It’s easy to look back, halfway through a life, and see patterns, intersections crossed that don’t seem so random but it’s hardly ever the case when, to borrow from Dante, we are traversing our own wood of life. Choices feel like doors we want to peek through with little understanding where they will lead, if anywhere at all.
Those were my thoughts while reading the story Gabriela Morini wrote for C&S, after I asked her if she were willing to share with us the journey that led her to turn around her life and actively chase her dream to own a corner of the world, steeped in nature, she could share with paying guests.
How many of us, “chained” to a desk, or climbing the corporate ladder, have fantasized about opening a bed and breakfast in our favourite vacation spot, or a little restaurant with grandma’s recipes or a diving shop on a Caribbean beach? How many of us follow through on that dream? And what happens to those who do?
Gabriela started out in life in a middle class world, on track for a middle class life and a secure job within a large company near home, in Northern Italy. In hindsight, corporate life was never for her and, three years into what felt like a dead-end job, Gabriela left for Cambridge to perfect her English, took a degree in PR and started working free-lance, while also pursuing, out of personal interest, a degree in Anthropology. While sitting in the office of a colleague, she happened to notice a photograph of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian guru whose followers built Auroville in Tamil Nadu. She wasn’t familiar with either the guru or his village but, piqued by what she found out, she set out for India with the intention of writing her dissertation on Auroville.
It wasn’t Gabriela’s first time in India but it was her first time spending a substantial amount of time in one place, trying to understand the dynamics of the community, interviewing the residents, gathering material. In the process, something else happened.
“I met Cornelis on a hot January afternoon, a few days before flying back to Italy. Still collecting information, I wandered into his garden, intrigued by the unusual architecture of the house. At that very moment, he walked out of his studio (Cornelis is an artist) and invited me in for coffee. Yes, thank you, I replied – never mind I don’t drink coffee. He welcomed me into a spacious room, furnished with Indian antiques, very elegant. Despite his thick mane of white hair, he seemed very limber as he sat cross-legged on the couch.
What struck me was his clarity of expression and his direct and sparkling gaze. He was the first person I met who talked honestly about Aurovillle, without disguising its contradictions – he was not a “devotee” but, rather, he had decided to set up residence there after a stint working for some local NGOs.
It was love at first sight, a classic coup de foudre.
The following March Cornelis came to visit me in Italy and his love token was a 5 ton Carrara marble block that was going to be delivered at my house – our house eventually, as the sculpting work he had in mind would turn out to be long and involved. I felt viscerally linked to this man.
In April it was my turn to visit Cornelis in the Netherlands. He lived in a modern, elegant and minimalist space. He had made all the living room furniture himself. It was right in that room that he asked me “What is your dream?”, in essence, what did I want out of life? I burst out crying, it was a difficult question. During the last few years I had tried to imagine my dream: to build a place where people from different countries and cultures could gather to enjoy life, find a meditative place, silence and peace. A space steeped in nature, to share with an unnamed and still unknown companion.
A few years before, after a disastrous break-up, I had rented a small flat within an old windmill in the Senio Valley in the Apennines. I loved retreating there on weekends and ended up spending two Summers there. When Cornelis came to visit me, I took him to my little flat on the hill and in June, 2006, when he moved from Holland to Italy the decision to live in the windmill was quick and organic. In the meantime, the marble block had arrived!
During the Summer, Cornelis pushed me again to think of my dream and, pragmatic soul that he is, forced me to study the practicalities of realizing it.
It was at a village celebration that I asked a friend if she knew any local estate agents – it turns out the computer store in front of which we were standing was owned by an agent, and Cornelis encouraged me, there and then, to enquire. The first house we saw was Porcaticcio di Sopra, a couple of miles from my flat. It was in terrible condition, with an unpaved road barely deserving of that name. But my heart got stuck on it and, within a week, I sold my city apartment and bought Porcaticcio. Talk about serendipity at work.
My down to earth mother couldn’t help pointing out the massive amount of work that was required to restore the property but I basked in the feeling of having bought a wood, a place alive with plants, insects, flowers, animals and birds, with the profit from a banal 700 sq ft apartment.
Cornelis is my tsunami, even more powerful within the dynamics of our couple. There were times I felt it couldn’t be done, but we faced everything together. I’d venture to say it was falling in love that forced me to become an entrepreneur, and my dream became our dream.
We married in August 2007 and in September we moved into the Little House in Porcaticcio and, two years later, in the Tower House so we could start welcoming tourists.
Unknowingly, I had married the man with the “golden hands”! Cornelis has spent the last several years renovating this large house, room after room, week after week, while also dealing with his exhibitions, new works, moving, guests….
I take care of the business side, deal with the purveyors, the book-keeping, merchandising and promotion, cleaning and all the day-to-day planning. I use my hands whenever and wherever I can and I have become the painter in chief, besides looking after the garden with the help of my mother.
Porcaticcio is the life project of two people. When early in our relationship Cornelis asked me if I was ready to share everything I answered that yes, I could, without really understanding what that meant. I tackled everything with no knowledge of the concentration and energy – mental, physical and financial – it would require.
My biggest difficulty was always financial, trying to stay calm even when the checking account was dwindling. In order to continue the renovation we had to sell what had become superfluous, reinvest every profit, borrow money. If this wasn’t a test of our bond, I don’t know what is!
The hardest times were when “us” as a couple were weaker, when we didn’t take care of nurturing our relationship.
I never felt like my choice was out of the ordinary – more like the realization of a dream. Life threw me some opportunities: take them or leave them but I don’t see grabbing them as a badge of honor, rather, I had no choice. All this happened when I turned 40 and it was clear the second act of my life was beginning.
The only thing I miss from my previous life is not high-heels and business attire but traveling to the Orient! We can’t afford it right now, it’s our secret dream because travelling is still our passion. But, on the other hand, when I had the trips I didn’t have Cornelis or Porcaticcio.
What advice do I have for anyone chasing a dream of this nature? I think that most people let their dream slide into fantasy, by which I mean they don’t even take the first steps to see if their dream can be feasible. My husband likes to say “Catch the train”: many important trains come our way but only if we are paying attention are we able to get on them.
To a certain extent, I do believe in luck and destiny. Sometimes Cornelis looks at me and says: “I must have done something good in my life to deserve all this”. Difficulties and personal pains aside, we do feel lucky: restoring a place that was already full of life fills our heart, even more so when we can share it with others. We just collaborate with the magic of the place and everyone can do that….because magic is everywhere.
For more information about the property of Porcaticcio di Sopra – or just to dream a getaway (Porcaticcio is located in Valle di Senio, on the Apennines stretching between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany)
If you are interested in Cornelis Rijken’s work