Monday, March 20, 2017

Two-week HelpX Farm Stay in Dozza

Victoria picked me up from the small train station in Imola, and then we were off to the farm. Once I got settled in, my first task was to organize the tupperware drawer. "Do it however you want," she told me, "just as long as everything fits." Yes!

On the first evening, I asked Victoria what time I should get up in the morning.

“The girls are up eating breakfast at 6:45, 7” she said.

Seeing the look of horror on my face, she then added "but... you could get up… quarter past, or..., um, 7:30, yes, I think that would work if you’re up by 7:30.”

I set an alarm the first day, then never set one again. I’d wake up around 7 most days, from the sun coming through the window and voices in the kitchen. Then I’d be out eating cereal for breakfast by 7:30.

The girls were usually getting ready upstairs at that point, and left with Victoria around 7:45 or 7:50 for school. Davide then came down for breakfast and I’d have finished washing the breakfast dishes by 8.

Often then we’d go outside straight away and feed the animals. For me this meant giving a scoop of corn and seed to the chickens (sprinkling it around outside in the yard), refilling the goats' water buckets (enter the pen, take out the bucket, close pen, fill up bucket, put it back), and sometimes making a bucket of water and old bread for the pigs or helping Davide use the fork to give the goats hay.

From then, each day was different. Often Davide would give me things to do while he went off to work at someone else’s house. One day I actually went with him to help at one of his jobs. And several days Victoria asked me to hang the laundry out to dry when the washer finished—so I’d keep an eye on that.

During the two weeks, jobs included:

  • Picking grass for the pigs (often 2x, sometimes 3x a day. By the end of it I could get this done in a half hour, but it takes time to pull out all that grass by hand! Pigs are hungry!

  • Collecting branches that had been pruned from the vines and chopping them down into shorter sticks, then put into small piles to later be tied up for tinder.
  • Gardening (weeding, planting peas, planting chickpeas, replanting strawberries)
This is a row of peas we planted on one of my first days. They're covered so the chickens don't eat them!

Three beds of lettuce/salad that we planted.
  • Picking up all the branches in the outdoor goat pen and piling them into a huge, long burn pile for later
  • Weeding the loose-stone driveway
  • Digging out dark dirt (from between the current pig pen and new pig house) into buckets for customers
  • Sweeping/brushing rocks and dust from new pig house floor so it could be covered in strong concrete
  • Scavenging for wild asparagus
  • Sifting a wheelbarrow of dark dirt into bucket
  • Cutting thicker branches for thicker fire wood
  • Helping Davide get glass in a door for the renter. (Below is our makeshift door of wood while the real one was out for a cleaning, painting, and glass.)
  • Deep-cleaning the kitchen, ironing

We would eat sometime between 1 and 2. Although never explicitly asked of me, it quickly became the default that I washed dishes after every meal, too—a task I don’t mind, and which actually ended up being a big relief on my hands.

Oh yeah, so my hands quickly became covered in cuts, scrapes, thorns, splinters, and dirt. If I thought about them, I could feel some pain, but usually I was too busy in a task to focus on them. They soon got to the point that even after washing them, they looked terribly dirty.

As I’m typing this, it’s been three days without farm work, and they’re still quite coarse and looks like there’s dirt in the wrinkles, but much better than a week ago. (Update: It's now been a week since I left the farm, and my fingers still look dirty and the palm-sides are dry, but much improvement.)

Once we were finished with lunch and I had washed up, Davide would give me tasks for the afternoon. The first two days he was gone working (until 7) and Victoria was giving English lessons inside (until 7:30), so it got dark and cold outside, but I hadn’t been told a quitting time. I came in at 5 the first day and 6:30 the second day, which is why it was a bit of a shock to my body to be go-go-go- for so long. Because at that point, after a shower I was then setting the table for dinner. Often we’d eat at 8 or later, sometimes not finishing until quarter to 10. So I was like—wait, when will there ever be time to write and paint and read? I’d be in bed by 10 or 10:30, wiped out from the day.

Later on I had days where I finished everything earlier, between 4 and 5, so I did read two books while I was there. But during the two weeks I only did two paintings! One in Dozza for March’s Moment Catchers, and the other my final week of the top of the hill, looking down over the pigs.

I also did a postcard which I sent to the cafe I’d befriended in Bologna:

A Few Moments from the Stay:

I arrived on a Tuesday, and that Thursday I’d scheduled a 5 p.m. phone interview for a volunteer counselor position at Camp Quest this summer. That afternoon, I was to get grass for the pigs after lunch, then weed the driveway. As soon as I got to the top of the hill around 3 p.m., all of a sudden I felt quite nauseous and very ill. If I hadn’t had the phone interview lined up, I might have called it quits for the day then, but I half-assed the grass picking and weeds until about quarter to five, then went inside to get logged on for this phone interview, thinking I might puke.

I’m still not sure what it was—if I still had traces of whatever I’d had in Bologna, and this new schedule brought it back? Or what. But after the phone interview I showered and then tried to sleep. At 7 I got out of bed and knew I had to keep sleeping. I went in the kitchen and told Davide that I’d be skipping dinner, I wasn’t feeling well. Luckily I had that second can of ginger ale, so I drank it and went to bed. In the morning I felt mostly better, so the sleep had helped. For the next week or so, every afternoon I’d get a tiny bit nauseous after lunch, but the final week this wasn't happening anymore.


The family often spoke in Italian together, which was fine by me—but made it difficult to be conversational. It was fun to see what I could pick out from context and cognates, though. One meal Isabel, the older daughter, said something about three months. “What will last three months?” I asked, too curious to let this one slide.

Victoria explained, “She said that if she’s gone for two weeks, that would be like three months for Nina, the dog.”

“Oh, where are you going?” I asked Isabel.

“Nowhere,” she said.

It was so funny to me that she’d been thinking about how Nina would experience her absence, especially when she wasn't planning on leaving home anytime soon.


One afternoon Isabel had a glass jar filled with cotton balls she’d dipped into various colored dyes. She was making a “galaxy,” basically filling the jar with wet cotton balls, and when those ran out, wads of toilet paper. I loved her creativity!


There were goats born almost every day when I was there!

Some didn’t make it—one mother had three goats, and that’s when I learned from Davide three is very unusual because the mother only has two teats. One of those three didn’t make it through the night.

Often I’d see them wet, JUST out of their mother

—even with the blood and gunk still hanging out of the mom.

Which eventually falls to the ground:

You're welcome. It's life.

Some couldn’t even get up on two legs. But then the next day you’d see them able to move a bit more, and days later they’re cutely prancing around with the other young ones, excited to use their legs and explore this world! So curious and adventurous.

Baby chicks were born one day, too—there must have been eggs somewhere outside of the barn that didn’t get found.

We ate eggs from the chickens, cabbage from the garden, wild herbs, wil asparagus foraged nearby, ricotta made from goat milk, on the day I left, Davide was making yogurt from the goat milk.

(PS - I want to garden this summer!)

Here's as full as the fridge ever got:

And here's a picture of the family on my last evening:

Davide took me to the train station on Tuesday morning, where I then had about two hours before my train to Venezia (via Bologna). So I wrote in my journal.

Two Takeaways

I'll share with you two takeaways/observations that came out of that journaling session:
1) That stress spot on my left shoulder blade from last summer would flare up from time to time when someone was watching me—subconsciously preparing for the worst, that I wasn't doing a job up to standard. (I would have been faster without a fused spine, but I remained aware of my position/movement while working.) It's frustrating because logically I know their words would never hurt me—just a tiny discomfort (the worst that would happen), and yet intuitively my body is on the defense, getting stressed out for a far-fetched possibility that wouldn't ever harm me anyway. So that's where I am with fear-of-authority. 
2) I enjoyed that everything on the farm was 'good enough.' You don't have to remove all the dust from the floor, because this is for a pig pen after all. The sticks don't need to be in perfect piles because the wind is going to rustle them a bit anyway. You don't have to take out every single weed because more will grow. Just get the big ones. It's like the 80/20 principle in farm life. Those are my observations for now.
Farm life treated me well, and I'll close with a selfie taken to remember what I looked like on my final night there:

Next post to come: Saturdays (my day off) in Dozza!
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  1. Loved reading about your farming adventures! Baby goats for the win :)

    1. I'm glad to hear it - yes, baby goats are so awesome!