Lonely Planet Writer

"It's destiny" - Meet the NYC firefighter chosen by Airbnb to live in remote Italian village

Darrell Pistone, a former firefighter from New York, is among five candidates chosen by Airbnb to take an Italian sabbatical to a village called Grottole, where he’ll help revitalise a disappearing community and connect with his recently-discovered roots.

New York firefighter Darrell Pistone is taking an Italian sabbatical with Airbnb. Image by Airbnb

To revitalise at-risk Grottole, Airbnb and local not-for-profit Wonder Grottole invited people from all over the world to move to Southern Italy on an all-expenses paid trip for three months. More than 280,000 applied for the “Italian sabbatical” programme and five candidates were selected from Buenos Aires to Melbourne, including New York firefighter Darrell who recently discovered he has roots in Grottole.

“When I saw the ad for Airbnb’s Italian Sabbatical contest, I thought – ’you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s destiny,'” Darrell told Lonely Planet. “There’s nothing that I’d enjoy more than reconnecting with my roots and giving back to the community. I’m really looking forward to seeing the town where my ancestors originated from and getting to connect with the locals.”

Grottole is a picturesque community in need of a breath of fresh air. Photo by Airbnb

Joining Darrell is Remo Sciubba, a former project manager from Wales, who decided to leave his career behind to teach English in Grottole; Anne Tachado from Melbourne who has a background in agriculture and photography; Pablo Colangelo, a software engineer from Buenos Aires and Helena Werren, a Toronto-based cultural guide. The five of them will work with Wonder Grottole to breathe some life back into the at-risk village.

Way off the beaten track, Grottole has just 300 inhabitants and more than 600 empty homes. Entire generations are disappearing as young people move to urban areas and there’s a fear that important local traditions such as honey harvesting, pasta making and olive oil production will die out. That’s why Darrell and the volunteers will work with Wonder Grottole to learn these traditions, putting the experience on the map to entice new visitors to come and learn for themselves. They’ll also renovate buildings, maintain the village’s vegetable garden and enrol in language and cookery courses.

The locals will show the volunteers all their favourite aperitivo spots. Photo by Airbnb

While Darrell is keen to discover if he has any unknown relatives in town, he’s mostly looking forward to getting stuck into the work and completely immersing himself into a totally different way of life, walking along the cobbled streets and olive groves of Grottole and swapping stories with locals over dusky aperitivos.

“I’ve been studying Italian and can’t wait to have the chance to practice with the local residents,” he said. “I’m hoping to come back with a larger sense of connectedness to my family’s roots, knowing I’ve helped keep my grandfather’s hometown alive and hopefully inspiring others to help revitalise the southern Italy countryside.”

The area is surrounded by sunflower fields. Photo by Airbnb

Chronic depopulation is a big problem for towns and villages across Italy. In an effort to lure people back and avoid disappearing off the map, towns like Gangi and Sambuca in Sicily have offered empty houses for sale for just one euro, on condition that newcomers restore the properties. The mayor of the town of Candela even offered to pay people to move there in 2017.