Untraditionally Christmas: House Sitting in Tuscany

Christmas is typically full of tradition.

Between our two families, we usually have no less than three Christmas mornings.  With Luke’s fam, there’s the white elefant book exchange and Cheesy Christmas Movie Night with brandy slush.  At my house, there’s my Mom’s lasagna with hard boiled eggs and miniature meatballs (like her grandmother used to make) and Bernie Creedens (Ritz cracker Fluffernutter cookie sandwiches dipped in chocolate and topped with peanut M&Ms).  There’s Christmas Eve mass, stockings, egg nog, sitting by the fire, the Holiday Who game in which we place grapes under our upper lips to look like Dr. Seuss Whos and then try to hold a conversation without laughing and spitting the grapes across the table.  There’s the New Year’s Eve prank (which shall remain classified) and lots and lots of story telling.

Christmas is normally full of family: siblings, step-siblings, half-siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, our closest friends from high school, our siblings’ closest friends from high school, and the significant others of all of the above.

Christmas is usually visiting both Oklahoma and New York, mingling with holiday travelers at airports, hoping our flights avoid the snow, and hoping we’ll have enough room in our suitcases for our Christmas booty.

Christmas was a little different this year.

It was a party for two, in the countryside of Tuscany, in a stranger’s house, with an untimely downed telephone wire foiling our plans to virtually celebrate Christmas with loved ones over Skype.

Our company was 12 friendly, but hungry, chickens;

Chickens

We woke up early to let the eager chickens out of their coop, gave them their day’s food and water, and checked for eggs.

two ever-thankful dogs, named Whiskey and Brandy; four cats (one of which got his head stuck in a cat food tin); and our closest friend, the wood burning stove.

Dogs

Almost every day we took the dogs for a long walk either around the country roads or at the nearby beach. As soon as you said the word “walk” the dogs would start jumping up and down in excitement and they would thank you constantly for the first five minutes of the walk.

Let me explain.

We decided to stay in Italy for Christmas; we spent time with family in the U.S. this Fall and with high flight prices we decided to stay on this side of the Atlantic and use the extended vacation to explore a new part of Italy.  Without a specific agenda in mind, we ended up responding to an SOS request for house sitters through the WWOOF Italy program (the same program through which I’ve volunteered on organic farms).  The house was in Castagneto Carducci, a small town by the coast in Tuscany about an hour South of Pisa.

It turned out that the house belonged to Bridget, one of the head coordinators of WWOOF Italia, which was opportune as we were able to pick her brain about WWOOF farms and about the history of WWOOF Italia.  We overlapped with Bridget for a couple of nights before she left so she could show us the ropes.  She fed us well while she was there even inviting friends over to cook a creamy pumpkin risotto for us one night.  After she left, we provided our own food.  We stayed in the house for free in exchange for the minimal chores of walking the dogs and feeding them along with the cats and chickens.

Being without Internet for the week was bittersweet; it forced us to disconnect and relax.  We passed the time cooking, testing out my new Christmas presents (a pasta maker & inversion blender), reading Kindles, & catching up with our friend Don Draper from Mad Men.

Christmas dinner

Our Christmas dinner: we put my new pasta maker to work and feasted on tagliatelle al ragu and pumpkin-filled ravioli.

We made road trips to nearby Tuscan villages Volterra, Lucca, Suvereto, Sassetta, and Massa Marittima, enjoying the drives through the Tuscan countryside just as much as the towns themselves.  We were met with rolling green hills, ancient ruins, good window shopping, good people watching, lunches in warm trattorie, and lots and lots of satisfying sweets.

Road trips

Three of these photos are from Volterra. The one with me reflected in the mirror is in the square known as the Anfiteatro in Lucca (right in front of my new favorite home store Le Sorelle).

Eating out

Lunch at Il Gatto e La Volpe in Massa Marittima (plus some bomboloncini we ate on our trip back to Bologna in Portovenere)

On our drives back to the farmhouse in the evening, we marveled at the colorful sunsets wondering if sunsets are somehow brighter in Tuscany and why we never notice the sun set in Bologna.  There were soft gold sunsets and purple sunsets and sunsets through ancient church porticos; sunsets that brought you to a standstill and made you swoon and gasp; sunsets that a camera will never do justice.

Sunset

Sunset in Tellaro, sunset in Castagneto, and sunset through the portico of Chiesa di S.Pietro in Portovenere

This was our first time house sitting; we had no idea what to expect and were curious to try it out.  We really enjoyed the experience and would definitely house sit again — free accommodation for minimal work is a sweet deal.  For us, it was also like trying someone else’s life on for size: testing out what it’s like to live in the country with pets and a wood burning stove. I imagine that house sitting through WWOOF is different than a general house sitting gig.  WWOOF hosts are passionate about organic farming and living sustainably.  They often live very simply and many hosts are quirky (in a good way if you ask me).  If you’re already a member of WWOOF Italia, you can find house sitting opportunities on their website or through their SOS e-mails.  You can also find house sitting jobs on sites like trustedhousesitters.com and mindmyhouse.com.

Skipping the Christmas norms for a year was a fun adventure.  It gave us nearly two weeks of time off to travel, read, cook, and relax at our leisure.  At the same time, it’s clear that absence makes the heart grow fonder: we missed our family & friends, Cheesy Christmas movie night, the book exchange, the brandy slush, the lasagna & our favorite Christmas cookies.  I don’t doubt that next time around these traditions will taste a little sweeter.

DETAILS

Where we went: Castagneto Carducci.  From there, we explored Tuscany by car visiting Volterra, Lucca, Suvereto, Sassetta, and Massa Marittima.  On the way back to Bologna, we stopped in Portovenere and Tellaro.

What we did: We house sat at a country house in Tuscany for a week over Christmas through WWOOF Italy.  Our daily chores were minimal and included taking the dogs for walks and feeding them along with the cats and chickens.

Where we ate:
Rusticanella 2, Via San Paolino, 32, Lucca – Traditional Lucchese food at fair prices.  We were warned the waiters weren’t particularly friendly, but we’ve grown accustomed to the abrupt and lukewarm service at many Italian Trattorie (& actually prefer it to the overeager, tip-hungry attention of waiters in the US) & so this suited us just fine.
Ristoro il Gatto e la Volpe, Vicolo del Ciambellano, 12, Massa Marittima – While eating lunch here on the 26th of December, the restaurant was full of families both big and small lingering over their lunches as if they were having Christmas lunch at Grandma’s.  The owner Luciani sat down at each table to take orders and made sure those who wanted got their post-meal grappa.

What we saw: Quintessential Tuscan villages, countryside, beach, colorful sunsets, & a cat named Squinty with its head stuck in a cat food tin.

What we thought: Two thumbs up to house sitting.  “Skipping Christmas” was an interesting experiment, but nothing compares to spending the holidays with your family.

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