Response to Volunteering on a Farm in Italy

Susan Van Allen’s article on olive-picking in the Tuscan countryside narrates her experience volunteering and living briefly in the town of Montepulciano. The laboring process with which she finds spirituality, peace, and beauty, differs drastically from local laborers.  

Van Allen’s prose flows easily as a story and still is extremely informative about Tuscan country life and the importance olive-oil has to their community. The article itself reflects the ease with which she felt volunteering, and how olive-picking became a type of meditation for her. I can’t deny that the piece was also quite mouth-watering – perhaps because I am currently hungry or because I find olive-oil damn delicious. Either way, Van Allen does justice to these olives and their significance in terms of labor, food, and family.

While I think the article is well written, effective, and interesting, Allen begins to touch on but fails to thoroughly discuss what the manual labor means to a native of the town. The piece is mostly concentrated on the joy she felt volunteering and doing this work that she found relaxing, ignoring the fact that she is volunteering to do this work while others have no choice. There is one part in which she notes that her “awe” set her apart from others in the town, who rolled their eyes at her or laughed. Even more troubling, Van Allen includes a brief glimpse of a character named Rizzi, who shows her his scarred and scratched hands from laboring for as long as he could remember.

This piece of information and insight into the crucial difference between the author and the local laborers is glossed over, almost completely, in the article. After the mention of Rizzi, Van Allen simply continues to go on about her excitement and love of the olive-picking process. I get it – this is a vacation for her. But it is a lifestyle for others, and not always a blessing.

If Van Allen had used this insight to make a case about outsiders understanding more about things that locals take for granted, I would be more understanding.  In my opinion, however, it seems a bit ignorant for her to overlook their stories for hers. Not to be judgmental,  but the girl is from LA. Her “volunteer work” could easily be viewed as condescending in the context of this piece.

Most likely, the article itself’s purpose was not to get too complicated about social and economical implications of labor and focus on her own happy first-hand narrative to give a simple and informative taste of southern Tuscany. Perhaps Van Allen can take on this story from another angle for a separate purpose, and give justice to the deeper issues at hand.

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