"Why Italy?" I usually start my answer with a pause and a sigh...
Italy is the home of my fore- mothers and forefathers. I first ventured there in 2000 as a volunteer, I selected to work on organic farms that needed stonewall mending. With nerves of steel I, an American, non-Italian-speaking- woman dared to go to Italy, the origin of stonework, to build and rebuild walls.
Even daring to teach walling to the locals.
Yes. Yes, about right, as I am Italian enough to think I have something to offer and something in common with Italy itself.
My first trip abroad, my first trip as an adult outside the US was to Italy. I had not researched the land or even the culture; aside from what I knew inherently and the bits of information I retained from High School Geography, so when I landed and boarded the train, I had no expectations. When I returned ten years later however, I knew what to expect:
I knew that the smile that overtook my face would not go away
from the time I purchased my flights to the time I boarded the plane to return to the States. But her let me start again to say that in Italy, time is different. The hours in an Italian day may ring in the standard 24 but, they pass in a different way, slower perhaps, well, slow is not the proper word. Time isn't slow in Italy,
it's more accurate to say that time is experienced through more senses
than here state-side, where we often feel an urgency, a rush to consume, a frantic desire to be on the other side of every fence. In Italy
We Simply Are
We exist in a place of infinite beauty and attention is focused on the arts, not in the sense that we are making art, but rather that each thing we look at is exquisitely beautiful:
located in its broken, leaning, imperfection. Still, at any time, we are actually making art, setting the table, the food itself, each step we take is on something made by hand over a century ago, almost nothing is new, nothing is cheap and nothing is wasted.
The smell of the land is different, the lighting in the air is different, somehow kinetically charged, so that each particle holds color. Each texture more delicious, more divine than the next. The feeling of saturation of beauty overcomes me almost immediately, and I pass my day expecting no surprises and accepting each delicious view, each captivating meal, every friendship, every layer of laughter, gurgle of stream, sip of wine, splash of ocean, frolic of lamb, everything
organic, everything made beautiful, real, whole, crisp
In 2010, I was first invited to join a group working on restoring an ancient village. This village in particular is composed of nine houses, each of which may have three or four parts; some of these parts fit under one roof, sometimes there are three or more roofs. Ken and Kali Marquardt are our hosts and the founders of the Canova Association. They live in a small villa with attached farmstead high up on the side of Alp Andromia, on the western side of Domodossola. Canova is a village up the valley, in development from before the 15th Century. Because of the work the Marquardt's have done to restore it successfully, it is now a vibrantly working town. When looking at a map, it can be located North West of Varese. Across the river, a short walk up a hillside, is the village of Ghesc which is now the focus of restoration. The Canova Association runs field schools concentrating in Architecture, Historic Preservation, and Masonry in Ghesc.
The course that I'm involved in, fills two weeks in the summer, and is part of a seamless effort to get the village back in working order.
Each year we have gone back to the village to work on another building. We are particularly interested in putting on a new stone roof, but sometimes a vault comes our way, or terraces, or rebuilding a bread oven.
The ancients built stone roofs for their houses which in working order are extremely sturdy and stout, resting nearly a foot thick on heavy Chestnut timbers. We don't know why Ghesc was abandoned yet, over a century ago the last villager left. Unsupervised, the houses fell with the speed of time. It's important to interject:
All stone is a living thing, as such, all stone work requires maintenance - a tuck here - a tap there, as is imaginable, a stone roof needs the same.
As I've learned - stone over timber requires a specially trained eye. Though, of course, if living in the house, it takes no training to realize that the roof is leaking. Abandoned, there were no watchers to take note of the roof, and soon, the timbers rot and the weight of the pressing stone gathers the structure to the ground, collapsing the walls - crashing to the floor. Time manages to settle the dust, and with it come to rest the mighty chestnut seed, earth and debris, and everything else that time can imagine to gather.
We arrive to stone buried under many feet of earth and massive trees.
It looks like the forest floor just outside the walls. Our job becomes the removal of trees, earth and the stone. We sort it - pile it - and clean it. We restore the gable walls, hew the trees into beams and begin to lay the new roof.
The work is demanding, and at the end of the day, one is covered in sweat and dirt while managing the biggest smile.
We pile into tiny cars and zip across the valley, up and down winding roads that in no way are engineered properly while being completely functional. Everyone seems to know how to drive them, from the rather exposed pelotons to the much larger city buses. We pass the rotund and lean alike. Men and women carrying baskets of groceries over the arm, children in tow, pushing an old bike, tending gardens, talking with friends, leaning over walls and fences. Italy is not a quiet place.
It is a land of passion.
We Italians are a loud people. "Marco! Marco!" I hear an anciently frail woman bellow, the man in question speedily presents himself from a third story window, "Oh, hello," says the lady, "how are you today?" as if the reason she hollered as though an earthquake had opened the earth below her feet.
We look forward with a yearning enthusiasm to the long meals on a twilight terrance, under a moon and high peaks, the days spent on be-speckled forest floors next to Chestnut trees, hefting stone and both laughing and weeping for joy and excitement, to long evenings spent telling stories under the stars, to the clang of sheep bells, and the smell of passion flowers - roses - and figs. The splashing of the leaping streams, and the hushed conversations, and then the peal of laughter surging down the valley.
Layers upon layers of saturated beauty consume
me as I write these words, the visions leaping to take me back to the land from which my family comes.