From January 15 to February 17 this year, 280,000 applicants from around the world submitted their profiles to be vetted for the Airbnb Italian Sabbatical Project, created in partnership with Wonder Grottole, a local NGO that promotes urban regeneration specifically for the historical town.
Located in between the “heel and toe” of Italy, Grottole is situated on the top of a hill in southern Italy’s picturesque province of Matera. From wartime siege, plagues and disastrous landslides of old, to modern day emigration for better job opportunities, you could say that Grottole has seen its fair share of bad days since the prehistoric and Grecian periods. Once teeming with a population of 13,000 inhabitants as far back as the year 1010, the town is almost at the brink of extinction with a mere 300 locals living in the historic centre, where 600 of the 900 homes are still abandoned to this day.
As part of a wider partnership with Fondazione Matera Basilicata 2019, which aims to further promote the idea of visitors as temporary citizens, providing them the opportunity to engage with the local community and other travellers visiting the Basilicata region, the Airbnb Italian Sabbatical Project chose five candidates from the piles of applicants coming in from all corners of the world.
From June 1 till August 30, they not only immersed in the authentic rural community life of Grottole, but also co-hosted Airbnb Experiences with locals, providing the competences needed to create successful Airbnb Experiences, and ultimately, revitalise a disappearing town. The fortuitous five consisted of: Anne Tachado, the youngest of the group and a Filipino photographer based in Melbourne; Remo Sciubba from Cardiff, Wales, who is a former project manager for housing portfolios; and Darrell Pistone, a former New York firefighter currently retired in Tuscon, Arizona – the two eldest of the group.
“I’ve always been curious about Italy ever since I was a child. I have an aunt who has been working in Italy for seven years, and she’s been telling me stories about the country: the food, the countryside, the people…” said Anne, who got the call of the lifetime when she was at her work placement for university in Kyoto, Japan.
When asked about her motivation behind her application, she added, “At this point in my life, having just graduated and left my last job, I’d like to explore more of what the world can offer, and I thought the Italian Sabbatical is the best chance out there for me to explore, and to decide on what I’d like to do next for my life, whether it’s to do with urban planning or agriculture, or get serious with my passion for photography.”
Rounding up the Italian Sabbatical gang were Helena Werren, a cultural guide from Canada currently working in tourism in Argentina; and Pablo Colangelo, an Argentinian software engineer born and raised in Buenos Aires.
“The project struck a chord with me, because I’ve been seeing towns in Argentina of the same size as Grottole disappearing right in my backyard,” commented Pablo, whose Italian roots was another reason that motivated him to apply for the Airbnb Italian Sabbatical Project.
“It’s slowly becoming a problem in my country, because unlike Grottole, we haven’t yet figured out how to fix this,” he added. “These towns have literally turned into ghost towns, as people move out, having lost the means to commute in and out of the towns, because trains have stopped going there.”
While they all came together from different parts of the world, different walks of life, and at different junctures of their lives, they shared the same motivation and passion to get their hands dirty – be it deep in soil, or dusted with flour, or sticky with honeycombs – in a collective effort to put Grottole back on the map proper again.
“The culture in Grottole is very much settled, so when coming up with ideas to urbanise the town, they have to be ideas that align with the people’s culture.”
“We have the same motivation to work; whenever there’s something that needs to be done, out of five of us, at least three would want to help out. We are of the same mould, and that’s what I enjoyed most about our little gang,” Pablo said. “When you’re surrounded by motivated people, you tend to be more motivated yourself.”
Upon learning that you will be living in Grottole for three months, what were the first things you packed into your bag?
Anne: I brought Pocky and some spicy snacks, but I finished them within the first month! I wanted to bring a bottle of soy sauce along, but I wasn’t sure if it would get through immigration checks (laughs).
Pablo: I brought with me an Argentinian mate from home. [It’s a traditional South American caffeine-infused drink, made by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate in hot water, and served with a silver metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd]. I brought 2kg worth of it to last me for the three months, and I have one every morning or afternoon.
What is it that you have come to love about Grottole?
Remo: I like the people. Getting to know each of them, and learning about their lives is an experience in itself, and each day usually brings about something different. The old ladies living down the street from us offered to do any sewing that I might need, and even gave me fruits on various occasions. I’ve gotten to calling them my aunties now (laughs).
Darrell: I’d say it’s the people too. Grottole may be beautiful, situated atop a mountain with its historical buildings about, but I believe the people is what makes the town.
Helena: There is just this one pub in the heart of the town – Bar Zolleta. At night, if ever you’re bored, or you don’t feel like being by yourself, you can just head to the pub, where there’s always someone you can talk to – not just for us foreigners, but amongst the locals as well. It’s really nice to have somewhere central you can head to, where you’d feel welcomed any time of the day.
Anne: For me, besides the people, it’s the raw beauty of the place. Grottole is a living town, not a tourist town. What I really admire about this place is that it’s historical; you can read up so much about this place, and yet, at the same time, history is also in the making every day.
The Airbnb Italian Sabbatical Project is essentially about revitalising a town, and saving it from extinction. Did you feel pressured with such a responsibility when you found out you are one of the five selected for the project?
Remo: Saving the village… I wouldn’t put it that way per se (laughs), but we’re definitely here to help the village move forward. It has been more of a trial on both sides, more than anything. It’s a big project, but it’s also a positive step forward for the time being.
Darrell: I don’t know about saving it (laughs), but in a way, we’re helping. In fact, I don’t think that it needs saving. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s dying, but it is certainly changing. I believe that in years to come, Grottole will be different. There’s potential still, especially in the old part of town.
Pablo: Grottole is somewhere you can visit as a tourist destination without it being too overly touristy. It’s unspoiled, but at the same time, there are lots of untapped opportunities. It could potentially be a place for people, who want to invest in a different kind of lifestyle, growing their own vegetables and making their own olive oil or wine. What we’re experiencing now is the start of something really good, and personally, I believe that after this project, much bigger and better things will happen in Grottole.
What would you say is the most challenging part of this project?
Helena: There was a part of me that’s been cooking up ideas that may potentially help the town, grand visions of how we can do this better. But there was also a part of me that kept things realistic, so we don’t bite off more than we can chew. At the end of the day, it’s not just starting something, and having someone else finish it. I want to be able to leave something concrete behind when the sabbatical is over. I want to be able to say that what I’ve done is tangible, and you can see and touch it.
Anne: It’s easy to get to know the people in Grottole, but the challenge was getting all the information you’ve collected, and actually coming up with strategies that could transpire into tangible results. The challenge for me was trying to gauge what we need to do for the community, and how we can maximise the assistance we can provide for the community.
Pablo: During our time in Grottole, we spoke to the few younger people still residing in the town, and most of them told us that they wouldn’t want to leave. They’d very much like to stay on, despite the dwindling state of their town. They have a very strong relationship with their home.
This project is more than just us coming in and changing everything. The culture in Grottole is very much settled, so when coming up with ideas to urbanise the town, they have to be ideas that align with the people’s culture. They have to be ideas that are focused on that motivation and relationship that they have with their home, ideas that the people are comfortable with, so that they can keep executing them as their own after we’re gone – ideas that not only make them understand that they can have a future here, but ideas that breathe hope to such a future.