When Giacomo, Zia Emilia’s beloved Husband passed, she was left as the last resident of a neighborhood once home to 38 people. On her daily walk up the hill to the cemetery, Emilia is surrounded by the patina of time. This is the Italy, tourists never see.
The Italy Tourists Never See
On the days we visit, there’s no traffic, no kids playing in the street. The only signs of life on our walk to the cemetery, are three dogs barking like mad.
It should be said, visiting Zia Emilia is inspiring. Emilia is 80. She still farms her land, raises her chickens and grows bold flowers in her windows. Her garden is a riotous celebration of life. Herbs, vegetables, fruits and flowers grow in abundance. One Rooster and three happy hens give her fresh eggs and I would imagine, a little company.
Inside, Emilia’s home is in perfect order. Spotlessly clean, full of warmth and family photos. Each time you visit, you leave with gifts from her labors. Fresh eggs, a rosemary plant and a warm hug that say “thank you for coming.” Her strength and independence are those of pure steel.
Leaving her home, is stepping back into the reality of modern Italy.
Emilia’s colorful balcony is surrounded by brown, worn, empty buildings. Stacks of tools, now covered in dirt and dust sit abandoned. It is a stark juxtaposition that’s intriguing and symbolic.
The other remaining residents of Campo Canavese are similar to Emilia. Of retirement age and not leaving. Unfortunately the homes they will leave behind, will have little to no value. Chances are good, they will sit empty. All their warmth, charm and tender care will be covered with the dust of time.
There are few signs of renovation in the area and the next generation has no plan to return. It’s been called Italy’s brain drain.
Italy’s Brain Drain
From the Northern Alps to the central plain all the way south to the rugged seaside cliffs, the youth of Italy are continuing to leave. Italy’s countryside is dotted with ghost-towns.
Headlines like No Country for Young Men (and Women) highlight youth unemployment rates as high as 39% in 2014. While others point more directly to small towns declining population with stories like Italy Mountain Town Celebrates First Baby Born in 28 Years.
Like Campo Canavese, the towns in these articles offer none of the life youth seek. No theatre, no shopping, no restaurants, no jobs, no schools and no bars. What they do offer is peace, quiet and the ability to live among nature and friendly, if few, neighbors.
I can not say for sure, if Paolo and I will ever live full-time in Italy now or in the future. Like many of our generation, we are still looking for opportunity. Even though there is a lot to be said for the peace, quite and beauty of small towns in Italy, the prospects to make money the way we know how, are simply not there.
What I do know is, I truly look forward to visiting Zia Emilia in her home each year. The same wooden wheel barrel, porch chair and baskets are sure to be in exactly the same place. It’s strangely reassuring.
Walking her gardens and taking coffee in her living room, relaxing to the rhythmic floating white curtains lifting from a cool mountain breeze. These are among the most impactful and sweet sensory memories from all my travel in Italy.