Rural – here and abroad: My one-month experience in a small Italian village

By Sampoorna Bhattacharya, Summer Student (2018) for the National Trust for Canada

In January 2018, I was given the opportunity to do my practicum placement with the National Trust for Canada. My task was to research the trends and cycles affecting rural Canada and make the connection to heritage, a task that I have since then resumed as a summer student. Soon after my practicum position ended, I travelled to Italy to participate in a hands-on heritage restoration program known as San Gemini Preservation Studies.

The program took place in a small village known as San Gemini, located in the Umbrian valley. While the entire municipality was comprised of a population of around 5,000, the historic centre, where I was staying, was situated on top of a hill and had a population of around 400.

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Cultural Education: Umbrian cooking class offered by local San Gemini resident and chef Lorena Autuori (centre) Photo by Charlotte Seaman, program participant.

The well-preserved historic centre had repurposed their existing buildings dating from the 16th-17th century all the way back to Roman times into housing, a school, restaurants, small shops, small community centres, and a library. The town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, was converted into the office and classroom where we had our lectures.

The beauty of this training program is that it presented a positive situation for everyone involved. Students were excited to participate in activities they were passionate about and to live in a foreign country and learn about the culture. The local economy was boosted as students populated the area and shopped in the small markets and returned to the local cafes once or twice a day for their espressos. The students were taught to practise sustainable tourism, to be respectful, and to expand their comfort zones and communicate in unfamiliar languages.

The local population greatly benefited as well. A sense of pride is awakened when they witness students interested in their heritage and restoring their village’s structures. On one instance, a woman overheard me speaking English, and upon realizing I was a foreigner, asked me to come over. She was sitting with her two young children and requested me to tell them what I like about Italy so that they would be proud.

A program like this is comprised of students from around the world of all ages, specifically youth. These programs can introduce locals to global youth, other cultures and languages and help in lowering any existing racial or religious stigma.

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Happy Times: Students and teacher sit and chat after classes at the local café, Bar Paretti. Pictured in the background is the medieval city gate, Porta Romana. Photo by Sampoorna Bhattacharya

Rural areas around the world are experiencing similar issues of emigration to urban centres, a decline in labour and employment, aging infrastructure and aging populations. Although this program model cannot provide a solution for all of these issues, it can help to re-stabilize and sustain the economy of the rural location it is in, at the very least on a seasonal basis.

It would be wonderful to see future international programs based in rural Canada devoted to interpreting or conserving the rural landscape, to not only educate generations to come about less understood parts of Canada but also to positively introduce rural Canadians to new cultures and experiences. Although Canada does not have the same rich cultural past as Italy, I believe there is an equally large amount of history that is neglected, from Indigenous traditions to the wide range of immigrant cultures and narratives. These programs can bring generations and cultures closer together and foster hope, understanding, and innovation.

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Buongiorno!: Locals sit outside their homes in a flowerpot-filled alleyway. Photo by Sampoorna Bhattacharya

‘Rural’ is large and diverse, and cannot be condensed to a single definition or characteristic. However, the commonality of rural across the world is that it is important and often neglected. Canada’s heritage cannot be understood fully by excluding any narrative in its richly woven history. Rural heritage showcases the country’s heart and there is no time better than now to give it the attention it deserves.

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On October 17, at the National Trust Conference in Fredericton, NB, the National Trust is holding its first National Roundtable on Rural Heritage to discuss issues, initiatives and opportunities on the matter of rural heritage in Canada. More information on the conference can be found here.


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