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The day the earth cracked open

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Essay | 10 minute read
A dream house in Italy was destroyed when a series of earthquakes struck. Tamsen Courtenay describes how her home and possessions vanished overnight, turning her from a 'resident' into the 'displaced'

It wasn’t a bomb or a bailiff that took away my home. It was Nature and she took it by degrees, piecemeal until the job was done.

We moved to Italy seven years ago after buying the house in a magical moment of madness on a brief trip here. We’d fallen in love with this medieval hilltop town and the countryside surrounding it. Life was good and our house was beautiful. It was 700 years old, had a vaulted ceiling and walls 18 inches thick. We even had a little ‘bridge of sighs’ connecting the front of the house to the back. In summer the whole town looks like it’s drizzled in honey, and in winter it’s a glorious sight, covered in snow and full of twinkling lights once dusk falls. We settled in and were happy.

I invested much of myself in the house. I adored it and our life seemed so peaceful and content that I felt safe. I thought nothing bad would ever happen again in my life. Nothing destructive could come my way.

But something did. Earthquakes.

They changed all of us here, irrevocably. We lost our home and the life that went with it in an exhausting series of stages, eventually wearing us down to the absoslute nub of who we were. The first terremoto came during the night in August 2016. It lasted an incredible 75 seconds, long enough to change everything. It killed 300 people in Amatrice. We survived that one and the dozens of aftershocks because our town is built on that outcrop I mentioned, and the whole town is made up of millions of tiny bricks that hold it together. At least on the outside.

Though profoundly affected by the death toll, we did eventually come to believe ‘it’ was over, and we left the friends we had been staying with (who’d recently earthquake-proofed their house) and went home. We reclaimed the ordinary pattern of our lives. We’d had a lucky escape. Other towns and villages fared less well. Steve had previously accepted a freelance job for Al Jazeera and we decided he should still go. I’m fine on my own, I manage well and am resourceful. Just as well, really, given what was still to come.

In October two earthquakes struck with immense force. Two in one evening and they were so powerful that I was thrown to the floor and fractured my foot. I was barely able to scramble my way to the front door, chased by a cloud of plaster and brick dust along the corridor. The noise was deafening. It is something we all still talk about, to this day. A deep, growling rumble from the bowels of the earth, crescendoing into a mix of crashing freight trains and the roar of millions of bricks all grating against each other. There was thick fog and a dreadful storm but I managed to get to my car, driving along the road as it moved beneath me in waves, to the safety of that same friend’s house we’d gone to in August.

Since then the Red Cross, fire brigade and the military police had been everywhere, but now the army came to town and we were on whole new war footing for many months to come.

Not three days after that awful night, on an impossibly bright and beautiful Sunday morning, it struck again. My car was lifted off the road and moved several feet to the left as I drove into the town square. I looked up and watched my town swaying. Swaying. It was all wrong. It was a massive earthquake, the biggest so far.  We all realised that this was the end of our ability to carry on as we had. We were bewildered, shocked and hollowed out. The region’s infrastructure was wrecked: roads, pylons, water pipes and the rest, and the collective psyche was – at least for the moment – in tatters.

Four hundred towns moved to a Red Cross camp at the bottom of the hill and I moved into a ground floor summer rental apartment in a friend’s villa, most of which was uninhabitable. I lived in the sitting room for the next five months (at that point I could not go up any stairs).

There were still smaller quakes on a daily basis, but I settled into my new life. I became solitary, wolfish, and preferred to be alone. I was very angry about everything, I started writing a photo-blog and went on a couple of demonstrations against the government’s treatment of us all. Overall, though, I considered myself fortunate as neither had I been evacuated to the coast like several thousand others, nor was I in a hotel as many of my neighbours were. My life was very threadbare but I was alright.

The Red Cross came to see me a few times as I was living alone and the villa was fairly isolated. A psychologist talked to us in Congress Hall, mainly about PTSD and the kids in the town, some of whom had stopped speaking. They also alerted us adults to the changes in our behaviour too: I fell into the category of  ‘excessive risk-taking behaviour’. I would travel into the most damaged valleys and deserted towns, with my camera, climbing into collapsed buildings and churches in a frantic attempt to document what had happened.

I was, like everyone, highly adrenalised, constantly on alert waiting for the next tremor. It was utterly exhausting. I was pinched, tired, anxious and fraught. I kept the place insanely tidy. Nothing could get in the way of an escape. At night I lit candles so I would be able to see my way out should I need to leave quickly.

In January 2017, we had a freak snowstorm lasting weeks, it dumped metres of snow. It was a punishing winter and paralysed the region. On 18 January the earthquakes came back. They hit with terrible force over the entire day. The villa was moving and groaning around me. I tried to dig my way through the packed snow to a road. In four hours I’d barely covered any distance. The light was fading and I just gave up. I crawled back over the snow to the apartment and collapsed, soaking and hypothermic. Some days later the Air Force came and dug me out. I’d spent four days with no heat, light, water or food.

We weren’t called ‘residents’ any more as the term was no longer applicable. We were now called i sfollati (the displaced) and i terremotati (literally, the ‘earthquaked people’) in the press. Terremotati are distorted versions of their previous selves: for months I slept fully clothed with my boots on. I never shut a door because they jam when a building moves. Rather cold air than death because you can’t get out of a room. I didn’t take a shower till after Easter: running water blocks out sounds like the warning rumble of a quake. I do shower these days but I can never imagine having a bath again. I still have to have all internal doors open but I can now shut an outside door. I’ve improved.

Between October and April I never watched TV or listened to a radio. I had to have quiet, silence preferably, to be sure I could hear the next earthquake. During this period I found a publisher for my book, Four Feet Under. It tells the stories of thirty homeless people I had recorded and photographed in London the previous year. Irony of epic proportions.

I have been taking Xanax (anti-anxiety medication) all this time, although much smaller doses nowadays. I was taking so much during the worst of it that I can’t believe I stayed upright. There was a 4.2 in Amatrice not one week ago, so why would I relax even now? I still have a heightened ‘startle reflex’ which is annoying. I flinch and cock my head at any sudden noise.

There was, for a while, a sense of betrayal: I had been a good person, done my best and yet still the earthquakes came. I soon realised how juvenile this thinking was – Nature is indifferent to Man and bore none of us ill-will. This gave me pause for thought and created a space in my head big enough for the Big Thoughts to start creeping in.

Chief among them was the notion that us Europeans have got away lightly for a long time. No famine, no outbreaks of cholera, no ISIS kidnapping hundreds of our children, no war, no tsunamis or hurricanes. We have a sense of entitlement, the right to live our lives exactly as we plan, crammed full of things we believe we have to right to own. Such arrogance.

I had been given an insight into what vast swathes of the world endure daily: fear, uncertainty and abandonment. I saw the pain of the world through a new prism, one of shared experience. Yes, my story is a bit sad and quite dramatic but I didn’t die and no one I love died. I lost my home but I am not truly homeless. Refugees across the globe have their roots torn up, are frightened and treated badly. No matter what happened here, to me, I did not lose my culture, my identity and my place in the world. I have not been cast adrift, unwanted and uncared for, as they have.

As we wait for our house and our town to be re-built and repaired we’ve had to keep moving forward. Predictions for the house to be completed vary between two and five years. I no longer even think about it. I do not expect to ever go back. I’ve let go. I doubt if I’d be able to feel safe there ever again. I’m still afraid when surrounded by too many buildings; memories of falling masonry are too fresh. I tried to meet a friend in the Tate Modern a few months ago on a visit to London. I had a panic attack: I had looked up and seen all those bricks.

Now we live in a bizarre little hamlet further up the mountains. Too many animals roam around here: sheep, goats, hens, dogs, feral cats. It’s a sort of open-plan farmyard.  We have a communal laundry room, my wood for the fire is free and I get to eat fresh eggs. I never lock my front door. I’d never legislated for this kind of life, but I have accepted it. I quite enjoy it, really.

The ‘apartment’ itself is one that Liberace’s nan would have loved: all white shellac curvy furniture, embedded with stained-glass flowers and words like ‘amore’ stuck on the kitchen tiles. I’d never have chosen it but the weird thing is I am happy here. We have very few possessions now, the place is easy to keep clean and I feel as safe as I can be. I feel unfettered. Freer.

I’ve re-booted my internal hard drive: cleaned out the registry and sort of ‘de-fragged’ myself. It’s a good feeling. I’m streamlined now. There is no earthly point in me having lots of things. I don’t want them. They’re a burden. I don’t need six vases and eight different duvet covers with matching pillow cases. It’s madness. It’s vulgar and greedy.

The earthquakes made me more resilient, kinder and happier. You could live and die a hundred times over and I doubt you’d find anywhere more beautiful to live than where I am now. I spend a lot of time walking in the mountains and the woods thinking about life and forging a new sense of it.

All lessons in life come at a cost but I suspect the penalties are even bigger if you fail to learn from them. Nature was a ruthless teacher but I have been a good student. I see that I must change, bend with the difficulties that life heaps on me if I don’t want to break.

Italians make no distinction between the word for house and the word for home: casa. I used to think this was romantic. Now I think it is wrong. Your house is a building. Your home is something more precious.

In the way that an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, I will always be a terremotata – I was earthquaked, and that can’t ever be undone. But it is not a bad thing.

Tamsen Courtenay is currently crowd-funding her book, Four Feet Under, with Unbound