This is the first post of a guest series. We ask friends and colleagues to share with us what the expression to “feel at home” means to them. We believe that to truly enjoy a place, you need to really experience it, to make yourself at home. This means different things for different people, but it is an essential part of our lives, both as travelers and travel professionals. The idea came from a post I published in March and that you can read here.
Ever since I can remember, I have sought after a feeling of home. To be honest, I haven’t made it easy on myself, having moved 13 times through three countries in 28 years. Almost all of the moves were job related, and each required its own set of adjustments. New curtains were a given – I am certain that there is a law of nature stating that no two residences will ever have the same sized windows. Furniture got put in storage and pulled out. Washers and driers were always an issue – some places came with them and some didn’t- leading to buying and selling expensive appliances continuously and annoyingly. Things broke. Things got lost.
If it sounds negative, it wasn’t. It was mostly positive. I have seen this world more deeply than I ever could have done by traveling alone. Living in different places and on different continents forced me to stay open, pliable, accepting of opinions different from my own. Making new acquaintances from divergent backgrounds added richness to my life in ways that I could not begin to recount here. I grew – professionally, personally, emotionally. I learned things that I never could have learned had I stayed in my hometown.
But the one thing this lifestyle never gave me was a sense of home. As hard as we tried, and try we did, there was never one place that we stayed long enough to develop roots, to be part of the community, to plant a garden and watch it mature fully, to attend family events marking special occasions. These are the things we left on the side of the road in pursuing a lifestyle of change and growth. And as I grew older, as the moves started to add up, it was these thoughts that started to wear on my mind and soul, more and more.
The last move we made, the most significant by far, was by our own choice – not through decisions made in a boardroom. Giving up the corporate life and buying an abandoned farm in Piemonte, Italy, to turn into a bed and breakfast was a statement of sorts. It would require harnessing every skill we ever learned, every ounce of commitment we ever could muster up, and a good deal of guts to scratch out a living and make this project work. After all, we were non-technically inclined city folk and the cluster of buildings we had just bought were four hundred years old and had been abandoned for almost half a century.
Where would we start? How would the B&B end up looking and functioning? We had no experience in hospitality. In fact, before we started anything at all, we would have to figure out the answer to the biggest question: what did we want the project to be?
That was easy for me to answer. I wanted to offer a few people a sense of home when they visited Italy. The difference, however, between answering the question and actually accomplishing the goal turned out to be a much larger challenge than I could have imagined. Because you cannot give what you do not have yourself. And I knew from experience that simply moving to a place does not make it home. Not by a long shot.
I would never be able to act as if I had lived here all my life and knew everything about Italian life while I was still in the throes of adjusting. So I took a different tactic. We turned this project into a work in progress. We threw out the window the idea of finishing it completely at the outset and instead took on small piece by small piece. Two rooms for the guests; a tiny apartment for us. We built a website. We visited a few vineyards, got to know a few local restaurants. We shared with our first guests what we knew. I got out my paints, I had high-tension electrical wiring installed for my kiln, and I started making plates and art and cups and mosaics. Micha learned the art of the chainsaw from our neighbor Franco, who spent hours with us, chopping down old, dry trees and clearing the property. We planted potatoes. We planted so many that we learned we don’t like planting potatoes at all, if you consider the potato bugs and all the work watering. But we didn’t mind a few tomatoes, and some sunflowers. We learned. As the years progressed we took on renovation as we saw fit: a pool, a washing machine room, a new gourmet kitchen. We fretted over the impending collapse of a roof. We argued with the Commune over permit issues. We laughed with guests and worried about there being enough hot water. We found new wineries. We build a new room, a wine cellar. New restaurants made it on our list. We changed the colors of the rooms and I tried new things at breakfast. We exhausted ourselves with garden work and murdered hundreds of hornets. We got invited for Christmas by the neighbors, we had friends get ill and die and we went to funerals. In short, we became part of the landscape in our small valley. We started to understand the heart and soul, the inside and out, the yin and the yang of Piemontese life. The natural rhythm of the seasons, the harshness and the beauty of old stone houses, the consequences of choosing a life heavy on chores and low on nonsense.
All the time, we have had guests who have come and gone, and many have come back again. They have watched it grow, our work in progress. They have marveled at the changes and have felt part of it all.
And it is through THEIR eyes, that I have realized that this place has become home to my nomad soul – a home fought for and loved into reality.
We have done this project at a time when there is no certainty in the economy and even less in the future. But it’s the only time we have, and we have grabbed it with both hands. In all of the tribulations and hurdles of making this life work, there is not a day when we do not look around, taken with the simple beauty by which we are surrounded.
Piemonte is stunning. It is abundant with goodness. It makes you love it actively, with your hands in the soil and your face toward the sun. The people are kind, and if you listen to them with humility, you can learn things that you never thought you could have learned. Important, simple things. Things that matter. Truths. How to build a fence, for example, or how to help a friend with his harvest. Which wood burns the slowest and hottest. The best stuffing for agnolotti.
It is in all of those small truths that we have come to realize the essence of the last seven years of our lives. We have been given the chance, the privilege to be able to say that today, here, we have found home, a beautiful, simple, meaningful home. And with that, we are able to accomplish the goal for which we had originally set out: to give our guests from far away a sense of home, right here in Italy.
And that, I must say, makes me very happy.