This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
A few months ago, while I was researching a story about Italy's prepper community, I met Paolo*, a 30-year-old from the Modena region in the north of the country. Ever since floods swept through his hometown in 2014, Paolo has kept a survival bag ready to go in case of disaster. In early March, when rumours of a lockdown began circulating, Paolo sent me a voice message saying he'd decided to leave everything behind and move to a small cabin in the Apennine mountains, where his nearest neighbour was a 30-minute walk away.
As lockdowns begin to lift three months on, Paolo is still on Mount Cimone, undeterred by the harsh nights, when temperatures can drop below zero. "Initially, I thought I'd be up here for a couple of months, but now I plan to stay for at least two or three years," says Paolo. After quitting his job at the beginning of the pandemic, he's not optimistic about Italy's immediate future – so, for now, he's retiring from normal society.
The hermit lifestyle has been around for millennia. Famous religious and secular figures throughout history have embraced it, including poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Buddhist monk Ryokwan and even Jesus himself (albeit only for 40 days and 40 nights). Perhaps inspired by Into the Wild, a number of young people disillusioned with city life also opt for a semi-hermit lifestyle.
Since deciding to extend his self-enforced isolation, Paolo's had to tighten the purse strings. One day in the mountains, lunch consisted of a small bit of cheese and a couple of crackers. "I used to make two meals of 200 grams of pasta per day, I've now reduced it to 100," he says. After figuring out his little cabin is still within reach of big tech and civilisation, he’s also ordered a cheap, year-long supply of multivitamins on Amazon, which he thinks will make up for his less-than-optimal diet.
Of course, behind Paolo’s voluntary frugality there is a good deal of privilege. Paolo's family owns the cabin, so his savings don't need to spent on rent. His parents are healthy, so he doesn't need to worry about them. Since moving to nowhereland, Paolo’s only had human contact with a handful of people who live nearby. He’s always outside when the weather allows; otherwise, he tries to keep busy indoors.
Although fascinated by his efforts, I wonder whether his fears are unfounded. "What if you end up starving yourself in the mountains for years, for nothing?" I ask him. While he admits to being somewhat interested in coronavirus conspiracy theories, Paolo reassures me this is the best decision he’s ever made. Getting used to the new routine wasn’t easy, but he enjoys his newfound peace and quiet. "At least I didn't spend months barricaded at home or anxious about the daily infection rate and death toll reports," he says. "I'm learning to be a little more self-sufficient, and I finally have time for myself."
Truth be told, I do envy him a little.
*Name changed for privacy.