On The Road Editor Cathérine Mester shares her spring break experience as a volunteer in Tuscany.
Somewherein a remote corner of Tuscany at the foot of Monte Amiata lies a medievalcastle inhabited by an Englishwoman, her aging mother, a harlequin Great Dane,a chocolate Labrador puppy, a dynasty of cats, and a changing assortment ofyoung people from all over the world. For two weeks this March I joined a groupof three volunteers to experience life and work at the castle. Exhausted byessay deadlines, an early flight, and a long ride on a dusty Italian bus, I arrivedwith a suitcase of what I considered my most “country” clothes: faded jeans, ababy blue puffer jacket and the most sensible footwear I owned, a snow-white pairof Veja sneakers. Fourteen days later the shoes are unrecognizable, coveredwith a grimy film, the insides stained with mud, the laces permanently tintedwith the colours of the Tuscan land, green, brown, ochre and mauve.
Twoweeks of volunteering at the castle are not exactly a holiday. You earn yourroom and the decadent meals by working for seven hours a day, five days a week,excluding the time spent in the kitchen. The jobs depend on the season and whatneeds to be done. During my time there I stripped the vines of dead branches,lifted rocks out of the vineyard, hoed fields, planted strawberries, seededpots, cut down bamboo, and assisted with the building of a greenhouse. I also labelledbottles, made heddles for a loom, baked sourdough bread, cooked meals andwashed hundreds of dishes. In return you get more than endless glasses of thehouse wine, that is, a kind of education, something that years at a universityor even a job can fail to impress on you. The lady of the castle is not of thegentle or soft-spoken kind, but forthright and severe in a way that some willfind refreshing and, more sensitive souls, upsetting. Understandably, someonewho regularly invites strangers to their home, has rules. The rules at the castleare numerous and, lest one wants to fall out of favour with the hostess, arereadily observed. No cutting the nose of the cheese, no snacking, all dishesmust be washed, dried and put away immediately, finish your plate, no bananas. Butfirst and foremost: respect. At the core of the castle’s philosophy is aveneration of nature, location, and of honesty.
Nothingis quite as humbling as standing in a field in the pouring rain with swollenhands and frozen feet, trying to clip bamboo branches into even lengths, in theknowledge that lunch time is still two hours away, finally realizing howincompetent you are and how pampered you have been all your life. At the end ofa long day you fall into bed depleted, but with the satisfaction of knowingthat you deserved your rest. Even though your body is sore, and covered withscratches and bruises, you know that you can do more than sit in front of ascreen all day, and the desire to commune with the basic elements of life,fire, water, earth, to better understand our relationship to the things thatsustain us is something you take with you wherever you go.