Jottings from Jacquelin

Musings on travel adventures.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Italy Jot #3, mid August

In August, things shut down here. Last week 60 percent of the stores in my neighborhood were closed, this week it's about 99 percent. But the supermarket is open (and air conditioned!!!) and there's a series of free, outdoor concerts held in various attractive courtyards around town that I've been going to. And, my language school is open, so I'm surviving.

Language wise, I'm now chatting away in Italian. I still make lots of mistakes and supplement my sparse vocabulary with various charade like gestures but--I'm talking! My school, Il Centro di Lingua, is very nice and the teachers are good, so, hopefully, my progress will continue.

Friendship wise, I'm getting to know people in my language class so, I'm not feeling so friendless anymore. Of course, they're all foreigners like myself. What I'd really like is some Italian friends but, right now, with everybody on holiday, it's hard to make much progress in that area.

I'm going to have to give up this gorgeous apartment pretty soon. The owners are coming back from vacation at the end of August. But I've become so attached to it, and this neighborhood, that it's going to be hard to give it back and move out.

Although I've already got another apartment starting the month of October, I haven't yet found a place to stay in September, so I'm thinking about going on a road trip!

Italy Jot #3, early August

I got locked in the cathedral (Duomo) in Arezzo, a small town in Tuscany.

The town sits on a hill and the cathedral (Duomo) is at the top next to a lovely park that overlooks the beautiful, surrounding countryside. I was walking through the park when, all of a sudden, it started to pour. First, I ran for cover in a little shed, then I made a dash for the Duomo. By the time I got there, I was completely drenched, like the wash before the spin cycle.

I went in but didn't want to sit on a nice, wooden pew in my dripping wet condition. Also, I really didn't want anyone to see me because they're very fussy here about what you can wear into a church--no shorts, no sleeveless dresses, no this, no that. So, I was pretty sure soaking wet clothes were on the “Don't” list.

I walked around like a mouse, staying very close to the wall, until I found a small alter and a chair hidden by a huge potted plant. (Now that I think about it, I've never seen a plant in a church before). Anyway, I sat down to dry off and began reading the tourist brochure. I dozed off for what seemed like five minutes but must have been a half hour. When I woke up, it was all very quiet--too quiet. I got up and walked around. All the candles were still flickering away, but there were no people!

I went around calling out “Hello, anyone home?" But, no, no one was home just “io ed Dio” (me & God). So, I tried opening doors. There were about six, all locked. I was trying not to panic but I really didn't want to spend the night in the cathedral. So, I went back to the front door.

I could hear people outside, so I started calling out “Aiuto me!, Aiuto me!” Help me!, Help me! An English couple heard me and I told them how to ask for help in Italian and sent them off to find the police or somebody. However, it was lunchtime. And lunchtime in Italy means you could fall to the ground and lie there gasping for breath until about 3:30pm, if you were still alive, that is.

The couple came back to report that there was no one to be found--the police station, tourist office and just about everything else was closed for lunch. There was light in the Duomo from the stained-glass windows, but not by this main door which was enclosed by a vestibule. In the dark, I started to feel around on the door (a huge door--remember we're talking about a cathedral not some dinky church!) And I found bolts, so I started pulling on them. There were about five and each one opened in a different manner, but I kept pulling this way and that until finally the enormous cathedral door swung open and out I popped!

While I was in there, it was pretty frightening. But it makes such a great story in the re telling, that I'm kind of glad it happened!

The reason I was in Arezzo in the first place was because of one of my new acquaintances, a guy named Paulo. He, along with 20 other "families,” is restoring an abandoned village in Tuscany near Arezzo. They're using all ecologically correct materials to do the reconstruction. And, when the village, called Upacchi, is restored, they'll grow their own organic produce. (*See article below.)

So, I went there this past weekend to see the village for myself. Since all the houses are under reconstruction, I stayed in a gorgeous farmhouse in Anghiari, a nearby town.

The farm was on a hilltop overlooking the Tuscan countryside and the house was one of those old, stone beauties with a burnt orange, tile roof. The woman who owns it is an organic farmer, so everything I ate for three days was homemade from her own produce. I had yogurt, milk & butter from the cow that slept right under my bedroom; home made bread and jam made from fruits grown on the property; vegetables, lettuce & tomatoes from the garden.

It's been so hot in Milan, like Africa, that it was wonderful to get out of town for awhile. I must admit, I'm not as wild about Italy as I was when I first arrived but, I keep finding myself in these dream like settings.

* ARTICLE FOR: “YES PLEASE” - a magazine for expats living in Italy (1992)

“A Brave New World in Tuscany” by Jacquelin

This year, Paolo Vantaggi, 42, is changing his entire life. He's leaving a good job in Milan as an electronic components salesman, giving up his apartment, and moving lock stock and barrel to Paradise. And, he's not the only one who's going. A group of twenty one "families" has bought an abandoned village in Tuscany, an hour outside Arezzo. They're reconstructing it using natural materials and farming the land with organic methods.
Upacchi, this "villaggio ecologico," puts a nineties spin on a sixties theme that's actually based on how life was lived a hundred years ago. Once upon a time, villages were self contained, unspoiled outposts where people worked closely together and lived off the land. This "experiment in living" is an attempt to replicate those wholesome values with the added caveat of environmental concern.
Upacchi, a farming community, was last inhabited some twenty five years ago. Its current reincarnation is the brainchild of Elmar Zadra and his wife, Micky, in their early thirties. After the birth of their daughter, Giulia, five years ago, they decided to explore the possibility of living closer to nature. But it wasn't just a question of leaving big city life and moving to the country. What they had in mind was an environmentally-aware community in which to raise their child. They believed the idea would appeal to other young families, and so began a period of research and instruction.
With Giulia in tow, they traveled to Australia to study organic farming and observe how various organic villages functioned. They went to California to learn about alternative methods of heating, water conservation and building. When they returned, they launched a six month search through Italy from Genoa to Rome--to find the right spot to start their community. Although there are several abandoned villages in Italy, not all are for sale and not all meet the criteria Elmar and Micky thought were important for a successful foray into organic living. They wanted somewhere rural with ample land and a good water supply but near enough to a city to sustain the needs of a burgeoning village. This search resulted in the acquisition of the village of Upacchi and 600 acres of land ten minutes from Anghiari in the Tuscan hills.
The three overriding principles of the community are:
* Homeowners must live in the village (the houses cannot just be used as holiday homes)
* All reconstruction and building must be done using organic materials
* All farming must be organic.

In addition, the village plans compost toilets, solar heated water and communal facilities including a laundry, a library, a meeting house and a huge oven for community bread baking.
Right now, Upacchi is not much more than a woodsy enclave of stone houses in various stages of disrepair. A few are in reasonably good shape, but most are virtual ruins. The dilapidated church is from the 13th century, but the other houses date from the early 1800s. The plan is to reconstruct them all from scratch. In accordance with the town's guiding principles, this reconstruction will be done using the original stones, supplemented with other natural building material--cork for insulation; a special type of brick and cement, devoid of the metal scraps that are now routinely mixed into these products; wood beams for the houses which will he cut front trees in the area and coated with natural varnishes. All in all, ten reconstructed houses will provide twenty one living "units" for the adventuresome bunch who've chosen to inhabit this brave new world.
Conceived as an international community, Upacchi residents include Italians from many regions (Trentino Alto Adige, Lombardy, Lazio) along with Swiss, Austrians and Germans. But Paradise is not for the faint hearted. To successfully get this village up and running requires an incredible amount of work and determination, not to mention a substantial financial commitment (see box). Yet most of the people who chose to come to Upacchi did not sit down with an accountant and contemplate the financial pros and cons of such a move; they simply fell in love with the place and wanted to be part of an innovative community. Although there is no religious premise here, all the future inhabitants have a common zealous belief in the benefit of this "alternative lifestyle" project.
Martina and Markus, a young German couple in their early twenties with a two and a half year old son, point out that most Upacchi residents are here to change their lives, not just their addresses. It was this spirit of change and renewal that attracted them to the project. Biologists with an interest in organic farming, they also wanted to live in a community of like minded people with environmental concerns. Although fully-functioning, organic-farming villages exist in Germany, Martina and Markus wanted to join a community that they would help create. For them, the exciting part is realizing the dream.
An older German couple, Anita and Frithjof, decided to settle in Upacchi after looking for a place to retire in France, Portugal, Great Britain and Greece. For them, the only important criterion was to feel "at one" with the place they chose. The beauty of Tuscany and the "good vibes" in the village made them sign up on the spot.
Doriam and Elisabetta, in their late forties, are architects from Como. They felt their high pressure jobs had made them part of the rat race and they wanted to put a halt to it before it was too late. Betty says they were spending all their time working and coming home exhausted, too tired to think. As vegetarians, they were always interested in organic produce and decided to take that interest one step further with a move to Upacchi. An older daughter will probably not come along, but their young son, Luca, is raring to go. Betty and Doriam are now thrilled to be working on their own house design and helping plan the village.
But even in Paradise, people need to earn a living. Some residents will work for the cooperative. Paolo, for example, a skilled carpenter and electrician, will help with the reconstruction. Others will farm the land. Some will find jobs in neighboring towns while others want to start up a crafts and "agriturismo" industry in Upacchi.
Since this is just the beginning, it is hard to predict how things will turn out. The amount of work that needs to be done to breath life into these ruins and take the project from concept stage to bustling village is enormous. Some people have already dropped out--one couple split up, another preferred a similar project in South America, and a third couple decided that it was too expensive for them after all.
However, the enthusiasm of the group that has evolved is impressive and the components are right for a successful community. There is a nice mix of ages and professions and a good balance of couples and singles, young families and older folk. The sheer beauty of the setting and the excitement of bringing a village back to life in such a novel way might just carry the day.