with grapes baked in it. These were courses of food, by the way, not things offered in a buffet. Whew! Red and white wines were passed, along with fresh pressed grape juice. A Tuscan glutton, I continue to overeat.