Sunday on the Beach

Sunday on the farm is a work-free day, and although we don’t find out about this day of rest until the day before, Ursula is quick to suggest we spend the day on Cecina beach and we choose to do just that. We “sleep in” on Sunday morning, but still get up for breakfast at 9am. Afterwards, we gather our towels, sunscreen, cards, books, and hats for the beach, and we set off for Cecina. The sand is covered with people of all ages each enjoying their Sunday. We find some lounge chairs and an umbrella to rent, and we continue to rotate around this umbrella for the rest of the day as the sun moves across the sky. Between playing cards, having a couple drinks, and sunbathing, we take a couple dips in the cool but very refreshing Mediterranean Sea.  At the end of the afternoon, we meet Ursula at the town’s train station because Ursula is picking up the next WWOOFer, Nancy.  In only a short time, we all feel that we get to know school teacher Nancy to whom I lend some clothes because her luggage was lost in transport.  In short, this last day in Cecina and our last day WWOOFing is a great ending to a fun week.

Team Degustation on Cecina Beach

The three of us did not know what to expect when we signed up for life on a farm, but our lack of expectation was complemented by an open mind. I am not sure when I will find myself back on a farm, but I am very happy with this week’s adventure, I am happy with the people I met, I am happy with the new lifestyle about which I learned, and most of all, I am happy that despite initially being slightly intimidated by the strict schedule, hot sun, and hard work, Katherine, Gabe and I not only made it through the week, but had an incredible time doing so.

Signing the Guest Book

Under The Tuscan Sun

As I knew I would be traveling to Tuscany to work on a vineyard, I felt it was appropriate to read Frances Mayes’ book “Under The Tuscan Sun.” Mayes, between her descriptions of buying, renovating, and living in an abandoned house, describes her experiences of working in the garden and dealing with the locals. Most of the book was a bit flowery for my taste; however, as I did have grounds to relate to it, I made it through the more ornate descriptions of the food and the land. In addition, for a bit of advice in working on a vineyard, I found the below quote:

“Besides the practical, a host of enduring superstitions determine the best moment to pick or plant; the moon has bad days and good. Vergil, a long time ago, observed farmers’ beliefs: Choose the seventeenth day after the full moon to plant, avoid the fifth. He also advises scything at night, when dew softens the stubble.”

10 Germans, 10 Cats

“Here we are in the middle of Tuscany, surrounded by forest, having sausages, salads, and wine with ten Germans and ten cats.”

About halfway through the evening, Gabe turns to Katherine and me and recites the above quotation. It may have been the wine or the many mosquitoes or maybe some allergic reaction caused by the litter of cats or maybe one too many sausages or even maybe the lack of English around the table, but whatever the cause, we all started laughing to the point of tears.

German Dinner Party Table

Ursula and Sigismund had invited the family staying at their nearby guest house and we all enjoyed a great meal of many different salads, sausages, and ribs. To help prepare, the three of us set the table and cut up the fruit for two large bowls of fruit salad. We did not know what to expect from the evening when it began, but it will forever be a fun memory from our stay on the farm.

Sigismund working the grill

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford”

Ursula loves to read and her library illustrates this well. Within minutes of arriving on the farm she is excited to have Katherine read her favorite book, “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell. Although Katherine does not make it too far into the book, we are intrigued by the first couple pages of the book and how they might reflect on life on a farm. The first couple sentences of the book read:

“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple comes to settle in the town, showhow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in busienss all the week in the great neighboring commercial town of Drumble, distance only twenty miles on a railroad.”

Then to elaborate more on the same theme, a couple pages later, we read:

“A man, as one of them observed to me once, is so in the way in the house!”

Frederica and The Tuscan Pool

While sitting around the dinner table, I spot some white umbrellas on a nearby hill and optimistically think that these umbrellas must mean that there is a degustation. I convince Gabe and Katherine to take our next day’s afternoon excursion past said umbrellas, and although it appears to be more of a private home than a vineyard offering wine tastings, our plan is to walk up to them and let me introduce Gabe, who can speak great Italian. We walk the front path as they all stare in our direction, and as soon as I get close enough, I ask the obvious question, “Do you speak English?” They respond with a confused no, and to introduce Gabe, I simply point at him and explain that he speaks Italian. Before long, we are talking with the family from the house and are soon invited inside by Frederica (the daughter) for tea, snacks, and popsicles. We sit in the kitchen of this recently remodeled beautiful Tuscan home and start learning about each other’s lives. Frederica is currently studying linguistics in Pisa, and as a result, her English is great, although she still prefers to speak Italian with Gabe. Using my Spanish, I am able to understand most of what is transpiring, but I have more difficulty participating save for small phrases now and then.

After about an hour and a half of getting to know each other, I look at the time and realize that we are late for dinner on the farm, and given that the farm is run by Germans on a strict schedule, we start mobilizing quickly. As Frederica is walking us out, she tells us the story of a past run-in with Ursula and Sigismund, and we are immediately able to relate to her description of the many cats, the house, and of course, the couple. Finally, at the very end of our visit, she invites us to use the pool later in the week. This invitation generates one of the largest smiles on all of our faces given the high afternoon temperatures.

We return to the farm about 10 minutes late for dinner and are concerned what Ursula will say. Gabe and I run right up to the dinner table while Katherine goes downstairs to freshen up. Ursula indicates that our tardiness is not a problem and even gives us permission to wash up quickly. But when we return to our room, we convince Katherine that we missed dinner, Ursula is angry with us, and we will need to figure out what we want to do for food. We continue with this ploy for about 5 minutes before we start laughing and explain that if we don’t go upstairs to dinner soon, we might in fact miss it all together. Katherine sighs not knowing what to do with us and we all make our way to dinner.

When the next afternoon rolls around, we all grab our bathing suits and towels and head back over to the beautiful house with the white umbrellas and swimming pool. Frederica is not there, but we say hi to the rest of the family, and find comfortable lounge chairs near the pool. The rest of the afternoon is spent jumping in and out of the water interspersed with sunbathing. We decide that this Tuscan lifestyle might be easier to become accustomed to than daily work in the vineyard.

Afternoon excursion in Tuscany

The Road to Riparbella

Although we enjoy the quark, potatoes, bread, and tomatoes so readily available during meals on the farm, Gabe and I decide we should consider venturing to the nearby town of Riparbella to supplement our diet with some more fruit and vegetables. We hear that we can make it to town via bicycle, so we naturally borrow bikes from the farm and start naively on our way. We wait until about 5pm to try to avoid the heat of the day, but unfortunately, we aren’t entirely successful. After crossing several undulating hills, we hit the main road and optimistically look up the hill and think that we’re almost there. We start climbing the hill, and as we round every corner we prepare ourselves to see this small town. Eventually after about 20 corners and much climbing, we see a sign welcoming us to Riparbella. Unfortunately, the sign appears to be more of a tease than a welcome because we still only see more climbing leading to another bend in the road. Nonetheless, we rejoice at the sight of the sign, take a short break, and attempt to remove some of the sweat from our faces.

Riparbella sign

While waiting at the Riparbella sign, we watch other professionally dressed bicyclists in much lighter and higher-tech bicycles struggle up this same hill. Although we are not maintaining their pace, we still feel better knowing that we are not the only ones suffering. Eventually, we convince ourselves that this next corner will in fact be the last corner, we mount our bikes, and we continue forward. The next corner was not the last, but after only several more turns, we find the town, and more importantly, we find a small market. First thing, we find water to start re-hydrating ourselves, but as soon as we feel the warm bottle, we are less excited. We grab the water for later, but at the moment, find a refrigerator with cold beers, and we share one of the most refreshing beers I’ve ever tasted. The taste isn’t even mind-blowing, but the circumstances are perfect.

We purchase a backpack full of vegetables, water, juice, and some drinks for later, and we then walk around town with our beer and water. Satisfied with our completed mission, we remount our bicycles and enjoy the downhill ride with wind in our faces. We get back to our room, immediately re-shower, get ready for dinner, and then rehash our adventure to Ursula. She claims that she had warned us about the hill and that no other WWOOF-ers have ever attempted that ride before. Gabe and I look at each other, smile, and change the conversation.

Scala Quaranta

Scala Quaranta is our card game of choice while on the farm. Taught to us by Gabe, this is an Italian card game that was popular in the 1920’s and is similar to Rummy.

Card playing on the farm

The game is played with two decks of 54 (include the jokers), each player receiving 13 to start the game, and there is one card placed face-up in the discard pile. Starting with the player sitting to the left of the dealer and proceeding clockwise, the player can take one from the pile of remaining cards or may take the top one from the discard pile. If the discard pile card is taken, that card must be played on the same turn. Playing on a turn requires placing cards on the table in sets of at least three that either match in value but not suit or constitute a run in the same suit (like Rummy). The first time cards are played for each participant, the total of the cards must sum to at least 40 points. Numbered cards are all worth their number value, face cards are worth ten, and aces are worth eleven. A joker on the table is worth whatever value it is replacing. Other players can play on cards that have already been placed on the table given that they have opened with their 40 points. In addition, another player can take a joker that has been played by replacing it with its correct card. That joker then must be played on the same turn. The game ends when a player has played all of his cards on the table. If a player is left with only one card in his hand, he must draw from the stack and cannot take the top card from the discard pile. Finally, at the conclusion of the game, the losing players total the points in their hand and record their score. If no cards have been played, that player receives 100 points for the game. If cards have already been played, numbered cards are again worth their number, face cards are worth 10, aces eleven, and jokers are now worth 25 when left over in one’s hand. If a player reaches 101 points, he can buy back into the game and is given the highest score of all remaining players. To win, everyone except for the winner must reach 101 points in the same game.

Katherine, Gabe and I shared many a hour playing this game together.

The Vineyard Schedule

5:45am – Wake-up

6:00am – Breakfast of muesli, corn flakes, whole milk, tea, coffee, and bananas

6:30am – Work in the vineyard. Everyday, the three of us spend four hours in the vineyard performing two tasks. 1) We wrap vines back along their supporting wires and posts, and 2) we prune around the grapes so that they could receive more sunshine during the day.

Me in the field

Gabe and Katherine in the field

10:30am – We play a couple games of Scala 40, an Italian card game that the three of us begin to really enjoy.

11:00am – Yoga session led by Katherine.

12:00pm – Rotate through the shower and prepare ourselves for lunch. Gabe occasionally misses his shower opportunity because an unmentioned member of Team Degustation takes very long showers.

1:00pm – Lunch. Lunch begins sharply at 1pm and we are not to be late as it is the biggest and most important meal of the day. Meal favorites included quark, potatoes, mad cow butter, pineapple, spinach, eggs, potatoes, and sausages. Conversation is usually lively and topics range from salt fields to dormice.

2:00pm – We wait out the hottest part of the day in our lower level rooms where the temperature is milder. We pass the time with books, cards, and naps.

4:30pm – Excursion time. After becoming a little antsy, the late afternoon typically includes excursions, which can be grueling uphill bicycle rides to the nearby town of Riparbella, a jaunt over to the neighbor’s pool, or just a walk around the nearby area.

7:30pm – Dinner. The time of dinner is more flexible as we were explained it is okay to be 5 minutes late. This is a lighter meal accompanied by wines from the vineyard.

Sunset from Tuscan farm

9:30pm – The day wraps up with a couple card games, maybe a crossword or two, and then setting multiple alarms so that we would be able to start the routine over again in the morning.

Ursula and Sigismund’s Story

This story begins in Mannheim, a town about 50 miles south of Frankfurt, Germany. Ursula and Sigismund, a happy couple with stable jobs, are discussing the best environment to raise their three boys. If they stay where they are, the boys will end up attending boarding school from the age of ten, and although they will receive a good education, this disrupts the family unit. The couple is not willing to compromise their family values for anything, but they also recognize the importance and benefits of a strong education. The answer that eventually forms is that the family should move to a location that accommodates all their goals. After some debate, Ursula and Sigismund consider moving to a German farm. They do some research and learn more about German agricultural real estate. Unfortunately, it seems that the price tag for such real estate is higher than expected and that plans need to be reconsidered.

In 1979, Ursula writes a letter to a man in real estate in Tuscany, Italy. The letter is simply worded as she does not know any Italian, and asks if there are any farms for sale in the region. The agent kindly responds stating that the only way to find a farm is to come visit in person. Inspired by her dream, she takes a train and travels on her own to Cecina, Italy. Being unable to communicate in Italian at a time when tourist travel is difficult presents early obstacles to overcome. Also, there is no rental car agency or tourist information booth conveniently located near the train station. After some wandering around, she comes to a gas station where she is somehow able to convince the owners to rent her a car to use over the next couple days. As she is driving away from the gas station through Cecina, she pulls into the first real estate agency she finds. While speaking in French, the only common language between herself and the agent, Ursula again expresses her interest in finding a farm. That drizzly and overcast afternoon, the two make their way to a small farm near Riparbella. The farm sits on a hill overlooking several small adjacent towns. As the real estate agent starts pointing out these towns, Ursula starts to be able to imagine herself and her family on this land with its grapes, olives, peaches, and apricots.

She excitedly returns to Germany to share with Sigismund everything that she has seen and learned. In 1980, the two return together to take a closer look at this Tuscan farm. The price is high but much more reasonable than what had been available in Germany, the lifestyle accommodates their values, the produce growing on the farm is young and healthy, and the views from the top of the hill are breathtaking. The agent no longer needs to act as the seller as Ursula is doing most of the sales pitch to her husband. After many discussions over this life-changing move, Ursula, Sigmund, and family move to Tuscany to start their lives anew. Farm life starts in two small rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen. Between jobs in the fields, Sigismund employs his woodworking abilities to slowly make improvements to the house. The farm was picked based on the fertility of its soil and not on the grandeur of its house because it is much easier to upgrade the house than affect the health of the soil. The three boys attend a nearby school and are picked up by a local school bus, which often waits for them to finish tying their laces before continuing onwards to school.

In their free time, the boys learn musical instruments from their father, Sigismund. The choice of instruments is between piano, cello and violin. One son, Augustine, demonstrates prodigious talent on the violin and progresses very quickly. The children have mixed feelings about being isolated on a farm during their childhood, but as a result of the move, the family remains very close-knit and they have all been given strong roots on which to grow.

Now, fast forward 30 years and Ursula and Sigismund are still living on the same plot of land. New land owners have moved in all around them. Some of them have elaborate houses with perfectly planted small vineyards of which the owners can appreciate as they drive past in their Ferrari’s. The nearby town of Riparbella now has a church, two grocery stores, a pharmacy, a hair stylist, and two bars. Their vines and olive trees are a bit older and in some disrepair, but now with the children gone, this is enough to easily support their lifestyle, especially when supplemented by a guest house that they rent. Their oldest son recently started a family of his own and appreciates now more than ever the roots given to him by his parents. Augustine is now a concert violinist living in New York and playing with symphonies around the United States.

Ursula and Sigismund

Since the late 1990’s, Ursula and Sigismund invite people from around the world who are members of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms Organization (WWOOF). In exchange for room and board, able-bodied workers travel to their Tuscan farm to help them with their grapes and olives. Gabe, Katherine and I fit into this WWOOFing category and are staying on this farm, Podere Vallari, for one week.