It wasn’t long after I moved to the tiny village of Pieve di Compresseto in the heart of Italy that I discovered the secret to living a long, healthy life. Of the 100 people who live here, at least 70 of them are senior citizens and many have lived into their 90s. Maria, the town’s matriarch, will be 103 this year. While she physically doesn’t get around very well, she’s still as feisty as ever. When it was Elena’s 91st birthday, Maria did not forget to call and wish her a happy birthday!
Many of the villagers were born soon after World War II, before electricity came to the village, when washing clothes meant carrying them on your head to the nearest fountain or stream. In comparison, I am a spoiled, American-born baby boomer raised on hotdogs and too much television. Boy did I have a lot to learn!
These senior men and women, mostly pensioners, continue to work as they have all their lives. And that seems to be their secret: to keep moving in the beautiful nature that surrounds us.
The women’s daily lives are fueled by very strong espresso and can include: tending to their large gardens, making jam from hand-picked blackberries, killing a dozen chickens, making fresh tagliatelle pasta — enough for 10 people at pranzo (lunch) — taking care of grandkids, cleaning the family crypt at the cemetery, going to church to pray the rosary, and running down to the pharmacy to pick up nonna’s (grandma’s) medicine.
Meanwhile, the men collect and stack wood, prune olive trees, and vineyards; build sheds; tend to sheep and donkeys; make their own wine and liquor; hunt; and search for wild funghi (mushrooms) and asparagus. I know a few elderly signori (gentlemen) who walk for miles with their trained dogs through the woods in search of the highly desirable — and expensive — tartufi (truffles).
Now, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my friends and neighbors — all senior citizens — and how they manage to keep fit.
Bruno is retired from working for the Italian railways, but every morning he shows up to take care of the 30 donkeys that his son Roberto owns. These donkeys live down the road from us and in the summer, we often hear the male bemoaning his futile attempts at lovemaking. The donkeys are kept for their milk, which Roberto uses in his signature soap and lotion products. (Let’s not forget that Cleopatra herself loved to bathe in sour donkey’s milk!)
Bruno’s duties include using a pitchfork to fill the donkey’s troughs with hay, cleaning out their stables, and moving the animals from one pasture to another. However, sometimes this last task goes wrong and the donkeys escape to an open field. From our living room window, we can easily see the errant donkeys followed by Bruno frantically waving his arms and shouting in an attempt to herd them in. More than once, we’ve put on our Wellingtons and raced down to the meadow to help Bruno usher the donkeys back to where they belong. This exercise also keeps us fit!
Giuseppa is a round but sturdy widow whose hands are small, yet broad and strong. Whenever she stands before you, her feet are firmly planted and her eyes steady upon you. She is one of the few people I have ever met that is really present in all that is around her. Every afternoon, you can find her tending her 2-acre campo (field) in the Italian countryside. Since she was 5 years old, she has lived all her life (literally) off the fruits of her labor.
Whenever I visit, she chatters away in her Italian dialect as she heads out to feed her chickens. It is always a pleasure to visit her and see what she is sowing, planting, harvesting, gathering, and drying.
Giuseppa turned 93 this January and told me that whenever she’s in her garden, she feels so happy. She still wields her hoe like a young person. After her recent heart checkup, the doctor was amazed. “What are you doing?” the doctor asked. “Whatever it is, don’t stop. Your heart will beat forever!”
Luigi (75) And Delfina (74)
Perhaps it is Luigi and Delfina who inspire me the most. Luigi was born here in the countryside but now lives in town. However, often in late spring, he comes with Delfina to cut the grass around the house across the street from us. This is the house his father built, the house Luigi promised his father that he would never sell.
The amazing human truth about Luigi is that he became blind about 30 years ago, but cuts the grass as he always has — with a scythe! His wife Delfina stands at some distance, but close enough to supervise, directing him whenever he approaches some potential obstacle, like a drop in the terrain. Luigi is a huge, muscular man full of life who enjoys these workouts. He is always beaming afterward, tired but satisfied, with the sweat glistening on his forehead.
Whenever they come (and despite all that she has to do), Delfina manages to thoughtfully bring me a small gift — the first tomatoes from her garden, a crocheted doily, or a traditional sweet cake, fresh from her oven.
Franco (85) And Franca (79)
Another inspiring couple, Franco and Franca (sometimes teasingly called the “Franchi” or “Two Franks”), are always ready to invite you in for a café and chat despite being busy from morning to night. Last time I visited, Franco had been out all day collecting walnuts and apples from their many fruit trees. He’s had to slow down, however. When he was younger (around 75 years old!), he used to keep bees, restore antique furniture, and tend a garden double what they have today.
Franca helps out in the garden, but her passion is cooking. She’s an expert on baking the traditional cheese bread for Easter in her outdoor wood-burning oven. I’ve been a guest a number of times for Sunday pranzo, and even in her kitchen she’s got the wood-burning stove to make everything from mouth-watering roasted rabbit to her homemade lasagna.
My next-door neighbor Stefano is the youngest of this group. He’s a remarkable man, having sailed solo three times across the Atlantic Ocean. Naturally, he has what Italians call mani d’oro (golden hands), which means he knows how to do almost everything. So far, he’s restored his home, rebuilt the terrace with a panoramic vista, and is now getting ready to build a new garage. As Stefano has demonstrated, when it comes to staying fit, you can’t beat picking up huge stones to build a wall!
Leda recently died peacefully at her home, but I still wanted to include her since she was such an inspiration and contributed a bounty to my garden. Leda was constantly surprising and delighting me with her abundant energy. She was notorious for always being out and about with her hoe, weeding the garden and digging trenches. With a full head of white hair gleaming in the sunshine, Leda raised chickens and tended a summer garden. She was also known for having the best artichokes in town. When we first arrived, Leda — at the tender age of 90 — dug up 20 shoots for us to replant in our garden. Last year, we harvested more than 250 of Leda’s artichokes!
These are just a few of the senior citizens who have shown my husband and me the importance of keeping busy. When you can incorporate movement into your daily life through caring for a garden, animals, or others, then you don’t have to worry about going to the gym. All of these senior citizens couldn’t imagine living any other way. And all of them agree that their activities not only keep them healthy physically but also mentally.
So why wait? Start digging out that tomato patch in your garden today!