A Man in His Place
Massimo’s smile beams a mélange of emotions: glee, anticipation, joy, content, calm serenity. He gestures to a stone shed full of rusting tools—every square foot of vaulted wall space is adorned with tools of odd shapes and sizes, down the length of the 20-foot shed.
With a stark language barrier, it’s impossible to fully understand the purpose of each iron bar and plate. But, as he excitedly rambles in Italian, with the odd English word thrown in here and there, his love for this space is obvious. This is his shed of memories and dreams, his “treasures,” he says.
Massimo lives with his wife in Poppi, a town of just around 6,000 people. It takes over two hours to get to Poppi from Florence by car, bumping along narrow, winding roads. First, the castle appears on a hill in the centre of a valley. And then, around it, the ancient buildings of the town spill down the hill slopes, virtually untouched over centuries—mercifully hidden from the Tuscany tourist track. At the foot of the hill outside the city walls, the Arno River draws a border between the old and new structures.
To the northeast of Poppi lies Camaldoli, an ancient forest and protected area in the Tuscan Apennines. There are endless hiking trails, ecological preservation activities, and a holy hermitage and monastery that was founded in 1012 in the village centre. Poppi and its surroundings exude history back to Roman times.
For a man of his age, Massimo has a young, vibrant energy about him. He still tends his orchard of olive and fruit trees, which has been a part of the family home for generations. He teaches graphic design at the school in Poppi town, and when he has time, he works in his tool cottage. His wife manages the house and garden, on her feet from dawn to dusk. Their daughter lives with her boyfriend far away in Milan, and they see her occasionally. At the moment, it looks unlikely that the home will stay in the family if their daughter decides to stay in Milan for good.
Many folks in Poppi are farmers. Like Massimo and his wife, they own land to raise crops or animals. Industrial workers, who regularly commute to Arezzo and other larger, nearby towns, work in the food, textile, wood and packaging industries. Some residents come part-time, to pass days in their vacation homes midway up the hills with views of the red roofs below.
True to its name, the valley around Poppi teems with poppies, poking their exuberant red heads up high between blades of grass. They’ve learned to grow taller than usual to circumvent untamed grasses. The countryside gives the appearance of the fantastical. Colour bursts from wild orchids growing naturally along crumbling roadsides, and yellow dandelions dot footpaths.
It’s evening time, and Massimo is standing outside his home, close to the parapet that looks out over the valley and Poppi castle in the distance. He’s quiet, his hands in his pants pockets and a soft smile on his face. He squints in the sunlight. The pinkish tint of the roofs of Poppi assume a shade of neutral brown in the sunset.
“I see this,” Massimo gestures to the falling sun, the settling mist around the town, and the ambient sound of chirping birds, “and I feel very calm.” He holds his hand level with the ground—stable, and cognisant of who he is in this place. In this place.