Meet the Canadian chosen to live la dolce vita in a remote Italian village
Published Tuesday, May 7, 2019 10:31AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 7, 2019 10:32PM EDT
A Canadian woman has been chosen from more than a quarter million applicants to spend an expenses-paid summer sabbatical living like a local in a little-known corner of Italy.
Helena Werren, 45, will escape the hustle and bustle of Toronto next month and travel to the breathtaking village of Grottole to live there for three months with four other lucky winners.
Accommodation website Airbnb and local non-profit Wonder Grottole launched a competition to attract volunteers to the small community to help breathe new life into its historic centre.
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More than 280,000 hopefuls from around the world applied to help revitalize the hilltop town, with the most interest coming from Canada, the U.S., Argentina, Mexico and India.
“I’m so excited to be a part of this project and to be able to reconnect with my rural roots,” Werren said on winning the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“I grew up in the wilderness, I lived in a cabin for many years in the wood. We’re becoming more and more urbanized, trying to keep rural communities alive will become increasingly important,” she said in a telephone interview.
Werren splits her time between Toronto and Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she has organized cultural tours and events for the past five years, connecting visitors with local tango dancehalls, known as milongas.
Ahead of her Italian sabbatical, Werren seemed most excited about getting back to her rural roots.
Born in B.C., she was raised in a boathouse and yurt near Vancouver Island until the age of seven.
She later moved to a cabin in the woods in Bancroft, Ont., with no electricity or running water.
“My parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement,” she said, speaking exclusively to CTVNews.ca.
“I love to reconnect to those places. As Canadians we’re starting to get much more interested in DIY and locally sourced food.
“I remember being able to identify all the trees from their leaves and bark. Going to have to get water from the well helped understand what water resources are.
“Your whole day was based around basics, everything took that much longer.”
With only 300 residents and more than 600 empty homes, Grottole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been in steady decline in recent years Airbnb said.
The five volunteers will learn the Italian language, how to run the community garden, how to keep bees, how to farm and how to cook Italian dishes.
After the first month of training, they will pass on their knowledge to visitors, by hosting an Airbnb event.
They will also become co-hosts of the Wonder Grottole community centre listed on Airbnb.
Volunteers have been urged to bring what skills they can to the community, with Warren hoping she can apply her experience to organize a small concert in the town.
“Airbnb’s talk about being temporary citizens really spoke to me, meeting people from all over the world,” she said.
From June to the end of August, the volunteers will live in an Airbnb in Grottole and the company will provide them with basic living expenses.
They will volunteer during the day but will also have time to relax and get to know the area.
The volunteers were selected on their motivation, their willingness to commit to the project and their readiness to share their skills to serve the local community, Airbnb said.
The other successful applicants are Pablo Colangelo, 36, a software engineer and Airbnb host from Buenos Aires; Anne Tachado, 24, a Filipina photographer living in Melbourne, Australia; Remo Sciubba, 62, a Welsh former project manager with Italian roots and Darrell Pistone, 61, a former New York firefighter who recently learned his grandparents came from Grottole.
Werren spent six hours on her application, which involved questions and an essay, and said her initial reaction to winning was utter disbelief.
“It’s one of those things where you never really think you’re going to be selected,” she said.
“I’ve been so far removed from rural life in Buenos Aires and Toronto. It didn’t really sink in until I got my plane ticket.”
She cited the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, a network of pilgrimage paths across the coast, as an example of a region where tourism is helping boost rural towns and villages.
“I walked it and there were so many small abandoned towns, but now because of the footfall the Camino brings, people have started to move in and open businesses and cafes,” she said.
She hopes publicity from her volunteer experience in Italy will bring a tourism boost to Grottole too.
Visit Italiansabbatical.com to learn more.