Eat to Live, Live to Eat
“Do you eat to live, or live to eat?” I was asked by Amy, an American ‘casualty’ of her 1970s Study Abroad program that I mentioned in a previous post. Amy currently lives with her husband, an Italian, at La Comune di Bagnaia, a commune about 30 minutes outside of Siena where I stayed for two weeks as part of my Sustainability program at the Siena School.
This question was one of many that swam through my head during my stay at Bagnaia. Do I eat to live or live to eat? Is this lifestyle sustainable? Could or should everyone live this way? Are the people who forsake their property and work the land, and thereby tie themselves to it, any more free than the default capitalists who work for an alternate necessity, money?
Before I dig into those questions though, I ought to tell you about Bagnaia, my experiences there, and why these and other questions seemed so pertinent.
La Comune di Bagnaia was formed in the 1970s, as part of what many perceived as a growing rebellion against convention: capitalism, religion, the nuclear family, etc.* It is now the last commune of its kind surviving from this era. It is nearly completely self-sufficient: except for some bread, pasta, coffee, and dairy, all of the food is produced on site. This includes wine, jams, honey, meat, vegetables, olive oil, and some fruit and nuts. All of the energy is produced by solar panels. To maintain this lifestyle, each of the 20 or so residents of Bagnaia contributes to the community however they can, through field work, rotating domestic chores, and cooking. Though everyone seemed to do a little of everything, some of the older residents seemed to work less or do a greater share of domestic tasks. The general nonchalance of the environment made it easy to forget that everyone who lived there had forfeited all of their private property to the commune.
Each day at Bagnaia, I woke up around 7:45, had a small breakfast of toast and honey, and got to work. I spent my first few days solely harvesting grapes–grapes and olives are the only two crops that take up more than an acre each, since wine is of the products the commune sells to cover its few external expenses, and twenty Italians’ yearly olive oil consumption adds up to a lot of trees. Other tasks I helped with during my stay included pruning the olive trees, simple food preparation, walnut harvest, setting up cattle
enclosures, and organizing the winter’s firewood supply. We stopped for lunch at 12:30, took a long break in the afternoon, returned to work at 3:30, finished around 6, and supped at 8. It was usually hard to figure out who to report to for work, since everything was non-hierarchical. The food was almost invariably, unbelievably good, and the long, inclusive tables were stocked with a few bottles of the house wine at every meal.
Now back to Amy’s question: it seems that most of the people at Bagnaia were there because it offers a lifestyle in line with anarcho-communist values, a life in which one can come about as close as possible to guaranteeing their consumption was not built on exploited labor, poisoned land and water, and global capitalism. But I could not help but observe that the Bagnaians live, and eat, pretty well. I would almost describe it as bourgeoise peasantry. Much of the agricultural knowledge, the land and estate, and even
some of the older members of the community came directly from Italy’s feudal system which was outlawed in 1964. If you appropriate from this system what many considered positive–small scale, local, organic agriculture, a beautiful countryside, and a familial/community based lifestyle–and leave behind the negatives–debt peonage, landlords claiming half of your output each year, antiquated gender roles–you’re left with a pretty cozy lifestyle, provided you don’t mind getting your hands dirty for 6-8 hours a day, five or six days a week.
But am I really warranted in levying such a harsh word as bourgeoise, as stinging to a
communist as ‘racist’ is to a Republican? Is it fair to use such a word just because they eat well and live in a Tuscan podere in the quiet, beautiful countryside? Does such a radically critical ideology require a radical rejection of not just property, but comfort? I should hope not, if I ever hope to live with such harmony between my ideals and actions. But in a world where few have the option to retreat to the Tuscan countryside, and instead must buy cheap, mass produced food with their wages from low-income jobs, isn’t such cognitive harmony itself a luxury? The residents of Bagnaia believe that their way of life is healthier for the body, the soul, and the environment, and that it should be a model for all of society. But could La Comune di Bagnaia exist as it does now if society were also transformed? Who would make the pasta, and how would the coffee and tea get to Italy? Where would the gas that fuels the cars and tractors come from? The commune actively supports a number of local and international organizations that it believes are creating positive change in the world, but one change I perceive that could have a potentially large impact on the local community is to sell organic vegetables instead of wine, a regional cash crops that is already over-produced. There are many tough questions I could have asked my neighbors while at Bagnaia, but since I fancy myself more an amateur ethnographer than an amateur investigative journalist, I decided against potentially alienating my gracious hosts.
After the first week though, the intense mental interrogation of my surroundings subsided a bit, and I very much enjoyed the work, the lifestyle, and the company. Much like my freshman year at Amherst, it wasn’t until I farmed at my new home that I felt I really could call it a home, however temporary. As the other residents’ levels of English ranged from fluent to nonexistent, I had a good opportunity to work on my Italian. At such basic levels, language becomes blunt tool for communicating meaning–if the meaning is understood, you’ve succeeded. And though there was usually someone around who could translate, it is amazing how little language is needed to accomplish this goal of communicating meaning between two people who only speak the most basic elements of each other’s languages.
So is the commune life for me? Perhaps. I’d love to return to Bagnaia and spend a little more time someday. For now, I’ll just take solace in my experience as further confirmation that in no place am I happier than I am in the field, and further evidence that the questions I asked myself here are questions I want to keep finding new ways and new contexts in which to ask them.
*Most of the information and viewpoints of Bagnaia residents I present here are from an interview with Amy’s husband, Alfredo.