We’re up early, about 7:30 a.m. So early that the fog still lies thick over the valley, covering the town of Rufina below, even the chicken coop just ten feet below the ledge in front of me. So thick we can barely even see the olive trees below, where we’ll be spending our day. It’s no matter; by the time we make our coffee in the Moka pot and slice our thick Tuscan bread to toast, it will clear. As we slather creamy Italian butter and Cranberry Port jam over our bread, we note a chill in the air. This morning is a morning for scarves and jackets, maybe even gloves.
Salvatore walks in with a “Buon Giorno,” and I greet him with a cup of steaming hot coffee. Luigi is not far behind, toting a glass jar of his very own dried Calabrian peppers. Salvatore unscrews the lid and smells them, quickly replacing his old, somewhat browned chili peppers on the shelf with these new, brighter ones.
This is our team for the day. These funny, old Italian men that seem to be able to do quite anything with a cigarette in their mouth. Even as Luigi is coughing up what seems to be a lung, he lights another one. I will be jealous (only for a moment) later in the day, when the sun comes out and the mosquitos multiply - they will leave the smokers alone.
We bundle up, and head outside. The large green nets are already spread out below the first tree, and the olive picking begins. It’s simple work. The olives come off the branches with easy snaps, leaving the green leaves behind. But this morning the trees are wet with dew, and it’s cold out, which means our fingers quickly numb. Kiel throws me a pair of gloves, which help enough until it warms up a bit, which it does within the hour.
This day is a new kind of perfect day. My hands, though cold, dirty, and sticky, will end up soft, smooth, and buttery from the natural oils of the olives I’m sifting through all day. My hair is thrown up messily in a clip, contentedly waiting for the hot shower at the end of the afternoon.
I’m working with four men, three of whom speak only Italian. To be quite honest, it’s the perfect way to work. There’s no pressure to make conversation, and instead I get to listen and pick some up here and there. Ok, ok - it sounds a little more gruff coming three chain-smoking and somewhat overweight old Italian men. But still. It has a rhythm. And anyways, we understand the important things. “Va bene,” or “It’s good”. “Aspetta”, or “Wait”. “Vai, Kira!” always, at the dog, a beautiful German shepherd named Kira who constantly seems to be either underfoot or nowhere to be found, leaving us all to call her name, worried she’s in the way of the hunters whose numerous gunshots ring through the valley.
We understand each other well enough to know when we need a coffee break. I stumble over the words in Italian: “Io posso fare caffè!” My cold fingers need to thaw out for a minute anyways, and I will gladly take advantage of this quick break. I jog up to the house and put two Moka pots on the stove, setting out small espresso cups and a cup of sugar to bring down to the olive trees. As Salvatore dumps a tablespoon of sugar in each thimble of coffee, I don’t even care. It’s a warm, welcome moment to stop.
Later in the morning, the sun comes out and the temperature rises. We all shed a few layers, as Salvatore disappears. I have a feeling (a very hopeful feeling) that he’s gone off to prepare lunch.
What did lunch used to be? Oh yes, a salad. Or a smoothie. If I was at work it was a sandwich, usually turkey and avocado. But now? In this new version of perfect?
If someone were to ask me what my last meal would be, it would be this: A large, wooden table outside, overlooking a valley, hills lined with vineyards and olive trees. It would be the perfect sunny fall day, the vines ranging in color from bright red to coral to golden orange. The table would be set with wine glasses and plates, waiting to be filled with different cheeses, toasted Tuscan bread, mortadella, prosciutto, salami. A large bowl of the most amazing Sicilian caponata I’ve ever tasted. And the best part - a large bottle of olive oil, made yesterday, from the olives we picked, ready to be drizzled on everything. The wine is red, a table wine from one of the local wineries. It’s light, and delicious, and fortifying. I understand now how and why Europeans drink at lunch - it’s something to look forward to, and something to push you through the afternoon. Well, actually, after the three bottles of wine are finished, it’s the coffee I make that will push us through the afternoon. But it’s a good combination. The food is absolutely everything I love; meat, cheese, and bread. We are ravenous and eat more than necessary, probably, but don’t feel any worse for it. Afterwards, the men finish their coffee and cigarettes, and I clean up, going a little slower than necessary to delay work just a little more.
The afternoon goes by a little more slowly. The trees we’re picking today are precariously placed along steep, rocky hillsides with thorny branches poking through. We move more slowly than the first couple days, but it’s ok, because these trees are thick with olives. We take breaks to pet the dogs, and make sure Kira is still within eyesight. I sneak up to the house at one point to feed the cats while Kira is occupied stalking the chickens, otherwise she’ll eat all of their food. I almost forget about the tiny spiders that live in the trees by the hundreds and can basically fly, and then I think: who am I?
Because the next few days forecast rain, we work until the sun is almost set and we can’t see any further. It doesn’t matter to me, because I know what’s coming: a hot shower, a large cozy fire, and a comfortable couch where I can curl up and read for the evening. It’s gotten chilly again, and my fingernails are black. My hands are sticky, but it doesn’t matter, I pull out my phone anyways because I have to capture the most beautiful pink sky I’ve ever seen.
As we head in to shower, Salvatore sneaks away again. That’s right, tonight he has promised us Fiorentina: the famous Florentine steak, about five inches thick, bone in, from the Chianina cow. He has Kiel build the fire before he leaves, because we’ll be grilling it in the living room, over the open flame, filling the house with amazing smells as we sip our wine and attempt to converse.
The funniest moments have come from these dinner conversations. At first, we were worried when we learned that Suzy, the British matriarch of the house and our translator, would be out of town several times during our stay. How would we talk to Salvatore? What would we talk about? Turns out, it was one of our best nights here. That first dinner, while discussing the food in America, and all the chemicals that are put into it, I specifically mentioned how we use too many “preservativos”. Salvatore’s eyes widened and he burst out laughing, insisting that no, that can’t be true. I knew immediately it wasn’t the right word, and as I pulled out my iPhone to translate, I turned bright red. No, “preservativos” does not mean “preservatives” in Italian - it means something quite different.
That same night, after dinner, I put into my google translate “I will clean you relax”. Turns out, commas are very important when attempting to translate your sentences into another language. No wonder Salvatore's eyebrows raised as he responded "Seguro?" I continued insisting for about 5 full minutes before I realized what I was offering was not to clean the kitchen, but to clean him. Madonna mia!
I often think about what my life was before this. The days and nights were tedious - working one job early in the morning, coming home to eat lunch and take a nap, then doing it all over again at another restaurant at night. If I wasn’t exhausted, I was hating everyone. My coworkers, my regulars, and the handful of horrible people that dine out as an excuse to abuse their servers. I no longer enjoyed meeting people. Being social and friendly was my job and I was over it. It wasn’t fair to most of these people, of course. They were good people. It was me; my attitude, and my feeling of being stuck that bled into my jobs.
And to be honest, it wasn’t always terrible. I have made some of my best friends working in restaurants. I’ve eaten amazing food, met celebrities, had dance parties and fun nights at busy jobs making lots of money. But I had reached a breaking point.
And even though we’re still trying to figure it out, even though we still don’t know what we want to do with the rest of our lives, these perfect days in Tuscany, picking olives, getting dirty, and learning how to cook - they are the opposite of where we were. These days are funny, cozy, and delicious. They are long walks through the vineyards with Kira, up to the windmill to the small bottega where we can have a €1 glass of house wine, watch the sunset, and hurry back home in the chilly dusk, hopping off the dark windy roads whenever we see a car approaching. These days are unsure, but comfortable. They are train trips to Florence, museums, wine bars, and a late night train ride back home with a book to read. They are filled with delicious meals, and wine, and Italian movies we can (kind of) understand.
These days end with a look from Salvatore, asking if we will be back next year. “Naturalmente,” I respond. “Per aiutare a scegliere olive!” We will return to help pick olives, of course!
“No, no no,” He responds. “Per vacanze.” For vacation. Sì, Salvatore. Whether or not this series of perfect days, perfect meals, and new friendship is considered a vacation, you can rest assured, we’ll be back next year.