Why you should care
Liv Hylleseth decided to leave life in Norway behind to work the land in Italy.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I always had a strong dislike of getting up early. As a teenager, I was just plain sleepy, but as an adult, I wasn’t really tired when the alarm woke me, I just didn’t want to get up. Didn’t want to go to work, didn’t want much of anything.
Today, though, the light from the rising sun, not the alarm clock, woke me. Looking out my bedroom’s balcony doors at the fields and the tree-covered hills reminds me that I’m not in a rainy Norwegian city anymore, and I will definitely not be going to the office. I quit my job, sold my apartment and bought a country house with land and olive trees in Italy. Making this change took three years, but here I am, happily getting up at 5:30 am.
When it’s summertime in Italy you need to get up early if you’re going to get anything done outside before the heat knocks you out at noon. This morning my neighbor Gabriele is picking me up so I can help him gather hay from his field.
Gabriele appreciates that I am doing “the work of men.” It’s also a nice little bonus that I don’t have to worry about him trying to get into my bed.
Gabriele and I have an understanding that involves me helping him out whenever he needs an extra set of hands in return for him helping me with just about everything. I admit that when I came down here I knew absolutely nothing about working the land, so you could say I got the better end of the deal.
Gabriele has become my mentor and trusted friend. He has taught me how to split firewood, grow vegetables, make soap out of ashes. He’s shown me how to make a number of local traditional dishes, and I can also make my own sourdough bread, yogurt and more.
He and I have spent many days working in the olive groves, and Gabriele usually entertains me with stories from the area, some of them definitely X-rated, while I struggle to master how to use a curved knife to trim the branches off the trees. After 10 days straight of cutting away with this mini machete, my hands are so beat that I need both of them just to lift a glass of water.
Gabriele spent more than 20 years in Germany, where he fell in love with a German. They lived together in Stuttgart before retiring to Montemitro, where Gabriele was born and raised. In practical terms this lets us communicate in German as my Italian is still quite poor. Gabriele has a very good understanding of Northern European culture. Like your stereotypical German, he arrives dead on time to pick me up.
We drive his little red tractor to the field that lies below the village and we pass through tiny Montemitro with its 350 inhabitants, quite a few dogs and cats and some chickens. We’re a little bit lost in time here: There’s no airport, no cities of any significant size, just an impressive number of small villages perched on top of the surrounding hills and mountains. People are always eager to help if they can, but they also find it utterly inconceivable that a woman can live in a country house by herself — without a man. Some local men have been a little too eager to be of assistance, though nothing too creepy. Except, maybe, for the man who was spotted in the bushes on my property.
Gabriele, on the other hand, appreciates that I am doing “the work of men.” It’s also a nice little bonus that I don’t have to worry about him trying to get into my bed.
After helping Gabriele haul his hay, I hit the local market. It’s held weekly in Montemitro, and I walk the 1.5-mile road to the village with my backpack. I have no car or driver’s license. I do have a bike, but I mostly walk whenever I need to get from point A to point B, which makes the people of Montemitro raise their eyebrows. They’re concerned for my wellbeing, and it’s rare for any drivers that pass me to not offer a lift. The looks of disbelief when I explain once more that I actually want to walk still amuse me. Everybody at the market knows my name and greets me and some stop for small talk, which is good as I need to practice my Italian.
Pragmatism is probably what I like best about Italian culture. They always seem to find a way, whatever the challenge — maybe not always with a perfect result, but they get the job done. I think that this is because at the end of the day their top priority is to enjoy life today, so they have the motivation to make the best of it. Without a doubt, Italians are good at enjoying life.
Midday arrives, and the heat is bearable only if you stay in the shade or go inside for a nap like most people do here. I struggle with napping during the day, so I take my time with lunch before I head back out to pick mulberries and think about the project that I’ve sought local building permission for.
My project is to build six rental units for writers, artists and academics, anyone who needs a quiet, secluded and pleasant workspace. I want to add some new blood to the community, even if right now I am thoroughly enjoying my alone time here. Running the risk of sounding like a bad version of Eat Pray Love, life has changed for me on a microlevel, and spending the better part of my days outside gives me the feeling I was searching for when I came here.
I don’t like the word “happiness,” as I believe it’s a word manufactured for marketing purposes, but I feel good even if I’ve had no profound epiphanies since moving here. Life is not perfect, but I feel that I fit and that I’m in the right place at the right time.
The temperature drops slightly after the sun sets, and my dog, Doug, runs into the woods. He barks at something, probably a fox or a wild boar. He returns with most of the wood’s flora stuck to him, and I try to brush out the worst of it. As soon as I finish, he runs straight back into the woods.
But that’s OK. It’s all very much OK.