Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Part One: Showdown at Podere le Fornaci

This story begins innocently enough on a bus somewhere outside Florence. I was coming from four days of drinking lots of Pigato and relaxing by the sea in Liguria, and it was an hour’s ride from the train station into the heart of the Chianti region. I sat in the very front and was fortunate enough to make the journey right at sunset. The view, needless to say, was extraordinary. My destination was a small farm devoted to making several types of goat’s milk cheese which is sold at markets in Florence and elsewhere. I had visions of working in an immaculate dairy, attentively learning how to handcraft cheese from the freshest raw milk while wearing a funny little white hat. Upon reaching the farm, I meet another woman who just arrived to work here; a New Zealander named Margaret who is quite spry in her early sixties. The ad said they needed help in the dairy as well as with the animals so when it is explained to me that Gabrielle (the guy who tends to the goats) will be leaving for the next five days to sell cheese at a market in Bra, I realize that I will undoubtedly be the official goat herder having only one day of experience with the goats and absolutely no prior experience in working with animals.

The first assignment seemed simple enough: get the goats out of their fenced in area and into a larger pasture to graze and play. The pasture is surrounded by a high levee and bordered on one side by a river. As I learned, goats detest water so they would never feign to cross it except for that there hasn’t been any rain in Tuscany for three months (aside from the day I arrived here, of course) so what I imagine as usually being a substantial amount of rushing water that serves as an efficient barrier has been reduced to a mere stream that doesn’t do much in terms of intimidating the goats. But no problem, right? Goats are natural followers and as Gabrielle explained to me, there would never be ninety goats trying to hurl past me but rather one who crosses, then two, and so on. So really my shepherding skills would only be put into play on one or two swarmy daredevils. Besides, goats are incredibly playful, docile, loving creatures who respond well to leadership. A mere clapping of the hands, shouting, and waving of the arms would suffice in getting them where I needed them to go. I was convinced that I could handle it. And then I met Biondo.

Now, most dairy operations consist of predominately females (since females obviously produce milk) but there is always a billygoat there to rule the roost and, of course, impregnate as many of his ninety wives as possible. I will not even begin to get into what I’ve learned about the male vs. female dynamics of nature. Suffice to say, any stereotypes that exist prove painfully true when around a large group of animals. If you’ve never come into contact with a male goat before, allow me to paint you a mental picture: the things are fucking huge. Maybe not to the roaming eye, but when it rears up on it’s hind legs and you get a good look at it’s torso and hooves while simultaneously realizing that it most likely doubles your body weight, you find some lack of truth in the statement that this thing “just wants to play.” Immediately, Biondo decides he wants to get to know me via using his giant spiraled horns to nearly push me off the side of the levee. “Whoa!!!” I am familiar with the notion that most animals don’t know their own strength but in the moment that I feel those horns jabbing into my side with more intention than a playful nudge I become aware of just how strong this animal is and just how much damage he could do to me if I rubbed him the wrong way. I have no idea how to handle this beast and Gabrielle steps in. If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of wrestling a two-hundred pound goat, I’ll give you a little piece of advice: go for the ends of the horns. You’ll have more leverage and avoid getting swung off the side of a mountain like Gabrielle nearly did. Although he is playfully wrestling while trying to calm me (my face undoubtedly being drained of all color and animation) I can see that he is also struggling a bit. At this point, there is no way in hell I’m letting this thing near me. There’s a boy around 18 years old named Paulo who works at the farm in the mornings and had the task of basically standing around the edge of the pasture with me to watch the goats (read: serve as a buffer between me and Biondo).

So Gabrielle says goodbye and goes wherever he goes, most likely to laugh with someone else on the farm about the morning’s events, and I stay behind with Paulo who doesn’t take long to realize that I have no qualms whatsoever about throwing him in front of me, should this thing try to attack. From there, things quieted down a bit as Biondo took his rightful place among his harem who were down grazing in the fields. Paulo and I exchange a few pleasantries and I take this as an opportunity to practice what little Italian I’ve managed to retain but alas, his English trumps my Italian (no big surprise) and he defaults to it. This is absolutely the case with nearly everyone I come into contact with here. I begin speaking in Italian, people immediately recognize that it sucks, they continue the conversation in English, and a tiny piece of my soul dies along with my rapidly shrinking dignity. I’ve already spent close to a week berating myself for not making time to learn Italian more of a priority and this isn’t helping. Biondo makes his way back to the top of the levee and proceeds to focus his attention solely on Paulo. I point out a couple of goats who’ve nearly made their way across the “river” and Paulo goes down to retrieve them while I stay up on the levee with Biondo. So it’s just me and him. Face off. I keep my distance and sort of start out in a soothing tone to keep things at bay. “Ciao Biondo, va tutto bene.” We stand there motionless, maintaining eye contact, his gaze as if to say, “Who the fuck are you and what the fuck are you doing around my goats?” Perhaps I’ve insulted his namesake (Biondo is Italian for ‘blonde’) since it’s quite apparent that after not having had my roots done in six weeks, I am certainly not what I claim to be. With my bright eyed, barely legal, human shield trying to round up the other ladies a good several hundred yards away, I start to wonder if goats can smell fear. And then I survey the landscape for the nearest tree to climb. But thankfully it never came to that. By the time we round up the goats and I head back to the farmhouse, the news has spread about my interaction with Biondo and people are visibly amused by it. At this point everyone’s lighthearted response to me fearing for my life is more than annoying and I fuel my own fire by thinking about how Margaret spent her day in the dairy making cheese while I shoveled feces and was assaulted by a beast twice my size. I was here to learn, dammit, not spend my time performing menial labor and feeling like an idiot. This was bullshit. Errr, goatshit. But I also have my ego to protect and there’s no way in hell I’m going down as some silly American girl who can’t handle a proprietary, intimidating, snorting, grunting, aggressive, fucking giant beast. Didn’t these people know I killed and gutted my own Thanksgiving turkey last year?!?! So I take everyone’s bemusement as a sign that maybe he really is harmless and I vow to go back into the bullring tomorrow to face him, but mostly to face my most pitiful self.

I awoke the next morning determined to prevail, making an effort to focus on how this would boost my street cred. Things started off easily enough; Biondo was on good behavior and wasn’t showing nearly as much interest in me as the day before. We went to a different area of land to graze, this one quite mountainous with lots of trees and cliffs. It was explained to me where the goats shouldn’t go, most importantly the neighboring vineyard where thousands of dollars of ripe grapes were awaiting harvest. I’ve always found the Italians to be incredibly sketchy with their giving of directions whether it be important instructions on how to do something or simply how to get to the train station. They operate more in a state of mind as opposed to details. This, of course, makes me want to stab myself in the face. I am a somewhat anal, fastidious, particular person of Germanic blood and am reduced to panic when not given specific instructions on how to do something I’ve never done before. In this case, the “something” was convincing ninety goats to keep away from the thing they desired most. So there I am, giant stick in hand on the side of a mountain. Over the course of the day I begin to recognize Biondo as an ally; he seems to be the only one who actually responds when I try to give any sort of direction and is really quite sweet with me. When it’s about time to go in, the goats start making their way down the hillside toward the gate when all of a sudden they make a sharp left. I don’t pay much mind to it as I know there is a fence to border them in. What I didn’t know was that this “fence” basically amounted to 2 pieces of un-electrified wire that proved no match for the herd. And before I even knew what was happening, they were out. I think I even heard a few of them laugh.

“Basta! Basta!” I begin to yell, jumping and screaming to no avail. Sprinting, I make a wide circle around the rapidly dispersing group to put myself in front of them. But by then they were no longer a herd, having spread out to nibble on whatever green things they could find. I wasn’t exactly sure how far away we were from anything that was off limits to them and I was starting to panic. “Andiamo! Vai!” I yelled to a thoroughly uninterested audience as I ran back and forth, arms flailing as I tried to reel them in. I sincerely hope that someone off in the distance was videotaping or at the very least watching this scene unfold because it involved me tripping, falling, getting stuck in a pricker bush, and screaming at the top of my lungs while unsuccessfully attempting to free myself. I finally just stood there, bleeding, sweating, and out of breath. But they seemed to be staying put so I just waited and hoped for the best. The goats eventually made their way toward the house and the dairy where they continued to graze in five or six widely dispersed groups. A man came out of the dairy and casually surveyed what was going on. Then he went back in and brought someone else out and they just sort of stood there and stared. Paulo finally made his way out of the dairy and we succeeded in rounding them up and getting them back to the stable, my title as ‘Village Idiot’ thoroughly clenched.

I debated trying to talk to someone about my misgivings as well as my expectations in coming here. I debated faking a hay allergy. I even debated just packing up and leaving in the middle of the night. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of those things, and when I managed to gain some perspective later that night I wondered where these feelings of adversity were really coming from. Was I just a spoiled New York City brat? Was I really in the business of saying “No” to something that I didn’t immediately succeed at? I decided that if I were worth a damn the answer to either question better not be “Yes” and I solemnly swore to myself that I’d tough it out.

The next day I relinquished all intentions of trying to manage these clearly independent creatures and I let them go more or less where they wanted. We grazed for a few hours without incident and when I saw several of them starting to relax in the shade I realized that they were probably thirsty and just plain tuckered out. So I gave a few short handclaps, said “Andiamo” as more of a question than a command and went to unhook the fence. And then the craziest thing happened. I turned to look back and they were following me. Not just Biondo and a few others, but all of them. I headed through the fence and down the road to the stable, clearly aware of the mass of hooves hitting ground behind me. There are no words to describe how it feels to have of a giant herd of animals right behind you submitting to your whim, but I’d be lying if I said the word “God” didn’t cross my mind at least once. This must be the sort of power trip that televangelists and drill sergeants get off on. I continued with a rhythmic hand clapping and a few encouraging words and before I knew it we were home. They obediently filed through the gates where I filled large tubs with water and watched them drink.

My remaining days on the farm were quite pleasant and nearly all the time I spent with the goats was udderly blissful (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Biondo and I had our good days and our bad days and even though I had to throwdown more than once and reaped my fair share of bruises, I definitely harbor large amounts of affection for that animal. He taught me not to mistake affection for aggression and that I’ll never again dismiss anything or anyone simply out of fear. I spent only one day in the dairy; it happened to be on a day when the milk from the night before didn’t set up properly and we couldn’t make cheese so I just ended up washing a lot of stuff. In the end I left a bit early and went to harvest grapes at a neighboring farm, mostly because grapes don’t have horns and I don’t have to clean up their shit. It was time to be fancy to myself. I came, I saw, I herded. And truth be told, what I missed in learning about cheese making was more than made up for by what I ended up learning about myself. Because once you’ve wrestled a two-hundred pound goat, everything else is cake. Even wrestling a foreign language.