We have been spending the past two months in the heal of Italy. The idea was to do something constructive and escape the cold and rain of Belgium where we last were. As things have turned out, we have been freezing cold living in a drafty disused factory without heating; we have had rain coming through our bedroom ceiling and so many other places that we have had to empty buckets of water every two hours where rain had seeped through; we have been sharing the one bathroom on site with tons of people (and taking our turn to clean afterwards…just imagine dozens of people in their muddy working boots); and we have mostly been living off food discarded by supermarkets. All that said, it has been an amazing and beautiful experience!!
When we arrived in Italy, it all started like a wonderful holiday. Because of Covid, we had to quarantine for ten days before joining the community at our final destination in the countryside near Brindisi. We chose to quarantine in the historic centre. As our covid test, two days in, was negative, we had the freedom of the town. Gone were the low grey winter skies of Brussels: in Southern Italy, November is the heart of Autumn. We had sun, the last of the wonderful autumn produce grown locally (aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, newly harvested olive oil), and we followed the huge murmurations of migrating birds that danced over our heads, as they assembled for their trip to Africa. And because of covid and low season, we had the place to ourselves. We chose Brindisi because of its mild winter climate…what we didn’t expect is the differential between generally pleasant sunny days and wintry, humid, cold nights and that the area is not set up to cope properly with cold weather: there is no heating. Sleeping fully clothed under a pile of blankets quickly became essential.
Charity: Il Faro
The charity we are volunteering for, Cooperativa Sociale Il Faro, is truly amazing: it is filled with beautiful people, who do such a great job in shielding abused women and giving them a new chance in life free of tyranny. We have met some of these women and their children and heard stories of their domestic abuse and repression. Their fear of speaking up is intense, especially those from mafia families. Il Faro, which means the Lighthouse, provides them with a refuge, food, therapy and vocational training for 1-2 years in order to put them onto a path of self reliance. It is creating incredible opportunities for the women. We feel so lucky to have been adopted by this community which has become like an extended family for us.
We already know that when we eventually leave, we will mostly miss this community which has always been so welcoming, positive and happy, so often laughing and smiling in the face of the hardships facing this part of the country.
We have had a wide variety of tasks: weeding, fundraising, acting, cooking, cutting plastic bottles (for a greenhouse), building a compost bin, researching, making a scavenger hunt for the kids in the community, restoring furniture, recycling and upcycling…the list goes on and on.
We have been spending an hour every day on the Duolingo App to learn Italian just to be able to have some basic conversations with our colleagues. All of our fellow volunteers (from France, Germany, Belgium and Spain) speak perfect English, and the Italians are keen to improve their English, but they are also more than happy to share their language and culture with us… so end result: a good opportunity for us to learn some Italian.
We have had lunch and dinner every day with the volunteers and staff from the charity. One of the customs here is for one person to say Thank You before each meal…thanking everyone for their efforts, cooking, and positive energy and whatever each person feels in their hearts. It has been genuinely wholesome and refreshing, something we will really miss. When it came to our turn to say Grazie, we have sometimes tried to get through it all in Italian…everyone was so forgiving of our mistakes.
Local supermarkets donate some of their surplus food to our charity. The beneficiaries have their pick – by law, they are only allowed what is still in date and in saleable condition. Volunteers have what is left… in addition, we have a budget of one euro per person per meal to buy essentials, spices, etc. We never know what the next delivery will bring; yet it’s amazing just how splendid all our meals have been. Most of the volunteers are vegetarian; none of the Italian are. We each take a turn once a week to cook lunch and dinner for everyone, between 12 and 20 people. We generally have to wait for the day’s donations to decide on our menu, so we have to be creative. On our turns, we have made mostly Indian (vegetable pakora, aloo gobi, carrot halwa and chai) and English: cauliflower cheese, home made baked beans…our crumble went down particularly well with the Italians! Our food discoveries have been the main dish for the region, cime di rapa (a broccoli type vegetable cooked with orecchiette pasta), and a marmalade from Sicily made with bell peppers, chilli and sugar.
We have managed to go away some weekends, mostly by ourselves but sometimes with our fellow volunteers, to relax in Brindisi or see other parts of Puglia.
An Italian friend warned us to prepare physically, physiologically and psychologically for the onslaught of food and alcohol over the New Year festivities. How right she was! Most shocking was how alcohol was in full flow at a New Year’s Day lunch despite an alcohol heavy NYE party going on until 5.30am (as old party poopers, we were asleep by 1am!).
No idea! We will send an update soon. Happy New Year!