Last month, on a whim, I began searching for real estate in Southern Italy. After clicking my way to the Basilicata region I came across an opportunity to purchase a small apartment in the ancient city of Matera. I appreciated the author’s decision to eschew frilly adjectives in the description. Rooms: 2. Heating: None. Bathrooms: 1. The place really just sold itself.
The pictures accompanying the post were slightly fuzzy and dark, but still managed to capture the charming nature of the space. The images were not Photoshopped or snapped with a fish eye lens to appear larger than the 85-square meters listed. They simply showed a room with a rock floor, rounded rock ceilings, and rock walls with smaller nooks carved out that seemed to indicate this is where a bedroom might go? It was, in short, a cave. And for just over $100,000 that hole in the hillside could be mine! I called my mother. She was not impressed.
“What are you going to do with a cave?” she asked cautiously. “Does it have plumbing?”
“It has a bathroom,” I sniffed, as I emailed the link.
It was only after saying the words aloud that I realized that a working toilet was not among the amenities pictured in the listing. Still, I didn’t understand her need for details or why she was not psyched out of her mind to close on this cavern. Besides, people have been living in the caves of Matera for thousands of years. Before humans could write about Matera, they were living in its limestone settlements.
The city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, lauded for its traditional troglodyte dwellings and land management practices. Over the centuries as the world modernized and electricity became the norm in Italy, Matera shifted from a place considered “splendid” in the 12th Century to an affront to human decency in the 1950s. The Italian government stepped in to resettle the uncultivated masses above the Sassi and into the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t until after a generation was born and raised outside the ancient town center that people realized this move was, perhaps, a mistake.
Twenty-five years later people like me are looking to move to the Sassi and make it habitable once more (finally?). It’s quite possible these people are like me and just looking for a place sans Wifi to hideout from the rest of the world for a little while. The fact that I don’t speak Italian only underscores the genius of this plan.
Just imagine, as I learn how to cut stone and lay tile for my renovated kitchen in Southern Italy, my only social networking will be conducted the old fashioned way: bumping into neighbors en route to the quarry. We will exchange pleasantries and maybe tips for chipping shelves into the walls. Once we’ve managed to secure running water we might even have each other over for dinner or a nice cheese plate every other year.
I think it’s normal to want to disappear off the grid every now and then. That’s why people still enjoy going camping. And why some people never come back from it. In 2013, I remember reading a story that broke out of central Maine where a man known as the “North Pond Hermit” was arrested for stealing food from a children’s camp. He had spent the last 27 years living alone in the woods. The man, Christopher Knight, told authorities he retreated from society the same year as the Chernobyl disaster. He was just 20-years-old at the time. He gave no reason why.
News of Knight’s arrest brought forth an avalanche of media requests and attention from people wanting to know more about this mysterious man who hadn’t seen his reflection in 20 years and couldn’t identify himself in a photo. But Knight shied away from the spotlight. To this day, the only in depth interview he has (reluctantly) given was to reporter Michael Finkel who wrote to him and visited him in jail after his arrest. Finkel wanted to understand what Knight learned from all those years spent in solitude.
But Knight never kept a journal because he never intended to share his observations with anyone, let alone a reporter. One day he just drove north until his car was nearly out of gas and walked into the woods without a map or a plan. He survived by stealing food, fuel, books, and equipment. Before Knight’s release from jail, he told Finkel that he was concerned about navigating this new world. “It’s too loud. Too colorful,” he said. “The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
And although the two men exchanged a series of letters and conversations, the best answer Finkel managed to pry out of Knight about why he felt the need to disappear all those years ago was this: “I found a place where I was content.”
I think it makes perfect sense.