I arrived in Italy in September 2012 as an American study abroad student. The reputation of American students abroad is not the most flattering; this probably stems from our increased exposure to delicious Italian wine, our negligence to learn the Italian language (because in the big study abroad cities, Rome and Florence, most people speak English), and the expected ease of understanding Italian history and culture. From the beginning, my Italian experience was destined to be different. My study abroad program, which would take place in the small, medieval town of Ferrara, started in January. I had come three months early to work at an organic vineyard called Montesecondo, located in the tiny community of Cerbaia (about 20 kilometers southwest of Florence).
I had expected quite a laid-back working environment, as my pay was a place to sleep and meals three times a day. Instead, the owner put us to work. If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation in the Tuscan hills, don’t sign up for a September sangiovese grape harvest! We were in the fields from 8 am to 5 pm with a one-hour lunch break. Our backs baked under that famous Tuscan sun that seemed to have treated Diane Lane much more kindly on the big screen. Our tools: a bucket and a pair of sheers. Cut grapes, drop in bucket. Repeat. Finish vine, move to next vine, start again. Bucket full? Dump in “trattore”.
Of course, I got more than a great tan out of the hours spent cutting grapes that fall. First of all, my Italian agricultural vocabulary was superb. “Trattore” (tractor), “forbice” (scissors), “asino” (donkey), “anfora” (ceramic amphora used to ferment grapes) and “pausa pranzo” (lunch break) were embedded as the roots of my Italian language. The other great fruit of labor was my friendship with the local Florentine workers, which resulted in weekend trips to Florence.
I quickly got on with a sweet sculptor student, Chiara, who worked the grape harvest every fall for some extra cash. After the first weekend spent in complete isolation at the vineyard (Okay, the owner was there as well as his goats, donkeys and one-eyed horse), Chiara invited me to stay with her in Florence from Friday to Sunday. Friday nights we would squeeze ourselves into her 1981 red Fiat Panda and head into the city. After a quick rinse, Chiara’s friends would show up and the night would begin. She loved to cook, so we usually ate at home. As part of my “pay” the owner would donate the wine he deemed too poor-quality to sell to me in mysterious unlabeled bottles.
Late-night reunions in Piazza Santa Croce, early-morning strolls through the city and a nightcap in Piazza Santa Croce would lead to us waking up late on Satrdays. We tried once to go to the Uffizi gallery but on a Saturday afternoon the line was unbearable. Chiara took me to visit Florence, taking me to watch the sun set from Piazzale Michelangelo, the best Lampredotto (fourth stomach of the cow) panino in the city, and the outdoor sculpture gallery of Loggia dei Lanzi. We went up to Fiesole to visit her grandmother, who made us the most fantastic, melt-in-your-mouth roast of wild boar I have eaten to this day.
My weekends with Chiara were the highlight of my experience in Cerbaia. She showed me the local side to a tourist-saturated city, and words can’t express how thankful I am for her friendship and hospitality. Yet I realized, as the days started to shorten and my departure for Ferrara steadily approached, that I hadn’t been to a real Florentine museum. I promised myself that before leaving, I would do at least one English language Florence group tour. My opportunity came one rainy Monday in November. The grapes had all been picked, and the remaining maintenance work was impossible to finish in the downpour. The owner gave everyone the day off and I immediately hopped on the bus to Florence, armed with a map, Italian cellphone, notebook, wallet and umbrella. I looked at my notes and noticed that Through Eternity offered Florence tours. I called, hoping they would have a spot available, and they did.
I couldn’t have picked a better tour. It was intimate, just six guests and one fantastic, passionate Florentine guide. Sweet Lorenzo had me hanging on his every word as he wove animated stories about the personalities of Florentine legends like Alberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Ghiberti. He explained the amazing influence the Medici family had on Florence, going into details about their private banquets and public parties that enlivened the streets, palaces and squares of Florence. The Florence of the Medici was a jewel, a manifestation of the Renaissance culture that abandoned ancient architectural concepts and experimented with fortified towers, elevated domes, loggias, palaces and porticos.
My favorite part was the visit to Orsanmichele. Today, the building is a church open to the public on Mondays only. In the past it was a portico to the central market and granary. It was beautified by the most important guild in the city with a series of stupendous statues. When you enter, it feels like you’re on a grand theater stage. Lorenzo explained the importance and significance of each masterpiece in the church. My favorite was the proud and powerful Saint George, sculpted in the unmistakable poetic and charismatic style of Donatello. The tour was dreamlike and perfect, an alternative to the classic Uffizi and Accademia tours of Florence.
When I left the Montesecondo vineyard in December, catching that northbound train to Ferrara, I was leaving more than a simple working experience. I was leaving friendships, memories, and a little piece of my heart. That piece of me still remains rooted in the fertile soil, bustling piazzas and majestic past of Florence, city of the Medici.
– by Challis Popkey –