"We are here on this planet only once and might as well get a feel for the place." -Annie Dillard

Friday, November 11, 2011

HelpX #2 - Gudiolo

October 26 - November 8 - Madeleine Stein and Helpx #2
(also known as the nature shots post.....can't believe I forgot to take photos of INSIDE the house... or people....jeez!)

"And the days go by like a strand in the wind / In the web that is my own, I begin again." ~Stevie Nicks

"To find beauty in words, it's a wonderful thing" ~ Laura speaking to me of poetry and songwriting

And so I am back on the train again, heading to Orte on a beautiful sunny, crisp, autumn day where I will be picked up by my third helpx host to start yet another experience. Leaving here, my second helpx site, I noticed having the feeling that I was leaving vacation and heading back home, and I had to remind myself that I was actually heading to yet another place with whole new experiences and schedules and ways of working. I have been in a routine, and now I have to mentally prepare for that switch and be ready for anything!

But first things first. My stay at Madeleine at Gudiolo, San Giovanni del Pantano. The past two weeks have been an incredible time of meeting artists and diplomats, local townspeople and British ex-pats, olive picking and painting stairs, dinners and fireside movies. I wish I taken the time to do separate posts so things aren't so condensed, but this is a good opportunity to practice one of my new intentions for myself: accepting my limitations and knowing that what I do, I am doing the best I can. And if I didn't post several entries about my time here at Madeleine's, that is okay.

Let's start with my arrival as I think it sets the stage quite well for the couple weeks that were to follow. I arrived at Ponte San Giovanni and ended up having to wait about an hour as Madeleine needed to drop some things at her house and then the freeway ended up being closed, so she had to take a bunch of back roads to get to the station. Thinking back, the pick-up seemed all too appropriate a metaphor for the next two weeks, in a wonderful way. A bit loose in schedule, somewhat crazy energy, and a need to let go and go with the flow. And if you do, you will have a wonderful, amazing experience.

And so Madeleine arrived a little green car, the Panda, car of choice for just about every person living on the windy, washed out dirt roads of Umbria. Oh little Panda, how fond I am of you, first car I drove in Europe (and survived to tell the tale! More on me driving later.)

Right: Madeleine
Left: Nicola, Madeleine's daughter
Behind: The trusty Panda car :-)

I learned on our drive to Gudiolo, place of residence for Madeleine just outside of San Giovanni del Pantano, that she was born in Chile. Her parents were Chilean diplomats and subsequently she had lived in a different country every two years for all her growing up years. Then, if that wasn't enough, her (now former) husband worked for Reuters and they (with their three kids) moved at least every couple of years. Think of a country, Madeleine has probably lived there. She speaks Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, French, and German. All quite fluently I might add. And her kids don't do too bad on the language front either. Living in the house was this wonderful mix of Spanish and English, with some Italian and French thrown in depending on who happened to be visiting. When talking to her kids, they would literally speak a mix of Spanish and English. In one sentence. It was great! And who would have guessed, I go to Italy, and there comes to haunt me that language that I feel like I should be learning but haven't, Spanish! The wonderful thing of the mixing of these languages, is I actually witnessed me picking some Spanish up. Madeleine does this wonderful thing when she talks to her kids of saying things in Spanish and then inserting a phrase or words of English (or vice versa) then kind of saying them again in the other language.

And don't worry, I also got plenty of Italian going shopping or when Tonino, the jolly 80 year old man from the village would come visit. But what I did find out is I can, if the subject of the conversation is right, somewhat follow the Italian. Problem is, if I look like I am following, someone like, say, Tonino, might decide to ask me questions, proceeded by me staring at him as I try to figure out how to respond in Italian, my mind going blank in a panic. At least I know this process from when I was in Belgium learning French. First comes starting to understand. Then comes understanding. Then comes terribly long times of translating things I want to say and saying them. Then comes speaking without translating. I'd say I'm on step one.

Now back to arrival. And as if to prove the point of the life that Madeleine had lived, a friend of hers, Peter, came over for dinner. Now let me tell you about this evening, as I believe it is the closest I will ever get to actually being in one of those wonderful old movies from the '40s where there is amazingly witty and smart conversation in the living room, and a William Powell character (in this case Peter) wanders around looking for the liqueur cabinet and occasionally piping in with wise crack remarks. Then, music starts. In the old films this would be someone sitting down to play jazz or ragtime on the piano. In this case, Lucas, Madeleine's 16 years old son home for the week on vacation from boarding school in England, starts playing through the stereo Stevie Nicks's "Edge of Seventeen" followed by Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" (while watching the music video and copying her dance moves.) I definitely approve.

And so here is life at Gudiolo. Let me introduce you to the cast of main characters:

Madeleine: now lives here in Italy, on property her and her parents bought over 25 years ago. Her parents have a house just below, but only come in the summer.
Nicola: Madeleine's 25 year old daughter. Living here for the moment after returning from a year working in Mozambique. It was fun to be with someone around my age to connect with, work with, and introduce me to wonderful BBC shows like DOWNTON ABBEY.
Lucas: home for the first week I was there. Goes to boarding school in England and if he had been a few years older would have given Daniel Radcliff a run for his money for role of Harry Potter. Seriously. And also has the best collection of '80's tunes you could ever want on his itunes.
Thomas: I never met him, but this is Madeleine's 19 year old son who is going to university in Holland.
Teana: A dear friend to Madeleine. She is an artist and used to teach at universities in London. I also got the pleasure to go for a walk with her up in the hills. Such a gentle, wonderful personality. We also picked many an olive at her property.
Laura and Massimo: An American and Italian artist couple that Teana thought I should meet. We ended up going to their house and them coming over for a second gathering at Madeleine's for music playing. More on these two amazing people later.
And a supporting cast of various villagers, the Canadian's who have a place up the hill, other British artists and ex-pats, Madeleine's ex husband, and Nero, the wonderful dog who reminds me so much of my very first pet, Bizzy.

Nero... reminded me so much
of Bizzy....

Doing my helpx "work" was a bit of an adjustment. I knew coming in that this would be different experience than Michael's, that I must be ready for something totally unlike what I experienced before, but it really did take a few days for this concept to really sink in and for me to adjust to the different ways of going about things. At Michael's, us workers had established a set routine. Get up in the morning, do work, then have lunch and have the afternoon to relax, work on music, read, hike, etc.. etc.. At Madeleine's, things were much more open ended - more in the flow of what needs to be done, like sanding and re-painting the stairs. Sometimes I felt like I didn't do anything, other days, like olive-picking days, was a whole day affair. Looking back, Michael's place was like this retreat in the secluded hills, a place to foster my musical creativity. Madeleine's was really living with a family, living their life and activities, and through this participating in a family and friends that dine and philosophize upon ideas, really igniting my mind with new ideas and desires to think about the ways of the world.

And so here are a smattering of meetings and experiences that stick out in my mind and that I will look back and draw upon

PUMPKIN PIE - (a.k.a. my earth shattering revelation between the connection of my cooking and songwriting experiences

I first met Teana when she came over to take a walk with Madeleine. But as fortunes turned out, Madeleine was still in the middle of a paint job, and asked if I would like to go instead. Eager to get out and explore the hillside, I of course accepted. What a great choice, Coty! Teana, as I mentioned above, is from England, is an artist, and has such a wonderful way about her that I immediately felt comfortable talking with her about what I have been doing, what I studied, what I would like to do etc.. etc... I learned she had taught art at universities (ha, I knew she was a professor. I can always tell when someone is just by the way they ask, 'So are you going to pursue a ph.d?'

On top of the hill behind Madeleine's..
the summit of our walk.

Gentle Teana, turned out to be someone that really started to make me feel at home in this place. She was encouraging of my travels talking about home and being away, and she was extremely interested in hearing my music. This led to two things: 1. That I should definitely meet Laura and Massimo (see below) because of my music and 2. I had completely failed to register that it was the end of October and we were well into Fall. I hadn't realized before how much seeing Halloween decorations were associated with Fall for me. In Italy, where the only Halloween mention I had seen was in a random tourist shop in the Rome train station, is pretty much absent. And even though I am right there with the complaining about how it seems holiday marketing starts earlier and earlier each year, I have realized that, you know what, I like my American holidays! There is something wonderful about Halloween, even in the way we have commercialized that once All Hallows Eve, that is completely wonderful and completely Fall. Complete with squash soups and pie.

And so somehow or other this lead to me being asked to make a homemade pumpkin pie, which I may have *slightly* over-exaggerated in my knowledge of knowing how to make it. Thank goodness for the lovely Sarah Fulford for saving the day, sending me a recipe that even worked with the very strange pumpkin that had quite the search to find in a grocery store here! (also thanks to Brigid, Tanya, and Jenn for sharing their own pie crust recipes - I now have quite the variety!)

But I jump to far ahead. This post is supposed to be about my wonderful revelation between my experience with cooking and songwriting! So as I was painting the stairs, I kept having to remind myself of Madeleine's motto for the paint job: "Go for it!" Don't worry too much, if we don't like it we can change it. Coty, don't worry too much about the brush strokes or if you have applied the paint to thin or too thick - just go for it!! This led me to thinking about how I was going to make this pumpkin pie that I supposedly was an expert at, and how I should just go for it, and how this worrying about whether I will make something how it should be because I don't really know what I am doing or because someone else surely could make it better has really held me back in the kitchen and one of my goals this trip has been to get over that. Try new things. Experiment. I'm taking an interest! And then it dawned on me. What a similar attitude I have had when it comes to songwriting!! " Aah, am I doing this right? Someone else could say this better. This isn't turning out how I imagined." etc.. etc...

LinkMmm... my beloved pumpkin pie!

And that's when I decided. By golly, I am going to make a good pumpkin pie. And you know what I did, if I do say so myself. And just like making apple butter first brought together what became the wonderful music nights of Friday Night Hoedown, so will this pumpkin pie be a new beginning of songwriting for Coty Hogue. And that is the significance of the pie.


Oh Laura and Massimo, I feel so grateful to have gotten to spend time with you. Teana organized a visit to their place, which is a remodeled 12th century tower. (I'm learning that all these places where one 12th century (or so it seems) lookout towers, where lookouts were posted to warn the region's castle of any invaders. Anyway Laura and Massimo have fixed up their place all by themselves and it is a wonderful little place, with just enough space for them to work on art, eat food, and sleep! With of course fields of olives and a garden.

Anyway, I brought along my prized pumpkin pie and we had a wonderful couple of hours of visiting, eating, and music making. Both Laura and Massimo are quite highly regarded artists, and immediately upon arriving, Laura took Nicola and I up to her studio to see the art she was working on. I was struck how right off the bat, this woman with such a gentle and wise grounded spirit about her just started talking about these very profound things in regards art, creativity, and life. I swear she could read my inner thoughts and desires to have someone to really talk to about these things. As she was showing us one of these mosaic pieces she was working on she stated, "I've always thought that doing my art is doing a service for others. It's not about being written about in the history books or having celebrity." Ah, I so needed to hear this. I kept thinking about this statement later and it was such a reminder as to why I like putting myself out there with music. It is exactly why I choose not to just settle for playing music in random bars where no one is really listening. There may be bigger crowds, they may all be having fun dancing or whatever, but it is not nearly as satisfying. (Not that doing this is fun at times, but Laura's statement is a good confirmation that playing my intimate music also is very important and has a place.) I left this visit feeling invigorated.

"To find the beauty in words, it's a wonderful thing."

Then it turns out, they had looked up my music on the internet and wanted to get together again to chat, play some more tunes, and buy a couple of CDs! And their visit to Madeleine's couldn't have come at a better day. I was having one of those negative head days, where I was questioning everything I had chosen to do with my life and was feeling quite forlorn, when they showed up to save the day, or evening, as it was. Laura immediately, in her amazingly sage way, started talking about my music and what I could do with my website, and then, as if reading my inner struggles with songwriting, started talking about words and poetry and songwriting. Read poetry, study it. Study words. "To find the beauty in words, it's a wonderful thing." Everything about her just makes me feel like I can do whatever I set my mind to. And Massimo, so encouraging, saying over and over again, "Ah, you don't have to worry, you don't have to worry. With your music, you will be fine with anything." Jeez, without saying a single word to them about all my negative inner dialogue I had been having, they seemed to pick it right out and put a stop to it. Ah, Laura and Massimo. And Teana! What beautiful people in this world.


Olive picking - the childhood love of climbing trees, reaching reaching reaching for that branch you just know you can nab. The satisfaction of stripping away the olives as you run your hands down the limb, the sound as they hit the ladder, ker-pluck. Gathering in the nets and pouring them into the basket - full! Ah, the life of an olive picker!

And so the second week of my stay, we started the harvest. Madeleine's boyfriend, Mark, came for the harvest, so me, Madeleine, Nicola, Mark, and Peter the Nigerian, who Madeleine found at the co-op asking for a job, started stripping, stripping, picking, picking olives, accompanied by Nicola's ipod mix ranging from Phantom of the Opera to Brazilian, to Coldplay. Here's how it works. First you spread the nets around the trees. We have two nets - which means two trees. Make sure there is no hole left by the trunk! Then, ready, set, go! Strip those olives away with satisfaction as they land on the net. When satisfied that you have nabbed all the olives, carefully gather the net up and dump the olives into the box. Olive leaves - just makes for better taste :-)

After a couple of days at Madeleine's, we moved to Teana's, where we became so excited as her trees had such a higher yield, which made the picking oh so much more fun. All in all, 318 kilos of olives (a small harvest compared to years before but apparently everyone's harvests seem to be less this year) producing 40 kilos of fresh, stone pressed, premium extra-virgin Umbrian olive oil. The get their olives pressed at the wonderful little Frantiolo, where they still use these massive round stones to ground the olives. Nowadays this is very rare to find, as most places use a more modern technique, but here they still do it the good ole' way and the quality reflects it. The now mushed olives then go through several stations of pressing and then, bam, you have oil! Take that! And try to guess how much a bottle of this oil would cost back home!

The following is a picture account getting olive oil from a stone press~

1. Get your olives weighed!

2. Olives go through a machine to get (most of) the leaves blown out.

3.Now the olives go down the hole and dumped into....

4. .....The stone press! This, once the common way to press olives, is now hard to find. (Apparently the owner of this place went all over Italy to find these stones.) But people say the process is worth the effort! Round, round they go, mushing, mushing away.

5. Now the olive mush really get pressed. Each slab is then cleaned (by this guy). The leftover olive gunk is used to make things like olive soap!

6. And then it goes through several more of these pressings.

7. Oil comes out....

8. Look at all that fine pressed oil! (*this one can go away if needed)

9. Pour it into the containers... and take home!

p.s. Don't try eating an olive off the tree, especially those that are for olive oil! .

AND THEN......

And so suddenly my two weeks are at a close. I got really feel a part of a family and meet wonderful people in the area. (p.s. if you ever want to find all the Brits living in Umbria, just go a garage sale that one is hosting.) It seems like yesterday I was waiting at the train station for my pick up and now here I am back on the train off to another site. What really stands out to me is how comfortable I feel here I know how easy it would be for me to stay here until my time in Italy is over, complete with a cozy bedroom and nice wireless internet access that allow me to say, watch a Lady Vols game at 1:00 am in the morning.....our nightly foreign movie watching, the candles, the fire. I have met amazing people who I want to keep in touch with, artists who are inspiring and listen and wise and grounded. I will miss dearly this community. Madeleine and Nicola, Teana and her dogs, Laura and Massimo, Peter, Mark, Tonino, Nero, the beautiful Umbrian fall colors in the rolling hills. The inspiration from people who are intellectual, thoughtful, expressive, and supportive. ......... But I know that I have to move on, experience one last place and one last set of new people before closing this trip to Italy.

p.s. So I mentioned driving the Panda......... Well, Madeleine asked if I could drive a manual car. I said, 'yes.' Next thing I knew she was asking me to drive the Panda to the store to get some ingredients! Aaaaack..... Italy drivers are SCARY..... But I buckled my seat belt and off I went. And survived. The Panda seems to be THE car of choice in these parts. Small but zips up and down the bumpy and 'NOT well maintained dirt roads. Also, apparently it was designed to perfectly fit an apple crate in the back!

p.p.s. Here is a little photo I took in the medieval hill town of Cortiano. I also went to Perugia (yes of Amanda Knox fame), but my photo skills there were a bit lacking.

In Cortiano:

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