The entire Po river (and then all the European ones, from London to Istanbul, on the trail of music). And other explorations – all by rowing or sailing or on sledges fueled with zero euro budget – made possible just by gift economy.
Giacomo De Stefano is a new 21st century explorer who has left behind any of the lives we all live to devote himself to water and its importance to our lives. One of the possible definitions for this man is that of the contemporary nomad.
We met him on video, although we were in the same city (his Venice, never really abandoned) because he prefers it so now.
Make yourself comfortable, this is not an interview and it is much more than a cup of tea, above all and especially if it is not your usual “diet” of life.
Giacomo: How nice is what you do with your blog, I shared it on my personal page.
Diana: Thanks! We have many stories of people linked to water and more generally to a more sustainable lifestyle. I was interested – with this interview – in giving you a hand to spread your initiatives!
Tell me about your life in a few lines, between the Alps and Venice. You were born in the mountains but you ended up at the seaside … I’m also interested in your first years.
(as we chat, he shows me a Chinese spring toy: it is a boat, a gift from a Chinese after having made one of his many trips there)
It’s simple, my life is always tied to water.
I was born in Asti (Piedmont region), where when you name water they look at you with suspicion being a wine country. Water is not drunk so much and there is also little in the Monferrato area. At the top of the hills there is no water. The peasants, when I was growing up, had no water in the wells.
My grandmother was born in a village very close to Mont Blanc, I grew up in Courmayeur, since I was a child I loved snow very much. That’s why I now live in Norway where I have the sea and the snow together.
There you live especially on an island, if I’m not mistaken
Yes, I “had” an island where more than anything I try to create a place for creative minds. I work as a pioneer, I advance a little the critical mass and then I step aside. Like Alex Bellini and all the great travelers. I carry on, plotting. I don’t invent or close anything.
You are a carrier and a convector
Exactly, I feel a little like water, which is a vector. It is unique and goes everywhere even in the ugliest places, just let it flow. You too are 70% made of water. Me too.
If you love water, you love me, love you, love everything.
It is a pity that this is neither correctly nor consistently taught. There are very few families educating to a responsible consumption of such a finite (and also polluted) resource. Let’s go back to your life. You live in Venice and for the first part dwell a normal life as an architect.
Yes, especially in the world of art and biennials. Things that in a certain sense I now avoid a lot, I don’t even go to museums anymore.
I still live with the artists, we create together, but I learned to stay away from art because I lived it in its most amusing and mischievous (perhaps most creative) part – that of the merchants, of its commercial side.
Until I was 19, by living in the mountains, I considered the sea a horrible place, because I connected its idea to the beaches.
Here in Venice a friend in Torcello makes me discover a topetta (a typical lagoon boat) and since then I bought a series of wooden crocks more than boats.
The old axeman Tramontin restored one to me when his son was convinced it was just good for firewood. He understood that I had something to cultivate.
From there I started to row and then I made many trips.
My previous life was also linked to the renovation industry, since I was a student I used to design shops and hotels all around Europe. By chance the company installing the parquet at my house had seen that I drew well and proposed to work with them, I was a young man to pay little and let run like a top.
In those four years I also learned manual work: by being a site manager I just couldn’t sit still. From there also another of my major themes made room in my life, that of the circular economy.
Then I’m also the one who, when he changed his life, was rewarded with a special recognition of Queen Elizabeth in England (for Man on the River) but I didn’t go because I had an appointment with a small private radio from Maillorca … I’m so snobbish!
However, after that award I made more than 250 conferences around the world, the magazine organizing it (Classic Boats) was really the top, ending up on the desks of the rich ones being able to buy important boats.
After a great period of media exposure, I started to live hidden, I avoid meetings and interviews, I don’t go on TVs anymore. All things that, of course, in my little moments of fame I had done (even if the fame came when I was old enough!).
The fact is that I have never been dazzled by that little fame that had been created around my travels, I was looking only and only at important things.
You are, however, yourself an audiovisual producer, you have made many samples for your businesses. Now what relationship do you have with disclosure, even if you don’t want to appear? I ask you it for the message you are conducting, not so much for the visibility to be arisen for your non-profits. Do you believe that ‘healthy’ disclosure can be a good way to convey messages of sustainability, circularity and personal involvement, or do you think people only look at social media today?
I’m still analyzing this even though I was among the first to use social media with great professionals.
I started in the traditional media with Santalmassi and Radio 24 for my journey “Un altro Po” (during the 1000 km by fair means on the Po with oars and sail, he held daily broadcasts). There I understood the importance of the media, I started with the GR24 which gave me three minutes a day and it was the media that put me on the map.
It is very listened to from people in transit, above all.
All this experience has triggered something for me!
My first project was in 2006 and ran with the first year of Youtube. A friend of mine had shown it to me, I didn’t know this social … now it seems another era … You are young …
I’m 46, really
Wow, I thought you had 25-26 …
It is because we are talking on video, it softens the wrinkles and the imperfections …
I wondered, naturally with a little perfidy, your current position on disclosure because I realize that we have grown up in a system of multiple supplies of not necessarily only breaking news (which live the time of a butterfly) and reasoned opinions and comment (we are of the same age) while those who are 25-30 years old (and are already adults!) not. Were you able to talk to these generations too? As much as your businesses have something heroic and probably would bounce on any media, you knowingly “widespread” them. You tried to tell them to more and different audiences. Do you feel heard by young people today?
I feel listened to because now I approach communication as a true peer-to-peer. I want them to feel my armpit, my breath. Only more directly, ‘live’, with very few people. And I saw the importance of this and the power to return to this channel.
The big problem with current communication is that it is profoundly limited or ‘Manichean’. Either you’re with me, or you’re against me. There is no longer a pluralism of information. The contradictory is always swear words or big words.
We were used to have conversations at the bacaros (the traditional bars of Venice) where I was lucky enough to meet the students who came from Yugoslavia, from the war. 60% of the students were foreigners in my years at IUAV, there was an extraordinary comparison. You are with like-minded friends, but you know how to find those who think differently from you and you turn to them.
This was, then, the secret of my travels. Although my working method today is to start with a great initial exclusivity and then turn to inclusiveness.
You see, it took us a while to do this interview but now that I talk to you I see that your eyes are reactive: you’re not just retinal, you’re bulimic like me in the discovery and right now I have a series of creative thoughts about what we could do together!
Basically you believe that with this new method leading to selective inclusiveness you are able to awake not only the consciences but a minimum of help to ideas like yours, which can be practiced with you but also alone and with other means and methods …
If it happens! Right now I left a guide, who is walking along the Po river: a German artist, she came to the Arctic where I live knowing of my journey on a sled (previously equipped with wheels) from Maillorca to the North Cape, 7000 km on foot without money, to ask me about the Po trip.
Did you also look at Arctic Lampedusa? It’s a new project that I brought to light with director Alessandro Scillitani, who usually makes films with Paolo Rumiz.
Everything started by chance. I wanted to take a trip to understand how the white gold of the Alps lived in the North Cape, I come as you know from a nineteenth-century society – those with shepherds! – which has been martyred over the years by the massive tourism of the winter skiing holidays.
I saw, so to speak, people who lived underground to save wood, with goats, in winter.
I left to find out what these two worlds that belong to the snow had in common even if they were so profoundly changed and mortified, at least on the alpine side.
You know that I travel without money but I find companies producing what I need (for example technological wooden skis) to try to ensure that those who enjoy themselves and travel can do it honestly, correctly and cleanly, having viable and sustainable alternatives. Think of the millions of skis that are thrown away every year and are of non-recyclable materials? I work on niches not on large systems. Apart from water.
However, as I make my journey to the North Cape, I discover the story of some migrants entering from the border between Norway and Russia. And so while I was working with the BBC to make the film of my journey (traveling with the best materials, the best companies in the market) risking dying every day at 40 ° below zero in a tent on the great Norwegian highlands I came across these migrants coming from Afghanistan, from Yemen – on their foot.
I saw the photos of Alessandro Iovino, an Italian photographer whom I later met and with whom I also did a project on the rivers that was just published and presented in Paris: they travel with small bicycles sold for 30 euros, without brakes, for 20 km before the Norwegian border (Russian traffickers leave them far away!), I interviewed them and then later lived with those of them who succeeded to obtain asylum in Norway.
I called all the newspapers and the TV when I accidentally discovered their path that intersected mine on that border, you know I had so many contacts, but nobody wanted to talk about it. Only the Spanish RTVE and the Us CBS have done a nice report, the news never came out in Italy.
From that border 30,000 people have passed and about 800 have been missing, gone. I lived there for three months sleeping in an abandoned car at 40 ° below zero, with the police looking for me, they then arrested Alessandro and several friends, while the Norwegians tried to repatriate 5000 of these refugees by any means. At 3 am, against the Art. 14 of the Human Rights Convention.
A lot of Norwegians tried to save them, but even there there are people who are not too good and if you told them you were a danger to them. Yes it was one of the many moments where I saw bad things. It was very hard.
That was a journey to talk about the materials of life and to spread them, to discover and let people know how Swedes, Norwegians, Finns interpret water, ice and snow: it has changed and it has become Arctic Lampedusa (it was the title that the CBS had chosen for the reportage).
The film is almost finished, the audio finalization and the color correction are missing, I’ll send it to you once done!
How do you distribute your material? Do you first create it and then do you think about it or does it happen like in this case also in fieri because there was a communicative urgency to tell about a so inaccessible migration?
Socratically, I now live hidden. I don’t distribute, I don’t communicate anything anymore, I send it to very few people. I can no longer contaminate myself because I have to write so many books. Sometimes I think I have become a bit misanthropic after all these trips and living in the deep North. When you have contact only with the main environment of life – Nature, food, shelter, warmth …
Everything else is redundant, I understand.
Of course: as always in a person’s life what was important is no longer important and vice versa …
Communication for me is now just what happens. For example, my new project is now in Skorpa, the Norwegian island where I live and where I try to save traditional wooden boats that the Sami are abandoning. There is a problem: they fish too much, it is called overfishing, and I would like to bring back people with wooden boats, rowing, again “by fair means”.
I don’t do communication anymore, now all comes through the example.
I follow with great interest the work of a friend of mine, a Sami: she is the first female fisherwoman of that people, her name is Sandra Andersen Hera. Do think that before Christianity and massive fishing, the Sami society was matriarchal!
I am totally transgender: while recognizing certain different characteristics of the male and female body, I cannot think of such Marchian differences brought into play by a male-oriented or a feminist-oriented society.
Venice, Mallorca, Norway and in particular that island. Why? I am interested in the intermediate stages of passage of your transhumance
Mallorca arrives because I live on a wooden boat since 2005. Which I totally restored. Now I changed it, I have one from 1928 that I also restored and it was part of a European project. We founded Be Waterin Cologne with two friends, now the boat travels the world.
I lived in Kos, a Greek island, for two years before. A friend of mine told me about Maillorca and a bay where I could settle with my two boats (I sold one it is eight years now) which followed me.
Mallorca had a very close relationship with Venice already in Renaissance cartography and is a center for the permaculture with which I had and I have a very close relationship, in particular for the polar one which is very hard.
Mallorca has become the incubator of all my projects. In 2014 I took an old local wood goiter, the Llaut, I removed the engine and started the local master builders to restore it. One of them, who later became a friend of mine, was about to shut down his workshop for lack of assignments and now has seven employees: some articles published in magazines from around the world have created a circular economy, wooden goiters are no longer burned but become house boats or cruise boats.
Are you a dream activator then? Or of the best hopes?
A visionary, a utopian. We are people who prove to be much more practical and concrete than those who think of much more. You have to cling to a rock where nobody wants to go, you have to become a bit like a lichen so that a little life is born … When you become lichen, this mutualistic symbiosis between the alga in the water and the fungus does yes let it take root, dig and create a vital humus.
You know how it is, right?
Yes, of course: I am a lichen enthusiast since elementary school. But instead I wanted to ask you: Norway arrives for a tender you have joined, or because you already knew this island or because of …
I discover the island (and the almost ruined farm) thanks to a girlfriend who made me suffer a lot, who arrived when I lived like a monk. I had no relationship with women for three years.
With her kindness and beauty, she helped me.
In my Norwegian camp I have three typical Sami tents where I host people.
She is Swiss and a bit of a Calvinist, she does not have the bacaro flexibility that allows us to talk to everyone, she didn’t make it anymore and she changed place, she moved and went to live right in front of this island. Where the owners of this beautiful log cabin, where she lived by paying very little, had the property that had belonged to the last inhabitant of the island. Skorpa in Sami is Skarfu, is at the center of a small community of fjords with glaciers called Aloppa, located between Tronso and Alta, about 400 km north of the Arctic Circle but lives the Gulf stream! In winter there are eight months of snow up to the sea but you do not have the 50 ° below zero that you have inside the country, the sea never freezes and the climate is like in the mountains.
The island also has an incredible microclimate, including orchids, and measures eight square kilometers. It is an extraordinary heritage as well as being an important center for this nomadic people, among other things I recently discovered that perhaps I am a Sami. My ancestors arrived in Palermo in 1076 and came from the north of Norway. In a sense it is a return. From my mother I have Sephardic and Jewish origins, then there is Greece, Montenegro …
I discovered this Sami origin by chance, because I was in Palermo for a conference where I met a priest who took me to his parish to look at genealogical documents and found these traces. It was there that I started planning the trip to Norway, it was 2013.
So did you buy the island?
No, I don’t buy anything, they gave it to me. I don’t work with money, I don’t use money. I do everything differently. They offered me to take the house of the last inhabitant of the island in 1980 for free: there is no electricity or water. There are eight lakes, however.
I invited Bansky (whom a friend of mine knows, but I cannot reveal the identity, he is rather a collective) on the occasion of his work created a few meters from my Venetian house (which is my mother’s) to make transparent houses on the island together with other artists. I have invited other types of ‘people from this world’ as gas station officers or anyone who can do any job to stay in a place where you can connect to nature, to its strong tides: I’ve lived on the water for 20 years and I know how it can take you away and to give energy.
Those who live on the island must return to a manual set of skills that someone has perhaps forgotten: I see it in the Norwegian camp where I am, people transform themselves without light or by melting the snow to drink and wash. The moose and wolves come to see us.
We work on important issues and things are born spontaneously from who comes from all over the world. I can accommodate a maximum of six people, we have made a calculation of the impact on this area which is as large as the Netherlands but has 73,000 inhabitants (0.6 inhabitants per square km).
Did you read Knut Hamsun?
Yes of course, one at random! He was relatively close to where I am, only 900 kilometers. The house where he went in the summer was also without electricity.
What do you need for this island apart from people in harmony, I always return to worldly issues …
I need the most natural insulation material possible. I already have the boat, it is more than 100 years old, I want to come and go back only by rowing and sailing, it takes two or three hours for the coast depending on the wind. I need very little, I have knives and wooden plates that I have gleaned in these ancient and abandoned places. There has been a great migration to the south.
I need to have people with me. The first winter I will live alone, there are strong storms that isolate you for weeks and I don’t want to force anyone. Wind at 50 knots, snowstorms and temperatures at -20 ° even if the island is relatively protected being in a fjord. It is perfect to start and finish my book there, it’s entitled Man on the River. From there, in winter, there is no way to leave.
When you travel you don’t give me the idea of a person who constantly reads being more encouraged to discover and meet but if you still feel like advising a writer or author …
Thoreau. It is a democratic tip, relatively easy to read. It cut all the layers of the population, Walden, Life in the Woods gives you a concept of love, simplicity and respect even if it’s not a visionary book. It is a book by a person who is rooted, attentive. The paradigm of my travels is attention, which requires commitment and in turn attention therefore this creates a circular economy which, as you know, I try to apply.
Then a beautiful book that I have here (he looks around and show me: David Le Breton, The world on Foot, praise of the march).
And again, an incredible book by Beltrami (Breviary for Nomads), is a kind of collection of aphorisms. Rimbaud also said that travel books should have this form: a sentence must be concluded and a meaning must be fully gathered in it. Maybe you have to move a mooring, or escape because a wolf is coming … or you are simply shitting yourself because you have eaten something toxic or a rotten sheep! Books for travelers are like that. And of course all the Russians I would recommend …
He too, yes, but also the young Russians. You know I read everything, especially when I’m here (in Venice) I read at least four books at the same time each day. When I work I read a little less.
Have you ever thought of starting a school or something like a learning path?
Maybe yes, but basically I do it unintentionally because when people come to see me I share everything, I become a student and a teacher. But I never really thought of a school in the classical sense.
I lived a month with the Tuaregs. When they meet and greet you the first thing they ask is if you have drunk, eaten and how the trip went. How is that well, if you liked that oasis, the journey – in short, the care for the practical things in life.
The great metaphysics, the great poetry of nomads comes from poiesis, which means doing. It is not beautiful grammar and beautiful writing. What happens with social media is a large and empty aestheticization. In fact, now, on social media I don’t put anything from images and videos and I’m letting my equipment rot.
When I lecture with children, I also never show images – they are overwhelmed and immediately distracted. I just narrate: I capture them very much only with the voice! Like the first map that was told and not drawn, as an Albanian shepherd told me.
The power of the fabula
Like the personal constellation of your life: if you had to share it or relive it with yourself, it would certainly be better told. Or better, other from the images that deceive a lot.
Of course, it is the most undemocratic of communications, that of images. You can distort viewpoints, perspectives, proportions, canons and any other you want
One of the things I am wondering a lot about for Skorpa is how to talk to the people who will come and ask them to contribute to a shared narrative without making it become a ‘marchetta’. Or a brutalization of places.
Take Banski again, repeated endlessly in everyone’s photos, even and especially after the cruise ship accident in Venice. I already think he almost repudiated it. After a while the image repetition loses the same meaning.
I would like to work on spontaneity instead, I am wondering how people coming to the island will be able to tell, share, donate by staying on this register. On how to live on this planet.
A podcast has no images and can have sounds, much more evocative than video …
Many have talked to me about podcasts.
Think of all those who exchange wildly audio messages on social media … Translating from the mass market to something more meaningful, in my opinion the audio is what you take wherever you want to hear it, there is no cannibalization of the eyes, you have to imagine it but if you enrich it with significant sounds of the place it becomes almost an auditory map. I would like it and anyway there could be a writer on your island who realizes something to listen to, not just to read. What is sound can be heard in fullness even by those who do not see …
You could do it, I can send you the sounds … or if you want to come there!
It would be nice, maybe I would come in summer for the first time!
It is winter, really, the most extraordinary part up there. You have whales, for example, that you do not have in summer: they pass five meters from you and make extraordinary noises. There is a friend of mine who takes a bath every day and is teaching me how to get into the water (I am very cold!): The whales swim near you. They are incredible animals and I’m learning to know them, like the eagles always coming to visit me at home, I provide them fish. They are one meter twenty high and their wingspan is even four meters. Then there are the moose, which are extraordinary, almost scared of man, not being there so many.
The only terrible thing is the mosquitoes.
You know you work on the element – water – for which more wars have been fought than ever. I see that in all your explorations, you actually defend water from other points of view and you never put emphasis on the relationship between water and war …
Perhaps because I am very Severinian, although I think my instinct would be that of the exterminating angel. We are not mistaken, we are the error! After all, these wars have been caused by our stupidity.
Humankind was not born to be settled but nomadic. When we became settled, we created agriculture, the greatest error of man – which sadly accompanies the temptation for abundance, the fence and from there wars, hatred, armies, surplus value, the ‘greed’. The nomads do not, they only do skirmishes and apply the greatest art of man, escape, when necessary.
A lion escapes from a small animal that if he bites it makes him take an infection while the man is stupid and also faces battles lost at the start.
Water is the one that came with a comet, all together, on this planet.
When you drink the water before you someone has drunk it and pissed at least seven times.
The concept of water is linked to sharing, it is logical that it triggers wars but it is enough to move.
In a difficult time of drought in certain places, such as in Sudan, if you stay you have to fight not only with other men but also with animals.
A clever person moves, that’s why I don’t deal with the relationship between water and wars and I don’t think about it. The great migrations happen for this, not only for agriculture but also for the population explosion! Returning to the nomads, they did not have many children for example.
I do not believe that I will live much, my body is so consumed between fractures and lung overload! And this is very important, given the limited nature of the planet.
I live among 200 huskies, an old dog is killed by the youngest because he suffers and because he takes food from others, as well as being a danger to himself and to the herd.
Giacomo’s story has been suggested to us by Pascal Cariou, another ‘person from this world’ that we have presented to you in recent years.
The cover image is courtesy of Julieta Rudich.