“As Americans, you should feel at home with the sounds of gunfire” said our host Craig, displaying that cheeky wit Scots are famous for.*
This was during our first walk with Angus, Craig and his wife Elly’s energetic labrador, as shots echoed through the woods around us. We had just arrived to a rural patch of northern Tuscany, near the village of Fivizzano, for our first official gig as house sitters. For the next five weeks, we would live in the couple’s home and take care of their pets, while they took a vacation from chasing their Under the Tuscan Sun dream, a.k.a. renovating the 300-year-old farmhouse.
We had little idea then that sound would ring through our days in the Lunigiana. You see, it was hunting season in this region famed for castle-studded black mountains rising above canopies of dense forest. The area is known for being stubbornly independent and traditional, as well as a wee bit superstitious, with local lore revolving around mystery and dark magic.
These characteristics combine to give the effect of an area slightly closed and harder to dig into than the tourist-welcoming Italy we’ve experienced before. This would take some time, which thanks to the house-sitting opportunity, we had aplenty. Time to get under the surface.
Almost every morning, in the woods behind the house, we watched as figures, attired in head-to-toe camo, headed to battle. Matt says they were hunting wild boar, yet the only conquest I spotted were tiny bundles of tiny birds.
Shell casings landing on your roof as a “Buongiorno!” is a side of Tuscan life not highlighted in Mayes’ novel, or at least if the author does reference hunting season, I was too enamored by sunflowers, wine, and handsome Italians to remember.
The only time the shooting ceased was when the rain began, which became more frequent as January rolled into February.
Still the charms that make Tuscany such a magnet wouldn’t be denied, illuminating our days like a silver lining in the clouds. We enjoyed easy access to miles of cycling and running trails, an endless supply of inexpensive and robust wines, and diversity of locally-sourced cheese and pasta.
For a short spell, we experienced typical life in this region as residents, not tourists. We met neighbors, practiced “daily life” Italian, and enjoyed lengthy stretches of reading and writing.
And, we got to hang with some entertaining and snuggly creatures…Angus and the three cats, Jack, Victor, and Maurizo.
Along the way, we learned a few lessons about house-sitting, gained new insight into our own travels, and developed a deeper understanding of life in rural Tuscany.
Lessons from our Tuscan Housesitting Adventure:
Housesitting is a partnership.
Like many travelers, whether long-term nomads or one week vacationers, we were moving too fast in an effort to “see” it all. In the previous six months, we had rarely stayed anywhere longer than a week. Where better to sit still than Tuscany?
Long intrigued with the value proposition of housesitting: take care of someone’s home and pets in exchange for a free place to stay, we decided to test the water.
Elly and Craig’s sitting needs seemed a fit for us, yet we were nervous about moving into a stranger’s home for a long stretch. Then, after a 15-minute Skype session, the couple felt like old friends and the idea suddenly seemed natural. Apparently for them as well, we were chosen from a field of 50 applicants.
We connected on social media to get to know each other better and exchanged many emails prior to the sit, with both sides asking questions about expectations and responsibilities. The dialogue was easy and fun, setting the bar high for future sits.
That kind of clear communication is the key to achieving a successful housesitting partnership, (which truly describes the arrangement.) Both sides should feel open to asking as many questions needed to hit that sweet spot of “comfortability.”
Housesitting is a privilege and responsibility.
We agreed to spend a few days together before our hosts left to allow the pets to acclimate to us, meet the neighbors, and explore the village. Elly and Craig made us feel instantly at home, cooking delicious dinners, sharing wine and spirits (many, many spirits,) and even playing music for us – they are both accomplished musicians! Truth be told, we were enjoying their company so much, we were sad to see them go.
Before leaving, they said, “If anything happens to the animals, don’t tell us until we get home.” We all laughed and made light of possible incidents, but deep down Matt and I were nervous. What if Angus ran away during a walk or one of the cats was injured? What if we did something wrong with the pellet stove and burned down the house? What if…?
Caring for our new friends’ beloved pets and home was a responsiblitiy we did not take lightly. Aside from a “dog treat incident,” when one of the animals, or likely all in sneaky alliance, ate an entire bag of treats in one sitting, everyone seemed to fair just fine. When the last day came, we breathed a sigh of relief.
Housesitting allows for trying on a different life.
For us, this housesit opened a window to a very different life than we are accustomed, which was part of the allure. Matt and I usually chase warm temps and sunshine, yet we were curious about winter in Europe. We are drawn to cities, but also love small villages (as long as there is a bit of art and nightlife,) yet more rural living – for a month+ – would be a stretch.
Elly was straight up with us to be prepared, the old house would be cold. They sweetly geared us up with new electric blankets, a space heater in the bedroom, and even left robes for bundling up.
And bundling, we did. For the first week, the temperature was near or below freezing. We stayed in the living room with the pellet stove and wore more layers than a Southern chocolate cake: tights, sweaters, scarfs, hats, robes. Evenings, all six of us huddled together on the couch for warmth. (What can we say, we’re from Alabama…we don’t comprehend cold.)
When it came to pace, we were also out of our element. The rhythm of our days followed a slower beat than feels natural for us. There was much “self-talk” about being appreciative of the restful pace – and a few times, when for a split second I had the stupid thought, “There’s nothing to do,” I thought about my favorite line from Mad Men, when Betty tells her daughter, “Sally, only boring people get bored.” Yep, agreed.
Our answer became to embrace the pace and get into a routine. Mornings, after getting the pellet stove cranking and feeding the hunger-crazied cats, we went walking with Angus along a nearby wooded trail, weaving past an ancient convent and historic chapel. On Tuesdays, we walked along the path twenty minutes or so to the village for market day, with shopping for vegetables, wine, and cheese always capped with an espresso and brioche in a local cafe.
In the afternoon, we attempted to get some form of exercise, cycling and running if weather permitted; yoga and core work, if not.
The remainder of our days were filled with studying Italian and reading – we were ploughing through books including two reads, Hero on a Bike and Love and War in the Apennines, about the local area’s resistance efforts during WWII.
We were fortunate through Elly and Craig to meet wonderful neighbors – British expats, Juliet and Peter and their Italian house guests, Evelyn and Mauro – who helped fill our social calendar during the evenings.
We spent many a night enjoying festive dinners at home or in the local pizzeria, drinking grappa, and playing Podquiz until the wee hours.
What is Podquiz, you ask? It’s a fantastically fun online quiz that’s free, educational, and entertaining. Give it a try, and let’s compare notes! I promise you will love it.
Doesn’t sound half bad, right? Although being out of our comfort zone was at times, uhh…uncomfortable, it was a grand experience. We got to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit – sometimes quite literally (thanks Elly for use of those hiking boots!)
We gained an appreciation for living a little more quietly and took another small step toward shaking off the “always rushing, always pushing, forever working,” lives we left behind.
After five weeks, we came out on the other side a little different. And, that’s the point and grand privilege of travel, after all, right?
**Tangent #2 Warning**
In regards to the story’s “Americans and gunshots” intro it seems fitting to relate a bit more about our experiences while traveling. With few exceptions people we have met everywhere, from Europe to Asia, have made comments or asked questions about America’s obsession with guns. Many have stated they are afraid to travel to the U.S. because of how violent the country seems with “everyone shooting each other.” One of the most valuable lessons we are learning through travel is that although we are inundated with news about the dangers of this and that place, fear must be kept in perspective and in check.
For more tips on housesitting, see this article I wrote for Paste Travel.
To follow Elly & Craig’s house renovation and adventure, follow them on Facebook.
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Castles of Tuscany x 2 – Castello Della Verrucola