End Game: Lessons Learned in Living Abroad

In general, Europeans take Christmas very seriously. As we prepare to head home, Christmas scenes now dominate public spaces Europe-wide.

We are down to four days remaining until our return trip across the Atlantic. Major grocery runs with the roller bag have ceased, and our landlady has visited to conduct our final business and to say our “arrivederci’s”. We have tallied our remaining cash in euros, planning more carefully now to spend it on short-term food and last-minute souvenirs or gifts. At least one suitcase is packed, and bags are filled with clothes and shoes to be donated to local charity. Winter finally set in last night as a cold front is now bringing wind and our first hint of snow (sleet or graupel, call it what you wish). The Christmas market is in full swing in the town center, and strings of lights and decorations line Viterbo’s main shopping corridor, Corso Italia. It’s a good time now to take stock of our own decisions and judgments to see how we fared, now with hindsight to reflect upon. What worked well, and what not so well? What decisions reflected veritable brilliance? Good luck? And bad calls that we learned from? Here is a running list of our own lessons learned after our first semester abroad:

Brugge, Belgium. My last photo on our last trip in Europe before heading home. I'm sure we'll be back some day!

Congratulations for a Job Well Done (through planning or dumb luck):

  • Prior to our departure to Viterbo in August, we placed set amounts of euros into separate envelopes for items including the first month’s rent and deposit, train and taxi fares, and a few other fixed costs. When it was time to pay, we removed the designated envelope without having to worry whether we had enough cash. In Italy, cash is still preferred for many transactions. One envelope, I remembered this morning, was for “emergency backup” cash, containing 100 euros. We took this on early trips around Europe in case our credit and debit cards didn’t work, to avoid running completely out of money. This not only provided a safety cushion for travel, but allowed for a nice final surprise this morning when I recalled that we still had the 100 extra euros stashed in the envelope!
  • For cell phones, we purchased two basic, inexpensive phones after arriving in Viterbo. We decided to use the “pay as you go” plan, whereby we simply visit the nearest Vodaphone or Tobaccheria store (no kidding) when we need to add minutes. We pay cash, and they add a set number of minutes to our phones. This was a simple, inexpensive, no-hassles approach to providing phone service in Italy. We (Linda and I) immediately added the USAC staff members and each other to our phone contact lists, and consequently never had to remember our own phone numbers (I placed my own phone number in the contact list as well). Using our American phones turned out to be a big hassle, and didn’t work as predicted (eventually Linda’s Droid phone started magically working, but we still don’t know why).
  • Not having a car had its benefits, though the “car issue” also appears in our second list below. As for the bennies, the costs and hassles of owning or leasing a car for four months were eliminated with the decision to rely on mass transit and foot power. This was made possible by a related good decision to find an inexpensive apartment within close walking distance to the university and the train station (two of them). More suburban living would have required a car. Instead, we enjoyed a medieval life style within a walking city that is now 800-plus years old. At least four grocery stores of various scope are within walking distance, and probably more that we did not patronize. Restaurants, university functions, classes, casual shopping outings, and festivities in town were all within easy reach of our centrally-located apartment. The train took us everywhere via a 1.75 hour trip to Rome and to connecting trains or the airport. In these ways, we did not miss having the expense or hassles associated with a car.
  • Having a reliable, strong internet connection in our apartment was a high priority for us, and we worked with our landlady to provide it. Upon inquiry in August, internet was connected to our apartment for a small installation fee, and a reasonable 20-euro monthly fee thereafter. We have since learned that few if any of the student apartments were provided with internet, necessitating that they find alternative and sometimes unreliable services elsewhere. With decent internet, we were able to communicate regularly with friends and family, and I was able to get work done efficiently, both for classes here and for projects and obligations back home. Both of us learned to use Skype well, for visually communicating with Linda’s family, and for my occasional academic meetings. And, without any viable TV option here (we don’t watch much, anyway), it was useful to check out various internet news sources and download a few favorite TV shows onto the computer once in awhile. I at least caught up on my newest favorite show, “Suits,” so now I won’t miss out on the story line upon returning home… More important, I rarely needed to use the USAC office computers since they are typically in use by staff members for more pertinent tasks. I only needed the USAC office computers to print class materials on Wednesday afternoons, and I accomplished this during Pausa Pranzo, when everyone else was away. So, I like to think that I avoided bugging the busy staff because we had decent internet. This was one of the best decisions we made, and it has paid off wonderfully. It is, in short, well worth the planning in advance to secure such a connection to the world.
  • We planned in August to take many of our clothes on a one-way trip. Much of our wardrobe here in Italy is not coming home with us. This was Linda’s brilliant idea, and it is paying off now that we are taking stock of all that we are packing to bring home. We purposely packed older clothes and shoes, with some exceptions, expecting that they would be donated at home within a few months’ time, anyway. So, why not bring them to Italy, use them, and leave them here? Indeed. We have three or more bags of clothes and shoes prepared for our landlady, who will take them to a local charity after we leave. In place of all that empty suitcase space are gifts and souvenirs from our European adventures!
  • On a related note, a few weeks ago we shipped one large box of souvenirs and gifts to Arizona and asked our friendly neighbor to look out for it on his doorstep. Not knowing if it would take a month or more to get through Italy and customs, we shipped it early. To our surprise, it arrived within two weeks, so will be waiting for us upon our return! The 100-or so euros and language barriers at the post office were – in our estimation – well worth the benefit of reducing all of that weight and space in our remaining luggage. By shipping one box and leaving many of our old clothes here, we may take less baggage home with us than what came with us in August!
  • It was certainly wise for both of us to take an introductory Italian language course prior to our arrival here. Although it would always be better to gain more competence with the language, for my own time and effort this was a perfect match. An attempt to become fluent in the language would have been over the top, as it would have been to take further Italian courses. I did not feel I had the time or energy to devote that much effort, given my “day job”. Both of us picked up more of the language as we interacted here for four months, and my introductory-level Italian was just right for “getting around” Viterbo and Italy as a whole. Sure, fluency would be nice, but not realistic in my case.
  • Although perhaps stating the obvious, it was a wise decision to plan on traveling around Europe as much as possible while enjoying our convenient proximity. To my moderate surprise, most of the students learned to do so as well. While being sure to keep my top priority of teaching in focus, there were plenty of opportunities each week, and during various national holidays, to “light out for the territory” and take our chances with various train systems and so-called discount airlines (we now have experience with Wizz Air, Ryan Air, Easy Jet, Vueling, and Brussels Airlines, for better or worse – though most were fine once learning their own internal protocols). Although exhorbitant taxes and fees prevented us from enjoying the advertised “discount” fares as we might have hoped, seeing places from Britain, The Netherlands, and Belgium to Hungary, the Czeck Republic, and Poland would not have been feasible had we not been living here for four months.

    This kid may do something different next time (actually, all McDonalds employees were wearing these, but I don't show the back side here...)

Things We May Do Differently Next Time…

  • We probably did not need to ship two large packages to Italy prior to our arrival in August. We first shipped a large box, followed by an actual soft-sided suitcase. Both were addressed to the local USAC office here in Viterbo, and both contained a wide assortment of convenience items that we imagined would be used during our stay – everything from dish towels and wash clothes to scotch tape and finger nail clippers. The main bulk was taken up by the bed comforter and winter clothes and jackets that we decided to ship in advance. While that part was probably wise, many of the household goods were, on hindsight, not necessary. The prohibitive cost of shipping these items was not offset by the savings from not buying them here. And, neither package arrived in Viterbo until one- and two-months respectively after our arrival. They got caught up in customs, and we had to pay an additional fee here to receive one of the packages. A good thought initially, but certainly not worth it!
  • Renting or leasing a car would have provided certain benefits, even if renting a car once every few weekends. Our freedom and mobility were certainly reduced from not having “wheels,” and otherwise routine trips to a major shopping center on the edge of town required a 40-minute bus ride and often a taxi to get home when the buses didn’t show up when we thought they should. Though all of our daily needs were met within walking distance, our typical American freedom to “move about the country” whenever we wished was severely limited. There are towns and sites around Viterbo that we likely would have visited had we rented or leased a car. Still, did the “bennies” of not having a car outweigh the cost of freedom? We’ll leave that for others to decide.

We will miss the USAC staff and students, most of whom posed here during a trip to the Italian Parliament in November. "Grazie a tutti" for an unforgettable adventure!


Posted in Living in Viterbo, Teaching Abroad | Leave a comment

The Sixth Sense: Encouraging Viterbo to Try Something New

The vision behind Sesto Senso, Alex enjoys a rare break in the early December sun.

What does it take to open a new restaurant in Italy? From what we have seen, the feat requires someone who doesn’t sleep much. Beyond this, one should probably be super-energetic, creative, business-savvy, and knowledgeable of local Italian politics and protocols. They should also be comfortable tackling interior design, historic renovation techniques, hiring and managing, and most certainly the culinary arts and restaurant cuisine. Wrap these personal qualities together, and you’ve got a restaurant entrepreneur in the making – from my perspective. Alex brushed off the term “entrepreneur” when I described him that way as a compliment a while back. From my view, the label certainly applies to his personal efforts to open not one, but two restaurants in this small, medieval city. It takes a sixth sense to be an entrepreneur in Italy, and we have been fortunate to follow Alex’s progress with his latest vision.

We came to know Alex (Alessandro) due to proximity and coincidence. We needed to keep track of places where we could eat in town during the three hours of “Pausa Pranzo” from 1:00-4:00pm each day, for one thing. Second, his place is just a quick skip away from our apartment. Authentic, non-touristified towns like Viterbo shut down during Pausa Pranzo, as it’s called, essentially breaking up the work day and providing quite a different daily routine than found in America. A neat Italian cultural trait? Yes, indeed. Frustrating for Americans when trying to find food or groceries? Yes, indeed.

On a hot day in late August, then, we were thankful to see a little sign close to our apartment. It advertised lunch for 10 euros, open for much of Pausa Pranzo. The place is called Sesto Senso, and it quickly became an occasional hangout for us. Soon, we wanted to support Alex’s venture and introduce him to our own guests, so Sesto Senso has been a required stop on our itinerary with friends and family. Here’s a guy, I thought after seeing the lunch sign, who is bucking the Italian trend by opening during the early afternoon. At one point Alex explained, “Isn’t this the best time to be open, when nobody else is doing it?” Indeed!

Working with his Italian mother and a couple of staff members, Alex had opened Sesto Senso a few months prior to our arrival. After learning that he spoke some English due to a lengthy stint in Miami, he became one of the few locals with whom we could converse regularly. It turns out he welcomed the opportunity to practice English as well, claiming to be losing his English-speaking ability with few such acquaintences.

As for the restaurant name, Sesto Senso, it remained a curiosity to me for several months, and Linda and I contemplated the creative logo, with “Sesto” spelled backwards. I had thought it might be difficult for most people to read the name, though perhaps if you read it from the other side? In any case, a creative approach to a sign, but what about the name? I brushed it off for awhile as just another Italian name that might mean something to locals. I finally inquired about it only recently.

One day I opened the mighty Google Translate tool on our computer and entered “Sesto Senso”. The translation was immediate: “Sixth Sense”. No way, I thought to myself, this is so cool! (I’ve been listening to amazed college students for much too long this semester…) I wonder if he knows about the American movie? He did spend a few years in the States. Well, to this day I cannot confirm that he actually named it after the hit hollywood film (one of my favorites, it turns out), but he did confirm knowing about the film. I finally asked as we stood outside chatting. I told him I entered Sesto Senso into Google Translate, and he cut me off and said, “Yes, the Sixth Sense – like the movie,” followed by a slight grin. Whether inspired directly by the movie or not, we have come to the conclusion that it is quintessential Alex – creative, and willing to try something different. Since then, he has developed a web site for the place (minus Haley Joel Osment imagery).

Another story line has emerged here, beyond the walls of Sesto Senso. Alex acquired a lease on a city-owned property for a second restaurant. The place is located right on the highly visible and walkable Piazza della Erbe, a small but incessantly busy public square in the heart of medieval Viterbo. A couple of my students researched this piazza for a class project, and so it has been fun to share some of Alex’s experiences with my class. This is a fantastic place for a new restaurant venture, given the heavy foot traffic. Erbe is a major social venue for the Italian locals during their almost-nightly “Passeggiata”.

For the past few months we have enjoyed hearing the stories of progress, renovation, frustration, and planning associated with Alex’s latest entrepreneurial adventure. Not yet knowing what he intends to call the place, his vision is to open an American-style steakhouse, something unheard of inside the Viterbo walls. Even Alex acknowledged that the Viterbese tend to be set in their ways with respect to cuisine: “All they like to eat is Italian food,” he mused, adding that “I want to encourage them to try something different, not like the same pizzas they eat all the time”. Still, hedging his bets, he is using a strategy he calls “fusion,” that includes mixing various local Italian fare with the otherwise foreign American-style cuisine.

Wow, we thought, an American steakhouse. Most people here still stare us down because it is still rare to see Americans. If someone can pull it off, it’s Alex. While enjoying occasional chats, his frustrations show through. He speaks of the delay in completing city paperwork, or the slow progress on interior renovations. Starting a small business from scratch is a challenging thing in America, let alone Italy. It was not a surprise when we learned that his original plan for a grand opening in November was unfortunately going to come and go. As of November 30, the big, white paper sign covering the door still advertised OPENING NEXT. “Next what?” I asked Linda. We thought the sign was amusing, and quite telling. We hoped that Alex could get the place open for us to participate in his success before our departure in late December.

As of a few days ago, Alex had set a date: Saturday, December 17  is the big day planned for opening Alex’s grand experiment. We will informally let students and others know about the plan. After countless walk-bys through Piazza del Erbe, Linda and I had not been able to get a sneak peak of the place under renovation, until only a few days ago. After parting with Linda as she began her volunteer teaching earlier this week, I too had a “sixth sense”. I hustled back to our apartment, gathered the camera, and headed to Erbe. For the first time, one of the doors of “OPENING NEXT” was open, and I took my chance. Peaking in, I found a work crew putting the finishing touches on the renovations, with Alex perusing wine catalogs with a colleague. He tweaked the loose glass top on the bar that had yet to be glued in place and motioned for me to look around. Linda and I think he can do it, given what we’ve seen of the progress. It’s Alex, so if anyone can do it… We’re rooting for him, and we will be one of his first loyal pairs of customers upon opening day – perhaps with a few American students to share the evening with!

As a footnote, we will be sure not to order the pasta carbonara on opening day. After several orders of that dish over a month’s time at Sesto Senso, Alex gave us a hard time one day: “Don’t you dare order the carbonara,” he said only half-jokingly. Alex encourages people to try new things, to get out of their habits once in awhile. This is an important lesson for Viterbo, and for all of us.

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On Teaching Abroad: Part 3

This is a continuation of my previous two posts that include my personal reflections about teaching and living abroad. I am crafting these as “tips,” though the less prescriptive word, “observations” may be more appropriate. In any case, welcome to Part 3 of this series, and take from it what you wish. My fourth observation constitutes the remainder of this post.

4. Just Go to Say Hello

That is to say, try to be realistic about the extent to which you can integrate with your host community. With only a little over four months of time, it may seem like a lot, but it will fly by rather quickly, and the language learning curve is slow for both students and faculty. As a personal anecdote, a few weeks ago I was sitting in the otherwise abandoned USAC office during their lunch break as I prepared materials for my afternoon class. The staff tends to leave the radio on when they leave, so I typically enjoy a quiet concert of pop music while I am working there. To my surprise early on, many of these songs are sung in English, and many originate in the United States. On this day, one song caught my attention because it was catchy and cute, simply titled “Hello”. It is now on my iPod. It’s not an overly complicated tune, but the main verse throughout came to hold an alternative meaning for me: “I just came to say Hello,” she repeats many times, hoping her date will get the message. This is what she tells her boyfriend at a party, clarifying throughout the song that, while she’s his “darling” for the evening, she’s not interested in doing much more than saying “hello” and leaving. She doesn’t even “really care if you don’t have much to say”.

The “Hello” song became a light-hearted way to describe my personal sentiments – and stark reality – related to living in Italy for the semester. I really just came to say “hello,” and I need to be satisfied with the limited amount of involvement I can ultimately enjoy within this community and through its language. The bottom line is that I came to teach students in an exciting, novel place for a few months, and enjoy a rare opportunity to live in the same foreign place for longer than a week. My expectations did not really move beyond this, however, as I had no grand illusions of becoming an Italian local or becoming fluent in the language. Neither of these can be accomplished in four months, and I would not suggest to most people that they try. There may be cases where a faculty member is already proficient with the host country’s language or plans to remain in the country for a full year instead of a semester. In these or similar cases, the VP (visiting professor) may realistically expect to become more involved with the place, and perhaps more fluent with the language. Otherwise, it was helpful for me to be realistic about my own expectations for learning the language in advance. Most of the students are not proficient with the Italian language, and I have “gotten by” here with an introductory course’s worth of Italian prior to my Viterbo experience. While I have picked up words and practiced phrases throughout my stay, it’s a very slow process of learning. But I am confident now that I can get around here and Italy, and to communicate with Italians politely and hold simple conversations. At this point, I’m satisfied with that.

I have been hearing similar accounts from students and other past and current faculty members. Some students had been hoping to integrate more fully into our community here in Viterbo, perhaps through making new friends, becoming more proficient with the language, enjoying community activities, and so on. This is a commendable goal, though it seems a lot of us have hit a “wall” in terms of how integrated we can actually become within a four-month period. To their credit, USAC provides numerous opportunites, not the least being the pairing up of “language partners,” promoting cultural events, and offering volunteer experiences. Still, the language is not learned fast enough for most of us, and local neighbors are friendly but have been forming their social networks for years or decades (or longer). It is not realistic to expect that students or faculty will be able to integrate more thoroughly.

This perhaps seems somewhat contradictory to the incessant call for students to “immerse” themselves in another culture to promote global awareness – again, a worthwhile goal ideally, but not realistic for a semster away from home. Though it has been disappointing for me and others to hit this “wall” lately, it is the reality of still playing the role of visitor within a host community. Everyone is still learning and experiencing more than they can process, even without that elevated goal of immersion. We’re really just going to say “hello,” and to take our rich experiences with us on the rest of our own life journeys. And, if we can give something back – intangible or otherwise – to our host community, so much the better.

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The Olive Tour Continues: A More Traditional Mill in Viterbo

Finally separated from the leaves, the happy olives jump into the next sleuce that takes them to the pressing stones.

It was right under our noses this whole time. Just “down the street” from our piazza and apartment is a quaint stone bridge that crosses a stream channel between two of the town’s medieval quarters. Upon crossing this bridge during jogs or trips to a nearby park, we could discern some uninviting and aging buildings hidden by various types of foliage. Little did we know that the site below the bridge hosts a family-run olive pressing mill that cranks out their own olive oil for use in a nearby restaurant and for sale on their property. Like in many cases, it’s about who you know. Linda’s cuisine instructor called and asked if we would be interested in seeing the mill, which was billed as more traditional than the large-scale facility we saw with the class last week (please see previous post). Its “traditional” aspect apparently involved the typical stone presses of the past, so that – perhaps like the promotional slogan for WordPress, your olives can be “freshly pressed” (couldn’t resist). Here’s the rest of the story.

The "pop" of this Mom and Pop olive mill operation drives a forklift to assist the offload of a fresh batch from the farm.

Our small group, which included some students who joined us on the fly, showed some collective surprise at how mechanized this “traditional” process actually proved to be. The two big exceptions were the round griding stones, and the pressing mats, the latter of which resemble (dating myself here) vinyl LP records. Once made of rope fabric, these round discs are made of plastic nowadays. They were once made with woven material, resembling hotplates we might use for the kitchen table (the best I can do at this point). First the olives are sorted from their leaves and washed, as with the previous mill we saw. Then the olives make their way into a cylindrical vat inside which two heavy grinding stones turn on a central axis. My guess is that getting a foot run over by a car would be less painful than finding myself underneath one of those stone wheels. Now ground into a mulch (or pulp, perhaps), the material makes its way into an ingenious apparatus whereby the pulp is laid flat and squeezed like a sandwich between the plastic press mats (the LPs). There are probably 20 or 30 of these mats stacked on top of one another (I didn’t count), each with a thin layer of olive pulp squeezed between them.

The first stop: Olives mixed with tree leaves prepare to get sucked down from below to sort out the leaves.

Then the pressure comes from the top. The thick olive sandwich is squeezed with weight from above, and the oil literally drips out over the edges and into a basin below. The olives have been “freshly pressed”. Following the big squeeze, the mats are taken from the machine and somehow make their way by mechanical means back to an attendant near the grinding stones. He manually scrapes the remaining pulp off the mats, cleans them to some extent, and sends the mats back for another round of pressing. After a bit more processing, the oil itself becomes the same light green stuff pouring from the pipe as what we saw at the previous mill. This operation is indeed less complicated despite all the machinery, and requires less space overall.

The "Mom" of the Mom and Pop operation uses a broom to shove the remaining olive and leaf mixture into the next vat for sorting.

As we walked out of the mill area, a pressing question remained (pun intended): What happens to the byproduct pulp from the olives once the oil is extracted? To my knowledge, no one had asked the question at the mechanized mill last week, so we got a second chance. We found most of the answer in the form of an expanding pile of manure-like olive pulp, already starting to encroach on the small parking lot. There it was, just a big pile with a protective tent over it. The remains, we learned, can be used for biofuel, as it burns pretty well. One fellow showed us a stove in the mill that can be fueled with the stuff. Though I didn’t get confirmation on this, it was also imagined that it provides for fairly fertile mulch that can restore nutrients to farmland or gardens.

The twin grinding stones turn on a vertical axis in the background as the mats are cleaned in the front.

We were informed that instead of the mill retaining all the oil for its own distribution, this mill retains the individual oil for the farmers themselves, which they pick up later in whatever containers they might have available. I could bring, say, 15 trees worth of olives for pressing, and I would receive the very oil that was produced from those olives. This is one big difference between a small-scale operation such as this, and the larger-scale, mechanized operation that checks for the quality of olives coming in so that they meet the high, DOP standards of the European Union.

Olive pulp is pressed thin between two stacks of plastic mats. The fresh olive oil is squeezed to the edges and trickles to the bin below.

A final, unedible treat awaited us, as the 75-year old husband of the “mom and pop” operation graciously opened the door to a medieval building behind the mill and revealed a veritable museum of centuries past. In front of us inside this rock-carved basement was a much older stone grinder that was turned by human or animal labor. Next to it was the wooden pole on which the rope mats were placed in order to press the oil out of the olives. A hole in the ceiling allowed the olives to fall through a funnel hanging in the air. Prior to mechanization, this is how this and other family-owned businesses produced their oil from olives.

It's starting to look familiar....

Including the first mill we had visited, we had now seen three phases of technology representing over a century of olive oil production. The bottom line remained the same: squeeze the naturally created oil from the olives and turn it into something edible and enjoyable. And, we’re pretty sure that this “75-year old” mill owner didn’t pick his own olives by hand anymore — as they show up at his doorstep now in trucks or crates — this was an active 75-year old who was keeping this traditional, family-run business alive, along with his wife (whom, we were told, actually runs the show and the accounting office that we saw).

After being pressed, the olive pulp dumps into this expanding pile outside the mill, to be used as mulch or biofuel.

Perhaps the most memorable moment, and connection with history and a symbol of family continuity, came to us when this enthused gentleman showed us the old mill in the cellar, along with an aging black and white family photo framed on the wall. On the right side, a young child sat on someone’s lap in the midst of some 20 familiy members. This was him, probably seven decades ago.

A piece of art on the wall of the mill offices clearly shows the entire pre-industrial process for producing olive oil - with happy, elf-ish workers and all.

An old family photo with the current mill owner sitting on the knee of a male relative (center right).

This pre-industrial grinding wheel turned by animal or human power, rather than electricity.

The pre-mechanized press, complete with rope mats and stone weights. A drain carved into the base allowed the oil to drain into the bucket pictured here.

Posted in Geography Case Studies, Living in Viterbo | Leave a comment

The Birth of Olive Oil: From Seedling to Supermarket

Two agricultural crops in Italy seem to receive the bulk of attention from visitors: grapes and olives. Grapes are fun to eat, but are most famous for their production of Italian wines. Likewise, we can eat olives (not so much fun) or transform them into something more popular, olive oil. Earlier today, USAC staff member and instructor, Marco C., took my Rural and Small Town Development class into the heart of olive country outside Viterbo to uncover the mysteries of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Planning to break into the olive oil business himself one day, Marco knows olives. He prepared us for the experience by comparing the traditional, romanticized image of older men picking the olives by hand (they are always 75 years old, he says), and the more mechanized, 21’st century approach. This post is my attempt to provide a reasonable overview of the operation, “from seedling to supermarket,” as I told my students.

The olive-picking "hair brush," as I call it, in action outside of Viterbo.

There are few if any old men these days picking their own olives. As recently as the early 1990s, the mechanization of agriculture finally impacted the olive industry as well. Somebody who was presumably tired of picking all those olives (probably 75 years old) apparently invented a giant hairbrush that could be installed on a tractor. Until today I wondered how the olives make their way off the trees, naturally or otherwise. I was going to place bets on shaking the tree, as some orchard-based crops undertake an intense, mechanical shaking now and then. Not so with olives, as the irregular shaped trees would likely crack and break. Instead, a giant, rotating “hair brush” is attached to the end of a tractor, and the brush sifts through the tree to relieve it of its olives. The tractor and its operator are first strategically placed in the center of four surrounding trees, and the brush is carefully maneuvered through the tree just as someone would do their hair (perhaps). I am rarely surprised these days about how things work, but I was unprepared for this ingenious device. It was worth a full class photo standing in front of the thing (see below).

Expansive tarps, or nets, catch the falling olives to expedite their collection.

Prior to being “brushed out,” (my term, not sure of the real one) expansive blue tarps – actually finely meshed nets — are laid on the ground and wrapped around four trees at a time, not unlike a skirt for a Christmas tree. In no simpler terms, the olives fall onto the nets, as do some of the tree leaves. After the trees have parted with their olives, a couple of husky men take the down-slope edges of the nets – if there is a slope at all — and carefully pull the nets toward the upslope side like pulling a blanket off the bed. They move from lower to higher elevation so that the olives are dragged along and naturally sift out into the next lower net. Otherwise, we were told, the olives would continue their journey naturally down hill and roll right off the nets. They are then bagged up into big blue sacs, in this case, thrown into a truck or trailer, and sent to the processing mill a couple of miles down the road.

The scraggly, hollowed-out appearance of olive trees is not natural, but a strategy to improve olive production and to expedite the job of the olive pickers.Like any agricultural crop, its farmers require intimate knowledge of how olive trees grow and prosper, and how best to care for them. Olive trees only produce large quantities of olives once every other year. It follows that, instead of fussing with a two-year cycle and literally betting the farm on it, farmers stagger the trees on their land so that some trees produce while others do not. And, due to the competition of mechanized, large-scale farming, few small olive farms exist today. These are expansive tracts of land owned by a single farm family, which in turn hires laborers to harvest portions of their land. Perhaps ten different hired businesses, each embodied by a handful of men, work the orchards at the owner’s pleasure. Apparently there are few young olive farmers today, as many of them are aging. A big deal was made of the fact that one of Marco’s friends at the site was actually a young man, as was the “boss” of the milling plant down the road. It seems there is a generational gap in the olive industry these days.

An orchard requires two different varieties of olives, in a complementary relationship. The larger olives provide pollen while the smaller olives are virtually pest resistant.

Taking care of the olive trees themselves requires some knowledge and experience with preferred climate, soils, sustainable farming practices (nowadays, anyway), and multi-cropping. One variety of olive tree (the smaller, green olive pictured here) provides a higher production of quality oil, but it is not self pollenating. It cannot reproduce on its own and thus requires a second variety of olive to be grown nearby. This is the more familar, larger olive (pictured in the comparison photo) that is much more prone to damage by insects. So, the two varieties complement each other – one for the polination, one for its hardiness to resist pest, and both to produce the coveted olive oil for our bread and salads. That the trees appear to have a scraggly, cone-shaped appearance is no accident, either. Every couple of years the centers of the trees are trimmed so that the tree can “concentrate” its growth in its olives and not its central limbs. This explains the rather empty space found at the center of each tree, and allows the tractor brush to more easily reach the olives on the exterior of the trees.

A bag of death awaits male flies tricked by the scent of females.

In each of the large-olive trees is also found one blue bag that helps reduce the insect population in an environmentally friendly way. The bag emits an attractive smell to a particular male fly (they were bugging us tonight as we watched the harvest), making it believe that female flys are calling for them. In fact, it is just a fly trap with a form of sticky paper to reduce the male population. If these flies “dent” the larger olives too much, they might insert their eggs into the olive and create baby flies from within – this information was almost enough to reduce our enthusiasm for eating olives.

While farmers wait in line to sell their olives, they enjoy an opportunity to socialize.

On the flip side of the process is the milling plant where the olives are magically converted into the coveted Italian oils found around the world. The delivery process at the mill actually reminded me of something familiar in the American Midwest, where local farmers carry their harvested corn or beans to a nearby grain elevator company for storage. Similarly, farmers located within the area surrounding the mill (including approximately 200 farmers in this particular coop) take their olives by whatever means available – trailers towed by Fiats, tractors with baskets, pickup trucks, the interiors of minivans, etc. – and deliver their “raw materials” to the mill. At the delivery point is, from what I gathered, a scale and counting station where a receipt is provided and a sale transaction takes place.

Where olives part from their owners and enter into the milling world.

The olives are also “interviewed” (my word), or evaluated, to determine their quality. Olives need to meet the D.O.P. standards required to produce the highest quality extra virgin olive oils, or the farmer’s product may be rejected. The farmer might be told to keep that batch of olives for himself to produce his own oil back home, but it’s not going to end up in the quality mix found at this milling plant. The olives need to be precisely ripe enough – but not too ripe — to produce the best oil. Typically this means that the larger olives are dark on one side and light green on the other – a quirky discovery we made at the fields. The sun actually turns the olives lighter on their side of exposure, producing in effect a two-tone olive (this is different from distinguishing between black and green olive varieties). If accepted by the mill, the olives are unceremoniously dumped onto a metal grate with a catch basin below it, their bags tossed away into the driveway (literally tossed – they seem to have fun doing that). The olives then leave the care of their previous owners and make their way through a fun-house-like system of conveyor belts and rotating machines. From tractor to “fun house” requires less than 24 hours by law. In order to produce the freshest EVOO, there is a 24-hour legal time window in which olives need to be processed here at the mill. The owners here were quite proud of their average turnaround time of 12 hours.

Crates of olives are labeled with their respective owners. They are processed in the order in which they were received.

At this point of the tour, the mill was going full tilt. Farmers were lined up outside, providing a nearly regular supply of fresh olives. Basically, the olives are first separated from their limbs and leaves, though a few leaves are apparently beneficial for the production of the EVOO. After the third phase of sifting the olives, most of the tree leaves have been separated out and do not continue the journey into the more dangerous machinery. The olives then fall into a vat of swishing water for washing (Marco simply called it the washing machine), bump along through the watery sleuce, and dump into their next destination.

Olives enter the washing machine, prior to crushing and "cement mixing".

The milling begins here, and the machinery becomes a bit more complex. Unlike the days passed (centuries, in fact, millenia – the Etruscans were doing this 3,000 years ago!), the olives do not go through a “squeezing” process with stones. Instead, they are dropped into a machine in the mill and churned up like butter inside a small cement-mixer contraption. Somewhere after that stage the rather gross concoction is heated to precisely 26 degrees C. At 27 degrees, the olives begin to ferment, which renders them useless. Any cooler, however, and the oil fails to separate effectively from the mulch (this is how I interpreted the explanation, fair warning). So, 26 degrees is just right, and the olive mulch now finds its way into two separate, parallel pipes: one for the actual oil, the other for the ugly brown olive residue (I won’t mention here what it looks like).

Separating the oil from the residue. Can you tell which is which?

This location in the mill fills the air with the strong scent of olives and its future oily treat. On the floor (not regulated by OSHA, to be sure) is a thin layer of spilled oil that provides plenty of opportunity to slip and fall. We watched our steps very carefully. By this time we can see the pretty green stuff oozing from one of the pipes, which eventually makes its way to the bottling room. Then it’s on to the coop’s own store next door, and to regional and national store chains. In a nutshell, this is the process. It was fascinating and provided a fine example of the realities of large-scale farming in Italy.

Out comes an initial phase of our favorite olive byproduct!

Not to be outdone by the mill tour, our hosts provided an olive tasting session at their on-site store. The cordial leader of the team instructed us in Italian how to properly discern the quality of oil, which tends to be classified into three different levels of “fruitiness” (Marco could find no better word for translation). Today we all sampled the middle class of fruitiness. Our little shot glasses were filled with just enough oil to sample, and we were instructed to place a napkin over the glass and warm the bottom of it with our hands. This made it flow easier and released the odor more poignantly, if I understood correctly. And, unlike with wine tasting when you can move from one sample to the next within minutes, the skilled olive oil taster cannot do so. Upon entering the mouth, a certain degree of bitterness is sensed near the tip of the tongue, after which the taste turns spicey (surprised all of us) as it trickles back toward the throat. So, even though I personally have a difficult time discerning much taste at all from olive oils, the predicted bitterness followed by spiciness was amazing. After you’ve tasted one variety of oil, you are not allowed to taste another for at least several hours. The bitterness and spiciness desensitizes our tongues to future tasting, thereby throwing off the taste of other oils.

The fun of an olive tasting session at the facility store.

Following our taste-testing fun, more bread and oil was presented, and small snacks were consumed. A flurry of purchases ensued (guilty as charged), where we finally discovered the perfect gift for certain people back home – now to find a way to lug the heavy bottles back to the States (we contemplated options as we concluded our visit). Our hosts completed our fun with a gift-wrapped bottle of the precious green stuff for each of us as a going-away present, to which we readily applauded. Essentially we had witnessed the full production of olive oil, from “seedling to supermarket” in a matter of a three-hour tour.

A class photo op (most of them) at the harvesting scene.

It was a most rewarding experience to gain a rare glimpse at the agricultural lands that allow for the production of this popular product! Back in touch with nature – or thereabouts – once again, something we rarely do anymore.

For MORE PHOTOS on my Flickr Photostream, click here.

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On Teaching Abroad: Part 2

This is a continuation of reflections about my first semester teaching abroad, in Viterbo, Italy. We’ll see how this post plays out, and time will tell if I’ll need to write Part 3 (I will).

3. Don’t Overbook Your Life. The so-called discount airlines in Europe may occasionally overbook their flights, but professors new to study abroad would be wise to avoid doing the same. Aside from the airline analogy, it is tempting to audit numerous additional courses, volunteer for local organizations, conduct research when not teaching, travel every weekend, prepare journal articles for publication, or maintain extensive blogs and social networks. Whew! This is a daunting list, even for a self-motivated, active faculty member like most of us tend to be. This doesn’t even include the self-imposed need to stay in shape with some regimen of exercise or workout routine (I had given up, but just recently started joggin again). My tip before you go: choose your activities carefully, and don’t get too depressed when time and local geographic circumstances conspire against your plans. Depending somewhat on your location on the planet, of course, my main rule of thumb is to expect to take twice the amount of time that you might othewise expect in the United States to accomplish your normal, everyday tasks and daily lives. My sense is that Italy is on the “easy” end of this continuum. Still, everyday life still requires much more time than our efficient routines back home.

This is Europe, part of western civilization as it’s called. It’s not central Africa or Latin America or distant parts of Asia where the cultural norms and lifestyles are well off of our comfort scales. Still, it has taken half a semester to become comfortable with our host community and its local geography and language norms. Every step into a restaurant or grocery store requires me to be “on guard” as I say, to “ramp up” my strategies for communicating in a polite manner, hoping to avoid their desire to chase off the American schmuck from their premises. It may be romantically exciting to dive into a new culture and deal with the uncomfortable realities of a different language (for some), and it certainly is exciting and educational – and an invaluable experience! Beyond the Hollywood, Julia Roberts-like romantic perspective, however, is the reality of not getting run over by cars on medieval streets, and to actually receive the food that you thought you ordered.

It takes work and mental energy to be here. It takes energy every time you set foot outside your apartment, and many more times within. It takes double the amount of time to do the laundry, as there are no electric dryers here  – it’s how Italians use much less energy per capita (Bravo!), but there is a cost in time spent queuing the laundry loads as they move through various stages of dryness and completion. Shopping for food takes time, more so when the stores you thought should be open are actually closed for any one of a hundred reasons (they felt like it, it’s a Monday, it’s Thursday afternoon, it’s Pausa Pranzo from 1-4pm when the town shuts down, it’s a local holiday on Tuesday, etc.). Then the manual dishwashing routine takes some time, what with washing and drying several times a day (if you don’t want it to pile up). Likewise, living without a car in a “walking city” like Viterbo is liberating – I love it — but it takes time and energy to walk to the grocery store, avoid purchasing too much, and stuffing it all into a roller bag for the return journey on blistering hot days trying to protect the precious gelato from melting over everything (less of a problem now in November). Trips to the grocery store are therefore more frequent, and strategic.

On the digital side of life, the internet may be slower or cumbersome. We got lucky with our internet connection, but many of us didn’t because the landlords didn’t hook it up. The trips to a local “Tobaccheria” become numerous to purchase everything except tobacco – bus tickets, or vodaphone minutes for “pay as you go” cell service, for instance. We bought Italian cell phones that need to be “fed” minutes every so often because we could not depend upon our American phones. Learning how to Skype has taken some time, but has been worth it to keep in touch with folks at home. And the banks and credit card companies want constant assurance that the transaction you just made was legitimate. Hours are spent on the phone, sucking up precious minutes, trying to convince these sensitive people every couple of weeks that you did not lose your card in Krakow, and that yes, it was me who tried to make online reservations for an airline called “Wizz Air” (I didn’t make up the name, I tell them, so don’t blame me). Now that it’s getting cool outside, some heat is necessary inside. Our pellet stove, once we learned what it was and how it works, eats up those pellets quickly, and the insides need to be vacuumed out frequently. This stacks up to be another household chore, but only if we want to stay warm…

The bottom line is that life abroad takes time, and I am happy that I planned for this in advance. If one doesn’t consider this aspect to be a distinct and prominent part of the adventure, it is likely to get frustrating. Despite the temptation, I did not sign up for two or three courses to audit, as much as I would have loved to learn the topics. Other instructors with different priorities may indeed wish to take a course or two – it won’t kill you – but it needs to be done with the expectation that something else will need to give. You need to allow time for flexibility and serendipity to play themselves out.

Another time “sink” involves travel planning, and the actual act of traveling itself. As a geographer, I have enjoyed the flexibility afforded by lack of schedules to travel with my wife when not teaching, and to spend quality time planning for generally unfamiliar trips to strange new lands (by train, air, car, or all three). Huge chunks of time are required to plan for overnight trips, whether by air or train. And, whereas such planned escapades may be few and far between during a normal year in the U.S., our trips are concentrated in a four-month period because we are trying to take advantage of the close proximity to numerous countries and regions. We return from one adventure, stuff the laundry in the washer, and start planning for the next. Now in our third month here, the travel planning and actual implementation are wearing a bit thin (though they are, of course, immensely rewarding), and I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks of down time here, also to catch up on some writing and other academic projects on my plate. So like all things, this is a balancing act, and coming at it from a perspective of moderation and caution from the onset will hopefully reduce the stress and increase your overall experience. And – I might add – moderation will allow you to focus as necessary on your students! Oh ya, the students. Having happy students with engaged, enthusiastic instructors is worth all the effort of being in a strange land.

I’ll stop with item 3 for now, it’s getting late, and this is yet another lengthy post. Stay tuned for Tip #4 sometime soon. For now, that’s all folks!

Ciao for now, Tom

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On Teaching Abroad: Part 1

With a little over half of the semester behind us here in Viterbo, it’s time to take a first stab at my own thoughts and perspectives about teaching far, far away from my home university. Perhaps the most useful way to approach this is to develop some broad “lessons learned,” enhanced with specific examples. (Having just finished writing my first two “tips” below, I will wait for a future post to continue these thoughts. They’re already quite wordy for a blog post here…)

1) Expect the novelty to wear off. I’m not sure if this is a personal trait or generalizable to a greater percentage of the teaching population. Recently, however, I discovered similar sentiments from a number of students, as well as my wife. As a geographer, my excitement level runs high, sometimes bordering on stressful, as I plan and visit a place for the first time. I want to see and learn everything. Usually I only have a short time, a matter of days or hours, in a particular locale to absorb what I can, get my photos, and get out (this has been referred to humorously as “Guerrilla geography” by those in the profession). The Viterbo case might be different, I surmised while planning last year, given that we would have more than four months to learn about the place and take one step closer at pretending to be a local. The reality: my personality didn’t accept it upon arrival. I wanted to see as much of Viterbo as possible, spend time reading historical markers, wander through the endless narrow streets, observe all the public spaces and soak in the architecture and geography that makes Viterbo a unique place. I have indeed been doing that, but it was an intense desire in the first couple of weeks, just like a typical, shorter trip. I had to get out and do something every day, take more photos, spend more time running around. Everything was a novelty, providing for heightened awareness.

Since October, something has happened, for better or for worse. I am feeling more like a “local,” and concentrating more on my everyday routine (to the extent that one might exist), including my teaching, getting work done on my computer, and generally doing errands and going to class without that heightened sense of awareness. I am catching myself walking blindly along the same routes to and from our apartment. I presume this is a natural reaction to living somewhere for awhile. In one way, it’s nice because the familiarity of Viterbo reduces my stress level for wayfinding or distracting me from other tasks. I also now enjoy the little details I expect on my way to class: the “whistler” hanging outside his window, the high school kids hanging around the school before pausa pranzo, the graffiti on certain walls along narrow streets, the shop owners I now recognize because I see them often enough, and the traffic patterns that no longer confuse me as I dart between cars and out into the streets. It’s all pretty familiar now, and there are no real surprises anymore. So, the novelty is lost but a comfortable familiarity has set in – something one can’t obtain by visiting for only a few days.

2) Bend, don’t break your standards and expectations. To invoke the “bend, don’t break defense” analogy of football fame, prepare to be flexible with student expectations and workloads, but don’t compromise your teaching standards too much. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching began many months prior to arriving in town, that of planning my two courses and the material and projects that would be assigned. Part of this involves personal pride and interest in striving for the “perfect course,” which of course is impossible. But it has helped me improve my teaching over the years, and I am one to quickly revise my teaching strategies from past experiences.

The fundamental question that remained a challenge was, how intense should the workload be for students on a study abroad program located in a generally strange place? Both courses were billed as 400-600 level, though I had planned one course as more of a 300-level experience. Ultimately, however, I reduced the amount of reading for both courses from what I had initially planned, and kept in mind the amount of content that should be reasonable and relevant for the 15-week semester. I also had some major and minor course projects to throw into the mix, which actually comprise the majority of the points that students can earn. These are active, experiential courses, vitally important from my perspective to enhance learning outside the traditional classroom and to encourage real-world application. I was still tweeking my syllabi within days of leaving for Viterbo; certain books or readings went away as other projects or assignments were more heavily favored.

This became the proverbial balancing act: How much could I expect the students to accomplish, given a strange land, diverse student backgrounds, and questionable technology, while not watering the classes down so much as to make them meaningless and “cake walks” (I have heard plenty of chatter from students about other classes that fit this category – but not my classes). I finally decided upon a balance that reduced my typical senior-level course expectations by perhaps 20% while still retaining some level of rigor. Overall it has playout out fairly well, and I take a “bend, don’t break” approach (apologies for the football analogy, sort of). If the students start sending “signals” (either verbal or otherwise, such as not finishing assignments) that the workload is unrealistic, I find certain ways to back off and to concentrate on what I feel is most important.

Two weeks ago this occurred in my Rural and Small Towns class when the essay exam I provided as take-home work apparently required more time on their part then I had predicted. They are all over-achievers, to their credit, so they all spent quality time on the essays. We talked about it in class, and that was my signal to back off a bit. It’s a great class with dedicated students, and so I readily agreed to either ask less questions or require less writing for the next one. The week afterwards I also omitted a rather tough reading for their weekly assignment, which brought comments of gratitude. This type of give-and-take is important to show that you are willing to listen to students and determine that they are not simply slacking off – they clearly have a lot on their plate, along with managing their lives in a foreign country.

I don’t mind “bending,” as long as I don’t “break” my own standards or expectations. Teaching is a balancing act, and flexibility is vital for professors who are away from their normal university settings (actually, it’s vital regardless of the setting, I imagine). And students end up appreciating the “bending” once in awhile. Further, I have found that students will actually work harder and respect you for listening to them if they know you’re not just giving them busy work. It’s all about maximizing their learning, but ultimately they can only do so much. My message: stick to the syllabus schedule and don’t abandon it, but be flexible and allow some give and take.

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