Saturday, 29 August 2009

Harvest torture and food heaven

The real harvest has started and I must confess I’m a little bewildered.

We sorted grapes until 21:30 last night and even when we left the other people being paid to do the job were still going and probably only finished at 23:00. When we were called out of the vineyard at 11:00 yesterday morning I thought we were lucky to be removed from the midday sun, but I soon realised as I was stuck in grapes up to my elbows that this was not the best job on the farm.

The sorting of the grapes require at least six people. My job was to remove as many stalks from the berries as possible before the next person did the same and the other four people as well. The grapes come too fast though and two hands aren’t enough to remove millions of stalks at a time so very soon you’re basically using your whole body to remove as many stalks as possible. In between there are wasps and heat and a sore back and sticky feet to also try and handle. I now realise why the people used to the job are almost permanently sipping on a beer or something stronger, they need it. I can’t imagine anyone doing for a job and going through this torture twice a year, once for grapes and once for olives. I don’t think the young people going to study viniculture have any idea what they are letting themselves in for when they register.

Despite that, the people and the food have made it all worthwhile. Every now and again, while you are sorting grapes we stop for ’n dinner of fresh bread and pancetta. Or we have a seafood fiesta for lunch (yesterday). I don’t even like anchovies, but the Italian peasant dish of anchovies, lemon, onions and garlic was divine; a good precursor to the mussels and potato and eggplant waiting for main dish. We ate mussels and built towers with all the shells we collected... a memorable and delightful lunch.

Another highlight was the Italian barbeque we had on Thursday evening. Different types of salami and bread for our first starter. The different types of Italian sausages for the next course – I lose track of what each course’s name is and I don’t think the Italians really care, they just want their food. And the best and most tender T-bone steak I’ve ever had. The steak was about 7cm thick and we shared it between about 12 people. I was a bit disappointed when the fillet side was already taken when it reached my, but the other side was as tender as marrow and I had to stop myself from hogging the whole thing for myself. That and the fresh bread with chilli in olive oil made me a very happy girl. The meat deprivation I suffered in Tagliacozzo is now well and truly erased; I think I actually have credits in that department again.

Now only one week of work left before we move on to the next pasture, but I think this is our last weekend. It sounds as though we will be working straight through next weekend so I will post again in about ten days time. That’s if I haven’t drowned in fermenting grapes by then.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The romance is back

All the hard work, unbearable heat, mosquito bites and money spent are now worth it.

We began picking grapes on Monday. Because it is so hot at the moment we had to start picking every morning at 7:00. That meant we had to get up at 6:00 to get a lift with the farm manager, Saverio, at 6:30 to the vineyard. On our way there we stopped for breakfast before starting the sticky, hot job of picking lots and lots and lots of grapes.

The job isn’t hard, but it gets really hot at about 10:30. The initial plan was to keep picking until 13:00, but the Italians decided it is too hot so every day we stopped at 12:00, jumped in the cars and stopped for an aperitif on our way home. By the time we get back to the farm for lunch every day we’re hardly hungry anymore because we had too much beer and snacks at the bar. Today we finished with the last little bit of the current vineyard at 9:30 and it was, once again, impossible to go directly back to the farm and start working again. We had to find an open bar first (most of the bars in the area are closed on Wednesdays) to have a coffee before we could even think about working again. After driving around for 20 minutes and getting a little panicky we eventually found an open one, had a coffee and some food and went back to pick the last few rows of white grapes on the farm.

Though we’re glad to be done with the white grapes, it sounds as though the real hard work will only start once we begin with the red ones. Apparently once we start picking them, we work straight through from 8:00 to 22:00, except of course the three hour lunches the Italians love so much. So the hard work is still ahead but all the other things make up for it.

On Monday we went to a local restaurant for magnificent meal. The bill was covered by the monthly delivery of the farm’s wine, so you actually make money when you go out for a meal because we usually get change for the meal as well.

The other ritual they have is to go out for drinks after work at the other local bar which is on the hilltop and has a breathtaking view over Lucca and the surrounding mountains. Of course, it never stays one drink and we usually stay until the owner has to tell us to either leave or have dinner because they want the table. Us foreigners have then filled ourselves with the accompanying bread, olives, ham, salami and cheese by then because we are under the false impression that this is dinner. However, we have been told that this is only Miranda (or something like it), the meal between lunch and dinner. Dinner only comes at 21:00 or 22:00. We usually skip this though and just jump into the pool when we get back to the farm before we head of to bed.

We are enjoying this farm a lot more than the other one. We work hard for six hours every day and then we are basically free to do as we choose. Sometimes we help the other people, because there is a lot of cleaning to be done before the red grapes start coming in. Other times, like today we just pass out on our beds for a necessary siesta. It’s amazing how quickly your body gets into the routine of this siesta tradition and how angry it gets at you when you don’t give it a siesta one day. I even had an allergic reaction yesterday evening to something, today I think it is because I worked through the whole day and it was my body’s way of telling me to never ever do that again.

Pictures coming later this week, now I have to join the Prosseco party on the veranda.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Tuscany: Part 1

23 August 2009

New farm, new people, new jobs.

We arrived at Tenuta di Valgiano after our long travel from Istanbul to Milan and from there to Luca. All the travelling went without incident and we quite enjoyed sleeping on the airport on Sunday evening as we found a big McDonald’s with long leather seats that served as beds to all the backpackers and other smart travellers sleeping over in the airport. The other, not so smart people, were sleeping elsewhere on small airport seats and concrete floors. The train ride was long and hot and we should have known the temperature in our compartment was a sign of things to come as the temperature here reaches the 30’s at about 10:00 in the morning.

We don’t realise how hot it is in the morning at the moment though, because we’re washing the crates they use to pick the grapes in with a water blast. We’re working from 8:00 until 12:00, after that it is too hot to do anything except sleep or swim. However, by 10:00 when you are soaked and still in the shade it gets very cold and this morning we had to rest for about 20 minutes to let the sun reach the spot where we were working to prevent hypothermia. I also developed a nasty cold because of this and at the moment my voice is sounding a bit like a sexy stripper’s, that’s if I can manage to talk between sneezing and sniffing.

On Friday we drove up the Apennine mountains to a restaurant very high up. The view was amazing, the food lovely and the weather absolutely perfect. It’s a lot cooler up there than down here and it was a bit of a shock to arrive back in this heat and humidity again. First thing when we set foot out of the car was that another bug bit Marike, what a lovely welcome back. The mountains were lovely though, it’s just like I imagined the Alps and Heidi’s theme song was stuck in my head the whole time we were there.

Although there are only three people who can speak English everyone is very friendly and try to communicate with us. They are saying that we will begin picking white grapes next week as it is too hot for them and the red ones probably the week after. It also sounds like we will have real early mornings next week and only pick until lunch time... I wanted summer weather and boy have I got it.

The people Marike worked for in England was so kind as to offer us a few days stay in their villa nearby, so we'll probably go and stay there for the last three days we’re in Italy to rest before we set of on our Contiki tour. I’m afraid I might have bitten off a bit more than I could chew and we won’t really enjoy the Contiki tour if we have to start it feeling the way we did on Monday. Hopefully it all works out.

That’s it for this week. No real funny incidents so far but we are having lunch underneath a big tree with a view and a bunch of Italian people and eating real tasty Italian food (with meat) every day, so I can now tick that on my list. Some other Wwoofers from New Zeeland and the USA will also arrive soon and the local people that help with the picking every year, so we should have the festive harvest atmosphere real soon. We did go walking for 10km yesterday without the proper shoes for an ice cream after under estimating the distance to the closest town considerably, so today we’re both trying to recover and just enjoying a real chilled Sunday. Another one of those real bad decisions. At least we only have three more weeks to try and top the last one.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Istanbul Sprints

Our joy at being finished at our first farm caused us to be extremely eager to leave Italy and Friday and meant that we were ready to board our 22:00 flight to Istanbul at 14:00. The hope that there will be a restaurant with wireless Internet in Rome also didn't pay off so we had to pass eight hours without Internet. We did manage however and eventually did board our plane.

However, not knowing the personal affairs of all planes and airlines over the world meant that we were smart enough to fly with Alitalia. The unfriendly check-in lady didn't check Marike and me into seats next to each other so we had to shout to each other across the aisle. What was even worse was that the lovely people from Alitalia were waiting for some passengers and their luggage to arrive for an hour. After that we had to wait for some maintenance person to fix something in the food cupboards. After an hour and a half waiting on the runway we took off to Istanbul at last. I was extremely grumpy because they were eating into the few hours we had in Istanbul, I was tired and hungry and at that moment I was irritated with everything remotely resembling anything Italian. Marike was giggling away, especially when I just grunted at the air hostess when we could finally disembark in Istanbul... We didn't even get a sandwich for a three hour flight, just some dry crackers and gross wine.

Customs in Turkey was a breeze and we were even called on the public information system as the poor driver from our hotel were probably waiting for almost two hours for us to arrive. In Istanbul at last and it was nothing like what we expected. In my imagination I was imagining something like Lawrence of Arabia with a little bit of Durban. What we found, at 3:00 in the morning, were wide highways, with clean and green gardens. It felt like arriving in a Sandton on steroids.

In the hotel we couldn't resist looking at Facebook and our e-mails to fix our craving for the Internet, but soon enough out batteries were completely empty and we fell deeply asleep.

We only had a day and a half in this amazing city so we were up very early to have breakfast and look around. Being girls we went straight to the Grand Bazaar to do some shopping. We controlled ours urges until we got to the middle of the bazaar when we just couldn't resist all the temptation any more. The salespeople are all so charming and persistent that we eventually walked out of there with gifts for all our family, despite not having any spare weight available in our suitcases. This, of course, meant we also had to buy another back pack to carry another piece of hand luggage on the plane. It's one big vicious circle.

I think our biggest joy was the sight of a MacDonald’s in the distance when we were walking down the main road. I stopped dead in my tracks and clutched Marike's arm and she immediately knew what I was looking at and gave a little squeal of joy. We're not usually addicted to trashy fast food, but since we both flew to Italy on a hangover three weeks ago we have had an incredible craving for it. We have also realised in the mean time that no airport or small country town in Italy has a MacDonald’s so the sight of that big M was a sight for sore eyes. All my previous good intentions of eating the local food flew straight out of the window and we immediately sat down for a lunch of Big Macs, fries and Coke. The shopping continued after lunch until we couldn't stand on our two feet anymore and retired to the hotel for a siesta - damn Italians.

Saw a show of Sufi music and dancing last night but realised soon enough that we're either very shallow and don't understand all their traditions or we were just some more innocent tourist victims of the Istanbul charm. The dancing just entails three men spinning and spinning and spinning on some prayer music for about half an hour. I must have found peace during it though because I almost fell asleep a couple of times.

The last adventure of the day was the biggest. We took off to have our very first Turkish bath. On arrival we weren't exactly sure what to do and were just shoved into a little booth with some towels and shower shoes and told to undress. When we came out we were led to the bath area by two Turkish ladies in black bikinis, a big sauna type room with a granite slab in the middle filled with more naked ladies.

The two of us were completely shocked at the sight of all the boobies and we were split up and told to lie down on the slab. At some stage I received a panty and was told to put it on by the Big Momma washing me. After lying on my back for a while, while wearing nothing but a panty, the Momma returned and started scrubbing me. Every now and again she would ask: "Good?" and I would say "Yes", although she almost winded me a few times. She washed very thoroughly and everywhere and was finished very soon. Then I was led to another tap where she washed my hair while I sat between her legs and told me to take a shower in another room where there were no showers. I just tried to rinse of the soap and went to a room with an ice cold pool to wait for Marike's arrival. I could only relax once I knew where Marike was because I was a little afraid that she got scared and ran away but I did see her just before my wash started so I could enjoy the scrubbing and bubbles eventually.

She eventually turned up and we sat giggling in the pool for a long time recounting our experiences. I will leave out all the gory details but she had more or less the same experience than I did, except that the thin lady washing her didn't bother putting on the top of her bikini until halfway through the bath, making her even more uncomfortable.

Up until then we felt like we were in Durban or the Oriental Plaza, but that made us realise at last that we were firmly in Turkey and in a completely different culture than anything we had ever experienced. Amazing how something can be so normal for one person and so uncomfortable for another.

We once again fell straight asleep after getting over the shock of being violated by two naked ladies and woke up this morning to do the usual sightseeing. Went to the Blue Mosque, dressed up in sheets to go inside, saw the Hagia Sophia Mosque, walked past the Topkapi Palace, had some terrible ice cream look-a-like and bought some spices at the Spice Bazaar.

Had a blast of a time and feel revitalised for the next four weeks of working. The original reason we came to Istanbul was because we could only stay in the Schengen area for 30 days at a time because of our visas but we are both very happy we did. Not only did we get to experience all of this we are also looking forward to eating some more Italian food and meeting some new people.

Will probably post a big blog again in four weeks. Check out the pics of the weekend on Facebook.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Three blogs in one... suffering from a severe case of internetlessness.

31 July 2009

In Italy for almost a week now. It’s been hot as hell and we’ve been working very hard, but hard work has never killed anyone so we’re still enjoying ourselves.

We’re staying in the Abruzzo region in Italy in the middle of the mountains. It is pretty but a little bit of the romance has been lost on us because we’re working so hard and not just sitting around sipping Peroni and sun lounging. Despite that our tans are coming along nicely and we are already the proud owners of skin that is two shades darker than it was a week ago.

The main lesson we’ve learnt so far is no matter where you are in the world, be it in picturesque Italy, Cape Town, Soweto, London or Hong Kong there is no such thing as paradise. It may be paradise for a couple of weeks on holiday, but all over the world, everybody is just working and trying to get by. Everyone is doing what they have to do to survive, make a living and attempt to achieve happiness. The grass may seem greener on the other side, but it really and truly is just the same colour, despite it being warmer or colder, wetter or drier... we are all just the same species and trying to do the same thing, survive.

We’re mostly working in the little fields around the house. Removing thorns and weeds, cutting grass, getting the vegetable garden in working order again and all sorts of jobs that seem small but turn out to be a lot bigger than anticipated. Our bodies took a few days to get used to the shock of working hard again for the first time in a year, but I think we are over the worst now and will only get fitter and browner every day.

It’s satisfying sitting down in the evening to a good meal with a tired body and enjoying the view, food, local wine and good company. Our hosts, Luca and Fabiana, are friendly and have made us feel quite at home. We have our own little wooden hut about 50m from the house and an outside shower. This doesn’t mean they don’t want us to shower in their house though. They also use the outside shower, with only cold water, since the best part of the house is being used for the bed & breakfast. They’re all about being organic and we both feel a bit sorry for Fabiana because she is nine months pregnant and still taking cold showers. They have all my respect for sticking to their principles, but I’m extremely grateful that I have different principles and allow myself some small pleasures in life. Like warm showers and a comfortable bed.

The food is wonderful. Luca and Fabiana are vegetarians, but we don’t even miss the meat. Their vegetarian meals are tasty and healthy and we really do enjoy all the meals, lots of zucchini, tomatoes and pasta. Last night we had homemade pizza baked in the wood burning oven and I am pretty sure it was the best pizza I have ever tasted. Focaccia for starter and after that wonderful vegetarian pizza with tomatoes, cheese, olives, anchovies, zucchini flowers and all sorts of other secret goodies on that make it sooooooo tasty.

7 July 2009

Two weeks down, one to go.

We’re both pretty tired at the moment after a very busy week. We had a nice day off on Sunday when we went to the nearest town, Scurcola. We rode on the bicycles and spent the whole day there. Walked up the hill to the castle that is perched over the town and admired the views and pretty little alleys. Found lots of stray cats and a dog and overheard some heated conversations in the houses that face directly onto the street. Enjoyed the atmosphere on a Sunday morning in a very rural Italian town with absolutely no tourists, except for the two of us.

At 13:00, when we developed hunger pangs all the restaurants and shops suddenly closed for siesta, so we had to wait it out on the piazza al by ourselves until some life reappeared at exactly 15:00. Eventually we found an open restaurant and the best tortellini with ragu we’ve ever tasted... I think we were both just really hungry. An ice cream later and we were on our way back to the house to while away the rest of the day in our little hut.

The break did us a world of good and on Monday we started work with a new zest for life. We helped Luca to rebuild the platform in front of the pizza oven on Monday and started to dig a ditch at the back of the house on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday we had to paint a tiny little bathroom for the B&B. This almost caused the end of our friendship as Marike is very precise about little things and I’m not. We both worked on each other’s nerves and it seemed as though the room was getting smaller by the minute. I think Luca and Fabiana realised we needed a change of scenery and took us out for pizza in Avezzano. Fortunately we’re both like little puppies and our spirits rose considerably at the sight of food. So I am pleased to announce that we are still friends.

Today we finished our ditch and are again looking forward to a day off tomorrow. The work is getting a little monotonous and feeling more and more like a summer holiday on our farms in South Africa than like a trek around Italy. We’re both getting somewhat agitated at the sight of zucchini and tomatoes but we know we only have another week left before we move on to a new region and have another change of scenery.

So don’t despair, we’re not. We’re keeping each other’s spirits up and still glad that we are experiencing the reality of Italian countryside and not just the romantic, touristy side. It just makes us look forward to struggling in our home country and our own language even more.

14 August 2009

Our first three weeks in Italy have come to an end sooner than we thought. On Sunday Fabiana told us we are not enthusiastic enough and we have to work harder. Since both of us do not react entirely favourable to negative criticism (understatement of the year) we were both a little negative at the start of the week. Nevertheless, we survived and just kept on doing everything in exactly the same way we had been and were popular again by Monday. We decided that Fabiana’s almost ten month pregnant body just got the better of her hormones.

The week passed without any further incident. We finished the last few jobs we had left on the farm, helped with breakfast every morning because the B&B is very busy at the moment and just waited for today to come.

We did go out for dinner on Tuesday to a local restaurant in a small village called Verrechie. We had all the regional and vegetarian dishes they served. The gnochetti and ravioli was very tasty but is pretty well-known over the world. The second course was a little unusual though. We had Scamorza, something neither of us had ever heard of before, except when we watched Heidi when we were little. It is a block of cheese melted over the fire and served with mushrooms, oil and bread. The shepherds used to eat it in the fields and although I can see how they probably liked it the first time they had it, I can’t imagine them enjoying it more than once a month.

Luca and Fabiana forgot to inform us that one block of cheese is more than enough for two persons and our strict Afrikaans upbringing prevented us from leaving any food in our plates. Needless to say, despite enjoying the first half of the dish immensely, the cheese was literally pouring out of our ears by the time we had finished our enormous chunks of melted cheese for dinner.

We did not feel like skipping through the Italian countryside like Heidi used to do in Switzerland when we arrived back home.

But do try some Scamorza whenever you find yourself in Abruzzo again. Just make sure you have a friend to share it with, it is worth it.

That’s all I have to report for the first three weeks. As you can see the Internet availability was a problem and I don’t expect to have Internet on the next farm either. At the moment we are waiting at the airport in Rome to board our plane to Istanbul. My family freaked out on me all of a sudden last night and insisted that I make sure no one puts any drugs in my suitcase as I pass through customs and I don’t get stolen or arrested while I’m almost in the Middle East. So hopefully I will return to Europe again safely on Sunday evening and will report back some amazing experiences from Istanbul.

All the best for the weekend.