Sunday, June 26, 2011

On a Farm in Italy

One of my main reasons for coming to Italy was to volunteer on organic farms through the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program. My first farm was in northern Italy, in the Piemonte region, or Piedmont in English. It was very close to where my friend lived in Bra, yet I had to take 4 regional trains and half a day to get there... not unusual for the Italian train system I'm told! But it was great to finally arrive on the farm, a 20 minute drive from a small city up into rolling farm hills and tiny roads on hairpin turns.

The farm is run by a Brazilian woman, her Italian husband, and his father who was born on the farm. They also had a 4 year-old son and another baby on the way. The land has been in their family for over 200 years. They grow wine and table grapes, wheat, barely, maize, hazelnuts, plums, and many veggies, and go to market 4 mornings a week. They grow and grind all their own flour in a stone mill off-site. The property was about 30 acres, nestled in hills with the medieval castle of a small town visible on a ridge in the distance. It was a peaceful and gorgeous spot.
When I arrived, there were 4 other volunteers already there. There were 2 guys from California, and 2 women from Vancouver, BC. They helped orient me to the farm set up and the typical work schedule. We helped ourselves to breakfast, usually yogurt, homemade muesli, seasonal fruit, homemade bread, or fresh eggs, along with strong percolated Italian coffee. By 9am we started working in the field, and it was already fairly hot but not too hot. Field work was anything from harvesting vegetables to organic pest control to weeding to transplanting new starts to cutting lavender.

Then in the late morning as it got hotter, we would usually move to a shade job. There was a good covered outdoor work table where we would shell hazelnuts or prep veggies or bunch herbs.
At this point the farm mom Vanessa would usually be working on lunch and one or two of us could help cook if we wanted. Meals usually consisted of a lot of vegetables, some pasta, homemade bread, cheese, some meat, and beer or wine. Vanessa was a wonderful, intuitive cook and I learned a lot about Italian and general cooking in these couple weeks. Some examples of dishes we ate: potato/green bean bean casserole with pecorino, sauteed favas with onion, stuffed tomatoes with basil, garden vegetable soup, green salad with homemade rosemary croutons, fried squash blossoms and onion flowers, bagnetto (an amazing and simple parsley sauce with garlic, lemon, and egg), anchovie ceviche, homemade calzones, pasta carbonara, rice pilaf, bruschetta, prawns in tomato sauce, local cheese, grilled vegetables, curried cannellini beans, etc.
After eating and cleaning up from lunch, we would take a siesta until 4:30 or 5. I haven't been much of a napper in recent years, but I started liking the afternoon lie-down here. You wake up feeling sort of groggy, sort of refreshed, and ready to get back outside. The evening is a nice time to work since it's not too hot. We would usually harvest or sometimes do other projects like painting, construction, or more cooking. One evening I learned how to make tiramisu after asking Venessa for a lesson. If you ask, I would make it for you just to have a reason.
We usually ate dinner around 8 or 9, which was on the late side for me, but I got used to it.

That was our average day, but of course there were a few days with variations. One day, Vanessa and her husband took a couple volunteers to the beach, so the rest of us had the day off. We decided to walk to the town in the distance with the castle on the hill. When we got to this tiny town, it was obvious that we were foreigners, and I don't think it was much of a tourist destination that sees many visitors. Luckily for us we were noticed by the town's mayor, who offered to give us a tour of the city! Not only was it an awesome tour of the cathedral, castle, old wine cellars, city hall, and general history, but the young mayor was incredibly hot. Here we are on top of the medieval castle, overlooking the rolling hills and vineyards of Piedmont.
Another day we got up early to finish our work before lunch, then in the afternoon the farmers took us to a river swimming spot. We had to hike down into the river valley, then hike upriver to eventually find these pristine rock pools and falls. There was no one else there, just us on a hot day in the clear water.
But probably my favorite experience of all was just getting into a familial rhythm with the farmers and the other volunteers. It's been a long time since I've lived in such a tight community, and even though it was only for a couple weeks, we established a great rapport and daily life together. I'm so thankful to have been able to cultivate this relationship with the land, and enjoy its beauty and bounty in our shared meals. I will miss this place dearly, and hope that I can go back someday. A small consolations is that I get to go to another farm in Tuscany in about a week! To be continued...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Slow Food, Fast Travel

Okay, I have really really wanted to go to Italy for the past 10 years. I feel like I've had it on my mind forever, then suddenly there I was, landing at the airport in Milan amidst real Italians. In a flurry of travel, I got from the airport to central station, to Turin, and then to Bra by 9pm. Where is Bra, you ask, and Why did you go to this random small town in Piedmont? Well, an American friend just started grad school in a food program there. But she and I have actually never seen each other in America- we met in 2005 in our study abroad program in Mexico, then were both living in Korea at the same time and met up in Seoul, and now in Italy!

She warned me about the cheese smell before we got to her house, and in that moment I decided that a good way to judge how much I like a country is by the likeliness that people's homes smell like strong cheese. She had recently visited a farm and bought this amazing cheese directly from the farmer. She immediately opened a bottle of local wine, and made a dinner of fresh spinach and ricotta pasta with truffle oil, along with 2 kinds of bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumber, and the aforementioned cheese. It was such a welcoming first night in Italy and I'm so grateful she was able to host me in the midst of her busy schedule.

She is going to the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and it's no coincidence that this city is also the birthplace of the Slow Food movement. Food is always the topic of conversation, from a new way of hulling rice to whats at the market to whats for dinner. You feel like you've barely finished one meal when you start to shop and prepare for the next. That day we went for a run, ate a great lunch at home, drank espresso, ate gelato, and walked around the city.
That night we went out for pizza, my first authentic Italian pizza. We ordered 2 pizzas between 3 of us, mushroom and gorgonzola. They were both delicious. As I looked around though, I noticed every one had their OWN pizza, big pizza. After sharing 2 pies, we were all stuffed, and I couldn't imagine how an average person could eat a whole one. Little did I know that barely 10 days later, I would be able to tuck into my own pizza without a problem. But for now, I just marveled at the newness of the place, at trying to read the menu, and at what verbs to use for ordering things.

Though I wanted to stay longer, hang out with my friend, and visit her school's campus, I had to be on my way. It felt like a bit of a whirlwind, but I had planned to start volunteering on an organic farm the next day, so Monday I set out from this random but great first city in Italy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ode to Italian Espresso

The tiny cup sits in front of me aloofly with its still cap of perfect carmel crema. Pour the sugar in one place, don't sprinkle it around, they told me. Stir it in a focused circle, not a back-and-forth swish. I should drink it in a fast gulp, but I can't. I sip, savoring its brightness. Back home, bright would mean sour or weak or brewed too fast. But here, somehow, the flavor is strong and deep and still bright like a summer day. It's round and light and rich and smooth and pleased with itself, so I am pleased too. One last swirl gets the crema off the side of the cup, and I finish it, wistful about its small size. I want more, but espresso is a lesson in moderation and loving the smallest of moments. So the cup clinks on the saucer, and I smile at the coming day and the best euro ever spent.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

El Camino de Santiago

I can't remember when I first heard about El Camino de Santiago. I think I had a vague idea of it from various past references, then some friends walked it last summer and then I checked out a book from the library. It's a medieval pilgrimage route from various parts of Europe (mostly Spain) that end in Santiago de Compostela where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried. Though not particularly Christian, I loved the idea of doing a pilgrimage on a trail that had so much history and carried so many devoted people for over a thousand years. On this current trip to Spain I don't have enough time to do the whole thing (usually 4-6 weeks for most pilgrims) but I figured a few days on the trail was better than nothing. Luckily my friend Cherie was up for it at the drop of a hat, and with a few preparations and purchases we set out early one morning to take the 40 minute bus from Bilbao to Castro Urdiales where we started.

We began walking along the stone waterfront promenade, then up onto cliffsides with sweeping ocean views, following the symbols of El Camino: yellow arrows and shells.
The trail wove through small towns, farmland, highways, forests, and footpaths, always feeling like a scavenger hunt as we looked for the small painted yellow marks for where to go next. You would think nothing of them if you weren't looking, but they were always there, along with random spigots of drinking water. We saw a lot of cyclists, lizards, churches, and old men walking dogs. We met a little boy who excitedly told us about a beach up ahead. We passed a herd of sheep on a bluff where the only sound was their cowbells, and the 2 lone goats were sitting atop a picnic table. It was a surreal day, walking between the Bay of Biscay and the hills of Cantabria, not seeing any other pilgrims.
We finally reached our destination of Liendo in late afternoon. At that time of day it's still siesta and the small village was quiet, just closed shops and hot sidewalks and a looming stone church in the center of everything. We found the albergue, a hostel specifically for pilgrims. Luckily there were still a few beds left, even though most pilgrims start walking early and arrive at their daily destination earlier than we did. We heard that on the Camino Frances, the "main" route, it can be a bit crowded and almost a race to get a spot in the next hostel. We were on the mellower Camino Del Norte so our schedule was more flexible. It doesn't sound fun to stop walking at noon anyway- what would you do the rest of the day? We were happy to call it a day though, as our feet were pretty sore, Cherie with blisters and my feet threatening the appearance of some. We walked about 25 somewhat hilly kilometers (15.5 miles) with packs, so a good rest was in order.

We went to the one open cafe to get a few pintxos to go. Pintxo is a Basque word (written pincho in Spanish) and is basically the tapas of the Basque country/northern Spain. They are usually a slice of baguette with some kind of meat, cheese, seafood, and/or roasted veggies on top. These were like little raclettes on bread, so along with hard-boiled eggs, snap peas, cheese, crackers, fruit, and beer, we had a good dinner picnic just as the town was waking up for the evening. We chatted with the other pilgrims- several French, some German, and a Brazilian couple. Every one seemed surprised to learn we were American. It seemed like about half of the pilgrims had done a different route of the Camino before, and I guess once wasn't enough. Everyone headed to bed around 9 though the day was still bright out. I stayed up til 10 drinking half a cider with a German guy. Wild night at the pilgrim hostel!

The next morning Cherie and I had a nice chat over coffee with a middle-aged German woman, then set out again in our matching outfits. Oh, didn't I mention that we matched? We had bought leopard-print tank tops, and both had brown shorts, so we were sort of a ridiculous sight.
We made it to the city of Laredo with has a huge beach. We were tempted to swim, but it was just cloudy enough that it didn't feel totally inviting. Instead we continued on to a little foot ferry to cross the bay to the next town of Sartonya. What did Saint James do to get across before the ferry?, we wondered. We met a nice group of other pilgrim women, one French with 2 Romanians.
They were all really sweet and we ended up at the same hostel. Cherie and I went out for dinner and were excited to see signs for Water for Elephants at the one-screen theatre. I didn't have high expectations for the movie but we both loved the book. Unfortunately it was dubbed instead of subtitled, so we decided to pass. Gelato was our consolation prize so I can't compain.

The next day we walked a bit more, but it started raining in late morning so we weren't as ambitious as we could have been. It had been a short but full couple days of walking, so we caught a bus back to Bilbao to rest up and get ready for Barcelona.

Friday, June 10, 2011


I´ve been in Spain for over a week and I think about this blog every day. As always with traveling, there are so many new sights, smells, sounds, experiences everyday and I think about how to put those into words, but so far I´ve had very little time to sit down at a computer. So instead, a quick update, better than nothing.

I met my friend Cherie in Bilbao, the biggest city in the Basque country in northern Spain. She and I met last year when we were both teaching in the same city in Korea. We both had talked about meeting up in Europe after Korea, so it´s awesome that it really happened! We headed to Barcelona together and have been doing a lot of walking, sightseeing, and eating here, as per usual. All is well, and I´ll try to write more details later!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Crossing the Sun

Well, after being home for less than 2 months, I'm off again for a short stint in Europe. This trip has been long-awaited; I haven't been to Europe for 10 years and have wanted to go to Italy since then. I left Seattle on a drizzly afternoon, into that strange time warp of air travel where it never got completely dark, only twilight for a long time then light again. Just as I was getting tired around 11pm for my body, we arrived in Amsterdam at 8am local time. Going through immigration the lady was ridiculously nice, more interested in chatting about my travel plans. I took the train 15 min to Leiden where my friend Jeanine lives. I met her about 3 months ago while traveling in Vietnam... she had a ukulele in her backpack so I had to strike up a conversation, then we ended up spending the next few days together. Now she is back home and was kind enough to host me in my jet-lagged state. She met me at the train station and rode me to her place on the back of her bicycle, with amazing balance and burly legs like a proper Dutch gal. Leiden is a cute city, visually very similar to Amsterdam but smaller and mellowed. There are tons of canals, sidewalk cafes, and everyone riding bicycles. It was awesome to see her and we had a really fun day wandering around the city between my naps. Next up I'm flying to Bilbao, in northern Spain. More to come!