WORK EXCHANGE, TAKE TWO
Work exchange is a topic that we’ve discussed before, and more often than not, it is a great tool for engaging with the local community while working with a limited budget. Before leaving home we scheduled three separate work exchanges through HelpX. We gathered a number of different perspectives from friends and fellow travelers regarding their successes and failures on the road.
One piece of advice that stood out to me was how to spot a bad work exchange gig. We were advised to communicate clearly with hosts before arrival, setting clear boundaries with work duties, expectations, and subsequent benefits. How many meals would be provided? Are you picking vegetables, performing childcare, baking bread, etc?
In retrospect, even the best systems have their defects. But in this instance, we unknowingly rolled ourselves right into the center of a new couple’s tumultuous relationship. We’ll call this one The Bakery.
GETTING TO SANT’AGATA DE’ GOTI
After leaving Rome and parting ways with grandma, we headed to Sant’Agata de’ Goti. The train trip there proved prophetic. The first of five separate connecting trains never showed up to the station. So after an hour of waiting for this elusive train, we ended up canning the idea and taking the metro to the main station to realign all of our travel plans.
Thankfully, Trenitalia is a reasonable transportation company, and if you miss a train as a result of their delays or cancellations, they will set you up with an entirely new itinerary at no additional cost to you. You just have to very patiently wait in line to speak with a customer service representative.
After a long day of travel, we arrived in Southern Italy. Here we learned that there was another volunteer on our train that would be joining us at The Bakery. Her name was Hannah. She was a super down-to-earth student from Germany that was spending part of her holiday break traveling and participating in work exchanges.
A BIT OF BACK STORY
The vibes were chilly right out of the gates. Katarina picked us up from the station with their one-year-old, Emiliano. To give you an idea of who is who, Katarina and Ciro ran the property and have one son. Ciro’s parents also live in the home and his sisters visit regularly. As a whole, this place was tense.
It took us our entire stay to piece together the dynamics, but by the end, we finally figured it out. Historically, this farm was formerly some sort of collective, run by a group of friends that each had a different focus. Ciro was part of the collective. There was a baker, a gardener, someone who ran the vineyard, and others who helped with the animals, food preservation, and household chores. They built additional housing, accumulated a ton of supplies, and hosted work exchange volunteers.
As it turns out, about two years before our arrival, Katarina showed up to volunteer and never left. The collective had disintegrated before this, and Ciro’s family subsequently moved to the property. Now the family works together to run a business focused in baking, gardening, and running a wheat mill. Honestly, the way it all puzzles together it sounds like things got a bit too “cult-y” for the rest of the crew and they moved on. But that last part is just speculation.
THE TAKE AWAY
I’ll go ahead and spoil any anticipation and make it clear that there were two good things that came out of this crazy place. First, Hannah. She’s a gem, and someone we hope to cross paths with again in the future. Second, we are now much better at communicating through a shared, negative experience.
So without being too scathing, here’s the gist. We really wanted to volunteer at this bakery. In hindsight, maybe our eagerness to put ourselves in “the perfect place” allowed us to overlook red flags. I’m honestly not sure. But after going back and reading our initial communication and referencing the hosts listing, there were a number of glaring differences between our experience and the proposed volunteer position. Needless to say, we didn’t last the entire 12 days.
So this place was supposed to be a bakery, focused on making and selling bread. We each got a bunk, we had a bathroom, three meals a day, and were to work on average five hours a day. All in all, we were expecting an educational, yet reciprocal relationship.
Reality fell far short of expectation and with a lot more work. On average we worked 9-10 hours a day, starting bright and early in the morning and not ending until 9 PM. We had a few hours off for lunch in the afternoon. We prepared, cooked, and cleaned up after every meal. The two free days we had ended up being additional work days where we were able to “voluntarily” participate in other projects, which were really just more work.
At one point we were sitting in a marijuana grow house with Ciro cleaning the harvest while his one-year-old son rolled around in and played with the stems and remnants on the floor. I cannot make this stuff up.
For those wondering, CBD marijuana currently is and was legal in Italy at the time of our visit. Many people are converting unused farmland in the south into high-profit CBD marijuana agriculture. Also, he has some really questionable parenting practices that, while not harmful to the kiddo, would involve social services in the states.
Throughout our stay, we ended up working two half-days in the actual bakery, where we learned nothing. There was no communication or education around the art of baking, family members were quick to yell at us, and worst of all, we never got to taste a fresh loaf of bread. There was never any “extra”…
Other projects at The Bakery included:
Preserving fruits and vegetables.
Harvesting tomatoes and turning over the tomato fields which had the worst mosquito infestation I have ever seen. Hannah and I both got at least a hundred bites.
Feeding the animals.
Cleaning the apartment bathroom that had not been touched in months.
Repairing and welding a roof with no safety equipment and no eye protection.
Visiting local markets. Subsequently loading and unloading vehicles for every market.
Clearing, collecting and transporting wood. Using a dull table saw to cut said wood and then stack it in a dark cavern, 6 feet off of the ground, filled with spiders and other nefariously terrifying things. It required you to
hoistyourself inside and sit on your knees because it was less than a meter tall. All without any light or eye or ear protection.
Collecting walnuts being shaken from the tree above your head. And then watching the top half of a pitchfork fall out of the tree and land less than two feet away from you because it totally makes sense to shake walnuts from a tree with a broken pitchfork above someone’s head?
Milling wheat for hours in a room with no airflow and no respiratory or ear protection.
In an ideal world, had these projects spanned over more than four work days and included the proper safety equipment and general acknowledgment of hazards, they wouldn’t have been that bad. But in our case, many just proved to be blatantly dangerous and negligent.
All of this being said, the work wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was how we were treated.
It’s true that without basic respect, others can make you feel pretty worthless. We really struggled with this. During our entire stay, we were never once called by our names. To get our attention Ciro would simply grunt or whistle and then guide through pointing. Every meal we received was supposed to be another marker of our assumed never-ending gratitude, even though we were buying and cooking a number of our own meals. They genuinely got upset over having a second cup of coffee, as if it was something that we mere laborers were not deserving of.
They would incessantly nag and argue in front of us, as do most couples who have no ability to get along. Ciro’s parents didn’t like Katarina, and she returned the sentiment, so that was fun. All-in-all we were treated as the silent help, never invited to participate in the conversation, and never regarded as having any sort of intellectual value. I can’t say it was a positive work environment.
But the final straw actually ended up being the moment that Ciro physically restrained Steve from helping Hannah, who was struggling with a giant wheelbarrow full of wood, before laughing at the entire situation. It was repulsive, and at that moment, he became repulsive.
In retrospect, Hannah, Steve, and I all tossed around ideas as to what went wrong. Where could we have communicated better to make our experience at least bearable? But the truth of it is, there was never any tabling for discussion. Never any welcomed engagement or opinions. So really, the best this we could have done was to leave and maintain the semblance of sanity we had after only six days.
In addition to being one of the biggest turning points in our relationship with regards to communication, it is also one of the biggest successes we’ve had in advocating for ourselves and listening to our guts when it is clear that something isn’t right.
Since HelpX is a review-based program, we took a bit of time to cool off before writing a very poignant review in order for other helpers to have a better picture of our experiences. Since our visit, the family has deactivated both their HelpX and WorkAway accounts. Maybe they realized that have a lot to work on? One of the most puzzling things about this whole experience is how they had only five-star reviews of praise before we arrived.
Looking back on it, we’ve since laughed about the whole thing. The next morning we woke up, took a really awkward ride to the train station, returned to Naples, rented a car, and started a very long but independent and freeing road trip to Northern Italy. We laughed with Hannah, visited the coast, and introduced her to our favorite Bloomington band, Busman’s Holiday. It was refreshing to have a bit of privacy and to breathe again after such a suffocating experience.
Stay tuned for the tales from Bologna, Modena, and Lama Mocogno!