Before Pip Williams became the bestselling author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, she quit her career and travelled to Italy with her family as ‘WWOOFers’ (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). In this extract from her memoir One Italian Summer, Pip charts the highs and lows of the search for la dolce vita.
We wake on the first morning to a biting cold that we didn’t expect of an Italian spring. The mountains are keen to hang on to winter for a little longer, and we’re forced to wear most of our clothes to stay warm. Aidan wants to stay in bed. We can’t convince him otherwise so decide not to push it. Riley offers Shannon and me a hand each, and we swing him down the path towards the house.
Our host Ulrike has prepared a large pot of porridge for breakfast. Ulrike and Stefan are practiced beekeepers so honey is a feature of most meals at Il Mulino, but it is best suited to breakfast. Riley, who must be a distant relative of Winnie-the-Pooh, spoons huge amounts into his bowl, and ours. It magnifies the oats, turning them sepia.
People come in and out of the kitchen. They fill bowls, slice bread. Some sit, others take their breakfast with them. Shannon and I pat ourselves on the back for adjusting to our new circumstances and marvel at how accepting the boys are – the rebellion we’ve been waiting for might not come. When Stefan sits down at the table, the porridge pot is empty, so he takes a thick slice of bread. I wonder briefly what Aidan will have for breakfast and make a mental note to ask about eggs.
There is a beautiful young woman named Simona, Stefan and Ulrike’s fourth child, and the toddler in her arms is her daughter, Amalie. Simona explains that her brothers, Giovanni and Herman, live on other parts of the farm, and that her sister Eva is studying in Florence.
Stefan tells us about the schedule of work. Actually, ‘schedule’ is too rigid a word. Life at Il Mulino is much more organic, and activity is dictated by need: if the grass is long it will be cut, if the walnuts are falling they’ll be gathered, if there are weeds they’ll be pulled. It’s as if the industrial revolution never happened. The only activities that have a regular rhythm are associated with eating, Amalie or the bees – and we don’t need an alarm to be reminded of those.
‘What are you smiling about?’ Shannon asks.
‘Alarm clocks. I’ve always hated ours, but I’ve never realised how perfect that name is.’
‘It alarms me,’ I say, spooning porridge into my mouth and recalling the small panic I would wake with, then the lingering fear. ‘Remind me to get rid of it when we get home,’ I add.
On our first day I get to know Amalie and all her lovely little ways, while Shannon accompanies Stefan to check on hives.
Babysitting isn’t quite what I had in mind when I committed to volunteering on organic farms, but it’s the perfect activity to ease our family into a wwoofing way of life. I can include the boys in whatever I’m doing with Amalie, and they make babysitting a whole lot easier than it might otherwise be. Riley gets more pleasure out of playing with squeaky balls than I do, and when I tire of reading Dieci Coniglietti (Ten Little Bunnies) the boys can take over. It’s win, win, win – Simona gets to earn some money attending to the needs of an old woman in a nearby village, Ulrike can get on with baking and washing and tending her greenhouse, and the boys and I learn how to count to ten in Italian.
With Amalie on my hip I have an excuse to wander into the kitchen whenever I like. The loaf left on the kitchen table tempts us, and Riley and I snack on slices of rye all morning. Aidan snacks on nothing. At lunchtime he leaves a plate of brown rice and vegetables untouched, and drinks three glasses of apple juice. He’s tired, he says, so I suggest an afternoon nap. Once I’ve handed Amalie over to her work-weary mother, I begin weeding around the lettuces in the greenhouse.
The product of my afternoon’s labour is two buckets of weeds. I empty them on a compost pile then take the track up to the woodhouse to check on Aidan. He’s been resting a long time, and I suspect some sneaky DS play. I compose my lecture: it’s light on reproach and heavy on enticement – table tennis should draw him out without fuss.
Aidan isn’t on the DS. He’s lying on his side and staring at the wall. I walk around our mattress and sit on the edge of his. Vomit has stuck to his chin.
‘Aidan, what’s wrong?’ ‘I don’t feel well.’
I get him up and hand him a drink bottle, but he needs to be sick again. We hurry out the door and he retches into the scrub beside the cabin. The stuff is liquid, slightly yellow – not a scrap of half-digested food. Not quite the protest I was anticipating. I have no way of reasoning with this.
I realise that Aidan hasn’t eaten properly for two days and has filled his belly with water, apple juice and a tiny bit of chocolate.
We’ve been so preoccupied with being good wwoofers that we barely noticed. His pale face and bile are my reproof – I never did remember to ask about eggs for his breakfast.
I put my arm around his shoulders and lead him down the path to the kitchen. I don’t know what I’ll feed him, but feed him I will. In the end it’s Ulrike who comes to the rescue. She’s just made an apple cake. Aidan eats two slices then bounds out of the kitchen, all smiles. This is his superpower; the physical and emotional insults of life just don’t stick to him. It’s not a trait he inherited from me.
I slide into a chair and let Ulrike cut me a thick wedge. ‘Sometimes my daughter Marta refuses to eat my bread, so when I go into the village I usually buy some white rolls,’ Ulrike says, walking over to a large wooden chest. She lifts the lid on her emergency stash. ‘Please, give to Aidan when you want.’
I feel less like a stranger.