Down on the Farm

Our two previous stints of HelpExchange (doing part-time work in exchange for room and board) involved fairly easy domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, painting/varnishing, and washing lots of dishes. Our most recent HelpX posting, in the town of Lanuvio about 20 km south of Rome, finally got us out into the fields.

Well, not fields so much as a very large backyard with a greenhouse, vegetable gardens, grape vines, and a chicken run. But it was physical labor—the kind that involves pitchforks and shovels and wheelbarrows in the hot sun—which we haven’t done too much of.

Guess what? We survived it. And generally had fun. And learned some new skills. For instance, Melissa can now transplant a seedling, drill small holes in a rubber irrigation tube, or (best of all!) turn a whole tree into a pile of mulch in minutes with a chipping machine. Chris now knows how to muck out a chicken coop or wield a hoe.

We’ve found that we like punctuating periods of sightseeing with intervals of working somewhere quiet in the country. No worries when we wake up about where to go or what to see—just some basic chores in the fresh air, maybe a chance to spend time around animals, and the prospect of a hot shower and a pleasant stroll later on. Plus the knowledge (which most farmers or manual laborers don’t have) that we’ll be doing something different in a few weeks. With luck we meet nice people, get an insight into local life, and enjoy fresh food.

All of that was on offer in Lanuvio. Our hosts, Mick and Angela, are a friendly English couple in their 60s. Mick is a retired warrant officer in the Royal Air Force, with a voice that sounds (to my ears, anyway) just like Wallace’s from the Wallace & Grommet claymation movies. He and Angela have run small hotels and B&Bs in England and now rent out vacation apartments in their house, within striking distance of Rome. With them, we got the best parts of English culture (frequent tea breaks during the workday and BBC on the radio) and the best of Italian culture (homemade wine and great Italian cooking).

While we were there, the top two floors of the house were taken over by a noisy party of eight Swedish golfers. I don’t think of central Italy as a golfing destination, but I suppose that in April it’s a better prospect than Sweden.

The other new arrivals at the house were 30 newborn chicks, which Mick got as part of a promotion from the chicken-feed store (buy a bag of feed and get 10 chicks). They were wonderfully cute and downy when they arrived, but alas, within days they starting looking more like chickens—a bird that did not grow in my esteem upon closer acquaintance.

Our favorite animal residents at Mick and Angela’s house were the three lazy cats. After more than three months without feline companionship, it was great to once again have cats sleeping on our bed. One of the little things that make life feel cozier.

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