Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Hardest Work

Following the Italian armistice of the Second World War, the Germans rounded their former allies on the Greek island of Cephalonia and in a mass execution shot thousands of Italian soldiers. Marco was one of them.

For two days, the wounded Marco lay in the monstrous graveyard of fellow men, many of whom took “his” bullets by the unfortunate chance of where they were standing when the killing began.

Eventually this injured soldier was found and survived to live a rich life back in Italy: Marco resumed work as a lumberjack, married his sweetheart Albina, had 7 children (one of which is Ezzio and one of which the current mayor of Albareto), produced dairy on his cow farm, and governed Albareto for 38 years in the post of mayor.

I never asked, but I’d have to guess that of all the work Marco has done, those two days on the ground in Cephalonia were likely his hardest: The work of just being.

Sixty six years later, there is a girl on a farm in Albareto that finds herself facing her hardest work in Italy: The work of just being. In comparison, staying active, productive and busy is easy; staying still, present and conscious is hard. So while Marco may have thought he was “doing nothing” in his two days of lying around just being, he was actually mastering the very thing that defines life. And today he is her great inspiration.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Top Ten Things To Do In Bed

Top Ten Things To Do In Bed (with your leg propped up on 4 pillows)

1. Assemble and disassemble your OPO Utility Model crutches.
2. Watch a black cricket scurry across the tiled red brick floor and know there’s nothing you can do about it.
3. Listen to the church bells ring at 7:00 in the morning.
4. Peer through the ivy covered window as the rising sun illuminates the village of Gotra.
5. Notice the cobwebs on the wood beamed ceiling that you missed in the last room cleaning.
6. Pretend like you’re doing sit-ups by just trying to sit up.
7. Hear the unique bird songs outside and wonder why you’ve not noticed their differences before.
8. Sew shut the thumb of the leather glove that you chopped off with a log splitter and be thankful for the owie on your leg.
9. Peek over your pile of down comforters when you hear the door click to see Maria transporting an Iris made food tray.

And the number one thing to do in bed (with your leg propped up on 4 pillows):

10. Breakfast in bed!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Too Shall Pass

If as a kid, your mother told you to wear clean underwear in case you should end up in the hospital, know she was right (but that goes without saying; mothers –I love them- are right).

On a morning that started out similar to many others, I found myself in the emergency room with an Italian doctor uttering the universally understood “AhhUgh” when noticing the ‘V’ shaped opening on my right shin. (Then again, she could have been commenting on the filth I was bringing in to her hospital as it flaked off from the outer layer of my work clothes.)

I’m told that most accidents happen doing common things and this too was my case. I slipped on the cement edge of a fountain going up to the chicken coop - on a stair I had successfully ascended numerous times a day for over a month.

Now I was lying on a gurney next to six ready medics and one Jesus Christ on a wall crucifix. This was fine by me. In a state of emergency, I’m of the opinion – the more aid the better! The competent ER doctor was apparently also a competent data entry specialist; doctor Detta tended to my injury and entered my passport information in the computer.

Meanwhile, another staff member brought out a too familiar blue plastic disposable Gillette shaver; this was beyond humiliating. My long-underwear was thankfully only two days old but the growth on my legs was over a month; I had been certain no one would see either. (But I am certain our departed pigs are having the last laugh).

For some reason, the doctor was extremely concerned about the possibility of an infection. Since I don’t speak Italian, I’m curious how she concluded I have been immersed in mouse poop, pig poop, chicken poop, cow poop, pig blood and cow blood. I was sent home with 12 vials of antibiotics I am to concoct and a bag full of Siringa Sterile I am to regularly poke into my buttocks.

Sitting in a wheelchair pushed by Elena my nurse and translator, she repeats the doctor’s instructions: Complete bed rest for 48 hours; no movement what-so-ever with the injured limb.

We take a turn and my extended leg bumps a wall.

“SCUSI!” she gasps in horror. “Oh no! This is just like I drive.”

Caught On Film


Ah Ha!!!
The fruits of my vigilance.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Star Is Born

No one likes paparazzi; not even cows.

Brontola, the 16 year old senior cow at Casa Lanzarotti, had her thirteenth calf. Unlike Ezzio’s dairy cows, these bovines roam freely and are not keen on humans, especially those with annoying cameras.

Maria and I spent a good part of the night in the hay loft above the stable lying on our stomachs. We stuck our heads through a missing plank in the floor and observed beneath us the veteran mom tending to her infant and the newborn struggling to its feet.

“Mela Stella” is her name: Apple, in honor of the barren tree and the fruit that we continue to fill our pockets with; and Star, in honor of her late aunt (plus Stella rhymes with Mela – which is a bonus). Naturally, I was excited by the addition to our lineage and wished to document the occasion with a family portrait. Brontola would have none of it; she groaned and hid her calf from view.

Thinking I’d outsmart the over-protective mom the next day, like a good cameraman, I lurked by the stable window waiting for the opportune moment to snap a photo of Mela Stella. Brontola would have none of it; she stormed the window and hid her calf from view.

Fear not..I’m keeping vigil.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I’m not sure if it was the menu, the setting, or the music, but I feel a painful yearning. This is not a feeling I enjoy.

As spring approaches, Casa Lanzarotti has their first set of overnight guests arriving today. They will be welcomed with a four course traditional Italian dinner, all homemade, grown and raised locally.

My trouble started when I watched Iris roll out the pasta dough and thus inquired about the menu.

Antipasti: Marinated vegetables – zucchini, peppers, onions (compliments of the summer’s produce and Iris’ pickling), an assortment of cold cuts including thinly sliced prosciutto and salami wedges (compliments of Giovanni the macellaio), grated parmigiano-reggiano (compliments of Ezzio’s cows) and fresh baked bread (compliments of the outdoor wood-burning stone oven).

Primi: Choice of Potato dumplings in beef broth or Pasta in a walnut glaze (naturally, the potato dumpling – like the pasta – are handmade, the beef broth homemade from home raised cows, but even the walnuts are cultivated on the farm and cracked by the able hands of a summer wwoofer).

Secondi: An assortment of root vegetables, grilled meats, and winter greens.

Dolce: A fruit torte, vanilla bean ice cream, espresso, grappa. (Last I checked, they don’t grow coffee beans; everything else – farm made)

To add the proverbial salt to my wound, I entered the transformed living-room. What previously housed racks of drying sausages and laundry to be ironed, was now an ambiance of romance, from the woven throw-rug on the stone floor to the high oak beams on the ceiling. The large fireplace crackled as it spread warmth and comfort, bottles of aged wine lined the piano, pressed linen table cloths and napkins complimented the wooden furniture, and hearty place settings awaited the hearty meal.

But the final straw that broke my heart was the music. In the background, classical compositions filled the room; largos, adagios, and melodies you’d hear on the Most Romantic Classical Music In The Universe (available for $10.99 on CD at were part of the prefect soundtrack for a perfect night of amore.

And that’s when it hit me..I really miss my sweetheart. I’ll come back. But this time, I’ll bring my beloved along.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Standing In Manure

Gian-Luca has good taste; I was initially skeptical though. Sinking two feet in mud and manure, I had reservations why this would be his favorite job. Even the Sorrels were no match for the rising muck; fortunately, I was instructed to wear knee-high rain boots.

With pitchfork in hand, we heaved old moldy hay from the cow feeder and flung cow dung away from the adjoining area. Indeed it was fun.

"You know why this is the best job in the world?” Gian-Luca continues, “You get to throw away shit!"

And with that he let out a hearty laugh at his own corny joke. It’s a line I'm sure he's used countless times but still enjoys. He’s right though, it is great work.

“Gian-Luca knows his shit!” I concluded. And with that I let out a hearty laugh at my own corny joke.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On The Bright Side

Back at home in Santa Barbara, my girlfriend shaved her head. She wrote on a rainy day and said the weather was ideal for hanging at the house. I presume the chemo was taking its toll, although she never mentioned that part; she only spoke of the good timing.

The weather in Albareto had also been stormy; so much so, that over 10 large window panels in the 50 meter offsite greenhouse were shattered. Maria and I spent several hours picking up shard pieces by hand, from the flower beds, from the clustered flora, from the damp soil, from the pebbled walk ways, and around the rocky perimeter of the nursery– chip after chip – piece by piece.

We filled four hefty boxes with glass fragments. And although we were on our knees for much of the morning, we didn’t mind the assignment; it smelled divine in the greenhouse, especially as one brushed against a plant.

On our return walk home to Casa Lanzarotti, we passed through small villages protected by small dogs, and discussed the day’s work. We spoke of the ideal setting for such toil. If you’re going to pick up glass shard, may it be in a greenhouse full of lavender.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dear Elvis

Elvis Dolic
Sarajevo, Bosnia

21 January 2009

Dear Elvis,

How are you? Are you back in your home in Bosnia?

I’m Maria, and I work as a woofer in Casa Lanzarotti. Gianluca told me about your job during the civil war when he and you worked for Red Cross. You must be very courageous to be a radio dispatcher at 19 years and stay on the upper floors of the tower while everybody goes down in the basement, for when a bomb hits the building. I hope you were protected with sand bags.

Iris told me you were here for one year as a refugee. When you left in 93, I’m afraid you forgot your shoes. I found them today, while I was sweeping the tunel under the house.

Do you still want them?

Sincerely yours,


Azr. Agr. Casa Lanzarotti
Maria Grand
Roncole di Gotra 93
Albareto, PR Italia

Friday, February 20, 2009

At The Macello

I’m in an all white room trying to discern what piece of the cow is hanging on the wall when an eye-ball stares blankly out of its socket and answers my question.

Regrouping for a moment, I ask Iris, “What part of the head do you use?”

“Tongue and cheek.” She wasn’t joking.

It’s the second to last week before the macello closes for business. The clean work rooms are void of employees; the organically run slaughter-house cannot afford to keep employees. Short of an on-site butcher, Iris is forced to process her slaughtered cow - now referred to as lot 03699025 - herself. This is an assignment she does not enjoy as the phrase “poor cow” is often repeated.

In a large meat locker, a couple dozen -

(“What’s the English term for dead cow body?” I ask my non-native English speaking friend while I pause my typing.
“Corpse” Maria answers quickly.
“No, that’s what you call a dead body.”
“But that’s what you said! ‘dead cow body’ - ‘cow corpse’.”
“Fine!” I resume typing.)

.. a couple dozen cow corpses are suspended. A smaller room stores the pieces we are to slice and vacuum seal, notably the stomach lining, heart, and liver.

After working on lot 03699025, Iris explains that those who have raised and butchered a cow tend to have more respect for the animal than those who simply buy a steak at the supermarket. The small organically run macello is not a place I’d chose to hang-out at, but as with my experience during Pig Week, I felt honored to have witnessed the wholesome principles it embodies.

Iris takes us to a contemporary café for a break. I stare at the wide-screen TV on the wall. A beautiful model swooshes her beautiful shinny auburn hair in a commercial for shampoo. I wonder if the shampoo consumer also buys steak.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saturday in Parma

It is 5 AM Saturday and still dark as Iris and I head to the Farmers Market an hour north of Albareto. The temperature is a balmy -16 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit. i.e., cold in any unit of measure). Iris is quiet as she navigates the packed red Renault Kangoo through the windy roads to Parma. I open my bag of California dates and offer her breakfast. Iris and I like dates.

Against the dim light of an old church backdrop, we set up the tent, tables, bags, scale, register and arrange over a 100 loaves of bread, fruit preserves, juices, lavender oil, spelt, pork products, potatoes, and handmade linen aprons in baskets of eye-appealing configurations. I find the task challenging as my fingers refuse to work properly in the sub freezing air. Even stoic Iris stomps her feet in an effort to keep warm.

Close to the Farmers Market, there is a Flea Market in which the savvy shopper can score a deal on garments while the un-savvy shopper can get duped buying two pairs of socks for two times the price (alas I speak from experience here). On an adjacent table - all for one Euro - are random life essentials: vacuum bag, votive candle, shell shaped soap, surgical gloves, or a pink notebook with the meaningful insignia “Save Lovers Marine” on the cover.

Iris sends me into town to warm up. I wander the beautiful streets of Parma and admire the ancient architecture it is known for. Alongside me, many stylish moms pushing strollers are decked in short skirts, high-heeled boots, matching hand bags and leather coats; stylish cyclists zip by often sporting the same outfit (maybe it’s the Parma team-kit!). I’m out-of-place in the city chic but go unnoticed in the population of 170000.

Back at Casa Lanzarotti, I remove my Sorrels and replace them with Ughs. Out my bedroom window, I wave to Rancole’s principal population cows and chickens. Ah.. it’s good to be home!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Operating Heavy Machinery

Evidently, it’s not enough to haul timber out of the forest; one must also partition and stack it for it to be of use in the furnace. Gian-Luca has already spent hours sectioning our previously delivered lumber.

Maria and I, eager to help, are properly instructed on use of the log-splitter. I’m excited..Heavy machinery! For safety measures, the COMAP ( does not release the slow moving metal wedge unless both hands press the release levers on either side of the machine. This brilliant idiot-proofing guarantees that your hands are nowhere near the unyielding wedge when it descends.

It is loud while we work. Next to us, Gian-Luca operates and even louder table saw that is powered by a running tractor. On seeing this, Iris pops her head out of a window above us and like Repunzel, attempts to communicate something of importance to us below. We cannot hear her for the noise. She points to our ears. Yes, we know, we cannot hear.

Thanks to Iris' persistence, soon we are wearing protective gear: ear guards, goggles, and a mask (for the tractor exhaust fumes). Work resumes. We split logs, load the wheelbarrow, shuttle wood into the basement, try to imitate (often unsuccessfully) the beautifully arranged wood stacking technique, and return to splitting logs.

In time, we are tired. I remember the large quantity 12 quintals represents. No longer excited nor intimidated by the COMAP, I attempt to outsmart its safety measures by using one leg to depress the lever while using my now free arm to hold a log that won’t balance. Protective gear and idiot-proofing is only as good as the user adhering to it. Imagine my horror when I find the thumb of my glove missing and a piece of leather wedged in the unstable log.

“That’s it! I’m an idiot. I need to stop.”

Maria came out of the basement having jammed her ring finger. We wisely decided to abandon heavy machinery for the morning and simply load the wheelbarrow with existing small pieces of wood.

Happily, I can still type and Maria, equally as happy, is now napping.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tough Decisions

This morning Iris had to lure Stella out of the paddock to be slaughtered. The cow obediently followed, swaying her big head behind Iris as she had done many times in the past.

At three years of age, the decisions must be made to sell off a cow for meat or to keep her with the intent of producing an offspring. The hope was to keep Stella and indeed she had two offsprings; neither calf survived in the absence of a nurturing mother.

“Was it a difficult decision?” I asked Gian-Luca as Iris led Stella through the final corridor.

“Not at all. It’s not a sentimental decision. She eats hay and costs money. It’s an economic decision.”

Of the countless jobs Iris takes on at the farm, for the last four years, she has also assumed the responsibility of Presidency at the organically run slaughter house, “macello”. Both she and Gian-Luca are committed to their organic philosophy in produce and in livestock. This non-paying job is simply an extension of that credo.

And while the EU promotes organic farming, the actual expenses of operating an organic macello outweigh the consumer interest in buying organically produced meat. With an outstanding debt, Iris the President has to make the difficult decision of shutting it down. It’s an economic decision.

Iris spent the long morning in the macello, addressing the countless closing issues and overseeing the final procedure with Stella. She enters the dining room as we are concluding lunch.

Thinking of the macello’s legal matters, we ask, “How did it go?”

“She was so nice. So sweet. (pause.) So nice.” a sentimental Iris replies.


“Did you know that Stella means ‘Star’ in Italian?” Maria asks me.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Borgotaro is covered in white flakes.. but this time it’s not snow; it’s confetti and it’s Carnevale 2009!

Being a predominately Catholic country (and equally as pervasive a “let’s make merry” country), Italians throw a final party before Ash Wednesday and the restrictions of Lent. This winter festival is celebrated with parades, masquerades, music and entertainment. Mischief is also on the agenda as my cute 16 year old cohort can attest; she was a bit flabbergasted when her cute 16 year old fanny was smacked amidst the merriment.

It is Sunday; Maria and I have the day off (presumably to go to church or carnival as the case may be). On our 10 km walk we hear the cheer of Borgotaro even before arriving. In town, lively music accompanies large floats that are pulled by - this is my favorite part- farm tractors! The floats include a pirate ship, an Egyptian pyramid, Donald Duck, Homer Simpson, and Cody Maveric the Surf’s Up penguin. Each float is accompanied by a supporting staff of like-minded costumes; pirates, Egyptians, ducks, Homers, and penguins dance down the street amongst brightly dressed spectators.

We slip into a café for a break and a hot beverage; the line for a drink is equal to the line for the toilet. I wait for the latter but once in the little room, I find – the toilet bowl is missing. On the ground lies a white porcelain floor with a small-ish hole in the middle and foot pads on either side. I am a novice at squatting over these Turkish toilets but apparently those that went before me where no better; the foot pads aren’t nearly raised high enough and I stand in liquid. “Lovely”. The rose-hip tea however, truly was lovely.

Our next stop is a pizzeria. In the all-stone pizza-oven they simply bake pizza-bread; still hot, the pizza-bread is sprinkled with salt and olive-oil and served immediately to the next in line. What is my defining moment of Carnevale 2009? Watching an American created Homer Simpson happily consume an Italian created pizza. It’s a small world after all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Expressions of Amore

Maria scooting a caterpillar onto a leaf to move it to the side of a pebbled road should the one car that passes per month endanger her little friend.

Iris coming back from town with two bags of lettuce after noticing I wasn’t taking seconds on skin sausage.

Gian-Luca drilling a hole through the foot-thick farmhouse wall so I can have internet in my room.

Leonora supplying me with the bible-size train schedule so I can get to my next WWOOF farm.

Brigit delighting in her chickens after finding a record three eggs in the morning following the Petzl accident.

A golden couple walking in unison as if their years together had made them one.


The snow-covered Appennino Mountains and the tiny villages speckled through-out the valley.

The sun beaming on my face after weeks of snow and rain.

A handmade wooden bench built next to a stream in the forest.


Sitting under an apple tree.

Looking at a star at night and knowing you see it too.

You, the readers, sharing in my stories.

Buon San Valentino!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Twelve Quintals Of Wood

Today the Casa Lanzarotti furnace was a picky-eater; it stopped burning four times. Now I sit typing in a down jacket and finger-less gloves.

To make my room cozy, the furnace in the basement heats water that is distributed through pipes in the floors of key rooms. The furnace feeds on wood and apparently, has an appetite. In three weeks, twelve quintals of wood will have been devoured.

What does twelve quintals look like? After moving it all morning, I can tell you: It’s a lot. Gian-Luca keeps the wood supply stocked by partitioning dead trees in the forest. Since he spent the day in Milan (even farmers go to the dentist), collecting the timber was the responsibility of the remaining ladies.

I was picturing wood gathering in the forest like I used to collect for Girl Scout campfires. This was not Troop 501. To start, we assembled make-shift bridges of planks for the river crossing; next, Iris backed the tractor with truck bed attachment to the river’s edge; then we started the gathering.

Wood gathering consisted of hopping on ice covered rocks, sliding across moss covered planks, crossing the river, hiking through the forest, finding lumber, reversing the sequence with cargo in-tote, and heaving said cargo into the truck bed.

I pride myself in sporting a decent amount of physical strength (first mistake; refer to Feb 12 blog posting on eating my words). After unsuccessfully dead-lifting what felt like a tree-trunk (second mistake; refer to dead-lifting a tree-trunk), I humbly went with Iris’ suggestion: “You and Maria pick the light ones, I’ll pick the heavy ones.” With a machete in one hand, Iris wheeled log after log after log, loaded the tractor, dumped the wood, repositioned the tractor, and repeated the process. This continued for the twelve quintals or four truck-beds full of wood.

Iris had Maria and me break several times: for tea, for coffee, and for fresh apple cider. As for Iris’ own unyielding stamina of firewood collection in the forest, it was only interrupted by the intervention of modern technology: the ring of her mobile cell phone.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Bragging

The day after Cappuccino the calf was born, I went to Ezzio’s Dairy Farm to check up on the little one. Leonora explained that it was a big day for the family; all three generations of boys were assembled for the occasion, from the 90 year old patriarch Marco, through Ezzio and his brothers, to the young grandsons. I’m thinking new calf; they’re thinking departed pig.

“..and today we’re making Sanguinacci and Testa-In-Cassetta.” she continued.

“Ah yes, the ol’ Sanguinacci and Testa-In-Cassetta. I’m quite familiar with Blood Sausage and Head in a Box.” I boasted feeling ever so knowledgeable.

The following morning Leonora – bless her heart – made a special delivery to me and Casa Lanzarotti: sixteen blood sausages and one head-in-a box.

Guess what we had for dinner.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Balance With Cappuccino

I haven’t yet entered Ezzio’s Dairy Farm as I’m in deep conversation with Marco, Ezzio’s 90 year old father. I’m fascinated by his story: father of seven, Albareto’s Mayor of 38 years, and the original Dairy Farm owner/farmer. This information I’ve gathered from Marco’s daughter-in-law; Leonora speaks English. Marco and I speak hand-waving.

Our game of charades comes to an end when from the barn we hear a deafening sound. I run for the noise and am greeted by Ezzio who points to a little bundle of light brown wetness in the form of a tiny calf. Only minutes old, the placenta is still dripping from Ponga the mom. She cries again. But it is not because Ponga is giving birth, as I originally thought, but because Toxic, the neighboring cow (and so named because she likes medicine) is licking her baby.

I stood stunned!

Ponga licks her calf; Toxic licks Ponga’s calf;
Ponga belts a thunderous protest;
Ponga licks her calf; Toxic licks Ponga’s calf;
Ponga belts a thunderous protest;
Ad infinitum.
Toxic, I’m told, is also a recent mother and unbothered by Ponga’s cries. Her instinct to lick the newborn far outweighs any complaints from the real mother.

In the big picture, it all makes sense now: One calf is born and has no mother to nurture it. Another calf is born and had two.

Nature is always in balance.
It’s just that sometimes we need help seeing it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Freedom and Feeding

Following several days of snowfall, Mother Nature gave us several days of rainfall. On the first day that lacked precipitation, the animals - and man - went wild.

On some mornings, the chickens - like man - need encouragement to leave their beds. Man hears the alarm clock for this task; chickens hear the rooster ; (and let me assure you, man with chickens also hears the rooster. ) On this particular morning, the chickens, tired of being cooped in their coop, were already at the entrance when I approached their pen. They dashed out the gate, crazed for grub the rain had unveiled. Across the farm they pecked as if they hadn’t eaten for days.

The horse and the sheep were equally as enlivened by the sunshine and the prospect of chow. In their feeding frenzy, the sheep knocked their bucket of grain onto the muddy ground. Giacomina, the stable horse, capitalized on an open fence and galloped out for greener pastures; with a snow shovel I chased the animal back into her quarters and wondered if perhaps the sheep and the horse hadn’t eaten for days.

Now that the streets were cleared by the rain, I bolted for the hills upon completing work. There under a tree, I found a treasure that had previously been buried beneath snow. A pile of apples lay scattered on the ground. I took a seat in the mud, loaded my pockets with fruit and ate four apples in a feeding frenzy. You’d think I hadn’t eaten in days.