Being a member of WWOOF Italia (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farming) allows me access to farms throughout the country in need of assistance and so while in La Spezia I take the time to contact one in Modena, near Bologna where I will work with cattle.
After some quick goodbyes and a mad sprint for the bus I make it to the train station where my slowly improving language skills help me board the right train. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. –Once got on the wrong train in Scotland and went 200 miles the wrong way-.
We’re not half an hour into our journey before an almighty bang sounds from the front. Our train seems to lift slightly for a second while shaking violently from side to side and as I look through the window I see stones spray from beneath my carriage.
My first thought was that we were coming off the tracks and “Fuck, I never got to finish my book”! Maybe a fallen tree or a damaged rail, but after coming to a stop I then see the driver along with a hoard of official looking people out surveying the damage and checking the wheels under my coach until finally, after an hour a conclusion is reached that our train is indeed fucked.
As we make a very slow retreat back to our nearest platform to catch a different train, I spy the culprit, a big fucking goat. It really is a big goat. From its head to its tail lie a distance of about a kilometre!
Like always my train of thought is directed from within my pants. I convince myself that this is where it’s going to happen. Yes Andy, you will arrive here and the farmer will greet you with open arms. “Well hello there, you’ve made it just in time. I have many daughters needing serviced and milked, one hundred cows to be eaten and a fountain of beer waiting just for you”!
What I do find is a Mother/Son family farm with about twenty cows, bulls, calves, five goats, horses, ducks, peacocks, turkeys a chicken and one potbellied pig called Maylina. No daughters but an endless supply of wine and probably the best food I’ve ever had in my life.
My first day on the farm and I’m being led around by an 84 year old woman helping to change beds, fold sheets and prepare rooms for guests arriving as this small farm also doubles up as a restaurant and bed n’ breakfast. The raw meat I ate last-night is doing some serious damage to my stomach today but with no way of explaining this I decide to suffer in silence while tucking in beds, mopping floors and trying not to shit myself.
While she leaves the room for a moment I seize this opportunity and fly towards the on suite making it just in time. Our special guests are expected any minute now and if this old lady catches me stinking up their toilet or whole house for that matter, I’m in no doubt that she’ll beat the crap right out me however, that might not be such a bad thing right now.
I don’t even bother opening a window because I’ll just forget to close it and an open toilet window would just make it more obvious that someone’s done a big jobbie. My hopes are on the idea that year’s spent living on a cow farm has made her indifferent to such smells. Maybe she’ll like it? I’m in the clear but never straying far from a toilet for the next few days until my system can handle such fine, fresh, raw Italian produce, but oh what a pickle if that toilet hadn’t flushed!
An Italian/French friend I’ve met here who is also volunteering leaves to go home now and it’s my turn to work in the stables feeding cows and clearing shit. I enjoy this job a lot and you get used to the smell pretty quickly. I do come under fire occasionally from a stubborn goat who doesn’t give a fuck and a bull that sends out one shattering kick right on my balls. I’m not a man who’d normally condone violence to animals but I will make an exception in this occasion. It does cheer me up no end though to watch our biggest bull slip, fall and land on top of the farm hand. Maybe I deserve to be kicked in the balls?
On numerous occasions I’m treated to the sight of the farmers Mum stomping after the goats armed with a pitchfork shouting “DIE, DIE”! I would later learn that ‘dai’ actually means come on in Italian and she doesn’t really hate those goats quite as much as I thought.
What little I can understand from her is that if I keep feeding the cows they will explode. Cool! Her son Stefano does one mean impression of a cow and what facial expressions to look for when they want fed. Trouble is they always look like that unless they’re still eating. Or exploding.
After slamming my ankle in the van door one day as we set off to pick up about a year’s supply of wine, I can’t help but feel a little stupid and confused as to how I managed to do that. It really hurts like a bitch. Then Azis, the Afghan farm hand realises while taking a tight bend that his doors still wide open. I’ve never seen anyone do that before and from the reaction on his face from watching his bosses’ door almost get ripped from its hinges, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a sneaky little pooh in his pants right now!
I’m taken to Bologna to work in a market during the night selling hot food to hot students and other farmers. It would seem that Bologna is where it’s all at in terms of tasty Italian women and I’m liking this city immensely. There’s definitely something about Bologna, a certain charm and appeal. Or maybe it’s the fact that the only bit of affection I’ve received so far is being licked half to death by calves.
. . .
Looking back I can recall one time around the age of fourteen, maybe fifteen when myself and a group of friends ‘borrowed’ a car and took it for a little spin in an empty car park close to where we lived. It was a hatchback and being the last to enter an already packed vehicle, I took up position in the back with just enough room to kneel down. My driving friend would later claim that the steering wheel locked and there was nothing he could do, but after hitting that embankment, launching into the air before coming down hard on the nose and finally slamming back down to earth on all four wheels sending me through that family car like a fucking pinball. It’s fair to say I was somewhat shaken.
Nothing compared to the terror I now face sitting uncomfortably once again but now behind the single seat of a large, suspension-less tractor with no rear window to lean against as we cut a passage through impossibly steep slopes in the hills of Modena, Monteombraro.
Clinging on for dear life to the handles of a sunroof with my heart in my mouth as we bulldoze through deep scrub that offers no clues to what degree of shit we’re running into and Stefano doesn’t give a rats ass. Maybe Bolognas last football defeat was the just too much and he’s given up on life altogether choosing now to be buried in a heap of petrol, metal and burning rubber, but I don’t want to die just yet. As nice as this place is I’ve still got a book to write and things I’d like to do!
My knuckles are white from gripping so hard and I’m shitting bricks. As he smashes through yet more small trees in search of the other tractor he fucked up around here I perch on my feet and ready myself to jump out the gaping hole behind me as we start to climb an even worse slope. Not a chance in Hell if I jump from here, which is exactly where I’ll go now that I look down 800 meters to the rock filled bottom. So I take my chances with this big, blue contraption of Death as suicide by way of being shat from the backend of a tractor isn’t quite my style.
We level out and come to a clearing where lies the remains of the last tractor to come here and I shift my aching ass from that cabin just grateful to be alive and not imbedded between ground and tractor. We take the long, safe route home and it’s about thirty minutes quicker than the shortcut!
. . .