The man who never saw the sea

Nola Minolfi

2016 - Ongoing

Aosta Valley, Italy

Emilio kept telling me: “I don’t know what I’m still doing here.”

He’s 84 years old and he lived his entire life in the same house where he was born. Since 2001 he moved in a bigger one, next to the old one, with a bathroom and other basic comforts. He never saw the sea.

Chamois, with its 90 inhabitants, is the highest municipality in Italy where cars are not allowed. The only way to get up here, 1800 meters above sea level in the Italian Alps, is by foot or by a cable car. Incredibly, Chamois has six hamlets, a bunch of little houses spread all over the mountain.

To find Emilio, I took a snowy path from Chamois that leads to a bridge, crossing the river. From there on “follow the tiny map that someone drew for me.” I brought with me a cake and the greetings of the others villagers who knew about my visit at Emilio’s place. Once I got to the fork “turn right, down towards the altiport and then right again after the wooden cross. First house on the left.”

“Suis or Suisse?” I still didn’t know which one was the right name for this hamlet. Back in town, someone says it’s spelled Suis but the wooden sign hanging on a tree says Suisse. If you didn’t know about the place, you would think you’re in Switzerland.

It is believed that the hamlet’s name comes from a Swiss smuggler on the run who reached this place with his wife and misled his traces with his snow boots worn backwards.

Although Emilio has been photographed and interviewed several times in his life, he welcomes me with great surprise and invites me to sit next to him on his couch without memorizing my name.

Together with him, there’s Dina, his in-home nurse. Emilio introduces her telling me that she had to travel several kilometers to live with him, even though he doesn’t know exactly how far Romania is from Italy. He was sure that Dina wouldn’t resist more than a few days and now is eleven months that the two of them laugh their heads off. “C’mon Dina don’t make me laugh like that!”.

Emilio also tells me that nowadays he’s the only one who lives all year long in Suis, but back in those days he didn’t know that soon I’d have moved in the house in front of him. For the following 7 months, indeed, I moved there together with my partner and our dog.

He’s very proud in showing his last two teeth, recounting his aches and pains “I don’t know what I’m still doing here.”

In Chamois there’s only one doctor who comes visiting the inhabitants only on Tuesdays from 9.15 till 10.15am.

“Back in the days, we haven’t got any doctors up here.” says Emilio “The parish was in charge of visiting you and with one or two Holy Mary you had to hope to be in good shape.” And he goes on “That time when my father fell down from the mountain, we had to call the doctor who came by foot from the valley below, because the first cable car was built only in 1955, and I remember he charged us a crazy amount of money! £ 9000! My mom said to the doctor that he was very expensive and he replied to her: ‘Because you don’t know how much my father spent to make me a doctor!’

Today for any kind of emergency, an helicopter arrives in five minutes and brings you to the regional hospital in Aosta.

I’m lucky enough to browse Emilio’s family albums and he tells me a lot about his sister Emma, older than him, who left years ago. “To go where Emilio?” “I don’t know, she got married and she moved to France”. Emilio went abroad only two times in his life, and in both of them he was in Paris. “First time when she was still good, the second one when she passed away.” Emma is now buried in France, Emilio’s mother in Chamois and his father in Aosta, because it was too expensive to bring him back from the hospital.

“What did you do up here Emilio?” “I spent all my life working, I never had a single day off! I never saw the sea. I grew oat, barley and rye and then I also had cows. But only the white-head ones, because the black- head cows were good just for fighting. So the white-head cows gave me very good milk and I was able to make cheese all year long. If I had some spare one, I gave it away to the people who passed by.”

Today in Chamois there are several family-run vegetable gardens and people grows mostly potatoes and cabbages.

Farming is still a primary resource in the Aosta region. In Chamois there’s Dino, a farmer who spends all his summers on the high-altitude fields with his cows. He makes cheese and milk who sells to the inhabitants and to the tourists.

“I used to play accordion and harmonica, just by ear, you know” Emilio stops and then he adds “I wanted to become a musician but my parents didn’t like it at all. So I became an artisan and during winter time I made a lot of tzetón” Emilio’s wooden baskets are famous all over the region. They are exclusively made out of larch tree and hazel tree. “It’s a shame that we are loosing the craftsmanship of these baskets but nowadays nobody wants to learn how to do them.”

He tells me about the Christmas Eve in 1947, when Father Barrel, the parish of those days, brought electricity to his place as a sign of gratitude towards the hard work Emilio did during his everyday life. However he can’t recall at all the exact date when Chamois got the phone line: “There was just one telephone! And it was in the church!”

When Emilio went to school, there were around 40 children in Chamois. “The teacher wasn’t a proper one, but simply one of the inhabitant who was considered wiser than the others.” Nowadays there are no schools anymore in Chamois and the three teenagers who s6ll live here have to catch the cable car and aMend classes in the valley below.

“Emilio and your girlfriend?” “Nooo, I haven’t got anyone.” He replies blushing. “My mother wouldn’t allow me to have one. After my sister got married, she has been very careful with me. She kept me tight.” “But you got a girlfriend anyway, right?” “Well, once a woman passing by told me: ‘You really live disconnected from the rest of the world here!’ and I replied to her: ‘Oh well I’m quite happy with it’ She never replied and she left.”

Emilio bursts out laughing.

After lunch, when it comes to the cake, he confides to me that he loves whipped cream. To prove that, he shows me a picture where he, as a young farmer, achieved to whip cream with an electric drill.

Dina brings in the living room his old musical instruments and invites Emilio to play for us but after two strokes, his hand cannot play accordion anymore, neither his breath is enough to play harmonica.

Emilio laughs, he laughs a lot, and he’s pure and genuine.

He struggles to walk but he always hopes to get to the next spring in order to see his meadows in bloom like the ones in his old photographs.

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  • Chamois, Italy.

  • Angela.
    Born in Chamois, she is the oldest employee working at the cable-car.

  • Chamois, Italy.

  • Father Bartolo, once a week, on Saturdays, Chamois’ parish catches the cable-car to celebrate the weekly mass.

  • Chamois, Italy.

  • Emilio, 84 years old, born in Chamois. He never saw the sea.

  • Claudio, 17 years old.
    He loves to do trial with his motorbike among the woods.

  • Doct. Giavelli.
    She has 66 patients and she comes to Chamois only on Tuesdays for just one hour.

  • Antoine and Clarissa with their son Xavier, 2 years old, who’s the youngest inhabitant in Chamois.
    Together they run a mountain hut in the middle of the woods.

  • Davide and Simone, 17 and 18 years old. They both study agriculture and carpentry down in the valley. As a hobby, they farm goats to fight against farmers from the other valleys. They both can’t wait to get the driving license.

  • Dino, farmer.
    Every summer, since many generations, his family brings their own cows to graze in Chamois’ high altitude fields.