Advice for Homesteading Abroad

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The Heller's home in the Italian countryside. There was a steep learning curve as they tackled homesteading and living abroad. 

Our dream had always been to live and work in a European country. And — as longtime subscribers to MOTHER EARTH NEWS — we’re well aware that dreams are only what you make them. So, in 1978, after a great deal of deliberation, we made the exciting but difficult decision to break our ties with home and go. We both quit our teaching jobs in mid-June and spent the following month painting and fixing up our city home, which we then put up for sale. During the same period we obtained the school records of our two older girls and scheduled final vaccinations for our toddler.

The next three weeks were full of nervous expectation. We visited close friends, did a bit of short-range traveling, and sought interviews for any kind of overseas work. Finally, on August 10, we were offered jobs teaching in an American school in a small village near Turin, Italy. We accepted and were given two weeks to ship our belongings, say our goodbyes, and get to our teaching assignments. Although the school paid the plane fares of its teachers-to-be, we still had to foot the bill for our three daughters. We arrived in Italy — a very tired but eager family — on August 27.

Our new hometown was a storybook village called Pecetto, and the school was actually located in a 17th century villa! We found the people very congenial, but the housing situation was depressing. Most accommodations with at least two bedrooms rented for more than half of our $900 combined monthly salary. Even more distressing was the fact that almost every bit of housing available was located in monstrous apartment complexes in highly congested areas of neighboring Torino, instead of the more tranquil hillsides of Pecetto. We immediately felt discouraged, because we certainly had not come to Italy just to find ourselves in a city that seemed to duplicate all the worst aspects of American urban centers.

Finding a Family Home in a Foreign Country

Finally, after five weeks of frantic searching for a suitable place to live, fate and our kindhearted headmaster’s wife intervened. The woman had found a badly injured kitten, and rather than let it die, she decided to take the animal to the vet. Unfortunately, the small cat couldn’t be saved, but as it turned out, the mission of mercy was worthwhile for us. Our friend asked the vet if he knew of any available housing, and he replied that his mother had a 200-year-old farmhouse for rent. We made arrangements to look at the farm the next day.

The house and surrounding land seemed to be our dream homestead come true! There were loads of trees — pear, cherry, apple, fig, persimmon, plum, hazelnut, and walnut — and more than one full acre of gardening space. The house contained Napoleonic furnishings more than 120 years old, and a wood-stove for cooking and baking. A small second-story balcony overlooked the Torino hills and provided a distant view of the stunning Italian Alps. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to move in.

Problems With Our New Home

Our happy honeymoon with the new home was short-lived, however: The first winter proved to be a period of real challenge for our family. We slowly acquired the patience necessary to work with the ancient wood-stove, and kept a barrage of letters going back and forth across the ocean seeking information and advice from home. Our furnace went out in January during the worst cold spell of the season. (Italy may be known as sunny, but there in the foothills of the Alps, we experienced nighttime temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit!)

Fortunately, by then we’d already come to trust our wood-stove enough to turn the radiators off in the kitchen and bathroom. We soon realized that the heater cold — with a little prodding — keep the rest of the house livable as well. So we gave our oil furnace a simple funeral, threw sleeping bags over our beds for extra warmth at night, added a sweater or two during the daytime, spent a lot of time near the wood-burner drinking hot coffee and managed very well. (Our hard-earned wood-heating knowledge was a real blessing the following winter when fuel oil was practically nonexistent in Italy. We entertained a great many apartment-dwelling friends during that particular cold season. They came in droves to play cards and relish the warmth from our fire.)

Adjusting to Other Challenges of Life in Italy

There were other aspects of day-to-day life — often things that we’d taken for granted in the States — which became matters of great concern for us in Europe. We had heard, for instance, that the cost of living in Italy was lower than in most other European countries. We soon learned, though, that food prices in particular were generally 25 percent higher than in the United States. To deal, we turned to Italian-style cooking — with its heavy emphasis on pasta, cheese, and vegetables — and became accustomed to eating only one meat dish per week. (Meat is the single most expensive item of the Italian diet. A sirloin steak, for example, would cost about $8.00 a pound.)

It also wasn’t long before we learned to buy produce only at the local farmers’ section of the open market. In fact, we became quite adept at using sign language to make such purchases, and subsequently learned many new names for “old” foods. To this day, though, our two favorite cheeses are called questo (this one) and quello (that one).

We were later dismayed, however, to find that Italy has even fewer laws regulating the use of pesticides, herbicides, and preservatives than does the U.S.A. This revelation — coupled with the high prices — really boosted our desire to become as self-sufficient as possible. We learned how to bottle our own wine, bake our own whole-wheat bread, prepare carrot- and spinach-based pasta and — in spare moments — increase our understanding of the Italian language.

Becoming Self-Sufficient

When the first spring planting season arrived, we were more than eager to get our garden in. The northwestern section of Italy — known as the Piedmont — is fantastic wine country, but it’s also quite hilly and contains soil that’s heavily laced with clay and thus has poor drainage. After we proudly planted our nice straight rows — Illinois cornfield style — we watched the whole plot drown in three inches of water during the first rainfall.

However, our landlady seemed always to come to our rescue. She had a farmer re-plow our garden space and then introduced us to the method of building mounds, with drainage paths between the rows. (We later learned about a similar method called “biodynamic/French intensive gardening” at a MOTHER EARTH NEWS seminar.)

Our horticultural efforts received a second boost when we entered into a cooperative partnership with another teaching couple, Chuck and Mima Cook. With their help we doubled our gardening space. The Cooks gave us lots of advice and assistance, especially when it came to bargaining (thanks to Mima’s fluent Italian). During the summer and fall, our garden supplied many of our fellow teachers and neighbors with fresh, tasty vegetables . . . including genuine Illinois sweet corn, which was an unfamiliar treat for most Italians.

As our garden grew, so did our knowledge of its gifts. For instance, although we had planted zucchini for years in Illinois, Mima had to teach us to use only the male flowers in making fritters, so as not to harm the plant’s productivity. Neighbors stopped by to show us which weeds were edible and which should be left for the bees, and Mima’s momma visited on occasion to dig the dandelion greens and wild red lettuce. We came upon yet another source of wholesome food when our daughters began taking outings with a neighbor to pick blackberries along a creek near caves where local Italians once hid from the Nazis. Surrounded by history and nature in abundance, we all continued to grow.

To Live Abroad or Not?

We’re certain many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers have gone through homesteading educations similar to ours, and that many more are still thinking about trying. Although we wouldn’t recommend adding language barriers and culture shock to a brand-new attempt at self-sufficiency, we still couldn’t have had a more warm and exciting introduction to the good life. To describe all that we learned in those years would be impossible, but we must say that our family’s actual sacrifice was minimal. There are, of course, always a few hard knocks to take and lessons that everyone must learn, but mistakes teach and the biggest mistake would be not to try at all.

After two full years in Italy, we came back to the United States. We’ve purchased three acres containing over 160 apple trees, and we’re looking forward to a slow move toward self-reliance in our own country. But, while we now know that our future lies here, we’ll always remember our “back-to-the-land college”  of the beautiful Italian homestead.