The man who never saw the sea


2016, Italy  |  Go to the gallery


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 counts 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.”

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 almost a year 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.

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

«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 which gave me very good milk so I was able to make cheese all year long.»

Today in Chamois there are several family-run vegetable gardens and people grows mostly potatoes and cabbages. Farming is also a primary resource in the region. In Chamois there’s Dino, a farmer who spends all his summers on the high-altitude fields with his cows.

«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.»

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 only three teenagers who still live here have to catch the cable car and attend 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 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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