Ever since our time helping with the olive harvest at Il Bellini in November we’ve been looking forward to going back. Our plan was to return in the spring to help with the pruning of the olive trees and the grape vines. When we arrived a couple of weeks ago we found Mario had already finished pruning the vines, and while the family was in the initial phases of pruning the olive trees, they had hired an experienced young man, Ricardo, to tend to them. They didn’t say as much, but we got the distinct impression that they’d prefer to leave the work that most directly affected their livelihood in the hands of a trained professional, Gabriella’s more than 10 years of experience as The Cottage Gardener notwithstanding.
Our job was to collect the pruned branches, put them into piles, and burn them. Not glamorous, not particularly healthy for people or the atmosphere, but integral to the work at hand, and we were more than happy to help in any way needed.
Anna, who at 68 is old enough to be Gabriella’s mother, wielded a chain saw as though it were a bread knife. She sliced through the larger tree branches seemingly effortlessly, turning them into short logs which the family will use as firewood for cooking and heating.
Since we were able to burn the debris and collect the wood faster than Ricardo was able to prune the trees, we were also given other tasks to do in the garden. We mowed the lawn, weeded (it turns out they have shotweed here too!), and pruned the dauntingly long hedge circling the property. Gabriella felt in her element working in a garden again and was grateful for the opportunity to get back into shape for gardening when we return to Seattle.
We made two visits over the course of the past two weeks, and both times we had the privilege and honor of staying with the family in their home. We shared every meal with them, and they gave us great grief about not eating enough. At every opportunity they said to us: “Mangia! Mangia!” (Eat! Eat!). At times even when we were already chewing! At one point Gabriella protested saying she had already helped herself to two servings. Mario (the father/grandfather of the family), in feigned disgust, cried out “Porca miseria!” (which literally means “Poor miserable pig”). Italians use this phrase liberally to express general dismay at anything from bad traffic to poor eaters.
Whereas during our visit in the fall we ate outside at the farm, this time we went back to the house for lunch. One day during our first visit, as we were finishing our meal, the phone rang and it was someone calling to make a reservation at the family’s agriturismo. The caller was German, didn’t speak Italian, and was trying to communicate in English. Anna waved Gabriella over to the phone and asked her to take the call. The caller apologized saying her English wasn’t very good (which, in fact, it was), and Gabriella replied saying, “Don’t worry, my German is not very good.” Gabriella spent several minutes relaying bits of information and inquiries back and forth (English/Italian) between the caller and Anna. When we returned the second week, we saw the German family had arrived as expected so we knew that everything turned out OK - yet another indication that our capacity with the language is indeed improving.
In fact, having our experience in November as a benchmark, this visit was an excellent indicator for us of how much our Italian has improved. We were amazed to find how much easier it was to understand what the family was saying to us, and also to communicate with them. Whereas in November we managed to communicate basic essentials, this time we managed proper conversations.
Besides our work on the farm and in the garden, we also spent time at the house helping Anna and Adelina make pasta fatto a mano (hand-made pasta), filling bottles with wine from the family’s cantina, playing pinochle, and taking an afternoon excursion to a couple of utterly charming nearby villages.
|Gabriella with Adelina and Anna in their kitchen.|
|Henry in the cantina.|
|Gabriella with Adelina and Anna in Borro.|
At the end of our second visit we felt a deeply personal connection with the family. Anna, whose daughter, Rosanna, is just three years younger than Gabriella, even commented at one point that they had officially adopted us. On top of their kindness and generosity at having us stay with them, sharing their personal stories with us, and feeding us delicious meals every day, when it was time for us to leave they also insisted we take some of their home-made vino rosso (6 liters!), olive oil (another 6 liters!), and more than a dozen fresh eggs from their chickens. As if we didn’t have enough reasons to return to Italy, we now have family here.