A newly-married couple from Los Angeles quit their jobs to work on farms and wineries across Europe. Read it from the beginning...

Staircase Complete!

Posted: September 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria, Work | 4 Comments »

Behold, the finished staircase! Over a metric ton of stone, set in sockets carved out of bedrock, all with hand tools, ingenuity, and honest sweat. Until the art grant comes through for my forty-foot equestrian self-portrait, this may be the most permanent thing I’ll ever have worked on.

Fellow HelpX-er Jonathan is responsible for steps 7 through 12. He described his sculptor’s task as “a pain” (bedrock and an angle grinder were involved) but ultimately worth it. He reports the staircase has also survived its first major rainstorm (we were worried the steps might just slip down the muddy hill), so it may end up servicing the needs of our Umbrian host and guests for many years. 

I’m A Red Girl Now

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Tuscany, Umbria, Wine | 1 Comment »

Red wine was never favorite of mine. It was usually overly strong, heavy and sometimes too “in your face.” Being in Europe though, I have grown an appreciation for red wine and now enjoy it quite a lot. In fact, I’d even say, in some situations, I prefer red wine.

The reds we tasted in France were wonderful, especially from the Bordeaux and Bergundy area. What’s finally pushed me to the other side, though, are the reds in Tuscany and Umbria. We’ve had multiple reds that really impressed us. In Tuscany, we bought a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano, which uses two grapes I wasn’t familiar with: sangiovese 90% (the primary grape used in Tuscany) and canaiolo nero 10% (which has a distinct violet flavor). It’s probably my favorite red I’ve had on this trip so far.

The wine is also incredibly cheap. It was reasonable in France for American standards, but in Italy, it’s dirt cheap. Devon and I went to a wine bar and I was served a Tuscan red which cost 2.50 euros (around $3). Those are serious happy hour prices and it was 9:00 p.m.! I’m going back to the states with a much greater appreciation for red wine. You won’t hear me say “I prefer white,” anymore. Because in Italy and France, I’m a red girl.

Six Steps of Stone

Posted: August 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | 3 Comments »

Remember that pickaxe work I was doing a few days ago? That rough hillside of weeds and rocks has slowly succumb to the unstoppable march of progress  Where once there was nothing, there are now six stone steps, and I am pleased-as-punch with them. I had no idea what I was doing, but that certainly didn’t stop me from digging up my host’s property.

I began by sinking those four stakes, then tying two long green cords in parallel, marking the outer borders of the stairs. I used a level to ensure they were at the appropriate height and distance all the way down. Then, with the pickaxe, I tore the ground up between those strings, removing larger rocks, weeds, etc., and attempted to get the earth into a smooth slope that approximated the slope of the strings. Then I measured out the depth of a step (46.8 cm), then tied little knots on the strings to demarcate those distances for each step. That was one day.

Then I spent a day trying to dig post holes from the handrails. It didn’t work out. I don’t want to talk about it.

Then today, with the assistance of fellow helper Jonathan, we began dragging those big, heavy stones into place, and arranging them to look like a staircase. Each stone weighs in the 150-400 pound range. At first we rolled them end over end, but after the third step (which was a huge pain), we began sliding them down from above. It took about an hour for each step: finding the rock, moving the rock, then carefully placing the rock and packing smaller rocks and dirt around it so it doesn’t wobble.

Unfortunately, I’m leaving here tomorrow, so I will not able to see this project through to completion. I’m bummed, but happy with what we’ve done so far. It’s so satisfying to spend a day working, then to be able to see and use the thing you spent your time on.

Devon Digging Stairs Into A Hillside

Posted: August 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | 4 Comments »

Some have commented that, according to this blog, we appear to rarely work. Update after update shows us lounging, sipping cool drinks under cabanas or something like that. So, in response, here is a photo of what I was doing this morning: smacking a pick axe into stone-chocked hillside. I’m helping build and install a stone staircase. I started by sinking those four vertical stakes, which now hold the guide lines that dictate the boundaries of the stairs.

Donkey Loves Kitty

Posted: August 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | 1 Comment »

The family donkey wants to be friends with the sleeping, family cat, who does not. This was the scene at this mornings breakfast table. The donkey has been out of its pen, wandering onto the porch, trying to sneak sips of my tea, and of course, harassing the cat.

Pizza Night in Umbria

Posted: August 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Meals, Umbria | 5 Comments »

I was surprised at the number of people outside this late on a Tuesday night. Older people, too. A dozen men and women with gray hair, sitting, talking, playing bridge in front of the bar, all orange in the light of the security lamp above them. Two men passionately argued, or maybe passionately agreed. Anger and enjoyment in Italian still sounds the same to me. Heads craned to watch Halbe and I pass.

We rounded the corner of the bar and went down a small hill to a pizzeria beneath it. Six or seven tables were setup outside. A large group filled a few tables pushed together. The rest were empty. We sat apart from the group and a teenage girl brought us menus. She said something to us in Italian we didn’t understand. We looked at each other, then hesitantly nodded at the girl. I may have said, “Si.” She left, then returned with glass bottle of mineral water. That’s one mystery solved.

Choosing from the menu was easier. Many pizza names looked familiar from pizzerias in the States. I selected a “margherita” (tomato sauce, mozzarella, 4 euros), and Halbe went for “prosciutto cotto” (thin sliced and smoked ham, mozzarella, 5 euros). We started with bruschetta mista (mixed bruschetta: slices of bread with tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil, or melted cheese/sausage, or melted cheese/salami, 3 euros) and went for a half-liter (mezzo litro) of the house red wine (3 euros).

The pizza crust was cracker thin, but pliant, slightly chewy, and with a hint of salt. The sauce was on the sweet side, not sugary like white sugar, but with the sweetness of ripe fruit, or a fresh tomato. It played well with the bubbles of the crust, frozen into brown and black shells by the intense heat of the oven. The cheese was pleasantly creamy with the faintest watery pungency, like that of plain yoghurt, or dry hay. It became a bit rubbery as it cooled, and was arranged on the surface in cut circles, like pieces of pepperoni. The wine, surprisingly, was excellent. Warm, smooth, smokey, and best of all, cheap.

We listened to the large group (who turned out to be English on holiday). They took turns photographing one another. One stuck out her tongue briefly. She snapped it back before the shot could be taken, and uncomfortably chuckled and apologized for her behavior. It all felt very British.

A small dog begged at their table. The cook came out and shooed it away with a dish towel and a few sharp words in Italian. Minutes later it returned and gazed at us with hopeful eyes.

I’m envious of these thin crusts. I enjoy making pizza but I just can’t get the crust thinner than a bready half-inch or so. Any thinner and the dough splits apart. Meanwhile, at a tiny pizzeria in a tiny village, the pizza is almost thin enough to see through.

Sad, yes, but one day perhaps I’ll learn. Our current host has mentioned we may visit a pizzeria owned by a friend of his. Maybe then the secret of Italian pizza will be revealed to me. Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy the pizza from the countless pizzerias dotting this country. I think I can live with that.

Halbe’s first bread-making experience

Posted: August 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Meals, Umbria | 6 Comments »

Halbe's first foray into bread making - and it's vegan!

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve always been a little jealous of Devon’s ability to make bread. While in Umbria our host, Michael, asked us to make a loaf. Usually Devon would do this, but he’s baked at least 10 loaves on this trip for our different hosts and was a little baked out. I gave it a whirl. This is the result of my efforts and I’m quite pleased. It’s made with white and wheat flour, vegetable oil, soy milk and molasses (our host was a vegan). You can see the soy margarine in the corner of the picture that was smothered on each piece.

Everyone liked it so much it was gone within a few days and our host brought half a loaf to his girlfriend’s to share. Even though she’s not a “bread eater,” she really enjoyed my bread. I have to say, I’m proud of myself! Now we have two bread makers in our family. Devon still has a hold on the pizza making market though. And we’ll keep it that way because he’s certainly got talent.

Halbe, Carina the Dog, and Responsible Logging

Posted: August 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | No Comments »

Halbe and I took a hike in the hills around our current host’s home. His dog, Carina (we think it translates to “Sweetheart”) kept us company. Right here they are standing in area logged about two years ago. Italians are fiercely protective of their forests, and have practiced selective logging for centuries. A tree is left every 7 meters, then the area is left untouched for decades to regrow.

We are in the Umbria region of Italy

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | 4 Comments »

We made it safely to Umbria, and have set up residence with our new host. He lives in a 400 year old home high on hill with a killer view of the farms and other chateaus in the area. Above is a shot taken shortly after we arrived. I’m writing this on the porch shown there, and can hear the church bells from the village in the valley below.

The host is a laid back sort (born in 1951), who did the “hippie trail” (his words) of India back in the 70’s, and now is living a beautiful lifestyle on 5 acres out here. He has a horse, a donkey, a cat, a dog, and three recently acquired ducks.

The work is more standard manual labor stuff. We were clearing brush along a road this morning. We will be building some stone and mortar enclosures for his fruit trees next. We may make a house for the ducks.

Italy has a feel completely unique from France. I would describe it as warmer, more provincial, more run down, but generally more cheerful. People crack jokes with strangers, which I like.

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