- By Bill Bonner
We drove from Palermo to Agrigento, thence to Syracuse and finally Catania. This was a very quick visit to Sicily, not enough to learn very much.
Sicily is complex. It deserves more time. If we had more time, we would rent an apartment and get to know it better.
But now, we are on a ship, headed to the Greek island of Santorini... backtracking the route perhaps used 2,500 years ago by the Greek settlers who colonized Sicily in the 5th century BC. They set up shop at Syracuse and spread all over the island. A few decades later, they were fighting for their lives against the Carthaginians. Then, it was the Romans, in 212 BC, who aimed to take over. It was the battle against the Romans that displayed the full range of the classical era's greatest genius - Archimedes.
A stone fortress sits at the edge of the Isola Ortiga, guarding the entrance to Syracuse's harbor. In order to take the town, the Romans had to dislodge the Syracusans from the fort, including Archimedes himself. It wasn't easy, because Archimedes invented novel machines - such as 'the claw' and the 'heat ray.' 'The claw' was mounted on a giant crane. It reached over the walls of the fortress and lifted Roman ships up out of the water, dropping them so they broke up on the rocks. The 'heat ray' consisted of a series of mirrors that focused the sun's rays on the ships' sail, causing them to burst into flames. Recent tests have found it difficult to reproduce Archimedes' results, making us wonder if the reports on Archimedes' genius were not exaggerated.
Despite Archimedes, the Syracusans lost the battle after a two-year seige. According to legend, Archimedes was so lost in his thoughts, pondering the significance of circles, that he didn't even notice the Roman soldier who advanced to kill him.
Sicily is chock-a-block with history. And pre-history. If we were in the mood for it, we would take the time to dig into it more deeply.
Houses are cheap in Sicily's forgotten mountain towns. Food and wine are cheap too - and plentiful. Whether we could live well on $500 a month or not, we don't know. The matter would require more study.
Our goal in this series has been to wonder about how we could live better on just $500 a month. And our brief periple in Sicily reminded us of how taste and style figure so largely in what is 'better.' An apartment in Piazza Armerino, where you could dine on the plaza, hear the bells of Sant'Anna, and discover Sicilian culture, history, and the unique Lombard dialect -- would that be better than living in a motor home in a Walmart lot? It depends.
Our aim is to live better. An obvious way to live better is to live in a better place and eat better. Of course, 'better place' can mean a lot of different things to different people. Some will want to live near the sea. Some will want to live in the mountains. Some will favor the suburbs; others will prefer city life. 'De gustibus non est disputandam,' as the Romans said. [You can't argue about tastes.]
But one idea seems simple and easy. At least to us. In theory, it is possible to buy small farms in many parts of America for just $30,000. If so, we could buy it if we could save $500 a month for 5 years. Or, financed at 5%, this is only about $150 a month. But when we looked to see what we could find for that price in West Virginia, we found almost nothing of interest. Most everything that was interesting (to us) was around $150,000.
So, either we already have some capital available or that idea won't work. Even if we save $500 a month for 5 years and use that money for a down payment, assuming we could get something for $130,000, that would leave us with a $100,000 mortgage. Too much for a $500-a-month budget.
But if you could swing the purchase, then, you have an environment that you can control. Many of the small farms you will find are isolated. Many are surrounded by natural beauty. Many have old farm houses which can be fixed up, to match your own tastes. (It helps if you are handy!) Put in a wood stove and fireplaces for heat. Build a greenhouse onto the main house for heat and food. Plant a garden. Create an orchard. Make sure you have an internet connection and learn to preserve food by canning, drying and freezing. Raise a pig. Keep a cow. Bees. Rabbits. Chickens. Buy an old pick-up truck.
You will develop callouses. But they may be happy callouses - the kind you get from doing things that you like doing.
Property taxes on the little farms we looked at were only $300-$500 dollars. Some come with free gas. Almost all have substantial timber. Your food and utility costs could go down to almost zero.
Would your quality of life for you go up...or down?
In our imagination, it could take a big leap upwards. No more planes to catch. No more 'Terminus du Nord' in Paris. And say goodbye to the Charlotte Street Hotel in London. Oh, and cruise ships in the Mediterranean? No chance.
In exchange, we get a life of quiet labor and calm routine. Like Diocletian, who gave up power in Rome in order to grow cabbages in Split, we think we might be trading up.
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Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.