Farm #1 :: North-west Italy :: nearest city – Fidenza
My introduction to the wonderful world of WWOOFing lacked only one thing: WWOOFing. I knew before I arrived, however, that there wouldn’t be much to do. It was really much more of a social call. A kind of welcome to Italy.
I sent out my first contact emails on Saturday 13th April. Maia responded within an hour or two. ‘What a colourful life you have,’ she said, and I remembered again that I did, and that I do, and that I’m extremely fortunate. She told me I was most welcome to come visit but I should know that she was planning to move to India very soon so it could only be a brief stay.
I knew from Maia’s WWOOF listing that she was a Steiner teacher (which interested me immediately), that she kept a synergistic and biodynamic vegetable garden, fruit trees and some bees. I knew she was vegetarian and keen to share ‘yoga, music, nature, art and spiritual activities’. And I know now that on reading those words, there will be those amongst you who will baulk and cringe and roll your eyes. And that’s too bad. Luckily for me, Maia sounded like exactly the kind of person I wanted to meet.
This is where she lives…
Maia met me outside of Fidenza station. We spotted one another and waved. She was warm and pretty and smiling and talky and we hit it off immediately. She was also slightly preoccupied about all of the things that still had to be sorted before she went to India – if she went to India. At the time she wasn’t sure. Things weren’t happening fast enough. Her contacts in India, at the school she was hoping to work in, at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and What-Have-You, at the Immigration Offices and Pet Control Centre were each telling her different things, mostly regarding the repatriation of her nervous little dog, Suhi. She was also feeling guilty, she said, because there wasn’t much for me to do and she’d be out a lot, working and trying to organise things. I explained that the experience of just meeting her and staying at her place for a few days was enough for me, and I wasn’t short of things to do. I foresaw a few lazy days, writing and reading, sunning myself like a lizard. I would also proofread a novel – this is a real job I have to do, for real money. I foresaw all these things. But in the end it wasn’t to be.
‘I also have something to ask you,’ said Maia in the car on the way back to her farm. She explained that another WWOOFer had been in touch and wanted to come and stay for a few days, and would I mind. I thought it was funny that she was asking me such a question. She was so considerate. ‘Well, to be honest, I’d rather be by myself while I’m here.’ I didn’t say that. Who would say that? Would anyone say that? I didn’t say that. I said of course I didn’t mind. I said, ‘The more, the merrier.’
Phoebe was 24 years old, and German. That was all the information I had and more than enough for my brain to throw up a pile of lazy stereotypes. I imagined a buxom girl with a ruddy complexion, combat shorts and long blonde hair bouncing round her shoulders in sturdy plaits. Her cheeks would glow red when she laughed and her laugh would be punctuated with sharp hiccupping sounds as she harvested enough air to continue laughing.
‘I don’t normally accept people so young,’ said Maia, who was seven or eight years younger than me, ‘but she sounded really nice, so I thought I’d ask you what you thought before I said yes. She could be company for you when I’m not here.’
Phoebe was nothing like the one-dimensional bierkeller-girl in my head. Thankfully. Phoebe was tall and thin and dark and pale with black crash helmet hair that she cut herself and a laugh that ranged from quiet dance to landmine, taking in everything from mildly to wildly erotic along the way. After our first walk into the hills together, I found myself really wishing that Phoebe was at least 30 years old, then I wouldn’t feel like such a lazy stereotype myself.
But then she had to be exactly who she was and what she was – and nothing else – for things to be just as they were.
So there we were, together in the Italian hills for three-and-a-half days. It was idyllic…
I found a little strimming to do on the first day, and a little permaculture spiral maintenance on the second, but for most of the time we sat around together playing with my guitar – which is actually Cyrus and Ruby’s guitar, a €40-half-size from Lidl – and talking about things. I like talking about things a lot. In fact, talking about things is one of my all-time favourite pastimes.
In the evenings we saw Maia, and ate with her and met some of her friends and made fire, then when Maia went to bed, we stayed up playing games and guitar in the dark, and talking about more things – there was never any shortage of things to talk about. It was incredibly pleasant. We got along very well.
On the second afternoon, lying on our backs in the short grass at the edge of a giant wheat field, eyes closed to the sun which had finally arrived with some kind of conviction, I asked her if it would make her feel terribly uncomfortable if I told her that I found her terrifically attractive.
I had to. You have to. One has to.
She laughed. Like a firework. ‘What is “uncomfortable”?’ she asked. Her English was easily good enough to know but I guess she wanted to be sure.
‘You know, awkward, not feeling at ease, not wanting to be around me anymore, wanting to be sick on your own shoes.’
She decided that such a revelation would not make her feel comfortable but informed me that she didn’t feel the same. I pointed out that I hadn’t actually said that I did find her terrifically attractive and she replied – as cool as a whole cruise ship full of cucumbers – ‘I know.’
‘But I do,’ I confessed, smiling, farmer’s crow’s-feet burning into my funny old face.
And then we went back to how we were before, as if nothing had been said, and it was good. There were moments over the next day and a half when my self-destructive side would hiss at me, informing me that I was a wretched, middle-aged lech, ridiculous and pathetic, destined to stagger from one rejection to the next until the day I finally drift from total desolation to lingering death, in rags and emotional agony, stinking of cliché. But he never got that far before he was silenced and skulked off, with my laughter in his ears and my piss all over his back.
There’s a line from a film I can remember nothing else about apart from the title. It’s this: ‘It’s good to want things.’ And it is good to want things. And it’s good to not be able to have the things that you want. It’s actually good. It’s enjoyable.
And I did enjoy meeting Phoebe very much. I enjoyed her bare feet and fascination and her phantoms and her relentlessly playful imagination; I enjoyed her searching for sense and messing about in the future and climbing the sides of houses and wanting to be good at important things, and never flinching. And I enjoyed her courage and her modesty and her singing voice, which was sharp and soft and penetrating, like blood.
We wrote a song for Maia, Phoebe and I. It was so incredibly sweet that if certain amongst you had been there, cynical old anuses that you are, you’d have thrown up so hard you would have choked on your own pelvises. But it was also very beautiful, and we meant it, and Maia was very touched, even though I fucked up my part like a lemon.
On the third afternoon we blagged a lift into town at the local bar and sat in the sun drinking and talking, then we got lost and blagged another lift to an Indian takeaway. That night we saw peacocks, and stayed up late burning things.
On my last afternoon, Phoebe and I were back at the wheat’s end, smoking cigarettes in the sun, when Phoebe said she was glad that I was leaving in a couple of hours. When I asked why, she told me that it was good that our story ended here. She said she could feel herself growing closer. She said she’d thought about kissing me, but she could see that it would end badly. So she was glad we would stop when we did.
I think the old me would have taken this as an opportunity to become more insistent, sensing a spark of opportunity. But the old me was a bit of a dick. I thanked Phoebe for telling me, and then we talked about it for a little while longer, and then we moved on.
Before I left, Maia gave us both gifts that she had made for us. Phoebe’s was a female figure made from wire, long-limbed and graceful, dancing. Mine was a lucky woollen rabbit.
Early on Friday evening on the train back to Bologna for a couple of days, I felt so overpowered by happiness and excitement for the future that I spontaneously combusted.
I didn’t really spontaneously combust. Sorry. But I was pretty damn happy. I still am.
My five days near Fidenza proved the best possible start to this adventure. Better than if I’d persuaded Phoebe that kissing me was actually a great idea, and then we’d kissed and clenched fingers and made love in a clearing in the wheat.
I actually mean it.
Better than that.
Tonight I take the overnight train to Lecce.
Now I’m going to try and buy a SIM card.
Good luck, Maia. Good luck, Phoebe. Good luck, Suhi.
It was immense.