Italy (Part I): Soggy Socks and Good Samaritans, the journey to Avalon

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So our summer break came around at last. We could have taken it when it was actually summer and not the end of autumn/beginning of winter, given the flexibility of the intentional community (IC) where we reside, but we had procrastinated until the summer ended abruptly sometime in September. I remember the timing because we had just had our annual summer festival in balmy upper 20/30 °C weather. The day after it ended the rain arrived and the mercury dropped 10 degrees or so and never returned northwards.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years.

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A good omen perhaps? The view from our bedroom window, two days before our flight to Italy.

In the succeeding months we did our part helping out in the various workshops that I had booked earlier in the season before Cora came on board. It had become apparent that she was being given the reigns regarding the running of the seminar house and probably the administration as well.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years. The founder, an Octogenarian variously called Anutosh or Wouter, liked to shake things up from time to time. Mirjam and I had sat opposite him and his fellow board-member Tineke at a table in the community dining room.

“I always intended this to be a place of growth and once you stop growing then it’s time to leave. I don’t see any further growth opportunities for you. You’re a great guy but it’s time… what are you going to DO with your life?” he challenged me, simultaneously scrutinising me with his one good eye while his other glass one stared out implacable as always.

So from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity. People around us started to ask questions. We had done some research through the GEN Europe website. GEN is an acronym for the Global Ecovillage Network. Our community in Germany, the Vlierhof,  was a paid up member of the European EV network but we had little contact or collaboration with other members I’d discovered. However I liked their philosophy and resonated with their values and both Mirjam and I wanted to take the opportunity to visit at least one other EV before departing the Vlierhof.

… from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity.

Considering the time of year we decided that a Mediterranean country was probably our best bet. Think sun and warmth. But we would discover that nothing could be further from the truth! Our immediate destination was Ecovillagio Avalon Elfi, a community in the Elf Valley in the vicinity of Florence. It was one of the few EVs in the RIVE network (L’associazione Rete Italiana dei Villaggi Ecologici) that met to our expectations i.e. open to parents and engaged in some form of homeschooling. We’d had a positive response from a guy called Riccardo and later someone called Victoria.

wp_20191108_11_09_19_proHere is a map of the northern half of Italy from the RIVE handbook (courtesy of Riccardo) showing the location of the various EVs falling within the RIVE domain. The label for Avalon (Valle degli Elfi) is about 3/4 of the way down the left-hand side.

Later Riccardo would point out that there were only a handful that he knew of that had a focus on families and education (he was on the executive committee of RIVE).

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Raphael gambols amongst the various items of hand luggage, Weeze Airport departures.

And so on the 4th November of last year we flew out to Pisa from our local airport, Weeze. It was only a few months prior that I’d flown to the UK from there (see previous post). Incredibly, everything we took we managed to take as hand luggage. In an effort to travel economically we only paid for two 10 kg cabin bags. The other items fell under our allowance. These days the free stuff is pretty miserly but we had the advantage of a baby, or was it the disadvantage?!

Not for the first time I was quite taken aback by the amount of stuff ‘needed’ for the two boys. Almost the entirety of the larger bag was taken up by fabric nappies, inserts, cotton wipes, polyester outers etc. My bag I shared with communal items and in addition the baby had his own small dedicated bag. We were at the very limits of what was possible for a couple with young children to do, considering that we would be traveling on public transport for most of the trip.

The RyanAir flight itself was reasonably smooth and uneventful and we arrived early afternoon at Pisa International. Our plan then was to catch the train inland to Pistoia and then take a bus as far as we could go.

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses. Small pockets of cultivated olives would appear in the intervening spaces and disappear just as quickly. Trellised grape vines and fig trees adorned the gardens and courtyards of the houses that flanked the rail and gave the illusion of late summer. In the carriage the temperature was moderate but when the doors opened a frigid blast of cold air reminded us that summer had come and gone. At some point it begun to rain, a defining feature of our trip!

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses.

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Our modestly-priced bus tickets from Pistoia to Casalguidi

It took us quite some time to figure out where to buy bus tickets in the regional town of Pistoia. At first glance there was nothing very remarkable about it but we would return later to discover that it had its charms. A crowded bus took us as far as the small town of Casalguidi. From here we only knew that we would have to make our own way to the community.

Night had fallen and we traipsed the affluent, suburban neighbourhood despondently. The few people we met were unable to help. Eventually we met a friendly passer-by walking his dog who pointed out a guest house on the same street. I dialled the number on the door and helpfully he took the call. A few minutes later an unassuming, middle-aged man in glasses appeared.

He disappeared into the little house and soon appeared at the front door. He ushered us inside as we said goodbye to the man with the dog who lived a few houses up. With apparent haste and few words of introduction we were showed a family room with a double and single bed and asked whether we would take it. I was on the point of saying yes when Mirjam urged me to tell him about our true intention which was the journey to the community of Avalon.

We showed him the address and after consulting his phone he announced that he would take us there. I was quite taken aback. Not only would he lose out on our business but he was actually prepared, at his time and expense, to drive us there. This sort of unsolicited hospitality was something we would experience time and again. The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

The drive up to Avalon, a few hundred metres up the valley, was on a road so circuitous, winding and narrow that we could never have hoped to negotiate it safely without a ride. Our good samaritan took us as far as he could safely go  – the neighbouring Agriturismo Fiorito – but nonetheless organised a lift for us in a 4×4 from the proprietor. He refused payment of any kind and with a brief wave and inclination of the head he disappeared back along the dirt track which led to the tarred road several hundred metres further on.

The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

Our arrival at Avalon was a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed as though our arrival had been forgotten and we had to make ourselves comfortable for some time in the communal living room while one or other of them scouted around for a suitable place for us. One of those helping out was a slim Dutch lady, around my sort of age and sporting braided hair and an indifferent attitude. At least that is how she came across.

It turned out that she was also called Mirjam. Back at the Vlierhof community we once had 3 of them present at the same time and there were currently two of me (Leo) and a Leon besides. Naturally a major source of confusion amongst new visitors. I will write more about each of them, Mirjam included, later in this post.

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A view of Avalon from above as it nestles amongst olive orchards (centre of photo) on a steep hillside about two hundred meters or so above the base of the valley.

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The south-facing side of the main house. The entrance to the passage leading up to our bedroom is at the far right of the photo.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair. It was pleasing to the eye in the way that rustic buildings often are but the reality was that our roof leaked from several spots along the width of the beam that supported our roof and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever. Our neighbours had their own wood burners but we were not so fortunate.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair…our roof leaked from several spots…and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever.

There were numerous black garbage bags filled with personal belongings beneath the bed and along one wall of the room were odds and sods including an old roll of carpet and an assortment of plastic kids toys. One lucky addition was a plastic potty for Raphael’s exclusive use. He soon discovered that one of the toys made sounds and before long Mirjam was imploring me to hide it out of sight. It was actually quite a hilarious mix of Italian and English accompanying various actions: pushing a bell; spinning a water wheel; opening a door; touching a cat…

The red clay floor tiles wore a coat of dust and gritty sand from outside. One of the first things I did was to sweep it clean or as clean as I could without getting down on my hands and knees and scrubbing it. It was too cold for that. The rain outside was fairly continuous and the rainwater trickled through equally relentless – drip, drip, drip.

We manoeuvered the camping bed Raphael would sleep on against the wall opposite our larger double bed and just beyond a puddle of water from the leaky roof. At this point both of us were probably thinking the same thing – was this really the place we wanted to spend the next month? 

It would take 4 or 5 days before we realised that we could survive there, albeit under some testing conditions. When we inquired about the possibility of getting another room, one without a leaky ceiling we were met with amused chuckles. All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings someone informed us matter-of-factly. I think it’s fair to say that I suffered the conditions least well and vented my frustration on Mirjam on about day 3 or 4. Not that it was her fault. By all accounts there are numerous ecovillages and communities around Europe in a similar predicament.

“All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings” someone informed us matter-of-factly.

Very few survive beyond 10 years and even fewer can truly claim to be mature, stable, self-sustaining entities. Of those that are you always hear the same story and that is of a small, stable core of persons and strong, directed leadership. Avalon was 40 years old but struggling. The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

He appeared to be suffering from a progressive degenerative condition. I overheard Parkinson’s being mentioned. He was lovingly cared for by Irene, an Italian lady in her early 40s, who taught science at one of the local schools. She referred to him as an amazing man and a very special person. I will elaborate on both of them further in my next post.

The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

In my limited experience I’ve come to believe that most ecovillages are inherently non-conformist, anti-establishment communities of fairly diverse individuals. Many of the personalities drawn to EVs and ICs are either fiercely disillusioned with mainstream society, instilled with certain ideals (usually on the far left of the political spectrum), or searching for a sense of spirituality and belonging. Quite often they attract people seeking asylum or refuge from life’s mishaps and misadventures.

I learnt from Irene that Avalon had always had an open door policy, but residence was not guaranteed. That was at the discretion of the long-term community. It was no different in our EV back in Germany. Another short-term volunteer, Julia, who arrived a little later spoke to numerous people and informed me that many of the residents were in fact recovered or recovering addicts. This didn’t find this particularly surprising but it was a revelation.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental. It would take some time for me to realise that as I mentioned before but when I did it allowed me to experience the place in a new way, to see it in a different light.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental.