In this third and final post from our trip to the Avalon Community I elaborate on the short-term volunteers like us who came from near and far to help with the olive harvesting. I elaborated on the details of the harvest, the objectives and the challenges, in the previous post. Notable challenges that year (2019) included excessive rains and olive fruit fly infestation.
Towards the end of the last post I introduced Janina, a Chilean lady, who’d spent the last year or so with the community. She was a big, strong girl with fair skin, lightly freckled around her nose, loose dark brown hair framing a round, amiable face and sparkling, inquisitive eyes. Probably the first thing new arrivals would take note of was her heavily distended belly. She was almost at full term when we arrived. Her due date was imminent.
It appeared that she was well liked and still a very present and active member of the community, helping out with most of the meal preparation and chatting good-naturedly after mealtimes at the long olive wood table or leaning against a counter in the kitchen in-between the lengthy meal preparation and cooking episodes.
I didn’t have the chance to chat to her much but one evening in conversation with one or other of the volunteers I learnt that she had graduated from university in Santiago and had gone on to work in a bank. A familiar tale ensued – the job paid well but was ultimately unfulfilling. Not long after coming back I tuned into a news bulletin or podcast highlighting the social unrest in Chile and years of gathering frustration among citizens fed up with the status quo, part of a greater pattern in Latin America at the start of the new decade. And so to Janina: she liberated herself by travelling first to Spain and by and by to Italy.
A familiar tale ensued – the job paid well but was ultimately unfulfilling.
As for the father of the child-to-be we never met him. Neither was much said, except it was rumoured that things hadn’t worked out between them. Well at least she could find solace, if needed, in Manuela and Victoria, two other single mothers living there. I asked Janina if it had been easy to learn Italian being a Spanish speaker.
“When I don’t know a word I just make it up. They know what I mean,” she said with a laugh.
Because the due date was so close a young Italian lady, Ale (Ah-leh), who had visited in the summer, arrived around the same time as us with the intention being a midwife to Janina and the baby. Ale had a tiny Fiat Panda, probably the best kind of car to negotiate the narrow rutted trail from the nearby Agriturismo. She was friendly and sweet with twinkling eyes, very short in stature and very focused on the job at hand.
Upon arrival we discovered a young German boy around 22 years of age who’d been there for at least 10 days already. He was of medium height with sandy brown hair, well-proportioned features, blue eyes behind round gold-rimmed glasses and exuding an air of quiet calm amidst the chaos.
Nothing seemed to perturb him much as he sat quietly reading a well-thumbed book in one of the old armchairs near the front door to the communal space cum open-plan kitchen. With his help we learned about the contents of two large wooden chests pushed up against the stone wall near the door which also doubled as a bench and convenient spot to lay one’s coat.
Nothing seemed to perturb him much as he sat quietly reading a well-thumbed book in one of the old armchairs near the front door to the communal space cum open-plan kitchen.
These wooden kists held a variety of dry foods, amongst them a large bag of sesame seeds and another of barley. Considering that most of the residents were content with a piece of fruit for breakfast, washed down with numerous cups of strong black coffee, this sort of provision was essential to us. We had all come to enjoy our morning pap or porridge.
Mirjam had a small bag of oats since she was gluten intolerant but this wasn’t enough for the 3 of us. And so I set about soaking the barley and removing the assortment of weevils which floated to the surface. This didn’t bother me much having grown up with such things but one or two later arrivals baulked at the idea of eating the stuff!
When he spoke the young man had an endearing lisp, something some of the younger kids who came after us would make fun of in a the way that children do, without malice. After a few days a slew of new volunteers arrived: a young, recently married German couple, Niko and Verena; a lanky Dutchman called Rik; a family of four consisting of a British-Cypriot mother, Barbara, and her 3 children; and an Australian girl called Julia.
After a few days a slew of new volunteers arrived: a young, recently married German couple, Niko and Verena; a lanky Dutchman called Rik; a family of four consisting of a British-Cypriot mother, Barbara, and her 3 children; and an Australian girl called Julia.
Niko and Verena had recently graduated as secondary school teachers and were taking a year out to travel with an emphasis on visiting intentional communities throughout Europe. My initial impression was of starry-eyed idealists. At first they kept a healthy distance, observing everything from the sidelines as it were, but they gradually engaged on their own terms.
Niko was tall, bearded and good natured. Verena too was taller than average with a good figure, shoulder length blonde hair framing a scholarly, bespectacled face. I imagine she attracted a fair bit of interest from other men on their travels and I wasn’t too surprised to see Riccardo the next day sitting close by her at the fireplace, the two each rolling a cigarette, and in focused conversation.
I observed the couple over the course of the next week and saw that they appeared very comfortable in each other’s company; none of that clinging insecurity from Niko’s side that some men affect with an attractive spouse or girlfriend. I liked him, frank and open in his communication, somewhat reserved but thawing with conversation. He wanted to teach literature and politics to upper school students (ages 16, 17, 18) and more so to challenge them in their perceptions. Judging by his engagement with Gabriel, an 11 year old English boy, I could see him excelling in the role. Gabriel came to adore him.
I suspected Verena was very brainy. I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk with her but a cursory discussion of books and opinion on current affairs said as much. She appeared to speak very passable Italian which she’d picked up on a previous 3 month au Pair experience in Italy. That impressed me greatly. On the subject of their home nation they were both quite outspoken, scorning the prevailing fiscal policy of the Black Zero or schwarze Null intended to maintain a balanced Federal Budget, at the expense Niko told me, of investing in critical infrastructure.
“The country is suffering because of this narrow-minded political approach,” He expounded.
“But then again that’s probably because he (the finance minister) is from Stuttgart,“ he explained.
“They have a reputation for being very tight,” he said with a grin directed towards Verena, who also hailed from that city.
Rik was a lanky gent who also took a little while to engage. He appeared quiet and softly spoken but when I got to know him a bit better I discovered that he was sensitive and also very smart. He’d studied International Relations or something similar and after doing a Masters worked as a Postgrad researcher in the area of refugee policy formulation. He had become frustrated at the lack of implementation by the establishment and after some consideration had decided to throw it in.
“The moment came when I had to make a decision to commit my life to this cause and I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I stepped back.”
He gave some excellent insights into the political machinations of the Netherlands, of which I knew precious little, and the EU bloc as a whole. The trend in particular with regard to immigration policy was a movement to the right of the political spectrum as anti-refugee rhetoric and policies were normalised. Even the centrist parties were drifting in that direction he said with a look of concern. Rik appeared to be well-travelled in the context of Europe and, for now at least, expressed no desire to go further abroad.
The trend in particular with regard to immigration policy was a movement to the right of the political spectrum as anti-refugee rhetoric and policies were normalised.
Rik and Julia had volunteered together on another Workaway project and had planned to meet up here. Julia hailed from Melbourne and had a father of Italian descent. My initial impression of a sweet-natured but somewhat naive young woman turned out to be far off the mark. She had real metal to her. If I had to later summarise her qualities they would read something like this: open and affectionate with children, conversational, intelligent and modest.
She was hoping to find somewhere in Europe to settle down in but not before she’d returned home for Christmas. At that stage of her travels she was missing home quite badly.
The thing with Julia was how candid she was when it came to speaking about her relationship with her mother. Suffice to say she painted a less than flattering picture of her. It seemed as though there was a complicated personal history there. What did emerge from the ashes of an evidently difficult and painful relationship and the associated family dynamics was that she seemed to be able to see it for what it was, to be able to rise above it and above her (her mother).
No surprise really that she had started (but not yet completed) an academic training in social work and volunteered on and off over the years in shelters for women seeking help from abusive partners. She’d also worked with refugees, another much-overlooked sector of our Western societies.
In age she was a bit closer to me, somewhere in her mid-thirties. I was impressed by how much life experience she had accumulated in that time. In younger years she’d been very involved in the Australian skiing scene, something I knew nothing about. She was pushed hard in that direction and had gotten pretty far, even representing her country in her age group.
There wasn’t anything about her that suggested she was especially sporty but a certain steely glint in her eye which I caught from time to time suggested hidden depths of stamina and ambition. Yet I don’t think that was an overarching quality. Rather, a desire to reach out with empathy and find connection in her sphere of existence.
There wasn’t anything about her that suggested she was especially sporty but a certain steely glint in her eye which I caught from time to time suggested hidden depths of stamina and ambition.
She’d taken a CELTA course (that’s the leading qualification in the field of English language instruction to speakers of a foreign language) after a clairvoyant or soothsayer or someone of that ilk had told her that it was as clear as day to her that she was born to be a teacher. She made some allusions to energy and spirituality which suggested to me some New Age thinking. I didn’t really care too much. From my time living in community I’d known many of them and the vast majority were fairly harmless, well-intentioned, free-spirits. No doubt there would be matters on which we might have conflicting opinions but I didn’t have the time, nor inclination, to discover them.
Her personal story got more and more interesting the more she divulged. Her grandmother had been a Polish refugee to Australia from wartime Europe. Now I struggle to remember all the details but I think it goes something like this: when she arrived in Australia she did her best to forge a new life there and forsake the past. She had been interned in Auschwitz and had even left her name engraved there, something Julia was able to verify when she visited there herself (imagine that!).
Her mother was conceived sometime during the transition from the one continent to the other and had grown up believing her biological father was an Australian man her grandmother came to marry. Only later when her mother submitted her DNA to an ancestry database did she discover that she had a brother back in Europe. Further investigation revealed that he was Hungarian. I imagine that these revelations in themselves would be enough to create shockwaves in any family. It certainly added a layer of mystique to Julia.
And lastly to Barbara and her brood. If we thought we were daring traveling via public transport and hitching lifts with friendly people, it was nothing in comparison to Barbara’s little clan. They had arrived from Cyprus via Greece and had come the entire way overland and by ferry.
Barbara herself was in her late forties or thereabouts, with a dark brown complexion which she explained by way of some south Asian ancestry. She was also half Greek-Cypriot (like me) but had spent most of her life in the UK and spoke English with a distinctly British accent. Dimitri, the nervous Greek-Italian man I spoke of in the last post, was delighted to be able to speak Greek with someone else, being half Greek-half Italian and speaking both fluently.
Barbara herself was in her late forties or thereabouts, with a dark brown complexion which she explained by way of some south Asian ancestry.
I recalled the Goan community back in Zimbabwe and imagined that Barbara would, at least in appearance, fit in very well there. In truth she was a middle-aged woman living life on her own terms with the challenge of raising her three babies, as she often referred to them, in the process. The eldest of them, also called Raphael like my oldest son, was a boastful but likeable 13 year old who was the apple of his mother’s eye. The next, Gabriel (11) was a very sweet boy who lived in his brother’s shadow. The youngest, Ciara (6) was also likeable but rather needy. She latched onto Julia with some ferocity.
If the locals were annoyed by this sudden influx of Inglese for the most part they didn’t show it. If anything the general mayhem resulting from the suddenly inflated proportion of children in the community just added to the prevailing quasi-anarchist atmosphere.
But returning to Barbara, her choice of lifestyle begged to be debated in light of what was best for her kids. Was she being irresponsible? Or was she a bold, albeit unconventional woman, giving them the benefit of seeing the wider world at close quarters. I for one had mixed feelings. I think in the end it all comes down to motive: why was she living this way? What were her objectives?
Taken together the kids were sweet and really quite endearing, but their mother’s attention wasn’t equally divided. Both Mirjam and Julia were quick to notice that Raphael had a favoured status. He was a promising footballer and Barbara was quick to sing his praises and recount how football youth academies from Greece to Portugal were crying out for him to sign with them.
“He’s a left-footed midfielder you see, and they’re in demand,” she explained.
Indeed Raphael (Raphy to his mum) displayed some impressive skills with a ball he kept with him possessively, juggling it from foot to foot and doing successive round the worlds in each direction. He had obviously grown used to the flattery because it made him arrogant, ordering Gabriel to fetch things for him from their room, and boasting incessantly about his various virtues.
Of course, behind the ego was a very self-conscious boy, eager to be liked. If what Barbara said was true then he could be their ticket to an easier, more financially secure life somewhere in the future. But what a burden of expectation to place on one so young!
If what Barbara said was true then he could be their ticket to an easier, more financially secure life somewhere in the future.
Sweet little Gabriel went everywhere in a sky-blue beanie or ‘head rock‘ as they called it. His siblings had jokingly dubbed him Noddy after the Enid Blyton character from children’s literature. He was a very sensitive young boy with humorous, sparkling eyes, which clouded over unexpectedly from time to time, as if he was nursing a hidden hurt just below the surface.
He loved BMX bikes and was quick to pull one out from the assorted pile of bicycles near the workshop. He rode this down the hillside like a bat out of hell and also took to Dimitri’s diablo with a single-minded determination. Night and day he practised and was soon in dogged competition with the cocky, self-assured Ayur, Victoria’s oldest.
In contrast Raph spent much of the time moaning about a lack of stuff – hot chocolate, fast food, cafes, restaurants etc. I guess he was assuming the life of entitlement that comes with being a pro-footballer in the big leagues before he’d even gotten there! To his credit he would talk to all and sundry. After a few days of them getting there he boasted to me that he’d talked to everyone except Mario. I got a kick out of telling him there was a McDonald’s just down the hill (there wasn’t) and that I’d been relaxing there that very afternoon. He turned to his mum and begged her to go take him down without delay.
One evening Irene gave me and the boy a lift down to the nearest town, Casagrande, to get some supplies. Once at the local supermarket, Conrad, he was quick to flag a member of staff and quickly fired off a list of questions – where could we find the sugar? The raisins? The oatmeal? Why walk the isles in search of something when someone could just show you? After the supermarket I indulged him and bought the both of us a hot chocolate in a nearby cafe. The elderly ladies who ran the place cooed and smiled good-naturedly as he grinned his appreciation for the treat.
We’d left late in the day and darkness descended on us on the walk back up. Never mind the fact that we took a wrong turn and I wasted precious minutes (and mobile data) trying to find our position and direction. After walking for an hour or so we broke open a packet of jam biscuits and destroyed them in short measure.
It helped the morale and Raphy perked up and set about trying to flag down a ride with renewed vigour. He jumped up and down with arms outstretched and after a few cars passed us by, in the end it paid dividends and we were spared the ignominy of traipsing the remaining 5 kilometers or so in the dark along a rather treacherous, winding road.
Barbara relied on a monthly maintenance allowance of several hundred pounds from her ex- in the UK. Not so much to maintain a family of four but she was happy to elaborate on her methods of frugal living – sleeping on the beach in Cyprus in the summer months for instance – coupled with an itinerant’s eye for a good bargain. That’s not to say she was neglectful of her kid’s needs. To the contrary, she insisted on indulging in certain things for them like real oatmeal (and not the weevil-infested barley I was cooking up), fruit juice and various other things.
…she was happy to elaborate on her methods of frugal living – sleeping on the beach in Cyprus in the summer months for instance – coupled with an itinerant’s eye for a good bargain
She was an interesting person to talk despite being taken in by a range of conspiracy theories and ideas of nefarious systems of control, dark agendas and shadow powers. I wasn’t surprised to discover that she was anti-vaccination and pro-marijuana. Throughout our stay she regularly wore a Bob Marley T-shirt, if that means anything in itself. I liked Barbara despite these ideas which I roundly reject. She was shrewd but not unkind.
It’s anyone’s guess how things would turn out for the four of them. I imagined she would have to settle somewhere again, even if it was back in the UK. The kids spoke about life in North London, especially Raphy and Gabriel who took delight in recalling brushes with criminal elements alongside the monotony of life on a council estate. Their accents did nothing to suggest that they’d lived anywhere else but North London. But they also spoke about life in Cyprus, going to school there, and having to stand up for themselves as English boys. There had also been a previous stay in Portugal.
It also became clear that Barbara’s relations with her near family, other than her kids (she also had two older girls living back in England), were not good. One reason given was that they disagreed with her lifestyle and her method of bringing up the kids. That wasn’t so hard to imagine but didn’t go so far as to explain why things were as bad as she made them out to be. That was until one of the boys recalled the episode of being stranded in Toulouse Airport for 4 days or so without money. As in the character Viktor Navorski from the movie The Terminal I suppose many people are aware that certain persons become stateless and stranded in the neutral environs of international airports.
…one of the boys recalled the episode of being stranded in Toulouse Airport for 4 days or so without money.
In Barbara and the kid’s case this had something to do with missing a flight and not having the money for new tickets. Raphy was proud to say that he’d made friends with key members of the catering establishment therein and ensured the family a regular supply of nachos or fries or whatnot. It sounded a bit harrowing, especially since I’d once experienced the discomfort of sleeping overnight in a departure lounge, fluorescent lights glaring and PA announcements yanking me from the deeper cycles of sleep that I so craved. The idea of spending four days and nights in that environment made me shudder.
In the end Barbara had managed to beg one or other of her family to bail them out financially. I was sad to learn from the boys that they were one of four families stranded in the airport. Extrapolate worldwide and you can only imagine the situation at any given moment. Evidently there was more to the story but at some point Barbara forbade the boys from telling me any further details.
Besides the complement of volunteers there were a few other individuals from other communities who came by for one or several nights. One of them was a very sweet, Swiss lady called Nicola, around my age in years. She had twinkling eyes and an elvish face. She lived in another commune an hour or two to the north of us in Tuscany. She told me that she divided her year between there and Switzerland, 6 months in each. She had a daughter of 14 years, fathered by Riccardo. How present he was in her life (the daughter) I could only assess indirectly but Nicola and he appeared cordial to each other.
Nicola worked in a theatre company in her native Switzerland and her skills as a puppet-maker were evident when she crafted a wooden horse on a stick for my Raphael which he was delighted with. He roared around the communal rooms, neighing and rollicking and before long the head had parted from the stick. We got quite used to sticking it on again periodically.
Nicola worked in a theatre company in her native Switzerland and her skills as a puppet-maker were evident when she crafted a wooden horse on a stick for my Raphael…
Then there was Cristina, an Italian lady from Genoa who also had a little boy of 4 or 5. Her partner, A Moroccan man with braided hair, features in the title image alongside Raphael and Ciara playing table-football in the workshop. She was very helpful to us in the final days when the terrible weather and other unforeseen circumstances conspired to prevent us from leaving. Sadly, like so all the other relationships there, she and her partner lived apart. They had come together on this occasion because of the child’s birthday.
Although she was probably a few years younger than me still, she seemed a little world-weary. On the last Friday we were there we’d had a pizza night at which there was alcohol (the community was officially ‘dry’ but exceptions were made) and one or two single women drifted in from beyond. While we chatted the next day Cristina lamented her partner’s weakness for other women and alcohol.
“As I expected and even though he promised me not to, he got drunk. And of course he was trying to impress that French girl,” alluding to the newcomer, a not unattractive young woman with arched eyebrows, and sporting a leather jacket.
The conversation drifted to Avalon generally and she poke pityingly of Mario’s ambitions and how he had sadly failed to build something that would outlive him. She also scorned Riccardo, saying that he was more concerned with his personal appearance and ambitions in the Italian Ecovillage hierarchy, than he was with being a father to Nicola’s daughter. She revealed that there was another child by another woman somewhere else too.
The conversation drifted to Avalon generally and she poke pityingly of Mario’s ambitions and how he had sadly failed to build something that would outlive him.
Let me finally return to Janina. As you will recall me saying in the previous post, she was heavily pregnant and due any day. That moment came on the evening of the pizza event. We awoke the following morning, a Saturday, to learn it from Victoria or one of her children. We kept a respectful distance while a few of the women made broths, freshly squeezed orange-juice and provided all necessary attention to the new mother and child. I got a fleeting glimpse of the two of them the next evening, the mother and baby, blanketed and cosy in the warmth of a wood-fired outside cabin.
I hadn’t intended to go in there but I’d taken a wrong turn looking for something or someone. There was a moment when I opened the door, felt the blast of warm air and beheld the cosy intimacy of the three of them, that is seared in my imagination. It was in that fraction of time, no more than a second or two, that I realised my intrusion and quickly retreated with a mumbled apology. There were no recriminations, only a smile and a giggle from the new mother, whether out of embarrassment or sympathy I couldn’t say.
That was the last I would see of them before we finally managed to get a lift down to Pistoia the following day. We spent the last night in Cristina’s room which was kind of her considering how damp and cold our was in those conditions. The wind howled and the rain was incessant. I made a fire in the wood stove but after an hour or two it had burned down and the wind, which whistled under the door, soon carried the warmth away with it. I thought of Janina and the bay in the cabin and hoped that Ale was more adept than me at keeping a fire alive.
It’s always hard to say goodbye after being in such close communion with people for any period longer than a day or two. So even though two weeks is not so long at all it felt like we’d lived through an epoch! Our timing so far as the weather went was poor perhaps, but we’d met such an amazing selection of people, and even had the good fortune to be there when the 42nd child of the Avalon community had come into this world.
Our timing so far as the weather went was poor perhaps, but we’d met such an amazing selection of people, and even had the good fortune to be there when the 42nd child of the Avalon community had come into this world.
From Pistoia we would travel by rail first to Piacenza via Bologna, and the following day from there to Lago d’Orta in the north, to stay at the Centro d’Ompio, an establishment not dissimilar to our community back in Germany. But that is for another time, another post. I’m not sure I’ll get around to it any time soon.
Since our travels 4 months ago the entire nation has become synonymous with the Covid19 pandemic, the first nation in Europe to be afflicted by the virus, and the first to have implemented a nation-wide lockdown. These are worrying times but I have no doubt that they will pass. Life will go on. I do hope all the people I met here come out of it unscathed and resilient enough in their clans and communities to find the strength to weather the uncertainty and challenges which surely lie ahead.