Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Nobility of Work

The first time that my Italian nephew Andrea met my American nephew Harry, he asked him a question.  Harry, what do you build?  Not Harry, what do you drive,  how many facebook friends do you have, what do you do…but what is it that you build with your own hands?  Harry, who is a hard working, wonderful young man was taken aback.  He had probably never been asked such a question.  It seems that in the modern American version of success, we have risen about working with our hands. 

Andrea and Harry Enjoying a Well Deserved Rest
That somehow those Powerpoints or spreadsheets are the real work and that to get the soil under our fingers or the sawdust on our brow is beneath us.  I think on some level, this is a reflection of our greater economic challenges where we got so successful and could borrow so easily that we deferred the making of and the building of and the designing of to others.  Affluenza I think they call it! 

In the old village of Veglio that at its peak had 250 inhabitants, nearly everything that was needed was made by hand.  The milk that was turned into cheese, the grapes that were turned into wine...the vegetables and animals to last through the winter.  The grain and chestnuts milled and then crafted into dark, nutritious bread that was baked twice a week. 

The rocks that were gathered  from the fields and the mountainsides were crafted into the walls and the roof.  The larch and pine and chestnut trees became the floors, the beams and the furniture.  Everything had a purpose and the wise use of your hands could turn the land and resources into the essential things that are required for a good life.

Mama Tuna and Grandpa and Grandma McCoy
I firmly believe that this somehow connects us to the earth and as importantly to each other.  Working together to provide the most important elements of our life.  There is a huge movement across the US to put on the table what is grown on small, local farms.  Thousands of young people who only in the previous generation would have been mocked for doing so, are opting out of the corporate track to build productive, healthy family farms.   
Grandma Driving Her SUV

A similar appreciation is growing of building with more sustainable, readily available materials.  Less plastic, less concrete, less material that must be trucked from halfway around the world.   We collectively seem to be gravitating, if ever so slowly,  towards a place of balance between convenience and significance. 

My grandparents had a huge influence on my life.  They not only loved me but they taught me how to work and how to appreciate the simple joys that come from making a house and land a home.  I have fond memories of my then 75 year old grandmother plowing her garden or replacing the floor of her porch.  We saw the same thing in the rural parts of Italy as well.   People well into their 80’s with shovels and rakes, working their garden or cleaning up a patch of land.  With smiles and a sense of contentment on their faces. 

Andrea and Sal Using a 700 Year Old Technique
My hope that this will be not only part of our life as we continue to restore our Italian home, but also will be a legacy that we can leave for our children and grandchildren. That they can learn to tend the gardens, grapes and the orchards. To cut the brush from the creek so they too can see the old church from the terrace on a late Summer day.  And also learn the ancient crafts and share the same experience as their ancestors three hundred years earlier. 

Dinner in Veglio
To get a sense of the satisfaction that comes from turning your labor into a meal for your family or a glass of wine that can be shared with friends around a fire.  To experience this on the mountain for a few weeks during the year and then bring that back to their own homes wherever that may be.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Making a home on the mountain

It is has been a month and a week since we got back from our trip to Veglio.  It seems like ten years since we were there but at the same time, I have images in my head during each day in which we are still there. 

We had an unusual trip in some respects if we look through the lense of a traditional vacation, but in other respects it was a very good, meaningful visit.  It was our first steps towards being at home in the Valley. And being at home means that problems exist in every day and in every family.  But at the same time, it means that we are home in a familiar, comforting place that allows us to sink roots.

Being home sometimes means you spend days cleaning up things you would rather not clean up.  On this particular trip, we had both of my brothers, Linda, Jocelyn, our daughter Alex, Mark’s daughter Allyssa and Ken’s niece Shandley.  We arrived on a Friday and settled into Mario’s place down the hill in Oira. The plan was for a good, reconnecting dinner at the restaurant next door and then an early night to rest and hit the village first thing in the morning.

Late Spring Rain and a Full Creek
We woke up to the sounds of light rain coming through the valley.  Our first order of business was to clean out the parts of the property that had been long neglected or used for livestock “storage” which was code for old hay and manure from various species.  That meant one group, largely Ken and Allyssa took the rabbit merde in the upper room while the rest of us cleaned out the various cellars and other stables that were needed for temporary storage.  Every one of us had very mucky tasks that were made even messier by the constant drip of the late Spring rain as the clouds had gathered against the Alps. 

Just about the time we finished with the nasty tasks, Andrea came up with the plan to move some items that had been temporarily stored by one of the neighbors, Renato Balzarini(also the proud owner of the rabbits),  in our stable,  down the path and up some old stone steps to an attic owned by Renato.  With only some minor slipping and sliding, we worked for the better part of an hour carrying some small furniture, boxes and various other items that needed to be cleared from our little goat stable. 
Clearing the Garden Path

There was one particularly large piece of furniture, a credenza, that needed to makes its way up into the attic.  I grabbed the front end and Ken grabbed the back and with a groan and wheeze, we starting packing it down the path and started our way up the by now slippery stairs.  Ken’s boots were to the slimey point from the rain, the mud and the remaining rabbit droppings that were still keeping him company. 

Just about the time we were near the top of the stairs, I gave a final pull over the threshold to get the weight off of Ken who was a bit below me and by now stepping out on the top landing.  All of the sudden, I looked back and Ken disappeared off the landing and I heard a thud and a few inaudible words.  I started yelling for help and trying to take a few deep breathes, terrified on what I would find as I looked over the edge. 

Some of the Stairs are Not Yet OSHA Compliant!
Finally, I pushed the furniture up into the room and made my way to the edge of the stairs, looking down a full eight or nine feet.  Ken was not moving and had landed on his side and most worrying was not talking.  Climbing down, I was quickly joined by the rest of the ashen-faced family members.  Mark and I looked for punctures or evidence of a major injury or bleeding and fortunately found nothing.  Ken was by that time starting to talk and between the shivers was at once upset because he knew he was done for the week and nervous about his shoulder that he thought for certain was broken.

Meanwhile, Andrea was on the phone with his father who is a medical doctor arranging for a meeting at the hospital once we got Ken down off the mountain.  After some lifting and swearing, we got Ken to his feet and fashioned a temporary sling.  Andrea loaded him into his jeep and made the ten miles down the mountain and to Domodossola.  We anxiously waiting for several hours and finally got word that the break was clean and with proper care surgery may be optional. 

Attending Church the Day After the Fall...Just in Case
Over the next forty eight hours, arrangements were made to send Ken home through Geneva, which we did.  Upon his arrival, Kathryn whisked him up to UC Davis Medial Center where they validated the diagnosis, rewrapped him and set out on the plan of a surgery-free, but four month recovery. 

On this particular trip, we were planning to spend some of the days down the hill at Mario’s  and then some of the time at a restored house in Veglio owned by our distance cousin Maria Luisa and her boyfriend(of 18 years)Angelo.  Maria was looking forward to sharing her hospitality and cooking with all of us and before we drove Ken to Geneva, we spent Monday morning clearing brush and yet another stable(goats) before settling in for a wonderful lunch prepared by Maria Luisa.

It was with great joy that Ken was able to be at the table, wrapped like a mummy, but eating with one hand and even finishing his meal with a little grappa.  It was a bittersweet moment as he said goodbye to our hosts and our extended Italian family prematurely.
The Mummy Seems to Like Grappa

Linda and I returned from Geneva at 2 in the morning having taken the wrong train and getting stuck in our least favorite Swiss town of Brig.  But we arose at our scheduled time to have breakfast on the mountain and begin our work.

Finally, the rain had cleared and we all settled in for various tasks around the property punctuated by incredible meals served by Maria Luisa with various guests including stone masons, roofers, helpers, cousins, girlfriends.  Andrea had made a special request for some American bourbon and on more than one evening we sat around or rather in the ancient fireplace sipping and talking, planning  and playing cards. 

The ladies even took a quick overnight trip down to Florence and really enjoyed the shopping and art and food.  It gave Mark and I time to work with Andrea, Marco and Massimo on clearing the final rubble from the house and repairing the floors of the stables that will be used for storage.
GionPiero the Stone Mason Explaining the Ancient Arts

On this trip, we also had the opportunity to do some “normal” tasks such as grocery shopping, buying a wheelbarrow, going to the car wash, shopping for underwear and socks, cooking, finding some much needed ibuprofen and getting to know the Italian medical system.  Not exciting but it did give us a glimpse of what it may be like as we move from tourists visiting to establishing a real home with real Italian parts of our lives. 

So we are now in a new phase of our restoration project which is to get real about the cost, risks and effort it is going to take to bring our dream to life.  And, to try to figure out how to have our feet in two homes with all that entails.  How do we live part of the year in Italy, how do we deal with being away from family for several months at a time, how do we deal with working remotely or building a local Italian business.
Jocelyn and MariaLuisa Showing Language is No Barrier

We do not know the answers to these questions but the questions are in the back of my mind each day, each plane ride in the middle of the night, each quiet evening spent in a hotel room in New York or a stinky train from the middle of nowhere.  I am not alone in the thinking.  Ken especially with four months of time away from his day job has been exploring a eco-tourist business that can share our experiences and the local arts and craftsmanship.

Despite all the obstacles, the bumps, bruises and slings, we are more committed now to creating a new home.  Of creating a clear picture in our minds of the day we can all raise a glass on our new terrace that looks out upon the mountains.

Lunch Al Fresco at MariaLuisa's

But for now, it is time to get back on an airplane to pay for some more stone and beams…And to plan Veglio in Fall during the Harvest.  Shovels, picks and wheelbarrows await us for our new Septic Tank!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Balancing and Packing

Fifty eight days until our next trip to the Mountain.  We received a long update from Andrea yesterday giving us many details of the work that has been completed this winter.  Two barns repaired, one wall, windows in the kitchen, new water lines and the purchase of two tons of roof stone as well as larch beams for the soon to be new roof on the main house.

Winter Work on the Stairwell
Progress for certain all thanks to our nephew Andrea.  I have mentioned him several times over the past year, but it bears repeating and also telling a bit more of his story.  Andrea is a remarkable young man.  His parents met while working the summer holidays at a mountain resort during their college years.

Both Giovanni(my cousin) and Mareka had deep Alpini roots.  They both valued education and college took them to Torino and Milano.  He a doctor and she a journalist, they initially settled in Milan as the center of cultural and economic power in Northern Italy.  Milan gave them nearly everything they could want in terms of restaurants, jobs, shopping, the opera to name just a few. 

But they also longed for the beauty of the mountains, the community of the small villages, the rich traditions and foods and simpler life that was their family’s for hundreds of years.  Like so many of us who came of age in the post-war era, it was the aspiration that was the default path.

Andrea is their only son and from the start a curious, very bright one.  As they tell the story, there was much debate around the kitchen table in Milan on the fork in the road between the city and the country.  Should they remain in the urban area where the finest schools in Italy and the world could be found?  Does it make sense to spend more time with the family in Preglia?  Jobs would be much harder to find in the mountains and even with a medical degree and additional training, economic success would not be assured.

In the end, they returned to the homes that had been built by each of their parents in the middle of the last century.  Giovanni became a trusted, country doctor who is often found in his little jeep driving through treacherous, winding mountain passes to see patients. Mareka has written and translated but also done many other jobs to help with the family including sewing and gardening.  It has been the path less taken but without them knowing, they have also been the curators of the lifestyle and traditions that had been passed on for generations.

Each time some of the American family has come to visit their roots,  they have taken time to share the stories over wine and the table overflowing with food from the three gardens that provides most of the fruits and vegetables they eat.

Andrea Putting Milano Polytechnic to Work
And now it is Andrea’s turn to face the decision of the fork.   He attended architectural school in Milan and completed graduate school in Germany last year.  His thesis was approved and he also took his State examination for his license in architecture.  And now the decision must be made to stay in the valley and pour his heart into the restoring of the villages or to leave and pursue a career in the major centers of Europe or beyond.

Striking a balance between community and commerce, simplicity and challenge, possessions and experience.  This is the struggle of modern life, at least it has been the case for me and many of my friends.   Technology was supposed to make it easier.  Just have an Internet connection and you could live wherever you choose.  That worked for a while until the reality of millions in India, Romania and China doing the same thing for 1/100 of the price.   Trade-offs must be made.

While the answers are different for each person and Andrea’s answer may be different than his father’s, there does seem to be some things you can do regardless.    Resist the temptation of debt and complexity that come too easily in the path of the City.  In the name of aspiration, we too often sign up for the lure of things that ultimately weight us down and remove our choices.

The Canova Art Colony(town where Grandma was born)
Find the time to remain curious and committed to a life of learning.  Avoid the danger of being isolated in a rural existence or overly worried and hurried in the urban setting.  Technology does make it possible to learn wherever and whenever.   In fact, there may be even an advantage to learning in the relative solitude that is found in the country.  Some of the great colleges of the American West or New England are tucked away in small towns.  Just down the road from Veglio there are two colonies that are growing as centers of traditional arts and crafts. 

My Grandmothers circa 1975
Draw the thread from your past.  Find out what drove your ancestors to do what they ultimately did.  Whether they left it all behind to chase a dream in Alaska or California or New Zealand or chose to build a better life where their grandparents lived.

This is ultimately the purpose of Veglio.  To make the strongest of connections to our ancestors and to also provide the place of beauty, quiet and learning.  That regardless of the paths chosen by our children or our children’s children there will always be a place to remind them of simple truths.