Monday, November 24, 2008

A Month in the Country

Let me preface this entry by saying that I don’t think the following is a typical day in the life of a farmer or WWOOFer in Tuscany. I think my experience as an agricul-tourist, thus far, is unique to Fattoria Castellina (a nearly 300-acre organic farm that's just a 25-minute train ride from Florence) and the local food, landscape, and people.

I live with three other American gals: the fiery, funny NYC chef, Abigale (top right); the herbal genius from Washington State, Alanna; and the pensive, curly-haired dancing machine from Ohio, Draga.

New to WWOOFing, Abigale and I are mesmorized by Alanna and Draga's previous WWOOF adventures, one of which included a wacky 30-person cult farm where they witnessed a woman seemingly break into an orgasm right at the dinner table. Riiight. They assure us that at Fattoria Castellina we're getting five-star treatment -- everything from the private one-bedroom apartment complete with a fireplace (it's the left top corner in the photo) to an endless supply of rich, fresh foods all in exchange for a little manual labor.

Our sole mission is to pick as many olives as possible in a six-hour-day, Monday through Friday, from the small grove (the farm’s home to about 3,000 trees) surrounding our beautiful rent-free digs. How and when we'd pick them is up to us. Which is why we quickly dubb our new home and hands-off employer for the month of November as "The Princess Farm." Here's a brief look at my experience at this phat farm in Italy.


At 7:45 AM, I roll out of my warm, heavily-blanketed cot, open the wooden window shutters, and scope out the scene. If the Tuscan sun is beaming over the lush green rolling hills topped with opposing rows of vineyards and olive groves, I'll give the gals in the room a heads up, reach for my long johns (temps are usually in the low 50's/high 40's), and start a pot of coffee. But if I see dark clouds, dense fog, and droplets clinging to the dusty window pane, I'll jump back in bed and snooze until 10 AM.

FARM FACT #1 Rainy days are equivalent to a get-out-of-jail, er, work pass. On these days, which are more frequent as winter starts to roll around, we take long hot showers, curl up in bed, read books, write postcards, clean the apartment, cook feasts, or hitch rides to the sleepy, ceramic-obsessed town of Montelupo, five miles down the road. I don’t know how I’ll ever bring myself to work on a rainy day again.

Around 8 AM, we devour an up-and-at-'em breakfast usually consisting of an Americano coffee, yogurt, Muesli, and the freshest fruit I've ever tasted. So good, Draga and I had to photo-document them (right).

On weekends, we make more elaborate dishes, like Nutella-banana crepes or bursting bfast burritos with frothy cafĂ© lattes. “We’re fancy to ourselves”, is a common phrase we say to validate our fine dining rituals.

FARM FACT #2 When it comes to cooking, Draga and I love to sit back and watch the masters (Abigale and Alanna) at work. Using minimal utensils in our modest kitchenette, they brainstorm and design some of the most delicious, mouth-watering culinary concoctions to tickle my tastebuds. Talent isn't the only thing making our chow time so divine.

Unlimited amounts of our freshly-pressed olive oil (we down about 750 mL a week) and other superb organic ingredients make even trite foods, like tomatoes, seem exotic and extraorindary. What's great is that this fantastic fare isn't restricted to the local grocery store.

We're on a farm at the foot of a rich forest -- this land is loaded with wild edible goodness! And as it turns out, Alanna is a brilliant forager. On any given day, a short hike in our backyard will lead her to arugula, grapes, rosemary, marjoram, tomatoes, figs, persimmon, fennel, sage, bay leaves, mint leaves, and/or squash.

Whenever I join her, I swear my "gatherer instinct" kicks in. I feel high every time we find anything I can brush off and pop in my mouth without having to drop a dime or worry about sudden death induced by Ecoli or other poisons. I'm on a shopping spree in earth's supermarket and loving it! This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my trip so far.


Fully fueled and dangerously caffinated, mornings are the most productive part of our day. We’ll bust out five to six red crates full of green and purple olives, which make for a delicious extra-virgin "Blend" when combined. This is not the kind of olive oil you use for deep-frying french fries. Its pure, unprocessed taste is meant to be experienced. Two ways you can do this is by generously drizzling it on a salad or a fresh piece of ciabatta bread that's been lightly rubbed with a garlic clove. Exquisito!

Weighing in at about 40 pounds per crate, I’d say the four of us deliver some 200 pounds of olives before lunch. Sound impressive? Sure, until I tell you that that’s the amount a single seasoned olive picker (like the old men chatting up Alanna in this photo) will produce in a day.

While olive-picking itself isn’t strenuous, it can be tedious after a while. My first few days out in the field, I fall in love with the act of plucking the supple fruit off these 10- to 15-foot-tall trees. Watching as handfuls cascade to the net we carefully draped around the base of the tree is so satisfying. It's a pleasant, meditative process, especially in our quiet, kelly-green backyard where the sun warms our backs and the undulating landscape serves as the backdrop.

I didn’t count the minutes to my next meal then. Nor did I think about filling a quota by a certain time. I let myself get wrapped up in the layers of branches, savoring the feeling of running my fingers through the drooping vines and breathing in the aroma of the ripe olives that were too bitter to eat without extensive brining (trust me on this one).

We joke that "we're just hairdressers grooming the trees" -- an analogy inspired by a popular YouTube video titled "Hairdresser" that quickly becomes our anthem. We regularly belt out lines from that song as well as others, like Lisa Loeb's "Stay" or TV show theme songs, like Family Matters -- any lyrics that a kid growing up in the 90's would know by heart.

When we aren't singing, we're sharing stories about life back home and imagining what it'll be like when we return to a new Obama nation (yay!). As far as I can tell, the news of our president-elect has been very well-received in Italy, which is going through it's own economic and political perils. Though I can't communicate well with the locals (speaking Spanish with an Italian accent apparently doesn't fly), I know a three-syllable word that's proven to be a crowd-pleaser in any language: "Obama." So far, it's gotten me applause and raised wine glasses, which is like an Italian high-five.

Three weeks into our olive-pickin' routine, some of the novelty and excitement starts to wears off. By the end of November, I’m all about getting it done—and fast. The sooner I can fill those little red crates, the sooner I can go for a walk, stuff my face, write my boyfriend a love letter, or just lounge by a warm fire.

To power through what's suddenly starting to feel like work, we no longer sing, but rather plan out our lunch and dinner menus in full detail. Ten minutes before our noonish lunch break, I yell "Empty the tank!" to let the girls know that we'll soon be sitting down to our first course.


There are still some priceless moments out in the field, where we’ll get lost in the art of picking. All too often, we’ll risk our necks to reach for that single olive dangling off the impossibly high branch. Not getting it would taint the otherwise barren-look of the well-picked tree.

The irony behind that is that we usually lose a fistful of olives while pouring ‘em into the crates, so it’s never truly worthwhile to chance falling some 10 feet to the hard grass-covered ground for a lone fruit. Yet the little dangler haunts you until you get it. Thus is the plight of the olive picker—or at least these four.

FARM FACT #3 Food isn't the only thing driving us these days. While I still take pleasure in hearing the falling olives pellet my wooden ladder, nothing beats exploring this gorgeous countryside. Hence, the elaborate rain dances in our living room to score a day off (it's worked!) or extend our weekend excursions to neighboring areas.

We've hit the road three out of four free weekends. We've visited 1) Northern Italy' the postcard-perfect
Cinque Terre, five quaint villages connected by a single trail along dramatic coastal cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea (photo at top right of the village of Vernazza); 2) Florence (photo at left is a view from Michelangelo's Piazza overlooking the city's massive Duomo); and 3)nearby Tuscan towns including Siena, San Gimignano (photo at right of the tower-filled town also known as "Medival Manhattan")Montepulciano, Montisi, and Pienza.


Lunch on the farm is a two-hour affair. Sometimes longer. At first, I'm inclined to cut our break to 30 minutes. The overachiever American in me reasons that way we'd have more time to do other things, like go for a hike before sunset.

After a few days of taking the entire two hours (12:30 PM to 2:30 PM) to prepare, savor, and digest a delicious, fulfilling meal, I realize shortening it would defeat the purpose of why I'm here.

For five years, I inhaled my lunch at my desk in 10 minutes or less. The food didn't even have to taste good. It just needed to tide me over until dinner (usually cereal). How crappy is that?! Given the chance to have the ultimate power lunch, am I really going to pass that up?? So what if I have to work until sunset? This change of pace is exactly why I flew about 4,000 miles to Italy.

To top it off, how often will I get to live with a NYC chef? Abigale's passion for cooking is so contagious, I'm compelled to photograph every gorgeous spread before we attack it. After spending a month with her and occassionally playing a pseudo-sous chef (I like to chop!), I've converted to a foodie who vows to never rush through lunch or eat cereal for dinner again. With her recipes chronicled in my digital library, I have no excuse.

Pranzo (Italian for “lunch”) isn’t complete without a post-grub leisure cup of Earl Grey with biscuits, figs, or chocolate for dessert. On nice days, we have tea time outside (photo, left, of Abigale worshipping our ritual) to take in the sweeping views of the towns in the distance, including Vinci, where some famous dude named Leonardo was born.


Fighting off a food coma, we march back to the trees and manage to punch out three to four more crates of olives in two or so hours (photo, right, of our best workday).

Our Flinestonsian version of the end-of-the-day-siren is the fireball sun sinking behind the hilltops (around 4:30 to 5 PM). It's the signal for us to grab our cameras and start snapping, which, surprisingly, never gets old. I've got a lifetime's supply of sunset shots on my computer to prove it.


After work, we try to squeeze in a walk or run before the sun has completely clocked out and the woodsy premises turn Blair Witch on us. (As a native NYer, I associate nightfall with streetlights, not total, scary-as-hell darkness.) Using the remaining soft pink light to guide us, we'll visit the beautiful resident horses, the fiesty Lola (photo) and loveable Sandy, and feed them uber-sweet pears and persimmon.

By the day's end, we’re all wearing a thin layer of dirt, olive juice, and possibly horse saliva. Good thing we've got plenty of time to clean up. Since we don't have a car, we're stuck in our apartment most evenings unless someone, like our friendly neighbor Emanuelle (pictured left escorting us in his van) or the farm's young WWOOF coordinator, Ivan, take pity and kindly invite us out for a drink or dinner.

FARM FACT #4 We've been blessed with an endless supply of boiling hot shower water. In fact, cold water is scarce in this household, which is fine by me. Taking a scalding shower after a day's work is the perfect way to unwind. The best part is the unintentionally self-created steam room that awaits when I step out of the shower in the windowless bathroom. We're practically running a spa in here!

Starting around 6:30 PM, Abigale and Alanna prepare for the biggest, most lavish meal of the day. Draga and I try to help as much as possible without getting in the way, which often translates into setting/cleaning the table and dishwashing (though the chefs do their fair share of that, too).

Before sitting down to eat, we always dim the lights, put a match to the makeshift table candles, and get a flame going in the fireplace. Once the mood is set, the moaning begins. Each bite sends us all into unimaginable ecstasy—and we like to let each other know it, too. As strange as it may sound—literally—I'm a firm believer that food-gasms (introduced to me by Alanna and Abigale) enhances the feast for all diners (guests included). I'll never hold one back again.

Apres-dinner is at my laptop. When the Internet's working (not often), we'll draft quick emails to family and friends or catch a funny YouTube clip. Otherwise, you'll find us sitting by the fire or heading downstairs for a nightcap with our neighbors — a gang of 20-something Italian boys who temporarily rent the space just to drink, play cards, and watch soccer throughout the winter (a sure sign that they all still live at home with their parents).

When they're around, they never fail to let us know it, usually by banging the end of a broom stick on their ceiling or our floor. Though they’re young, immature, and not bilingual, they’re our main access to Chianti, some Italian culture, and freshly-chopped firewood.


I’m in my cot in the corner of the bedroom trying to finish a book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, or write in my journal. But I'm having trouble giving myself wholeheartedly to either task. I usually end the night chatting with the girls, who never fail to indulge my thoughts, concerns, or stories.

One thing we love to talk about is how lucky we are to have scored the Princess Farm. Though I'm sad it'll soon be over (we're all flying back home in early-to-mid December), I take comfort in the fact that this will be the first of many visits to this magical place.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ve-nice? Hmm

Two days in Venice were more than enough for me. It's hard to say if it was the city or my attitude that tainted the experience for me. I had heard awful things about it from friends (several said it "smelled" while one even went as far as to say it was "the worst city in the world"). But I think I just wanted to get to Florence--the last stop on my urban tour of Italy before heading to its breathtaking countryside. Let's face it: my heart was in Florence when I set foot in Venice.

My first afternoon in the watery town only made matters worse. This excerpt of an email I sent a friend that day best sums up my first impressions:

"Everyone warned me that Venice would be stinky. Sure, it smells like water, but that's expected (it's a string of islands!) and it smells fine. One thing I do find annoying is that the streets are short, maze-like, narrow, dark, and very confusing. They all have long multi-voweled names, like Ravanno R. Vecchia S. Giovanni. Building numbers, like 733, mean NOTHING here. So you literally have to walk with a map in-hand to figure out where the hell you're going. Now if you're a tourist (which 9 out of 10 are here) just looking to get lost and explore any and all streets that's great. But if you're a tourist who's trying to get somewhere, like say, your hotel, and you want to do it before dark (dusk is around 5:30pm) and it's 2:30pm and you still haven't eaten lunch and you're starved, then it sucks. What's worse is when you FINALLY find your hotel and no one's there to let you in. Grr. No worries. I eventually figured it out, but it was nonetheless a frustrating afternoon. I'm looking forward to a new day tomorrow."

When the "new day" came, so did the rain. Buckets of it. As soon as I stepped outside my hostel
room, my sneaks were in a puddle. And when I got to the city's famous St. Mark's square, I was shocked to see it was nearly completely under water. For a minute there, I thought Venice was really finally sinking!! But when I saw two-foot-tall elevated walkways leading into the gorgeous square's Basicilica (including inside the holy ground itself per photo on left), I knew this was just another day in the Venetian life, which is so not for me. Gorgeous surroundings? Yes. Convenient? No. As a person who thrives on walking around (as many of you know, I don't drive--not that it would matter here), I felt stifled. I didn't want to walk anywhere in my cold wet socks.

So on day two, I was happy to toss my luggage on a vaporetto (the poor man's gondola ride, costing only 6.50 Euros compared to 80 to 100 euros) and head to the train station. Of course, it was a beautiful sunny day as I exited the the islands. Go figure.

Other Venice highlights (because it's actually a photographer's wet dream):

Friday, October 31, 2008

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from Florence!

Witches, wizards, devils, and even Superman graced the ancient streets of Florence this evening. I was shocked to see what I've always considered an American holiday celebrated here--and not even by Americans! Locals were the ones behind the gruesome masks, face paint, and coned black hats.

How would I know this? An Italian woman disguised as a wicked witch with a megaphone appeared to be giving dressed-up kids instructions from her second-story window. Since I don't capisco the language, I can't tell you what she was saying, but it must have been something real good because those tiny tots were hanging on every word.

Weaving through the small crowd, I scoured the area for free candy. Unfortunately, I had no luck, so I treated myself to a chocolate bar. Happy Halloween to me!

Top Ten Things To Keep In Mind When In Rome...

10. Every other person is a tourist just like you It's par for the course when you're sightseeing. So go ahead and unfold your giant city map to figure out where the hell you are. Just step aside because the sidewalks are only as wide as a hefty American (think Michael Moore).

9. Locals love it when you take a crack at the lingo Buy a phrase book on and try to order your pizza or drink in Italian (i..e., "Vorrei un cafe"). Nine out of 10 times your efforts will be rewarded with an inviting smile and hopefully exactly what you ordered. The downside to this kind of communication is that it's only one-way. So if/when the waiter responds in Italian, my fall back answer is usually "si?" (yes) and a cutesy shrug of my shoulders. Then hope for the best.

8. Leave your "personal space" at home People will unapologeticaly bump into you, stand right in front of you as if you're not there, cut you in line without batting an eye, steal your table, and take up the whole sidewalk (which isn't hard considering it's size), thus, forcing you to walk alongside swerving vespas, double-decker buses, and smart cars.

7. PDA validates Italian relationships It's impossible to walk down the street and not see a liplocking couple hanging off each other as if their life depended on it. I've come to the understanding that if a man and women aren't either tongue-wrestling or sweetly petting each other's face/hair on the street, then they're most likely not in looove.

6. Get ready to carb-load like it's your job When traveling on the beaten path, your diet will solely consist of pizzas, pastas, and gelati. Italians know that's what most tourists want and that's what they'll get. If you're looking for a more diverse or authentic menu, you'll have to go where the locals go (usually also where they live) or the crappy part of town (near the Termini train station for example), which I noticed had some ethnic options, like "Cinese"--the "ci" is pronounced "ch" in Italian.

5. You don't need to be religious to appreciate Jesus, Joseph and Mary If Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio's extraordinary visions don't get you wondering whether this holy family existed, the immaculate St. Peter's Bascilica complete with heaven-high ceilings, an altar fit for a king, and celebrated artwork like "The Pieta," may at least make you utter an "oh god."

4. Bank on carrying around at least two ATM cards From my experience, if your ATM pin is seven digits or longer, you will not be able to access money from an ATM (or "bancamat") here. To get cash, I had to take out advances from my Capital One credit card (it has a four-digit pin), which worked out fine considering that this company doesn't charge any overseas transaction fees.

3. Every Italian man thinks he's Cassanova Italian men--from the diaper'd to the blue-haired--is a ladies' man. Unfortunately, most aren't as smooth as they think. Catcalls (one gal I met at a hostel told me that a guy at a train station propositioned her for sex) and public groping (another gal at the same hostel told me a guy just grabbed her bum outta nowhere) is pretty standard around these parts. But there are some men who do justice to the legendary reputation. One guitarist, who serenaded my friends and I over dinner one night, claimed to have crafted a poem in his head about me while singing. He later recited it to me in Spanish so I could understand. He was old and ugly, but I was definitely flattered.

2. Ask for "il conto" (the bill) as soon as you order your meal Otherwise, the waiter will expect you to hang out in the restaurant for two or three hours. Lunch and dinners are meant to be time-consuming events. You're expected to sit, relax, drink lots of wine and chat with your friends while devouring your pasta alla rabiatta at your leisure. With that in mind, most shops close between 2pm and 4pm so that everyone (including shop owners) can enjoy their God-given right to a lengthy meal. Ironically, I also found many restaurants close at 2 PM and don't reopen until 7 or 8 PM for dinner.

1. Follow the herd to safely get to the other side Should you ever want to cross any street in Rome, heed this advice: Take a deep breath, stick one leg out and GO. Don't hesistate for a second or you WILL be a deer caught in headlights (the Vespa kind, too!). Traffic lights, stop signs, and lanes are mere suggestions to the licensed citizens of Rome. Pedestrians are at the mercy of all those on two-to four-wheels. Should you decide to cautiously wait for a break in traffic, expect to exercise your patience at frustrating levels. When in doubt or in a rush, look out for locals or other tourists heading in your direction. Go when they go and they can serve as buffers between you and the bumpers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Roaming in Rome

I recently had the privilege to call Italy's ancient capital "home" for five wonderful days. Meandering the windy, cobble-stoned streets, I quickly realized my bag was no place for my camera. Rome is a city that begs to be photographed and soon my digi cam was at-the-ready in my palm wherever I went. Here are some of my favorite moments in this living, breathing history museum.

First stop: The colossal Colosseum, which is, ironically, named after Nero's long-gone massive statue that was located near the arena of death.

Newlyweds Erika (my college roomie) and Joe, plus Kim and her hubby, Gabe, pose in front of the skeletal remains of the once great amphitheatre. Erika, Joe, and I break for a cappuccino and gelato in a cute square near the reknowned Spanish Steps, which were very disappointing. The famous staircase was nothing more than a bench for tourists and chain smokers (read: booooring).

My first taste of the world-famous authentic Italian gelato. The flavors: strawberry, hazelnut, and some chocolate chip blend called strata-something. I can't prounounce it, let alone spell it, but I can eat it! And I did: It was some of the creamiest, richest, smoothest ice cream I've ever had.

Joe and Erika park in front of the Pantheon, which is this dramatic 2,000-year-old church capped with a super impressive dome (said to be the first of it's kind). Legendary painter Raphael is buried here. The inscription on his grave reads: "Here lies Raphael, by whom Mother Nature of all things feared to be outdone while he was living, and while he was dying, herself to die". (*This was one of my favorite spots in Rome.)

Arrivederci dinner with the gang, who were spending their last night in Rome. It was my last night, too, before embarking on my solo tour of Italy. With that in mind, I made sure to talk my heart out.
Here's the long, but fast-moving line to enter the mystifying St. Peter's Cathedral. This is a must-see if you're ever in Rome. You don't have to be religious to recognize its breathtaking beauty. Michaelangelo's world-famous "Pieta" is in here.
This is the ultra-crowded Trevi Fountain. It's said to be the most photographed spot in Rome. Why go? Folklore says if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you'll likely return to it one day. (Roughly $3,500 is thrown into this babbling water daily. The cash is collected at night, and used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's low-income residents).

Check out Trevi's crowd!

This enormous structure, which dominates Rome's skyline, along with the city's domes, is a tribute to the "Unknown Soldier." You can take a glass elevator to the top if you're not chicken or cheap (the vertigo-inducing ride costs 8 euros).
My favorite part of the "Unknown Soldier" is the extravegant topping on this gorgeous monumental cake. (Thank you Amy and Rupes for a camera with kickass zoom!)

The nearby Roman Forum, which looks like a graveyard. I'm sure it's LOADED with ghosts--as is ALL of Rome.

This bambino threw a small red ball at me while I was tying my shoelace in a park. After he ran over to pick it up, he extended the round weapon toward me and said, "Bola." It was the cutest little accent I've ever heard.

In the name of adventure, I pick a random street around sunset and follow it until...
...I run into this massive political protest (these are all the rage in Italy) . It takes me a good hour to find my way out of the crowd and back to my hotel room (in the dark!).