Renée Bintje is a travel and leisure writer, whose professional work in the environmental and humanitarian sectors saw her living and travelling across Asia, Europe and Africa. In this column she shares some of her travel sketches, which is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
By Renée Bintje
The Hills of Sabina – Part 1
Gianna had a beautiful house; an enormous mansion with twelve bedrooms, on a large piece of land of about 10 acres, surrounded by olive groves which disappeared into the wilderness. The place was beautiful, much more beautiful than I had imagined.
Three other volunteers arrived, a couple from Australia, Sally and Dan, in their late fifties and an American guy, Sean, probably in his 20s.
Gianna laughed at our horrified expressions when informed there was no land line nor wifi at the property. There was only one internet café in a village nearly ten miles away. She assured us that she would get us to the nearest civilization for internet dongles in a few days. Even the phone signal was so weak that one had to go out to the garden and yell in order to be heard.
Our task was to get the place ready for the first retreat group of between eighteen to twenty persons arriving in a few weeks. The place was usually let out from early spring to late autumn and closed during winter months. We had lots of work to do to get the place ready for its first guests, from dusting, cleaning, clearing, redecorating to livening up the whole place, including doing up the gardens and outdoor retreat spaces.
Gianna herself did not live at the property but in a charming little cottage in the nearby village, about an hour’s walk from the retreat. A Gardener would come by for a few hours during weekdays and an Interior Decorator was commissioned to oversee the décor and atmosphere of the entire retreat, including the outdoor spaces. Gianna would be at the retreat from morning until lunch time and then would return in the late afternoon to check on the day’s progress.
The volunteers would work for about five to six hours per day, with each one taking turns to prepare the meals, eaten together. The menu at the retreat was normally vegetarian, and Gianna provided essential food and lodging for the volunteers in exchange for our voluntary work at her property. Meat was not provided but she would allow volunteers to consume non vegetarian food, at their own expense. Living with three others and spending day and night in that small circle was not easy. After the few days without phones and internet, we were so relieved to get internet dongles, at our own expense, allowing us to withdraw into our own rooms and worlds, with a valid excuse.
Sally, Dan and I got on and worked well, as a team. Sally and I would do the housework, while Dan and the Gardener on heavier chores and maintenance. Sean, however, was a misfit. He just hung about the place in a daze, not participating in any of the work, sitting here and there in lotus poses, exhaling so loudly, as if he had an agonizing relationship with air. It was painfully annoying to anyone within the hearing range, which was vast! Sally and Dan would roll their eyes, but it irritated the hell out of me.
He was fully present at every mealtime, though. He announced that was vegan but heartily ate all the dairy and any meat dishes that Sally and Dan offered, politely. He would finish off every crumb at the table and would inconsiderately finish off supplies in the fridge, leaving us to cook three times per day and constantly stock up the fridge, out of our own pockets.
I tried to be patient but day after day, he got on my nerves. Sally and Dan were also very annoyed, and one day, we talked about complaining to Gianna. I shared my grievances with Karen.
“Not just that, he would actually sit still and stare vacantly while Sally and I did all the heavy lifting, as if it had nothing to do with him!!! He leaves his used, dried up, cups and plates here and there and expects others to clean up after him. Plus, I find him creepy, he would just pop up behind me and make me jump. Believe me, he is a weirdo you wouldn’t put up with for a minute.”
“Let Sean be Sean, it’s not your role to point out to him the error of his ways! If he’s spooky around you, just move away politely and go into your own place, be friendly but distant. He’s probably just not terribly grown up. Twenty-something years old in an American male is about nineteen in a European male; and male is about five years younger than any female. So, he’s actually fourteen!!!” Karen humoured me, so that I would be kinder.
“Ummmm….. I still think he is taking the piss, and I am fed up,” I retorted.
“Look, if you were living and had a relationship of friendship or family, that’s different, there’s already a dialogue of trust and reciprocity in which such things can be exchanged. You are not in that place. You are living with strangers and life is full of people who let doors go in your face, shove you out of the way to be the first in the line, in fact, generally piss on your good nature, and this is just a manifestation of this.
If the others want to speak to Gianna, let them. Don’t get involved, the atmosphere will quickly become one in which this week he’s the baddie, next week it will be Sally and the week after it will be you,’’ she rightly pointed out.
I agreed with her wisdom but doubted I could remain zen, smiling politely, uninvolved.
The next day, the three of us worked hard to clear up the last bits of the winter garden and give it fresh bursts of spring colours, but Sean was nowhere to be seen. When we stopped for lunch, Gianna dropped by, rather pleased with the progress.
“Where’s Sean?’’ I asked, annoyed that the work assigned to four persons were actually being carried out by three. Gianna said he was at her place. She had asked him to help convert some Word documents into PDF, but he instead offered to make a movie to explain the process.
My jaw dropped, “Errr….to do what, sorry?!!!’’
“I asked him how to save Word to PDF and he offered to make a movie, so he has taken the day away to do that….” Gianna giggled acknowledging the extravagance.
“You go to File, save as, and choose PDF from the dropdown!!!” I said, while Sally and Dan were killing themselves laughing. “How long is this movie??? Can we watch it???”
Gianna replied, choking with laughter, “twenty minutes” and we all broke into more laughter.
The next evening, it was Sean’s turn to cook. He had used up two thousand pots and pans to prepare a lettuce salad and left the kitchen in a state worse than the Hiroshima atomic bombing. The house rule was the cook didn’t need to do the dishes, and when I saw the surreal state the kitchen was in, I was flabbergasted. I would be the donkey to clear up after him, as Sally and Dan paired the cooking and cleaning by themselves.
I sat at the table to join the group for supper. Sally and Dan were discussing respecting the planet, while Sean exhaled loudly about the turpentine we used to thin paints and detergents used to clean the place. I cut in sharply that it would be more respectful that he was mindful of how many pots and pans he used and where he left his used cups and plates, but he was too wrapped up in himself to notice the sarcasm and fury.
Unbelievably, after helping himself to all the food available without considering others, he simply left his empty plate at the table and walked away. At that moment I snapped. I called him back and told him to clear his plate and do the dishes himself that evening.
He protested, while I stated firmly and clearly that I was fed up with clearing up after him and I was not going to do the dishes. Sally and Dan were stunned and stayed silent. Later, I rang Gianna to tell her what happened, but she must have heard from Sally and Dan, as she immediately said she would sort it out before I could finish my sentence.
The next day, Gianna announced that Sean would be leaving for Rome, came to get him around noon and took him to the station. The atmosphere in the house felt heavy after he left. It felt so bad that I reached out to Karen.
“I feel like I am wearing wet socks all day,” I told her everything, ending with Sean’s departure.
“Not surprising the atmosphere is heavy today. All that ‘stuff’ is hanging around like old soggy glue. That’s what I mean about what you take into your heart you manifest externally.
“You need to come into contact with Acceptance!!!! Don’t panic, don’t get angry, and don’t be unrealistic in your expectations of yourself and others. I would say drop your standards a bit, let others have their standards, even if they don’t match up to yours. Your problem is that you do not suffer fools. Learn your lessons from Oxford. If people don’t behave in the way you like, don’t value what you do, don’t give you credit – so that’s their way. In responding to it, don’t you see you become like them, and just feed it?
“When it’s your turn, you can excel in cooking, cleaning, tidying. When it’s someone else’s, let them do what they do. Not everyone is struggling for enlightenment!!! Some people just bum along the bottom. I would say eighty percent of humanity at least. But that’s their journey. Yours is your own, and you can meet the challenges and fight to be the best you can be. But you mustn’t expect others to do that too. Not if it’s not where they are. At some point maybe they will be there. Maybe never. But it’s not your role to make them wiser or to tell them where they fail. All that will do is make you disliked.”
She was right, of course, and even with blood on my hands, I still felt the need to defend my position by stating that I was not the only one who felt that way; Everyone wanted him to leave, including Gianna. I was just the catalyst that made it happen quicker.
“People often acquire unity at the expense of someone they jointly dislike. And everyone is keen to get on the bandwagon because they don’t want to be the scapegoat. Sean will learn his lessons in his time in his way. His path is his, your is yours. You should have stood apart and been completely non-committal,” she said.
I felt so awful for everything that had happened. All the alternative scenarios which did not take place but presented me in a better light played over in my mind one by one to make me feel worse. All at once, I felt the stress, anxiety and nervousness of giving up my security, my home, belongings, and facing a reality of a day to day existence that’s going to be tough, demanding and unpredictable. At the mercy of people, if they liked me or not.
The next morning, I went over to Gianna’s to plan the menu for the first group. I confessed that I felt sorry for what happened. She gave me a reassuring hug and said I should not. She had noticed everything about Sean herself and was going to have the difficult conversation with him, so it was best that he left.
When I got back to the retreat, Sally and Dan were out in the garden, drinking wine and singing. They waved at me to join them.
We talked, laughed and sang. The gluey cloth and wet socks that were clinging to me all day slowly disappeared.