Italy (Part II): The People of Avalon

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In this second post from my trip to Italy and our visit to the Avalon Community I elaborate on the nature of the place, the olive harvesting and the various personalities who populated the community. This includes not just the regular inhabitants but also the short-term volunteers like us and other itinerants who came and went with the seasons.

At this time of year (November) we were told, picking olives should have been a full-time activity for all able-bodied individuals. They allegedly had something like a 1000 trees, enough to keep them busy for months. There was one major problem, however, and that was the unseasonable amount of rain. Even before we had arrived it had been raining for some time, weeks even, without much respite. A related problem was infestation by the olive fruit fly. The warm summer and wet autumn had provided ideal reproductive conditions for the parasite and both the quantity and quality of the olives was reduced quite significantly.

At this time of year (November) we were told, picking olives should have been a full-time activity for all able-bodied individuals.

Barely an olive could be observed without the characteristic puncture mark made by the ovipositor (needle-like appendage used to insert eggs into the fruit) of the female fly. The link to the Wiki article makes for some interesting reading if that’s your thing. The reality was that the harvest was adversely affected. With some apparent effort in shaping the words and a querulous voice Mario explained that in a normal year they could expect to harvest around 1500 kg of olives. In a good year it could exceed 2000 kg. This year they would be lucky to harvest 300 kg!

Beneath the trees, in the gullies in-between them and along the paths lay untold thousands of the small, black fruit. Many of the Italians sighed in a resigned sort of way or just shook their heads sadly when commenting on the wasted harvest.

There was no real routine at Avalon. If it was raining or had rained substantially during the night then harvesting was put on hold. I was informed that climbing a wet tree was hazardous, never mind the fact that it was just plain unpleasant to clamber beneath sodden branches while trying to lay nets and collect the fallen fruit. Of the two weeks we spent at Avalon we only had 3 or 4 days or so on which it was dry enough for part of the day at least to harvest olives.

It was at these moments that the community was most unified. Mario, despite his 68 years and declining health was often the first out the house, blazing a trail ahead of the others. The others constituted an assortment of people, young and old, from various walks of life:

Victoria, an Italian women in her 30s and her two children, a boy of 9 and a girl of 4 years;

Mirjam, the lanky, braided-haired Dutch lady I mentioned in my first post and her boyfriend Indiano, bearded and roguish, loud and brash;

Irene, teacher of biology and one of the pillars of the community;

Dimitri, an anxious man of my age (born within days of each other we discovered), seldom still and a compulsive smoker;

Frederick, a white-haired, middle-aged Belgian man, possessed of a quiet reserve and a steady presence, chopping wood and clearing out brambles from between the olives before most people emerged from their rooms in the mornings;

Caesar from Seville, dark-skinned, small and wiry giving the appearance of being slightly wild and untamed. He was always ready to impart a helpful word of advice while busy with something or other;

Sergio, another Italian in his late 30s or early 40s with a genial personality and loud guffaw; an older Italian man whose name I forget, emphysemic and wearing an expression of patient suffering;

Riccardo, a handsome man absent much of the time but helping out here and there;

Janina, in an advanced state of pregnancy but cheerful and energetic nevertheless; and various short-term volunteers like us who I will elaborate on in another post.

Below is a gallery of pictures from the mornings and afternoons we spent olive-picking. You can click on individual pictures to bring up detailed captions which describe what is happening.

The one thing that I hope comes across in these photos is a sense of togetherness and inter-generational tolerance. Everyone worked alongside each other regardless of age, nationality or creed. These things weren’t discussed much. Most people worked with single-minded intent, the locals breaking every so often for a smoke (usually hand-rolled tobacco) in a well-lit spot amongst the trees. Indiano would sing in his coarse, good-natured, off-key voice while sawing away at a branch. More often than not it was a Queen number sung with gusto. He always wore a good pair of boots with an assortment of pruning equipment attached to his belt.

The one thing that I hope comes across in these photos is a sense of togetherness and inter-generational tolerance. Everyone worked alongside each other regardless of age, nationality or creed.

Alongside him was Sergio, shouting out encouragement or comments in confident, heavily intonated Italian interspersed with barks of laughter. Braided-haired Mirjam strode amongst the trees with purpose, serious-faced, like so often masking her thoughts and emotions. I only saw her smile on a few occasions, usually to one of the children and of the few times she showed some strong emotion the one that stands out was when I made some inquiries regarding her former life in the Netherlands.

When I asked her where she grew up she replied Groningen, horrible place. She still visited her mother there from time to time and also worked seasonally to supplement her income. Or perhaps as her only source of income. Speaking to her reminded me of Dirk, the Dutch husband of Maria, my Workaway hosts back in 2015 in northern Greece.

Her comments mirrored his almost exactly. Living in the South of Europe was so much more free they said. Both spoke of the nanny state (the Netherlands) and people submitting to more and more intervention from a system of government who was gradually asserting a less-than-benevolent control over them. They alluded to the weakness of the average citizen who gave into fear rather than asserting their own rights to behave and act as they wished. This is actually quite a common world-view held by those in the ecovillage circles (EVs) and intentional communities (ICs).

When we’d finished gathering the olives into the ubiquitous plastic crates they were carried across to the side of the old house from where you had a fabulous view to the west beyond the villages and towns around Monsummano Terme to the flat lands beyond and further yet the hazy outline of distant hills lying between us and the west coast. On a clear day you could see a clear demarcation between the densely populated urban areas and the wetlands where the rectilinear bodies of water mirrored the sky above. Perhaps they grew rice here. I thought I saw something about rice growing alluded to on a tourist marketing picture in one of the towns but it may have been further north.

When we’d finished gathering the olives into the ubiquitous plastic crates they were carried across to the side of the old house from where you had a fabulous view to the west beyond the villages and towns around Monsummano Terme to the flat lands beyond

One evening I’d walked around that side of the house and stopped dead in my tracks. Most evenings the countryside below which I just described was a black palette punctuated by myriad yellow lights from streetlamps and households and brighter white flood lights illuminating commercial premises or factory warehouses. Tonight it was a uniform black canvas. My first thought was of a blanket power failure. That didn’t seem to be likely though and I went to bed still puzzled.

Only the next morning did the answer become apparent – a great pall of mist hung over the entire valley and plain beyond obscuring everything except the distant hills. Walking between the trees of the orchard above the house as the path wound its way up and along the opposing slope I saw the nearby medieval hilltop town of Montevettolini nestled like a floating castle on the blanket of formless cloud. The words of a song from the play Les Miserables appeared in my mind – “There is a castle on a cloud, I like to go there in my sleep…”

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The hilltop town of Montevettolini nestled in the morning mists.

As I was saying, returning to the olive harvest, the crates were placed together on the far side of the house alongside a machine of some sort. Its use soon became apparent.

Several of the resident men: Indiano, Frederick, Caesar and one or two others, used the machine to separate the leaves from the olives before taking them off to be pressed. One or other of them would tip the unsorted mass onto an inclined metal sorting tray while another of them directed a leaf blower over the mix. While the leaves were dispersed in the powerful gusts of warm air from the blower the others would keep pushing the jostling mixture of twigs, leaves and fruit back up the shoot until the weight of the olives took them back down the tray until they were allowed to fall into an open sack. The dispersed leaves lay inches deep all around the apparatus.

Away from the olives, as I mentioned, there was no real routine except for the preparation of food for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was the responsibility of the individual. I noticed that most of the residents didn’t bother much with breakfast, being content with several espressos, a cigarette or two and an occasional piece of bread or fruit (Kaki fruit and beautiful fleshy oranges hung from several trees around the house).

There was supposedly a roster where one could sign up to cook but it didn’t seem to be used very effectively. Mostly one or other of the residents would take the lead – Irene, the heavily pregnant Janine, or Caesar. They cooked big pots of pasta, rice or polenta accompanied by boiled or steamed vegetables and perhaps a salad and a sauce.

…most of the residents didn’t bother much with breakfast, being content with several espressos, a cigarette or two and an occasional piece of bread or fruit (Kaki fruit and beautiful fleshy oranges hung from several trees around the house).

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Lunch with our fellow volunteers at the black, polished olivewood table in the community dining room.

We were invited to sit at a long, evidently well-used olivewood table in the dining room but space was limited to perhaps 12 people or so. Raphael was usually given the privilege of sitting on a high chair at the nearside end and Mirjam and I would usually sit on either side. Others chose to eat sitting on one of the sofas flanking the ample fireplace in one corner of the room or on one of several wooden stools that could be moved closer to the warmth.

When the fire wasn’t burning the room could be quite frigid. The two main meals were always accompanied by hunks of white bread and several pewter decanters of olive oil. On occasion there were salted olives, salvaged from the harvest. They were bitter and unpalatable.

The two main meals were always accompanied by hunks of white bread and several pewter decanters of olive oil.

It was quite funny to see Raphael become accustomed to the addition of olive oil to every dish. After a short while he refused to start eating until a liberal dose was poured over his helping. As I said before, the Mediterraneans had a natural affinity for young children. The itinerant Caesar would squat down and chat with him in English or Spanish, much like our Catalan friend Pol had done when he lived with us at the Vlierhof, and dubbed him Rafaelo after a well-known musician back in his hometown of Seville.

Caesar told me he’d taught himself English working hotel jobs. His shiny, beady eyes took everything in at a glance and if I had to zoomorphize him I would think of a crow or a wily village dog – creatures adept at surviving adversity. That wasn’t to say he was cunning or calculating, only that he had a capacity for survival. He seldom stayed anywhere for more than a month or two he told me. From here he would travel south towards Sardinia where he knew other people.

One thing that soon became apparent regarded the home-schooling – it wasn’t happening. A small room that adjoined the dining room contained an assortment of plastic and wooden toys, old magazines, boxes of crayons, and scattered sheets of manuscript paper and old drawings. It was in partial disarray when we arrived. It was also freezing cold, dusty and uninviting. Victoria told us that it hadn’t been used since the summer and not as a teaching room for longer still. A couple who had been instrumental in setting it up and running the homeschool had decided to relocate somewhere else with their kids and with their departure the remaining families had retreated to their own domestic routine.

One thing that soon became apparent regarded the home-schooling – it wasn’t happening.

Victoria was a burly, kindly woman with short, unkempt brown hair and crooked teeth. Nevertheless I detected a solidity to her and I imagined that if she needed to be she could be a force in her own right. She needed certain level of resilience being a single mother in those circumstances. Her boy of 8 years appeared to be a bit troubled and much in need of a masculine role model. He frequently threw tantrums and showed an unpleasant precociousness which verged on aggression. I became a bit wary of him as he loudly sauntered through the house looking for something or someone to rumble.

the younger girl, Melissa, was a sweet girl with big dark eyes, an olive-brown complexion and attractive dark curls. Her favourite playmate was the marginally older pig-tailed daughter of Manuela, the other single mother in the community. Unlike Melissa this little girl looked like a miniature version of her mother – short, blonde, blue-eyed with a strong, broad face and attractive smile. Not that I had seen much of that smile from her mother in our first week there. It was a good ten days or so before I could break the ice. She seemed perpetually busy which was no surprise really. Around 0700 each morning of the week she would take her teenage son to school down in the valley, usually tying it in with various other tasks, before coming back later in the day.

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The pile of rusty bicycles outside of the workshop.

I took it upon myself to try and mend a puncture on one of the kid’s bicycles so that Raphael could use it. There was a rusty assortment of them piled up next to the workshop and I assumed no-one would mind or even notice. In that I was wrong. One evening Manuela confronted me in the kitchen about the bicycle which was at that moment lying in pieces on the workshop counter. She seemed annoyed and explained how people were always coming with good intentions but never finishing what they started before departing for somewhere else. I could understand that from my own experience of living in community and I must have convinced her because she suddenly mellowed when I promised her that I would finish the job come what may.

She seemed annoyed and explained how people were always coming with good intentions but never finishing what they started before departing for somewhere else.

She smiled and fixed me with her blue eyes. I felt invited to share an unexpected intimacy which took me quite by surprise. I understood in that moment that there was surely a lot of emotion and unspoken feelings bottled up in this pint-sized woman. I suppose I gave her the right cue to open up about some of this because she proceeded to talk variously about family, the difficulties of living in community and various other challenges. She said something to me then which I will never forget, especially since it was the first and only time we got to talk like that. She thanked me for carrying Raphael around in a baby-carrier, something I did almost every day, especially when outside.

It’s not normal in Italy she explained.

Here we still live in a patriarchal society. You are a good example to the other men here. You show them what is possible.

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Mario playing solitaire out in the sun

Of the other notable women there, Irene, Cristina and Janina loom large in my mind. A little more about Irene the teacher who I already said a little about.

I remember her as a quiet yet strong presence. Her neat little room was situated next to our and when I peeped inside I was given the impression of an orderly and inviting little sanctuary, a wood-burner by the window and sparkly lights reflected off some sort of mirror-ball dancing along the walls. She was the one who had welcomed us and successive volunteers. Her large brown eyes conveyed an intensity and intelligence. I wouldn’t say she was pretty but she exuded a kindness especially when she smiled. I detected a hint of sadness or perhaps weariness at other times. As I said she cared deeply for Mario calling him an amazing, amazing man.

Here we still live in a patriarchal society. You are a good example to the other men here. You show them what is possible.

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Irene and Indiano set a net in the orchard

She was away teaching most days but stayed to help with the olive harvesting on one or two days. In the evenings especially on the weekend I saw her in the company of a well-conditioned younger man in his 20s. I forget his name. He was popular with the children and spent much of his time jostling with Victoria’s boy and some of the younger kids. I was quite surprised to learn that he and Irene were an item but I could see how his youthful playfulness could provide a foil to her seriousness and position of responsibility.

Janina was heavily pregnant when we arrived. She was from Chile and had come there earlier in the year. We would witness a birth before we departed! More on that and the quite amazingly diversity of other people who passed through Avalon during the rest of our two weeks there in my next post.

If you got this far, thanks for reading! Next post coming soon…

Italy (Part I): Soggy Socks and Good Samaritans, the journey to Avalon

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So our summer break came around at last. We could have taken it when it was actually summer and not the end of autumn/beginning of winter, given the flexibility of the intentional community (IC) where we reside, but we had procrastinated until the summer ended abruptly sometime in September. I remember the timing because we had just had our annual summer festival in balmy upper 20/30 °C weather. The day after it ended the rain arrived and the mercury dropped 10 degrees or so and never returned northwards.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years.

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A good omen perhaps? The view from our bedroom window, two days before our flight to Italy.

In the succeeding months we did our part helping out in the various workshops that I had booked earlier in the season before Cora came on board. It had become apparent that she was being given the reigns regarding the running of the seminar house and probably the administration as well.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years. The founder, an Octogenarian variously called Anutosh or Wouter, liked to shake things up from time to time. Mirjam and I had sat opposite him and his fellow board-member Tineke at a table in the community dining room.

“I always intended this to be a place of growth and once you stop growing then it’s time to leave. I don’t see any further growth opportunities for you. You’re a great guy but it’s time… what are you going to DO with your life?” he challenged me, simultaneously scrutinising me with his one good eye while his other glass one stared out implacable as always.

So from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity. People around us started to ask questions. We had done some research through the GEN Europe website. GEN is an acronym for the Global Ecovillage Network. Our community in Germany, the Vlierhof,  was a paid up member of the European EV network but we had little contact or collaboration with other members I’d discovered. However I liked their philosophy and resonated with their values and both Mirjam and I wanted to take the opportunity to visit at least one other EV before departing the Vlierhof.

… from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity.

Considering the time of year we decided that a Mediterranean country was probably our best bet. Think sun and warmth. But we would discover that nothing could be further from the truth! Our immediate destination was Ecovillagio Avalon Elfi, a community in the Elf Valley in the vicinity of Florence. It was one of the few EVs in the RIVE network (L’associazione Rete Italiana dei Villaggi Ecologici) that met to our expectations i.e. open to parents and engaged in some form of homeschooling. We’d had a positive response from a guy called Riccardo and later someone called Victoria.

wp_20191108_11_09_19_proHere is a map of the northern half of Italy from the RIVE handbook (courtesy of Riccardo) showing the location of the various EVs falling within the RIVE domain. The label for Avalon (Valle degli Elfi) is about 3/4 of the way down the left-hand side.

Later Riccardo would point out that there were only a handful that he knew of that had a focus on families and education (he was on the executive committee of RIVE).

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Raphael gambols amongst the various items of hand luggage, Weeze Airport departures.

And so on the 4th November of last year we flew out to Pisa from our local airport, Weeze. It was only a few months prior that I’d flown to the UK from there (see previous post). Incredibly, everything we took we managed to take as hand luggage. In an effort to travel economically we only paid for two 10 kg cabin bags. The other items fell under our allowance. These days the free stuff is pretty miserly but we had the advantage of a baby, or was it the disadvantage?!

Not for the first time I was quite taken aback by the amount of stuff ‘needed’ for the two boys. Almost the entirety of the larger bag was taken up by fabric nappies, inserts, cotton wipes, polyester outers etc. My bag I shared with communal items and in addition the baby had his own small dedicated bag. We were at the very limits of what was possible for a couple with young children to do, considering that we would be traveling on public transport for most of the trip.

The RyanAir flight itself was reasonably smooth and uneventful and we arrived early afternoon at Pisa International. Our plan then was to catch the train inland to Pistoia and then take a bus as far as we could go.

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses. Small pockets of cultivated olives would appear in the intervening spaces and disappear just as quickly. Trellised grape vines and fig trees adorned the gardens and courtyards of the houses that flanked the rail and gave the illusion of late summer. In the carriage the temperature was moderate but when the doors opened a frigid blast of cold air reminded us that summer had come and gone. At some point it begun to rain, a defining feature of our trip!

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses.

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Our modestly-priced bus tickets from Pistoia to Casalguidi

It took us quite some time to figure out where to buy bus tickets in the regional town of Pistoia. At first glance there was nothing very remarkable about it but we would return later to discover that it had its charms. A crowded bus took us as far as the small town of Casalguidi. From here we only knew that we would have to make our own way to the community.

Night had fallen and we traipsed the affluent, suburban neighbourhood despondently. The few people we met were unable to help. Eventually we met a friendly passer-by walking his dog who pointed out a guest house on the same street. I dialled the number on the door and helpfully he took the call. A few minutes later an unassuming, middle-aged man in glasses appeared.

He disappeared into the little house and soon appeared at the front door. He ushered us inside as we said goodbye to the man with the dog who lived a few houses up. With apparent haste and few words of introduction we were showed a family room with a double and single bed and asked whether we would take it. I was on the point of saying yes when Mirjam urged me to tell him about our true intention which was the journey to the community of Avalon.

We showed him the address and after consulting his phone he announced that he would take us there. I was quite taken aback. Not only would he lose out on our business but he was actually prepared, at his time and expense, to drive us there. This sort of unsolicited hospitality was something we would experience time and again. The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

The drive up to Avalon, a few hundred metres up the valley, was on a road so circuitous, winding and narrow that we could never have hoped to negotiate it safely without a ride. Our good samaritan took us as far as he could safely go  – the neighbouring Agriturismo Fiorito – but nonetheless organised a lift for us in a 4×4 from the proprietor. He refused payment of any kind and with a brief wave and inclination of the head he disappeared back along the dirt track which led to the tarred road several hundred metres further on.

The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

Our arrival at Avalon was a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed as though our arrival had been forgotten and we had to make ourselves comfortable for some time in the communal living room while one or other of them scouted around for a suitable place for us. One of those helping out was a slim Dutch lady, around my sort of age and sporting braided hair and an indifferent attitude. At least that is how she came across.

It turned out that she was also called Mirjam. Back at the Vlierhof community we once had 3 of them present at the same time and there were currently two of me (Leo) and a Leon besides. Naturally a major source of confusion amongst new visitors. I will write more about each of them, Mirjam included, later in this post.

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A view of Avalon from above as it nestles amongst olive orchards (centre of photo) on a steep hillside about two hundred meters or so above the base of the valley.

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The south-facing side of the main house. The entrance to the passage leading up to our bedroom is at the far right of the photo.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair. It was pleasing to the eye in the way that rustic buildings often are but the reality was that our roof leaked from several spots along the width of the beam that supported our roof and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever. Our neighbours had their own wood burners but we were not so fortunate.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair…our roof leaked from several spots…and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever.

There were numerous black garbage bags filled with personal belongings beneath the bed and along one wall of the room were odds and sods including an old roll of carpet and an assortment of plastic kids toys. One lucky addition was a plastic potty for Raphael’s exclusive use. He soon discovered that one of the toys made sounds and before long Mirjam was imploring me to hide it out of sight. It was actually quite a hilarious mix of Italian and English accompanying various actions: pushing a bell; spinning a water wheel; opening a door; touching a cat…

The red clay floor tiles wore a coat of dust and gritty sand from outside. One of the first things I did was to sweep it clean or as clean as I could without getting down on my hands and knees and scrubbing it. It was too cold for that. The rain outside was fairly continuous and the rainwater trickled through equally relentless – drip, drip, drip.

We manoeuvered the camping bed Raphael would sleep on against the wall opposite our larger double bed and just beyond a puddle of water from the leaky roof. At this point both of us were probably thinking the same thing – was this really the place we wanted to spend the next month? 

It would take 4 or 5 days before we realised that we could survive there, albeit under some testing conditions. When we inquired about the possibility of getting another room, one without a leaky ceiling we were met with amused chuckles. All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings someone informed us matter-of-factly. I think it’s fair to say that I suffered the conditions least well and vented my frustration on Mirjam on about day 3 or 4. Not that it was her fault. By all accounts there are numerous ecovillages and communities around Europe in a similar predicament.

“All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings” someone informed us matter-of-factly.

Very few survive beyond 10 years and even fewer can truly claim to be mature, stable, self-sustaining entities. Of those that are you always hear the same story and that is of a small, stable core of persons and strong, directed leadership. Avalon was 40 years old but struggling. The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

He appeared to be suffering from a progressive degenerative condition. I overheard Parkinson’s being mentioned. He was lovingly cared for by Irene, an Italian lady in her early 40s, who taught science at one of the local schools. She referred to him as an amazing man and a very special person. I will elaborate on both of them further in my next post.

The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

In my limited experience I’ve come to believe that most ecovillages are inherently non-conformist, anti-establishment communities of fairly diverse individuals. Many of the personalities drawn to EVs and ICs are either fiercely disillusioned with mainstream society, instilled with certain ideals (usually on the far left of the political spectrum), or searching for a sense of spirituality and belonging. Quite often they attract people seeking asylum or refuge from life’s mishaps and misadventures.

I learnt from Irene that Avalon had always had an open door policy, but residence was not guaranteed. That was at the discretion of the long-term community. It was no different in our EV back in Germany. Another short-term volunteer, Julia, who arrived a little later spoke to numerous people and informed me that many of the residents were in fact recovered or recovering addicts. This didn’t find this particularly surprising but it was a revelation.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental. It would take some time for me to realise that as I mentioned before but when I did it allowed me to experience the place in a new way, to see it in a different light.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental.