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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Hitchhiking and Ecovillage-ing in Italy

After getting a lot of advice recently about hitchhiking in Italy, I reasoned that while it’s not easy, it's not impossible – just be prepared to wait!

After chickening out one week ago due to rain, I didn't let the rain stop me the morning I departed Roma for Firenze (Florence). And it was raining even harder this time! 
My fancy hitchhiking sign for Florence
After quite an adventurous morning – evading the transit officer, walking through wet streets, construction sites, and soggy grass fields, and battling cold gusts of wind, laced with sideways rain – I reached the gas station along the highway rest stop.

Before I could even enter the rest stop, a police car approached me on the highway shoulder. Thankfully the cops waved me to keep walking when they realized I only spoke English. I encountered yet further protests by the attendants at the gas station. After some argument, I relented, and merely hovered a few metres from the station, waving my “Firenze” sign to motorists at the rest stop.

After about an hour, the cashier waved me over – she found a truck driver willing to take me further down the highway. After all the resistance of the morning from the weather and people alike, I was enthused to receive the cooperation of the staff. The truck driver took me 45 minutes to another rest stop, as we managed droplets of conversation with eachother in my limited Italian.

At the next rest stop I got really lucky to get a ride in just 5 minutes! And this ride was really great. My driver spoke decent English and we engaged in animated conversation. Alessandro was the manager of a sports centre near Roma, loved mountains and skiing, and wanted to make Canada his next vacation destination. He also loved speed, participating in an annual motorcycle race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal for the past 10 years.
In the passenger seat of a truck bound for Florence
Powered on that same passion for speed, Alessandro's luxury Volvo launched us to Firenze in just 1.5 hours, averaging 140 km/h. From the time I started hitchhiking just outside Roma, it took under 4 hours to reach Firenze, in what would normally take about 2.5 hours to drive. Not bad!
Satisfied, I rewarded myself in Firenze by dining on pizza and wine. Then I moved on via public transit to my next fabled destination...

Village of the Elves

Later that evening, deep in the countryside of the ancient Roman empire, I walked along a hilly country road, guided by the light of the moon. I felt like an island, lost and scared with no help available in the sparsely habituated hills while darkness settled around me - the village lights dazzling in the valley below might as well be distant stars.

I encountered a church and some homes with the lights on inside. With some creative use of Italian and hand gestures, they were able to point me where to go. I backtracked a little, onto a dark forested driveway I previously walked past and hardly noticed. Twenty minutes and a few more bouts of dark-stricken anxiety later, I rounded a hill, and wandered back into civilization …

I made it to Elfi! And just in time for dinner too.
The beautiful countryside seen from Elfi
Elfi, also known as Village of the Elves, is an ecovillage near Pistoia in Tuscany, the region famous for wine and food.

Elfi consists of a network of around 15 villages totaling around 300 permanent residents. My village, Avalon, is the most accessible of them all, and serves as the entry point to the rest of Elfi.
Avalon is situated on the side of a hill, about 300 m up, with a view of the valley below, cut into neat rectangles of olive groves and flat fields, stretching far into the horizon, where the grey lumps of distant hills give rise. Avalon consists of several acres of olive trees. There is also a garden, greenhouse, and a few food producing animals.
And a teepee!
The main building is a large old brick house, with a recent generic extension, providing at least 10 bedrooms, including dormitories for guests. Avalon has the most amenities of any Elfi village as it is the only one, I hear, with electricity. It is used for lighting only the kitchen, heating water, and for powering tools. Besides this, however, the people of Avalon mainly live off the land, with few outside inputs.

Wood is gathered and chopped to power the cooking stoves and fireplace. Besides the kitchen, all rooms are candle lit. All water is sourced from the local well, which is potable. And there is no Wifi!
In Elfi, making toilet is even more primitive than Sadhana Forest, where I volunteered in India. One goes to the orchard and, with a hand shovel, digs a hole, does the business, then closes the hole back up! 
The main house
The kitchen
The dining and living room, complete with fireplace and lots of instruments
And the people? Well, they’re pretty great. Kind, gentle and humble is how I would describe them. They know how to get along in a really close community where people really depend on, cooperate with, and give eachother the same respect and care as with the land in which they steward. Each village is egalitarian and makes decisions and solves conflicts by gathering and discussing in circles. 

Many of the people are artistically and musically talented and spend lots of time refining their crafts and passions. On Women's Day, a group of the residents gathered mimosas, and went to sell bundles of the flowers, and busk with their accordions and guitars in a nearby town.

Back home, the vegetarian meals they prepared were really tasty, consisting of salads, pastas and soups, containing lots of beans, and laced with lots of spices, perfect olive oils and vinegars. When I stayed with them, they were still using preserves canned from last autumn, meaning they were mostly self-sufficient in food. They needed to purchase a few fresh vegetables from outside to get through the winter. Oh, and lots of coffee!
People, young and old, hanging out, playing music, sewing things...
Rows of bee hives!
Anyone is welcome to visit and relax at Avalon for up to 2 weeks, giving donation at the end. Those interested in becoming a resident must visit and spend time at all of the villages, and gain unanimous approval from each village. It's a process in which new members require a full understanding of the lifestyle and commitment to the tight knit community that exists.

But it's a process that is very rewarding to those seeking closer ties to nature and community, and an alternative to the superficiality and utter dependence on jobs and economy that exists in modern society.

I stayed only a few full days at Avalon. It was still quite a bit windy and cold, and there wasn’t much work to be done at the moment. Also most of the conversation was in Italian.

However, it’s the kind of place I would come back to stay longer, in order to make a more meaningful contribution to the community and connection to individuals. I would need to brush up on my Italian first.
The Italian countryside stretching beyond Elfi

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