A mental packing list of sorts, The Good Traveler lays out our aspirations on the path to becoming more respectful, considerate travelers. To learn how these ideas can shift and shape our journeys, we have invited ten travelers we admire to go into the world and explore each tenet throughout 2023.
I can understand why friends were confused. I could hardly identify a tree or keep a houseplant alive. So why a work exchange on an Italian farm?
The answer, annoyingly, was a man. After nearly a year of confused, long-distance dating, he called to announce he had met someone else.
Over the course of a phone call, my life’s plans rearranged themselves: I would not be moving back to Berlin. I would not be someone’s partner. I would be… Blank.
Then I found the farm.
Three months later, I am melting in a window seat on the coach at Rome Fiumicino, looking desperately outside for signs that this was a good decision. The city feathers into lush trees, tall mountains, green fields…
Of course, he has something to do with it—but this is a reclamation. Caro il mio paese. Care le mie olive. Cara la mia fattoria.
Demi Anter is an Austrian-American poet, actor, and artist, based between London and Berlin. Her intimate storytelling weaves together themes like mental health, multiculturalism, intergenerational migration, and women’s roles. In the following essay and poem, Anter explores the painful experience of her relationship ending, and how she found healing and purpose on an olive farm. During her time in Italy she helped hosts Jane and Biagio collect 350 kilograms of olives and press 48 liters of olive oil.
My hosts Jane and Biagio bought Abruzzolavanda about seven years before. They had done an incredible amount of work, cutting back overrun fields, getting fruit trees into shape, and building up the beautiful old, stone house.
My room is spacious, woody, with a view onto the neighbor’s chicken coops and past that, a squinting glance of the sea. In short, it is a perfect nest in which, for three weeks, I would try to mend my bruised ego and forget my unceremonious heartbreak.
It is October, strange weather. Rain some mornings but sweltering by midday. Biagio and I wait patiently to hear the old blue pickup’s engine clang alive before we start our slow descent down the hill.
We are usually quiet. Sometimes I ask questions about the farm, sometimes Biagio sings. Our truck lurches over mud, weeds, and fallen branches. The hilly farmland reminds me of a curled-up body, lying on her side, all belly rolls and sloped shoulders. The olive grove is nestled down low, near the curving road.
My job for the first days is to excavate any wood logs I find around the olive trees’ trunks, so that Biagio can then cut back the cane surrounding them. Every time I think I’ve found it all, Biagio says look again—and sure enough, there’s more.
I get braver, venture into the weeds going nearly over my head, find the knotty end of a heavy log—pull and pull and—nearly fall backwards as the branch suddenly untwists from its tangle, another yank, another—fling its weight into the air, onto the pile.
My ears are full of buzzing; the gas-powered engine sputters, sawing, cutting. Biagio’s bees live in the grove and hum along. Nits get in my eyes and throat.
When Biagio and I unload the wood up at the house, we work as a silent machine. Pass, stack, pass, stack. I trust my body, bending and folding and dipping and passing until it aches. That night, I am so tired I sleep through the night for the first time in months.
My questions are profuse: How often are the trees pruned, how do you pick them, how do other farms do it—other countries? Where are they pressed, how much does it cost, how much will you collect, what’s a good olive, what’s virgin oil, what, where, how?
From dawn to dusk, olives are our world. I set nets and come up with ways of keeping the olives from rolling down the sloped land. Biagio operates the machine which vibrates the branches, sending down an olive rain. Jane joins us after her working day. We spread and pull netting, tilt to catch stray olives, our bodies pinball machines, olives pinging left and right.
Pools of olives cascade in rivulets down the nets’ creases, gather in ponds, drip down the dusty hillside. They make a thudding sound as they hit our buckets. A plonk as they hit you on the head or in the face.
I hunt for stray olives in the muddy ground like Easter eggs. Squeeze one between thumb and forefinger: A single olive is inconsequential but collect kilos and you have something life-sustaining.
As our harvest grows bigger, reminding me so much of a fisherman’s catch spilled out over the deck of a boat, we sit in the grove to pull out leaves and twigs, flinging the extra bits over our shoulders. Our three pairs of hands work simultaneously like parts of an orchestra. We hardly look up till we’ve picked through each crate. My shoulders turn pale to pink to golden, my fingertips encased in dust. I will never complain about the price of olive oil again.
The next morning, I watch the mechanics of the press with fascination, each machine whirring in unison. We are gifted plastic cups and a plate for bread. We gather oil directly from the spout to taste. I take a tentative sip. It’s like cream. You could drink it. We dip our bread and eat, giddy as children.
On a day off, I walk along a beach in the next town. It’s no longer vacation season, so I am alone there. I feel at ease in the sun, watching drifts of sand fly. I finally have a sense that I will be okay after all, that being alone doesn’t mean being hopeless.
There’s a morning I wake up early and look out my window to see birds on the telephone wire, silhouetted against a grapefruit sun. I see the neighbor, a very old man, walking down the road with a small white cat trailing behind him.
Six months on, I am bettering my Italian—sto migliorando il mio italiano—so when I return, I can speak more with Biagio about classic rock, sing Italian songs at karaoke, ask the neighbor about his cat.
I miss the olives and walking my hosts’ sweet, funny dogs. I miss the gentle excavations of past travels and lost loves, with Jane at the kitchen table in the evenings. I miss feeling a part of something, the lightness of each limb set to work, flinging wood through the air, catching fruit in a bucket. I carry something of the past with me there, but I also let it go—let it fly and ascend, smoke from the oven, mingling in the clouds over the hills and the valley, the sludge of my morning coffee, the last bite of cake by the lavender field the morning I say goodbye, before it is time to go home, back to my hopeful life.