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Monday, September 21, 2009

Joining the harvest

by Francesca, at FuoriBorgo

village

Hello, I’m Francesca, one of the new writers here at the co-op. I write from a tiny rural village in northern Italy, perched on a green hilltop a few winding, steep, narrow kilometers inland from the Mediterranean. My husband and I moved our young bi-cultural and bi-lingual family here ten years ago (I’m Italian, and my husband is US American). I blog about our life as a family of five over at FuoriBorgo.

We moved here from the city with a vague plan to spend a couple of our children’s early years in nature, and an even vaguer plan to start a biodynamic vegetable garden. Ten years later we’re still here: our three children are growing up as country kids, and our garden fills on one of the narrow terraces built centuries ago by the local farmers, striving to raise a living on these steep-sided valleys. The descendants of these farmers are one of the main reasons we’ve stayed: our neighbors and the other villagers, most of whom are elderly farmers, who welcomed us open-heartedly, and who taught us something we'd never considered when we came here on our quest for nature: the unique value of community life.

vineyard lane

We started getting to know our neighbors on the day we moved in, when a thin, elderly, weather-beaten man with thick snow-white hair and big strong hands drove up on a small tractor, and offered to haul our belongings up to the house. He drove up to our house and back for the rest of the day, while the young movers we’d hired sat in the shade of a large fig tree eating its fruits and praising the “paradise” we’d found, which they'd cursed as a “place from hell” when they’d first seen how steep the pathway was that led to the front door.

To thank our neighbor, we bought him some nice wine from Piemonte: we hadn’t realized that the basement of the ancient stone house we were renting was his winecellar, where he had several thousand liters of wine he’d made the previous year. From day one we tried to bring him and his family gifts to thank them for their boundless generosity: they gave us fruit and vegetables from their fields, helped us fix our car or our phone line, advised us on gardening, lent us their tools, and were always there to lend a hand. But somehow our gifts never felt quite appropriate.

vine tendril

Gradually we learned that, in an ancient rural community, you don’t really thank your neighbors with presents. People here lead a thrifty and frugal life, with few needs and little waste; what little they need they grow, build, hand make, or repurpose. They spend their days working in the fields and in the woods, with few days off, at the same pace as the unrelentless and unpredictable rhythm of nature. The best way to thank your neighbors, we learned, is to offer to help when they need it, just as our neighbor did on the day we moved in.

lumassina grapes

We began to sense this during our first vendemmia, the grape harvest, which falls at this time of year. The economy of our village is mainly based on growing wine grapes, and long rows of vines lace the terraced side of our valley. Tending them is a year-round job: we see our neighbors out among the vines in all weather, pruning, weeding, manuring, tying up tendrils, and so on. The vendemmia closes this agricultural cycle, and brings together many people - relatives, friends, people from neighboring villages - who work side by side for several days of reciprocal help – not for wages – and then move on to the next person’s vineyard. The vendemmia embodies the values of rural, communal life.

The day before the vendemmia starts, stacks of colorful plastic crates appear at the edge of the vineyards. We know by now that we need to be out at 8 o’clock the following morning, with our own pruning shears, and will soon be snipping grapes amid the crowd of people of all ages, but mostly elderly, who gather to help with the harvest. Vendemmia is a festive job, and feels more like a social gathering with work in nature rather than just plain work. The chatter of the harvesters can be heard all along the valley.

dolcetto grapes

At the end of the day, when everyone’s hands and clothes are sticky and stained with grape juice and the shears are nearly glued shut with it, we linger wearily around the now full crates, sharing one last story together. For the next few days, the pungent, sourish smell of fermenting grape juice drifts up from the cellar, and scents our house.

It took Tom and me several vendemmie to recognize the widespread network of reciprocity that sustains our village. This constant exchange of mutual, manual assistance creates a strong sense of community, and in the end, makes life possible here in a small, isolated village populated mainly by the elderly. When we city folk finally understood this, we also saw that the most important lesson our children could learn by living the country life wasn’t so much how to climb a tree or grow a tomato or track a boar through the forest, but how to repay people with the gift of your own time, effort and attention – not with a simple, store-bought gift, however valuable.

29 comments:

Chiot's Run said...

Sounds like a very sweet existence. I grew up bilingual as my parents lived and worked in South America. I learned so many wonderful lessons!

Kimberly said...

Beautiful.

frugalundergrad said...

What a wonderful first post, Francesca!

I must also say that grape harvesting is indeed fun!

dixiebelle said...

Oh, wow, that is paradise... nice to meet you!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to this web! I'm a anon lurker, who gets a lot from this site! Being an ex country person, whose living in the city, I found your story very special. I remember a neighbour facing a bushfire coming up the slope towards them and my husband running down the road to help them move their horses. Another time I got a phone call from a neighbour from their work, asking if I could walk over to their house cause the kids had a snake in the house. I can't imagine any of this or other things happening in my inner city life now.:(

Rose said...

What an aborbing first post! Welcome.

Rose said...

Whoops! I meant absorbing. :-)

MAYBELLINE said...

Lovely. I'm interested to know what kind of critters were in the grapes.

Annodear said...

You write beautifully.
Thank you for sharing this important "lesson" with us.

Ciao, Bella!

nicola said...

wonderful first post, francesca! i love this lesson of community!
nicola
http://whichname.blogspot.com

Demara said...

Mmm love grapes! and beautiful pictures.

A Day That is Dessert said...

This is a really beautiful post Francesca.

Diana Strinati Baur said...

Lovely as always Francesca! We are starting the red grape vendemmia this week in our valley, hoping that the rain stops...

Bettina said...

Inspiring post! I'm looking forward to read more of your life between the wineyards.
I literally grew up on a vineyard, with all the work involved.
I feel so sorry that nowadays here in germany the big machines do all the work of grape harvesting.

Jeannette said...

What a touching post!
I feel the need to move to your town and lend a hand! You lead a lucky life with such a great community. Many of us don´t even know our neighbours.
♥ Jeannette

T said...

You tell your story beautifully.

briar said...

lovely to read about your vineyard adventures...time is a massive gift that we have been both honoured to recieve and also gladly give of it...magic happens when its given freely....I love 'listening' to you talk....happy grape collecting! perhaps one I will get to join in!

lily boot said...

Oh Francesca, you write so beautifully. And I loved this further little glimpse into your country life. I admire the opportunities you are providing your children - they are so very valuable - and so agree with your villages way of expressing gratitude.

Emily said...

Wonderful post, Francesca, as always. I'm so glad you led me to the Co-op--it seems like an interesting site. Enjoy the coming vendemmia!

ibb said...

Beautiful story. I like your writting. Well done.

Jen said...

We are finding the exact same thing in our rural hamlet in Nova Scotia. Mind you, we lived in a rural area before, but really everyone there was more of their own "island". We were simply astounded by the generosity and "neighborliness" of the folks here when we moved in. And, like you, have attempted the "gift" thing, feeling sort of "guilty" for all the assistance, lent tools, etc. and wanting to pay back in some way. But, like you, it just doesn't seem to quite fit the bill. We've been here 4 months and are realizing too that it is the helping/lending of yourself and your time that is the best reciprocity. I am so glad we found a place like this. Like you say, it is mainly the elderly that have this "creed", though not entirely...and I'm glad we're here to figure things out, adopt the "community mentality" and pass it on to other generations ourselves! :) You hit it right on the head when you say that the folks who are generous in this fashion don't have a lot themselves...but that this way of living allows everyone in the community to get by.


Great post. Can't wait to check out your blog.

Boo's Mom said...

Wonderful post. I hope you are writing a book. If so, I'd like to by the first copy.

Melissa who used to live in Gaeta

Joyce said...

I love this beautiful post! It gives me the true feeling of "love thy neighbor". Also makes me want to pack my bags and join your wonderul amazing group of friendly neighbors! Thank you my friend for sharing and giving us a peek into your corner. xoxo

Kavita said...

The coop has acquired a consummate writer. Brava, Francesca! Your post answered neatly many questions I had in mind about how & why you made this major shift. I can see young ones being raised on a healthy work ethic. Your text & pictures are balanced, indeed there's balance everywhere.. indoors-outdoors, city-country, work-rest.. touch wood.

I look forward to following you to this interesting new site. Thank you!

Kari said...

An absolutely beautiful post Francesca. what a big decision to make to move your family like that.
I love the community living you have shared-it truly is a beautiful thing and a great way to raise your children.

Bohemian girl said...

Seems that very little people realize that the village life is about having an own vegetable garden and dwelling on fresh air in the second place. Counting those who dream about moving into the countryside. That living in the village or even a small town means first of all that they have to get along with local people, which among others happens through mutual help at any occasion.

So it is nice that you hit the spot with this thing on your very first post here, because villagers by tradition don't read and write such blogs. I enjoyed reading it.

I have my village experience myself but the tradition of a rural life has been interrupted by the communists and it has never come back here.

Kavita said...

Absolutely, Kari & Bohemian girl. Also, I was thinking how language plays a part in how well one is able to integrate in a new community. Even if people are generous & accepting.
Italy has its dialects. India has different languages & scripts, something many young Europeans I met couldn't get. Though in the end one's intentions & attitude can overcome most things, I suppose. If I have to make a move like Francesca,in my country it can
be a complicated matter.

Anonymous said...

beautiful and inspiring

Emily said...

such a fantastic post. i always love hearing about life in your village, francesca.