Notes from Central Italy
March 12- April 11, 2022
Naples/ Pompeii - Rome - Umbria (Utopiaggia community) - Siena- Florence
The winter was finally (mostly) over. Winter in southern Europe isn’t particularly harsh, but it can be… and unlike Germany, the houses are often not well-insulated, so it’s cold both inside and out. We did experience the historic blizzard in Athens, after all, and sometimes our car was even warmer than the houses we stayed in. More importantly though, it isn’t easy to find farm and garden work in off-season, so we were looking forward to spring at last.
We said goodbye to the Isle of Sicily from a ferry room with no windows, and arrived to Naples 9 hours later on a bright and chilly morning. It turns out Naploli is not very camper friendly, so we actually went directly to Pompeii to see yet another example of humanity coming to a violent end.
We saw their brothels, and their homes. We saw their gardens and their kitchens. We saw their astounding frescos and the casts of their bodies which captured, in powerful detail, the exact moment of their last breath. I didn’t realize how big Pompeii was, and considered all day what a powerful force mother nature can be. Seeing Mount Vesuvius still towering in the distance was a spooky reminder of our own powerlessness in the face of such things as natural disasters. We are not actually the ones in control, are we my friends?
We spent one day in Naples to eat THE original Pizza, and to better understand the devout and encompassing obsession with the soccer star from the 80s called Maradona – worshipped and adored as a saint in these parts. We visited the “secret cabinet” filled with sexual art in the Archaeological museum, which was not very secret at all, in fact. Napoli was a gritty city positively packed with people. We were glad we went but we were also glad to go. Big cities are not where we belong, and we took two days in the mountains to mentally recover and prepare for our visit to Rome, in all its touristic chaos.
But actually, Rome was incredible. The only other time I was there was Christmas 2017, which was a strange time to visit as a non-Catholic, and I can say with whole-hearted enthusiasm that springtime in Rome is a dream. Having our own bikes in every city we visit is a dream, allowing us to smell and hear and experience each place while covering quite a lot of ground. We found ourselves accidentally cycling on the Circus Maximus itself.
We did all the things one ought to do in Rome, which I did not do before, like actually visiting Vatican City (which, thankfully, is still not back to its pre-covid insanity) and wandeing around Trastevere drinking bottled beer on the steps of piazzas. We marveled at the Pantheon, and how enormous and ancient it is (especially considering there is a gaping hole in the ceiling with birds flying in and out.) I got a haircut from some flamboyant man named Bruno. We had gelato before dinner and entire artichokes for dessert. We explored some of the more local neighborhoods like Garbatella, and found avocado trees as tall as the Colosseum.
Our main Community visit scheduled in these parts was to a German community called “Utopiaggia.” It’s been there for 40 years and was one of the first and longest- surviving in all of Italy. We were excited to go and learn from all those years of experience, but what we found was something quite different than what we’d hoped for.
After all this time, mostly no one seemed to be able to stand each other anymore. To us, it seemed the community’s biggest mistake was not incorporating new young people as it aged. The original members all raised kids there, but their kids mostly moved away and left behind a resident community of grumpy people now in their mid 70’s.
It was a very surreal place because other than the landscape, everything felt like we were back in Germany. They spoke German, listened to german music and news, read german books, ate at German mealtimes, had German products in their bathrooms. It felt like we teleported back where we started this journey 7 months beforehand.
We realized while driving most of the length of this country that Italy is practically all mountains, coastline, and endless tiny hillside villages. Utopiaggia exists on one of these many hillsides, and is comprised of several different homes spread out in middle of nowhere, Umbria. It was originally started by a group of 40 people with communist ideals, but little of that seemed to still be present 4 decades later. We stayed in the house of a couple mid-divorce, quite far away from the other homes of the community. Many of our questions were answered with "no idea" and some people seemed to actively avoid talking to us at all. Time seemed to warp in strange ways after so many painfully uncomfortable meal-times and silent, fireside "together" time. Our main work was helping a 76 year old man named Eugen chop down and organize oak trees for firewood to warm the remaining 25 community members in the coming years. We used chainsaws, hatchets, and an enormous tank-like tractor to haul it all around in what felt like a very destructive process.
We didn’t love it here, and it didn’t seem like the community members did either, unfortunately. It was a very joyless place, and Eugen had beer for breakfast and wine for dinner. Other than their sheep and brand-new, state-of-the-art cheese making facility, they didn’t seem to do anything very farm or community-like anymore, and no-one even offered to show us the main house where most community members lived.
Siena, Firenze, and hot springs
We did a tour of some Tuscan hot springs, then stopped for a rainy two days in Siena with incredible raisin bread, incredible macchiatos, and a tour of the beautiful cathedral there. Ben found his wedding suit! I found some beautiful new paint brushes!
After so many months of visits with strangers and being constantly on the move, one starts to notice that, despite relatively constant company, you can still feel quite lonely as a nomad. Ben and I, of course, continued to be extremely compatible, but people need friends in their life, and we were very excited to get to spend some quality time with people we love in Florence.
One of my best friends lives there, but we also had two close friends come to visit from Germany. We almost got trampled by a run-away wild boar. We made our wedding rings together in a merry little studio of jewelers and stone-cutters and weirdos. We spent the evening drinking wine with a strange old man and his three tiny leopard pets. We went on a climbing adventure in the mountains near Pisa, we did a photoshoot and saw a jazz concert in Certaldo, we had many aperitivos, and we had our cups refilled by the power of friends, dance parties, and heart-shaped pizzas.