Updated: Jan 21, 2021
One year ago, I came to culinary school in Florence seeking a change.
Now I’m finished with classes and am volunteering on a farm in the hills of Tuscany for the same reason: For a different pace with slower, quieter days… to learn from new people with an unfamiliar lifestyle… to hang out with animals in barns instead of friends in bars.
And change is what I got. Though funnily, my favorite thing about my host farmers’ way of life is what never changes, the consistency and repetition of each and every day.
The farm is called Ca’Novae, which is a combination of Latin words meaning “new house.” The nearest town is Villamagna, but the home sits so high on its hill that you can see Florence’s Duomo from the living room. I'm here through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
Ca'Novae is a rolling, green, two-hectare property with all kinds of crops (the berries are very happy this month), fruit trees (like olive, apple, walnut, pomegranate, prune, and cherry), and a lively crew of creatures, most crucially 25 hens for eggs and at least 300,000 bees for honey. There are also sheep for milk, roosters and peacocks to sound the alarm when foxes arrive, and cashmere goats for comedic relief and a tiny bit of wool.
My hosts are Elisabetta, a smart and nurturing Modenese woman who speaks four languages, and Lorenzo, a kind and goofy man who loves history and is, as a Milanese who decided to be a farmer instead of a businessman, an anomaly. They refer to each other exclusively as “Amore” (love) and “Tesoro” (treasure).
Every day at Ca’Novae starts and ends the same way — with much of the same in the middle.
We wake up at 7:30 for breakfast, which is always hot coffee and toasted Tuscan bread with butter and strawberry jam. I spend a few minutes staring out at the houses and churches tucked into the hills, guessing what the weather will be like for the day. Then we pull on our mud-caked jeans and muck boots to feed the animals.
First are the two-month-old lambs, three demanding little things who “baaah!” in unison at the sound of our approaching footsteps. They wrestle with each other for the first sucks of warm milk and butter, which they get from a baby bottle because their mamma sheep sadly died. The mature sheep form a mini stampede to big buckets of hay and corn-barley-rice mixture.
Next up are the chickens. In addition to corn-based feed, they eat Tuscan bread that has been soaked in water (even chickens can’t stomach the notoriously dry loaves without a little assistance) and scraps from a restaurant in Villamagna. In exchange for the chance to sell Ca’Novae’s popular eggs, honey, and jam, the restaurant offers its potato peels, wilted herbs, and stale croissants for the chickens. While the birds are eating (read: neutralized), I tiptoe into the hen house to fill a basket with their still-warm eggs.
We give the fuzzy baby ducks and geese grass for snacking and water for splashing before crossing the farm to the goats. To feed them, I sit on the front step of their wooden house, which we could one day find to be completely destroyed; Lorenzo nicknamed the goats "architetti” because of the various design changes they have made to their home, including chewing off the black paint and knocking out a few planks of wood on the back wall.
Besides this, they are predictable creatures.
When their muesli bucket hits the earth, all five goats jam their heads inside, the male ramming his horns into the imposing females’ sides to get the best bits. The smallest lady soon tires of this and starts to eat from my hands, every once in awhile eyeing the olive tree in hopes that I’ll tear her off a few leaves.
Though the lambs are the cutest, the goats are my favorite animals to watch. Their changing emotional states are fascinating to behold. Grigia, the gray female, barely looked at me the first few days I was here. She stared unmoving at a tree while I fed the other goats, as if contemplating something that had gone very wrong in her life. Now she gets so close to me that my jeans have become her personal Kleenex.
We break for coffee around 10 a.m. I drink it while scrubbing the eggs of any debris and trying not to get knocked over by the Bernese Mountain Dogs. The husband and wife duo, Ti Amo (I Love You) and Gioia (Joy) have a habit of firmly pushing their butts against your legs to remind you they’re there.
We work for a couple of hours before and after lunch. The work might be mowing the fields, planting vegetables, picking ripe fruit, or, if it’s raining, the less back-breaking jobs of baking cookies and building wooden bee boxes for incoming honey makers. Whatever the job, it is always punctuated by the sounds of cuckoo birds and calabroni, giant (and loud) hornets.
By 9 p.m. we’ve fed the animals their evening meal, showered, and sat down for a human dinner. The food varies, but there’s always a basket of Tuscan bread on the table.
I guess I am familiar with a repetitive way of life. Before I left for Italy, my days of freelance writing in my Culver City apartment were very much the same, one after the other. But there’s something more meditative about these daily tasks on the farm, caring for earth and animals instead of just caring for yourself. It’s motivating to put on the same shoes, carry the same egg basket, and walk the same path to the farm knowing that lots of little creatures are counting on you to start their day.
It is a satisfying, deeply rewarding way of life that I am happy to have experienced and will feel sad to leave behind. But I will move on knowing that “life must change from time to time if we are to go forward in our thinking.” This is from Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, which I’m reading, like the cheeseball I am, while farming under the Tuscan sun.
I love and will hold onto these words because they validate the purpose of this experience, along with everything else I’ve done in the last year and all of the unknown journeys I will take in the future. Change can scare us, but it is good, and if we learn to seek it out, we have the chance “to enlarge the psychic place” we live in. That’s reason enough to look for change over and over as long as we have the energy.