One of the reasons so many lovely Italian ruins are rotting away has to do with the division of property amongst siblings when parents die. Frequently the structure is owned by many family members who can’t agree on whether to sell it, or for how much. In our case, the house, and the land on two sides of it, was owned by one person. But if you put your hand out the west windows you were in a neighbour’s airspace. Likewise a small blob of land against the north wall – the entrance to the property – belonged to someone else again.
In order to own all the land around the house, we had to cobble together three different real estate deals with three different sellers.
The map at left shows the deal; the green parcel came with the house (which is the dark green square in the middle). The pink bit was Umberto’s and the pale blue bit was Antonio’s. Since we’re used to the neat rectangles of Ontario’s seigneurial land system, we still have trouble figuring out exactly which trees are ours. But our neighbours know. They can’t understand why we find it so difficult.
One of the most interesting aspects of the land deal, given our North American ‘this land is mine and that land is yours’ perspective, was the yellow bit. It’s land held in common with Gino, who happens to be the landlord of our apartment up the road. We have to get each other’s agreement when we want to do something with it, such as putting down gravel to make parking easier. I’ve discovered this doesn’t mean you always get to share costs. Gino can say yes to an improvement but declare it of no value to himself and decline to help pay. This could be treacherous, but I’ve noticed my neighbours have a pretty good fairness barometer. It’s part of their community balancing act, a continual tit for tat with each other.
In line with this balancing act, Umberto’s land was being kept clean by grazing cows, and after we bought the land we asked him to keep the animals there because they were the easiest way to keep the vegetation under control. They have since been replaced by another neighbour’s horse.
I like these bonds of community. I believe that every co-operative gesture on our part will come back to us, and so far it has. In Toronto, as a landscape designer, I frequently watch clients argue over 1 inch along a fence line. The people of Varese are also keenly aware of which piece of sod is theirs, and which half of the tree they own – but between ownership and usage they apply practicality and communal good. You scratch my back, at some point I’ll scratch yours.
It may be a Catholic country, but they really get karma.