Catherine “Cat” Braza is HECUA’s student blogger for the Fall Semester of our Sustainable Food, Agriculture and Justice program. Cat is a junior at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. She’s majoring in Environmental Science, with a double minor in Music and Studio Art. Read on for Cat’s first impressions of life in Tuscany.
A little over a week ago, I made the most of my four-day weekend off and saw the Pope, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, as well as world-famous works of art by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Raphael nestled nonchalantly in modest roadside cathedrals. One of my favorite things in Rome was actually the Roman Forum itself—all that remains standing of the center Roman Empire. I am not a history buff by any definition of the phrase, yet wandering around this park studded with Roman ruins, soaring arches, and moon-white Corinthian columns was mildly incredible. While you’re strolling and staring, it strikes you that the pillars of this society still stand not only physically in the Roman Forum, but also socially in so many of our contemporary values and references. They didn’t nickname Rome the “Eternal City” for nothing.
The first vines are finally turning scarlet against the castle tower in which five of us students live (yes, I did say “castle”). And it occurs to me that much of Italy’s power, its legacy, and its transience lies in its adaptability, its ability to change with the seasons yet still stand strong as its undeniable and beautiful self. Living flexibly and in accordance with the seasons is not just favored by Italians; it often is also necessary to their way of life.
In late September, our Sustainable Agriculture classes were postponed until the following week, in part because it was time to harvest the grapes. We live on the property of the Castello Sonnino vineyard estate, and this is the time of the year to begin making Vin Santo (“holy wine”), a specialty dessert wine. That week, Camillo and Giorgio, two farmhands who speak minimal English, taught us how to select the best grapes for the Vin Santo. If the grapes are too tightly clumped into a bunch, they must be discarded, because the grapes in the middle of the bunch will go rotten from insufficient oxygen. Grapes that are too brown or too small must also be discarded.
Equipped with this knowledge, we students spent entire days sorting wine grapes in sunlit rooms, stacking them on big reed mats until our hands were almost irrecoverably sticky with dried grape juice. And the grapes are beautiful; they look like little round peridots, rubies and amethysts catching the sunlight as they dry. They have been harvested at the perfect time of year. They are freshly picked, but they reverberate out of a centuries-old Italian fall tradition.
We also spent days clipping bunches of grapes in the yellowing autumn vineyard fields. We got to know each other better as we filled hundreds of bright red buckets with plump bunches of grapes, absorbing the warm embrace of the sunshine. Naturally, the highlight of that experience was when the truck bed began to overflow with grapes, and we got to stomp on the grapes in order to squish them down. That’s one of many bucket list items we’ve been able to cross off over the course of this program. (Fun fact: you can keep your shoes on for the stomping! We probably would have preferred to take them off, though.)
Now all the grapes have been harvested at the vineyard, so it’s back to class as per usual. Of course, even class itself has been adjusting as the seasons change; now that our professor, Filippo, has finished introducing us to the theoretical frameworks of sustainable agriculture, it’s time to have class based in discussion instead of lecture. We’re now trusted to exercise what we’ve learned to discuss Italian sustainable ag—we’ve now labored firsthand in the system, we’ve read papers on the system, and now we will formulate our own educated opinions about the system.
And it is vital that, whether we as students continue our newfound connections with Italy into the future, we take a hint from this country philosophically. The last time I blogged about the program, I discussed how we can learn from Italians’ ability to savor life slowly; now, I’m noticing more and more how, like Italians, I also want to learn to live more in tune with the seasons. “The system”—namely, the agro-food system—requires radical adaptability and an enormous shift in our paradigms. Food waste and food deserts and corporate greed and pollution are all rampant problems in the agricultural industry right now. That’s our “season,” socioeconomically, and it’s the season our food systems need to adjust to and address.
Of course, each of us can start small. I’ve recently begun intentionally cooking in season, because buying produce that is in season is better for the environment. Plus, it’s a beautiful thing to no longer take for granted the availability of a given fruit or vegetable. When you know squash is only truly seasonally available in the fall—GMOs and chemically-injected squashes aside—you can get more genuinely excited about this time of year and the delicious squash gratin you and your friends can cook together. The beauty of seasonal produce parallels the beauty of Halloween, Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and so many other favorite holidays of ours in America; they are a special treat, only available once every twelve months, and their perpetual novelty is a huge part of the reason why we love them so much.
As our apartment becomes more and more freezing at night, and the tiny apples fall from the trees dotting the roads, and roasted chestnut season hits full swing in the Italian city streets, I’m getting to experience an autumn unlike any I’ve ever experienced in the States. I can’t deny starting to deeply miss many of the little things back home—practicing my guitar, the yellow fluttering leaves of Colorado aspens, live bluegrass music, hiking the Rockies, attending plays put on by my college classmates, owning my own coffee maker—but I’m taking a cue from Italy. I’m doing my best to adjust, adjust, adjust. After all, that’s why you choose to study abroad in the first place: so that you will leave not only a little bit changed, but also a better, stronger, and even perhaps more eternal version of yourself.
All photos: Cat Braza