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Love and Learning in Italy

Andrew trying to learn to ride is a loving gesture in itself.

Happy Valentine's Day Eve from the Salento region of Italy! Though we now have a wedding anniversary in August, February 14th is the (unoriginal) anniversary of our first date, now five years ago. (We joked this week that it will still feel like the more important date until we've been married for at least 5 years.) For our previous four anniversaries, we've always made an effort to get out of town for a weekend and celebrate the relationship we're both really proud of, but of course this year looks a little different. Though we may not be spending the day itself in the most traditionally "romantic" way--sweating through manual labor on a farm and eating meals with people we just met who speak a different language--it's safe to say the romance in this shared experience cannot be beat.

Besides, Italy loves love! And why wouldn't you, in a lush, green land surrounded by sparkling blue water, with plentiful wine, sun, and carbs?

Our time in Italy so far--we are about two weeks in with two to go--has included Florence, Rome, and our current stay at a Workaway in Nardò. In this short amount of time, we've learned a lot about the culture of this place and the people in it--some expected, and some maybe not! We thought we'd share a bit of these learnings with you, so here is my current list:

1. They eat just as much pasta as you'd imagine! And there are pizzerias on every corner! I'm so glad this turned out to actually be true.

My first Italian pizza, late at night, in Florence.

2. The Swiss joke that they "can't imagine how the Italians manage to feed themselves." This seems to be a jab at the Italian work ethic, and after transitioning from Switzerland to Italy, we've noticed humorous differences. The Swiss live in the icy mountains, where wintertime survival is difficult, and the culture values timeliness and efficiency; Italy is a country of sun, sea, and bountiful croplands, making for a different culture around a working day. The morning is definitely the most productive time on the farm here, as lunches are big, heavy, and always come with wine, which means the afternoon is a bit more sluggish. As Washingtonians, we've also enjoyed that coffee breaks are frequent and compulsory! Every hour and a half or so, percolator espresso is brewed on the stove to be sipped from little espresso cups while sitting down. Usually we take our espresso up in the house, but if the work involves brush fires out in the field, our host Tiziana brings the "caffe" down to us. Meanwhile, there are olive and orange trees and who knows what other crops I don't know how to recognize EVERYWHERE. The streets of Rome are literally lined with trees growing tons of oranges; things grow so easily in this part of the world, the Italians need not worry about feeding themselves! All jokes aside, we've seen very hard work happening in Italy, it's simply a country that values long mealtimes and frequent short breaks. (It must certainly be noted that we are in Italy during the low season, so at our farm there is nothing to harvest and the B&B rooms are empty. I'm sure it looks a bit different at the height of summer!)

Casual oranges everywhere

3. Like Switzerland (where they say "En guete"), there is a phrase you say before you begin eating a meal together: "Buon appetito." If you toast glasses, don't make the mistake of keeping an eye on your glass--you must make eye contact with each person as you clink!

4. Like most places in the world, each region of Italy has cultural things they are proud of. The province of Lecce, which includes the smaller city of Nardó, has a dessert pastry called pasticciotto that we--Andrew especially--are now obsessed with. The dough is similar to shortbread, and it's filled with custard cream. It is delicious, and only available in this area!

Pasticciotto, and scandalous wine...

5. Okay, I'm pretty sure most people know this is what you are "supposed" to do, but the Italians are very serious about it: wine is meant to be paired with a meal, only. Especially red wine! We knew this was technically a rule in France, but you'd see plenty of people sipping a glass of wine sans meal, because wine is amazing. Back home, wine is a perfectly normal beverage for all occasions, and most people I know choose which wine to drink based on personal preference. Andrew likes reds best, and I enjoy a dry white. In Italy, we've noticed very strange looks when we order our standard vinos, and when Tiziana found out Andrew drank a red with a dessert item, she was aghast and quickly made fun of him to all her friends! "Scandal!"

6. On the topic of wine: having a large quantity of table wine with dinner is the norm. This is usually a red blend of some kind, and cheap. At home, Tiziana and her father buy table wine in bulk (big, multi-liter plastic jugs or boxes) and fill a carafe before lunch and dinner. When we went out with Tiziana and her friends for pizza and appetizers, we were brought wine in a huge porcelain jug. Bottled wine is for special occasions and fancy meals, it seems. You are also expected to leave a little wine in the bottom of your glass if you don't want any more--if you drink it all, it appears you're ready for a refill. (This is how Andrew and I were served a lot more wine than we expected!)

Our blasphemous wine-without-food may be the reason no one would sit near us in Nardó?

7. The Sanremo Music Festival (or Prima Festival) is a super big deal and apparently was the inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest. From what we can tell, it seems to be structured similar to American Idol with hosts, contestants, and viewer voting, except it's all previously unreleased songs. It's been going on since the 1950's, and took place over this past week. It's a very big deal--it was on TV for hours every evening and recapped all day on all the news and talk shows.

8. There are so many Fiats, and almost all of them are models we've never seen in the US. We've been passed on the road by a couple of Ferraris, too. Everybody in Europe, by the way, drives manual cars!

Ok so this is a French-made car, but it was still the first choice while the Land Rover sat,
perfectly available, in the driveway

9. Everybody here thinks 60 degrees (F) is cold. They continue to wear insulated coats and keep the wood-burning stoves going while Andrew and I strip down to t-shirts. Tiziana definitely makes comments about how much better the Italian countryside is as we drive down the road since we've shown her the forecast from back home, though we can't always understand exactly what she's saying...

10. Dinner is enjoyed later in the evening than one expects in America; many restaurants don't even open their kitchens for dinner until 6 or 7pm. (This came as a great and unpleasant shock to us one afternoon in Florence when we forgot about lunch until nearly 3 in the afternoon, and found even most pizzerias serve only espresso between meal times! The hanger was real.) At Tiziana's, we usually sit down to eat around 8:00, and it's time to wind down for bed immediately after. In town, we noticed the dinner rush happens quickly despite it's late start time, and while there are a few places open into the night, most restaurants are still closing their doors around 10 or 11pm.

The streets of Lecce start filling up as the sun goes down. Dinner establishments aren't open yet!

We still have almost two weeks left in the Nardó/Lecce area before spending our last days in Italy in Venice, so I'm sure there will be plenty more learning. (Only one part-time employee on the farm speaks a few words in English, so we've had a fully immersive experience--and become a walking ad for the Google Translate app). In Tiziana's (translated) words, "We all speak the language of the heart," which is a perfect sentiment for Valentine's Day. I hope, wherever you are in the world right now, you are able to feel the love for all the people and things that make it unique.

The brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean.

The historic center of Nardó by night.

Our host, Tiziana, in the old center of Lecce, where they uncovered an ancient amphitheater.
She's taking excellent care of us!


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