Archive for the 'Help Exchange' Category

Dec 09 2007

Green Acres

So I don’t think Ben and I are cut out for the farm life. I think this epiphany dawned on us sometime between finding out we had to start and maintain the woodstove fire in order to have hot water, and when we realized the cows have to be fed/milked on schedule, twice a day, in order to stop their incessant moo-ing. Not to mention the rampant manure.

But we really did enjoy our work on the farm in Imola, Italy, and appreciated a more “authentic” and less urban Italian experience. Victoria and Davide, our hosts, run an impressively varied operation, from animal husbandry to a huge vineyard. Plus, Davide builds all renovations and extensions to their house and farm himself, making him the ultimate handyman. I can see why Victoria, a British ex-pat, stuck around Italy when she only came to visit, and promptly married the guy.

Needless to say, our work was diverse: from brick laying and grouting to planting bay trees. Our daily chore was feeding the animals. It’s hard to feed animals and operate a camera simultaneously, but we tried to film a video while feeding the cows and pigs:

Vimeo
(Of course the cows decide to be quiet on the one day we film. And I know, Brittany wielding a pitchfork is never a good idea.)

Other work highlights included Ben trying to maneuver a wheelbarrow full of hay up a very steep hill — and I mean full, as in the stack of hay was two times the height of Ben. Yes, it toppled. Ben returned to the room in a full sweat swearing that he’d never done anything so hard IN HIS LIFE and how in the world is HAY so HEAVY?

There was also the time, of course, when the pig escaped. Ben and I were happily cleaning bricks when we looked up to see a huge pig trotting across the yard. “Uh, Davide…?” we said, in unison.

“SI??” he replied, in that way that Italians have that make everything they say sound operatic and bellow-y.

“Is the pig supposed to be there?”

Davide sprinted into action, trying to create some sort of makeshift fence using boards and benches to funnel the pig back into its pen. I wish I’d had a camera for the moment when Davide was pulling on the pigs ears and Ben was pushing on its butt with all his might. Instead, I was jumping/screaming/throwing rotten apples into the pen in a feeble attempt to lure the pig back into its prison — and by “into the pen” I mean that most of my apples actually hit the pig and/or Ben because I have terrible aim. But that pig wasn’t going anywhere without a fight and a lot of ridiculously loud squealing.

Another task included occasionally watching Victoria and Davide’s two adorable daughters, Isabel and Charlotte. Isabel, who is three, took a liking to Ben and would bounce up whenever he walked into a room and scream in a cute Italian/British accent “PLAY! Let’s play!” She particularly enjoyed a game of catch where Ben would pretend to be scared of the object she was tossing. Ben, who doesn’t have much experience with kids, was confused.

Ben and Isabel
Ben and Isabel

“Brittany?” he said to me one night as I was stoking the woodstove. “Why isn’t Isabel tired of that game? I mean, she thinks it’s hilarious every time.”

“Just how kids are: easily entertained.”

“Yeah but…she wants to play it again and again and again and again. And again and again and again… ” at which point Isabel came bounding into the kitchen dragging something that looked like the mattress for a changing table. My questions about whether or not her mother knew she had that “toy” did not stop her from propping it up on Ben’s legs and demanding to be lifted up into his lap so she could slide down. Another game that lasted an hour!

The location of the farm allowed us to spend our free time exploring small nearby country villages. We also used our two days off to take awesome day trips to Bologna and Venice. But that blog is for another day, as I now have to work my current mission: to eat as many chocolate croissants as possible while in the land of their origin. I also insist on calling them KWAHSON DU SHOCOLAH in a heavy French accent and I think Ben’s about to go insane. At least he would be if he weren’t driving me crazy with his constant exclamations of “SACRE BLEU!”

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Dec 06 2007

Hiking the Cinque Terre

We’re back in business! We said goodbye to the pigs, went skiing in the Italian mountains, took an overnight train, and arrived in Nice, France, this morning for the next leg of our adventure. We are reveling in the mild Southern France temperatures and ubiquitous wifi. It has been a whirlwind few days, with many bloggable stories, but we have some catching up to do first. Back to Italy…

I would like to point out that Ben had an equally hard time resisting the urge to spend in Florence as I did. Often, as we were wandering the city streets, he would stop abruptly, walk into a store and pick up a sweater or a jacket. “I never even thought of this,” he would say, as he lovingly stroked the item. Then he’d flip over the price tag, gape at the number, and storm out of the store. For the next 30 minutes I’d have to deal with Ben muttering to himself, shaking his head and/or ranting about why we don’t have stores like this in America. “I’ll TELL you why,” he’d yell. “Because we have to make room for ANOTHER FRIGGIN’ GAP.” (Granted, he has a point. For men, the disparity between shopping options in Florence and those in America is huge. Florence has entire stores dedicated to neckties alone.)

Yes, Florence is expensive. But it’s not unreasonable. If the dollar would actually hold its weight against the euro, we may have indulged more. Jay-Z feels my pain.

IMG_2250We decided that the next stop on our Italian tour would be the Cinque Terre, a coastline stretch of five small fishing villages so beautiful they’ve been dubbed the “Italian Riviera.” The towns are connected by an 11 kilometer trail that winds through vineyards, farmland and orange and lemon groves, and gives spectacular views of the ocean and rocky shoreline. Cinque Terre has increasingly become a popular detour off the typical Venice-to-Florence tourist path. To hike the trail used to be free until a few savvy villagers realized the goldmine they were sitting on. Now it’s five euros.

In typical Ben and Brittany style, we arrived in Riomaggiore, the first Cinque Terre town, without a place to stay. We emerged out of the train station late that evening, pumped for room negotiations, only to find that it was pouring.

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, really,” a voice said behind me – a voice that sounded disarmingly not like Ben’s and more like a fellow American girl’s. We turned around to discover a couple that happened to be in the same predicament as us: cold, laden with luggage, soaking wet and without a room.

So, naturally, the men were dispatched to search for a vacancy, a task that proved more difficult than anticipated as Riomaggiore is a teeny-weeny village in the middle of nowhere. Just as we thought we may have to hop the train back to a larger town, we saw the confident figures of Ben and Daniel appear through the sheets of rain, walking towards the station, room key in hand.

Sharing a place with Daniel and Tonilyn allowed us to split the cost in a town that turned out to be surprisingly expensive. It also gave us an opportunity to finish off the Cretan raki we’ve been carrying around. This was probably not the best decision the night before an 11 km hike, but since when have we made any decision with regard to the consequences? Remember that time we decided to blow all our money gallivanting around the world? Yeah, that was stupid.

IMG_2287We had planned to wake up early, but didn’t end up setting out until about 11:00, after an embarrassingly long time spent trying to figure out how to use an Italian stovetop coffeemaker. Thankfully, the rain had passed and the day turned out to be atypically sunny and warm, and perfect for trekking on the Italian shore.

Verdict: Cinque Terre’s terrain is gorgeous and varied and despite a few muscle-taxing uphill climbs, compared to Samaria Gorge, this hike was a piece of cake. It may be a three-hour train ride out of your way, but it is absolutely a must-see, and a highlight of Italy for Ben and me.

Our post-hike evening was spent relaxing, making pasta (the pesto in this region is the best in Italy!) and swapping pictures with Tonilyn and Daniel.

We received a surprise early the next morning when we heard the landlady pounding on our door. “YOU OUT?” she said, as Ben opened the door.

“Huh?” Ben said, sleepily rubbing his eyes. “Out of what?”

“ROOM. OUT OF ROOM! TEN O’CLOCK. ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK.” Italian (and Greek, for that matter) landlords have the annoying tendency to never tell you when you’re required to check out, or if there is a checkout time at all. And when they spring it on you the day that your supposed to leave, they act as if you’re the dumbest person alive for not knowing that, DUH, check out time is ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK. Even though sometimes it’s 11:00 and sometimes it’s 12:00 and sometimes they stare at you blankly when you inquire about a checkout time at all.

I also want to note that it wasn’t 10:00 yet when she was pounding on our door, a fact that didn’t stop her from glaring at us the entire time we got packed and ready.

Wandering through the streets of Riomaggiore, Ben and I debated how to fix our current predicament: homelessness. We reluctantly dished out the eight bucks per hour for the only internet point in town to try and find a hostel in Switzerland, a hostel in Milan, a farm in the area, or any place at all that could house us for the night.

You may be confused when I say “farm.” We’ve recently run across a program called Help Exchange that pairs travelers with host families all over the world: in exchange for a few hours of work per day, you get free accommodation and food. We located a farm in the Bologna area that was glad to host us for a week.

We are finally able to upload pictures again! Uploaded the rest from Florence and Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. (Even labeled a few!)

Next blog installment: Ben and Brittany’s adventures on the farm! (Yes, we filmed a video.)

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Dec 02 2007

Stay tuned while we experience technical difficulties…

Ben and I have taken up residence on a farm in the Bologna countryside. Each morning, a rooster cockle-doodle-doo-ing wakes us up at 7:20 on the dot, reminding us that we have to feed the pigs their slop. Seriously.

Needless to say, the internet access here is limited. Every time we try to upload a photo, the computer explodes. So despite wanting to tell you of our many adventures, including hiking the Cinque Terre and chasing escaped pigs, we will have to postpone blogging until we leave the farm on Tuesday. Until then…

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