I never thought that I would wind up in Italy until I was much older. I certainly never ever thought that I would be in the position to fall in love with it.
It’s through a site called Trustedhousesitters that we find ourselves in a small town called Vermiglio. We are so far north in Italy that we can point at a bend in the valley and say: I can see Austria from here!
The deal is that in exchange for a small apartment in a small town, we pick flowers 4-5 hours a day for a business that uses the dried flowers in soaps, shampoos, lotions and other products. It’s a great insight into part of a country we didn’t think we would visit until we were much much older.
The business is small. It’s called ErbeVive. It’s run by a 40 year old woman who works full time in the hospitality industry in a town in another valley. She is at the apartment only a day a week, at most. Her day job keeps her busy the majority of the time.
Summer is when the flowers bloom so she needed help harvesting and drying the flowers. It makes perfect sense. We use her apartment and she gets free labor!
After a few Skype’s and more emails, she picked us up in Trento, the nearest town, and drove us about an hour north to Vermiglio, where her family has lived for generations.
Her father built a six unit family house on a hill, which isn’t very descriptive since everything is a hill here in Vermiglio. Four of those units are taken up with her family. Aunts and Uncles and cousins dot the valley, their name on half a dozen businesses.
Her mother Gabriella is downstairs from us right now. Actually, it’s late and getting dark. She is likely in the field watering or weeding. She is in her mid 70’s, just had a hip operation in November and still has more energy than people half her age.
We had a few days together to learn the ropes, and now we are on our own for the most part. We wake up, do yoga, eat breakfast and head to the field to see if the flowers are dry and ready to be picked. If they are ready, we pick them. If they aren’t ready, we wait.
To break up the monotony, we pick a variety of other flowers & herbs, but only when they are dry and ready. Malva, monarda, calendula, nettles, mint, thyme, sage, lemon balm, Melissa…the list goes on. And the work never ends. Except on Sunday, we are finding out.
This last few weeks we focus on camomilla, or chamomile. It’s a labor-intensive flower to pick, garnering at most 1.5 kilos per day for the two of us. We do this by hand, eschewing the common rake that would expedite the process, but capture too many flowers that aren’t ready.
I’m getting the Italian names of these flowers stuck in my mind and forgetting the English words for these flowers. There is a lot to do. It’s a small farm. Not even an acre I would suppose, but there is also a garden filled with strawberries and soon we will have onions, lettuce, beets and raspberries.
Sometimes we join Gabriella for lunch and she feeds us polenta and sausages and use Google Translate to ask questions while Catholic Television murmurs softly in the background. Then we drink a coffee and head back to the field for a few more hours of picking.
We then take our picked flowers and weigh them, logging the weight and date in the ledger and then spreading them out on vast drying racks. The air here is cool and dry most of the night, and sunny and dry during the day (when it’s not raining) so things dry pretty quickly.
Once the flowers are dried, we stem and bag them, weight them again and then freeze them for two days to kill anything that may be living inside the leaves. Then we sweep up, shut the lights off, and go for a walk through town. Or eat gelato. Or drink local wine. Or experiment with what to do with all the strawberries coming in right now. It’s ideal. It could keep me busy for the rest of my life.
And if I had waited until I was older to visit and then fall in love with Italy, that would leave me with precious little time.