Skip to content

Trading Labor for Food

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Grape harvest in San Quirino, Italy on Sept. 17, 2016.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew M. Satran/Released)
Grape harvest in San Quirino, Italy on Sept. 17, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew M. Satran/Released)

As I revisit my “diary of the future” from a decade ago, I find myself examining how my speculative vision of 2019 has converged with or diverged from reality. Some of my stories were, unfortunately, spot on. Anti-immigrant sentiment has indeed fueled the nativist movement in Italy, even as labor shortages undermine local economies (though concerns now focus more on stigmatized immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Romani, or gypsies, than on North Africans). I didn’t realize, at the time, how this plot foreshadowed events in the US, as well, as we face the consequences of restricting immigration in an agricultural system built on the labor of immigrants. For your next entry in your diary of 2029 (you’ve started one, right?) consider exploring how policies and attitudes about immigration may change in the next ten years.

Villa Crespine, Panzano, Italy
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Today’s lesson: lifting weights is nothing compared to destemming grapes when it comes to stressing the shoulders. If we had any hot water, I would be taking a long, hot bath. As it is, I settled for a freezing but refreshing plunge in the pool. What a weird blend of luxury and deprivation the villa is—a pool with a heavenly view across the valley, but no heat. Gardens of roses, geraniums, lavender and rosemary, but no refrigeration. I suppose this was what Tuscan villas were like in the Roman era—except we have flush toilets, and they had more functional heating systems!

My stint as a day laborer at Castello di Amore was very illuminating. I had wondered why the manager was willing for Nancy to bring me along, without papers, to help out. The answer is very simple, though it took me awhile to catch on. Racism. There are indeed plenty of legal day laborers available, but most of them are from North Africa. Examining the exclusively white hands processing the grapes, and remembering the crowds of young black men and women haunting the roadsides and markets, looking for work, it was impossible to miss the point. I wonder—is this based on a semi-rational concern about ReDS (which is taking a terrible toll in North Africa), or simply concern that the precious vintage not be touched by non-whites? I think in part the racial tension arises from resentment that some of the local vineyards have been sold to African immigrants. With the Italian birth rate having been below replacement level for over a decade, and with many young Italians moving out of the rural areas into the city, this was inevitable. The other buyers tend to be rich Americans or English citizens, retiring to be gentleman farmers, who are much more readily accepted by the Italians, but are less dedicated to maximizing the productivity of the land.

The outcomes of the day are: a) my realization that I am utterly unsuited for the mind numbing exhaustion of manual labor (even in the beautiful setting of a medieval vineyard) and b) enough food for a week, thank heavens. I was right that the student unrest would continue to drive compatriots our way. Riding home in the back of the farm truck after the day’s work, we passed two dusty travelers on the road from Panzano, and pounded on the roof of the cab to make Guilermo stop when we recognized the wayfarers. It was Chris and Gilles, who were caught in Venice when the unrest started to spread. They took the train most of the way, then took the same bus that transported Penny and Frank.

Gilles has a terrible cough, which on the truck we attributed to the ubiquitous dust. After they were settled at the Villa, it became clear it was more systemic—he is pale and tired as well, and Chris says he has been unwell for over a week. This provoked a very awkward exchange, as Nancy, after some verbal dancing, asked to see their ReDS clearance papers. I thought for a moment that Chris was going to blow up and storm out, from offense at being asked, but Gilles was already asleep, exhausted from the trip, and where would they go? So he dug out their paperwork and practically flung it at Nancy, who none-the-less read it carefully, and checked the dates of the last tests. Now we are settled in a tense equilibrium, Nancy cooking dinner with Penny, while Frank and Cliff try to coax Chris into civil conversation, and I shuttle between the two groups, trying to build bridges of conversation and ply everyone with wine.

Tomorrow we are going to hike up the road to Simonetta’s house. She has a short wave radio, and Nancy and I are going to try to get a message to James in Firenze, and see if the meeting is, by some miracle, still on, and if he has any ideas about how to get me into the city. It may be foolish to persist, but I am feeling stubborn. Having been dragged into this ridiculous, and potentially dangerous situation, I want to at least accomplish what I came for. And I am becoming even more sympathetic to the Palazzo’s position, and interested in helping them resist the political pressure that has been brought to bear…If museums can’t speak out for social justice, who can?

Catch up with previous diary entries:

My Story, Part 1 (October 7, 2019)

Day 2: Settling In

Day 3: A Visit from the Authorities

My Story Part 4: How to Get Trapped in a Tuscan Villa

In Which Penny and Frank Wash Up at the Villa


Skip over related stories to continue reading article

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.