Thursday, August 9, 2012

Laura reports on volunteering in Italy

Laura reports on volunteering in Italy

The three months I spent volunteering a Villa Buri can be summed up in one sentence: Always expect the unexpected. I arrived in Verona having very little idea of what I would be doing, and very few expectations. My first impression of the villa and the park was that it was a beautiful, calm place. The villa is  nestled in a bend of the River Adige, a few miles from the  centre of Verona, surrounded by a large park. I joined two other international volunteers and worked with the local Italian team to look after the park.

The international volunteers were three girls, but when I arrived the first surprise was that only one of the other girls had turned up: Agnes from Sweden. We lived in a small house by the main gate of the villa. Part of our job was to open and close the villa gates. The second surprise when we started work the next morning was that although the working language of the project was nominally English, everyone spoke in Italian. So my Italian improved faster than I would have believed possible. It is amazing what you can learn when you really need to!

The first job Agnes and I were given was to feed the kittens. It turned out that Villa Buri was home to many stray cats and these kittens had been abandoned in the park. I spent the rest of my stay putting out multiple bowls of cat food every day.
One of our other regular tasks was to empty the rubbish bins in the park, and sort out the things that could be recycled, i.e. metal, plastic, cardboard and glass. This was an occasionally unpleasant job, but it was also oddly fascinating. We were very confused by the people who left at least ten kilos of grapes in the bins over the course of about three weeks. We also planted an awful lot of miniature winter vegetables in the Orto.

In September we spent a lot of time pruning trees, collecting seeds and creating new flower beds. I discovered that hawthorn was vicious, but not as vicious as the mosquitoes. Agnes counted the bites on her leg one day, and found she had over 60. When we discovered some fly swats in the back of a cupboard and could go mosquito hunting you have never seen two happier people! One of the other highlights was the local Gelateria – we went at least three times a week.
The next surprise came not in the form of stray animals, but stray people. Five Ethiopian girls came to stay at Villa Buri. They were refugees from Libya, having moved there to escape famine in their

native land and then fled Libya when the war started there. We invited the girls to come and work with us hoping it would help them to improve their non-existent Italian. Communication was interesting, as only one of them spoke a little English and none of them really spoke any Italian. Most of what need to be said could be communicated by a combination of demonstration and mime. This occasionally made you look pretty silly, but was surprisingly effective. The girls were always willing to get stuck into any task and were great fun, always ready with a smile.

In October the weather changed from the warm sunshine we had been enjoying to become cooler and foggier. We spent more time weeding the Orto Botanico, the Villa's large herb garden. The vegetable garden also had to be tidied up for the winter and the remaining fruit and vegetables harvested. This was also the season for the kiwi and kaki (persimmons) of which we had hundreds. We even took a wheelbarrow round the streets to try selling them to the neighbours!

By November the weather took on a wintry edge. With the cold weather, the third international volunteer finally arrived, Katharina from Germany. The weather also meant we spent more time indoors, doing jobs like sewing curtains and painting furniture in an effort to make our little house even cosier for the next volunteers. We also went to help harvest the olives at Don Calabria, a community for men with mental health issues.

 At the beginning of December it was time  to leave Villa Buri. It was an unforgettable experience. The language barrier was often challenging, as was adjusting to a much slower pace of life. But I learnt many new skills: how to grow and care for many kinds of herbs and vegetables, how to cook proper Italian food and that you can have an entire conversation with a few words. I will miss having the peace and beauty of the park right on the doorstep, and the warmth of the people I met there. And remember: Always expect the unexpected!

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