At the bottom of a mountain in the south of Tuscany, its trees a blaze of orange and red as November begins, is a small, rather unremarkable town called Arcidosso.
Arcidosso is a dot on the map about 5 hours and a bus change south from Florence. In the heart of Arcidosso there is a steep battlement leading up to a small tower dating back nearly a thousand years, and a collection of stone houses built on terraces going up the hill.
There’s an interesting project going on in Arcidosso, a literature and farming collective called Libereria (an Italian play on the words for freedom and bookshop).
My friends Charlie and Virginie went there after stopping by my place in Florence for a few days; they had a few weeks to kill before heading off to Poland to meet friends there, and after looking on Couchsurfing for some cool hosts in the Tuscan region I found the page for Libereria and showed it to them. We agreed to meet up there at the start of November.
When I arrived in Arcidosso it was damp, gray and a bit cold. From the center of town, where the bus dropped me off, it wasn’t hard to find the place—locals have figured out that if there’s an unrecognizable stranger in their midst, they are looking for the Libereria.
A lanky guy with long red hair pointed me in the direction, and I walked past the main square, where there were a couple of bars, down the high street—a couple more bars and a few bakeries—through a portal and up a tight uphill street until I emerged in front of the castle. Right across the castle was the house.
Despite the subpar weather most of the volunteers, including my two friends, were out and about. Anna and Razga from Hungary, Marcela from Brazil, an Israeli girl, and a graying Italian man were lounging around the living room, which was walled with books and had a large fire crackling comfortably in the hearth.
I decided that this was a pretty good place to cover the last stretch of Murakami’s The Windup Bird Chronicle, which I had been pacing through for nearly a month. A few hours later a parade of people swept into the house like a flurry of leaves blown in by the wind. They’d gone mushroom picking, and a couple of baskets heaving with fresh, spongy fungi were produced and laid out on the kitchen table for washing and sorting. Charlie and Virginie introduced me to an assortment of characters:
Iggy, the roller derby punk from Toronto; Dafne, the colorful film student from Montreal; Sam, taking a few months break from his stressful job in Silicon Valley; a mustachioed permaculture student from Switzerland named Jeremias.
And a handful of Italian men between the ages of 25 and 55 and at varying levels of inebriation. Lorenzo, the guy in charge of the Libereria, was mostly straight but there were a few bona fide scumbag alcoholics amongst them. Some of them had drunkenly tried climbing into bed with the girls in the dorm, but thankfully they were rebuffed.
Pretty much everything that happened at the Libereria was a communal experience. Cooking in the tight kitchen usually involved a few hands on deck; eating happened on an assortment of chairs clustered around the round table in the living room; sleeping happened in a basement dormitory with a potpourri of mattresses; labor, either gathering vegetables in the Libereria’s weedy plot in the town garden at the bottom of the hill or picking olives in a grove on a nearby mountainside, or gathering fat boletus mushrooms in the forest.
One night was Marcela’s birthday, and Virginie prepared crepes with Nutella and cinnamon sugar apples for her; the pile of crepes vanished quickly thanks to the multitude of hungry mouths gathered around the dining table.
Another night someone brought over a guitar and Charlie took out his Ukelele; an impromptu jam session broke out. Accompanying the sounds of the two instruments were feet stomping on the terra cotta floor tiles, drinking glasses banged on the table, and a variety of throaty intonations.
On two of the days I was there, I went with Charlie, Virginie and a few others to pick olives. Lorenzo drove us packed into his tiny hatchback and we drove about 10 km to a B&B owned by one of his friends, with a long sloping hillside covered with olive trees speckled with ripe black fruit ready to be picked.
We spread out long catchment nets below a few of the bigger trees and then over the course of hours stripped the branches bare of olives, letting them tumble into the nets below. Olive picking is leisurely work; you run your fingers roughly along the slick branches, squeezing them slightly each time you come across an olive. Usually a few leaves get peeled off in the process but a decent swipe on a good branch will yield a half dozen or so of them, ranging in shade from violet to fuchsia to bright green to deep ocean blue.
For a few hours we picked; then Lorenzo, who had returned to his house, would come back with a picnic for us to devour. A pot full of freshly cooked pasta and rainbow chard, accompanied by a huge loaf of bread, beer, water, and a bag full of clementines made for a hearty and satisfying lunch.
Then as the sun dipped behind the mountains to our west, we would trudge up the hillside and get back into the car and go home. But the second time I went, Lorenzo took his Italian buddies back in the car and left us behind. Virginie was not amused, cursing at them in French and sarcastically calling the men macho for taking up the easy ride and leaving her, Marcela, Charlie and me to find our own way back as it got dark.
We marched down the winding road to the main route back to Arcidosso, skirting along the shoulder as cars passed. There was a gas station up ahead—an ideal spot for hitch-hiking. Not more than two minutes had passed when a small red car with Macedonian license plates pulled over. I greeted our driver, a middle-aged man, in his native Slavic tongue. “Dobar dan, hvala” which means “good evening, thank you,” which was a bit of a pleasant surprise for him to hear.
On our last night, Jeremias made a heaping pot of delicious fondue for everyone to enjoy. Then in the morning Charlie, Virginie and I headed north towards a small village north of Florence called The Valley of the Elves.
Travel to the valley was a bit too complicated so we ended up spending the night in lovely Pistoia instead. Then my friends continued onwards to the valley (they reported no elves but quite a few hippies living off the grid) and I paid Florence a quick visit before flying off to Warsaw for a debauched reunion with my friends from Budapest.