A farm in Tuscany, to be exact.
We stop for ants. Ants. The vermin that march in troops towards summer picnics to wage war on your charcuterie board. It was week one on the Tuscan farm I left my job in New York to work on for the next three months, and I wasn’t quite sure why we were marveling when there were still rows of leeks to weed.
The ants are heaving this morning’s cake crumbs to their mound. My garden director watched them like it was a school of great whites breaching off the coast of Cape Town. But they’re your average ants marching like ants always do... We have weeding deadlines. Or so I assume. There are agro-tourists to feed and Italian chefs with access to heavy rolling pins and butcher knives to keep content with an endless stream of fresh produce. But the pause in our workday continues, and I learn that my job description as a garden intern would differ vastly from that of a New York media assistant.
For the past few years, my only window has been a computer screen in the cubicles I’ve revolved in and out of. We work to a non-stop beat of tapping heels and briefcase clicks and the sighs of train engines. It’s a routine I got comfortable with and then felt stuck in. So once Midtown skyscrapers started to feel like bars on a jail cell, I decided to refresh and restart. Since it wouldn’t be as easy as IT telling me to turn it off, wait ten seconds, then turn it back on again, I traded in my Prada sandals for steel-toed boots.
This wasn’t an opportunity to ditch the city to idly Instagram the beauty of living like a Tuscan—farm life is fantasy and reality entwined. Sure, I shared cantaloupe with a donkey named Giulia. But I was also almost eaten alive by escaped four-hundred-pound Cinta Senese pigs impatiently waiting for their hour-late grain breakfast on my way to pluck zucchini blossoms one dewy Saturday morning! Sure, I got to climb olive trees to harvest the fruit for the freshest olive oil you’ll ever gurgle. This was an—at times un-Instagrammable—opportunity to challenge myself and re-buff a lull in my work life.
I collected bruises instead of paychecks. Fridays weren’t paydays, dinner every night was. Parsley snipped fresh from the garden, beads of dirt still clinging to a bouquet of leaves, transformed into salsa verde was the only green I needed there. Surprise! Success isn’t only monetary! Success is in the drop of neon-hued olive oil after a three-week harvest. Success tastes nutty and pairs well with coarse salt.
Hours were long, muscles were sore, and arms were tinted pink from sinking them in buckets of grape skins to manually remove from vines. “Happy” wasn’t reserved for Friday evenings. Every day was celebrated (albeit with a bottle of wine or four) because work consistently rewarded us with the healthy sprouts of new vegetables, free prosciutto legs, breakfast cake, and maneuverable roads after rainstorms. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked, and it was the least stressed I’ve ever been.
I lugged logs for eight hours a day until my spine was a riverbed of sweat. I climbed apple trees so we could have fruitcake for dessert in the late fall. My commute was in the back of an unreliable truck called “The Falcon” that nobody could easily get out of first gear. I weeded until my fingernails looked like I painted them brown. When our arms started to tire, we fell back onto the grass and stared out onto the hills for Tuscan Appreciation Moments.
Breaks weren’t ways to avoid the rest of the rows that needed weeding or the spiders that crawled up my arms; I’d learn that they were essential to efficiency. We blasted Led Zeppelin and took second breakfasts for energy. Managers joined us before tasking us with scrubbing out vile corners of the chicken coop. Even with these breaks, including allotted hour-long lunches that tapered into two, we finished our work.
With an imminent homecoming looming, translating farm life to city life would be crucial in continuing this positive momentum. I’d vow not to have my phone accompany me on my bathroom breaks because texts, calls, or e-mails aren’t as urgent as nature’s calling unless you’re a medical professional or lawyer fighting the good fight.
Back in New York, where parsley doesn’t count as compensation, I’m back to twirling around revolving doors. But I’ve decided to take my time in the city that never stops (or sleeps, for that matter). I don’t have to be the last sardine packed onto the L train that’s just arrived. With a newly learned calm, I wait for the train right behind it that’s carrying a lot less people. And I’m happier this way—not smothered between a stranger’s backpack and another’s art portfolio.
I didn’t quit my job to travel. I quit my job to take on a more challenging one and recapture my career trajectory from a new perspective. And now, I, too, stop for ants.
Image courtesy of Nutrition Stripped.