Airbnb recently announced the five lucky winners of its Italian Sabbatical giveaway— an all-expenses paid, three-month trip to help revitalize a village at risk of disappearing in southern Italy. And for retired New York firefighter Darrell Pistone, the journey ahead is also an opportunity to learn more about his past.
“I discovered a few months ago that my family originated from Grottole,” Pistone shares, speaking about the village in the southern region of Basilicata where the sabbatical will take place. “My uncle passed away recently and before he died, he told me where my grandfather was born and raised as I never knew the exact locale. Then I did some digging and found his birth records that listed Grottole as well.”
When Pistone learned he’d been selected to take part in Airbnb’s trip of a lifetime and live in the village where his grandfather grew up, he “honestly couldn’t believe it,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s destiny!”
Since retiring in 2012 after 20 years of service as a firefighter in Westchester County, Pistone has focused on learning more about himself, which prompted him to look into his heritage. “Now that I’ve had more free time, I’ve been able to really dig into old records and research my family’s roots,” he explains. “I grew up in a big, loud Italian family and we were all very close. My grandparents meant a lot to me and helped shape who I am today.”
Now, Pistone has the chance to help change the future of the village his grandfather came from. “I just really want to help save this place that holds so much history and emotion for me,” he says. “My sadness upon learning that my beloved grandfather’s home is in danger of disappearing is enormous. I am looking forward to being a part of that preservation, and learning more about myself along the way.”
The New York native and his four fellow volunteers will spend the sabbatical working with Airbnb and Wonder Grottole, a local group promoting urban regeneration, to welcome guests into their new homes as Homes and Experiences hosts in order to help promote tourism in the area and preserve the local culture.
After one month of training from local experience hosts, the new temporary citizens of Grottole will begin offering their guests experiences ranging from gardening and honey harvesting to language lessons and cooking classes focused on local produce and pasta dishes.
“Italy is an extraordinary country with a strong and vibrant rural community, countless hilltop villages and a passionate and welcoming culture,” Joe Gebbia, Airbnb Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, told PEOPLE. “We want to help preserve these communities so they continue for generations to come. By inspiring and supporting others to get involved and make real contributions to village life, we hope it shines a light on the beauty of rural Italy.”
Pistone is well acquainted with Italy’s charming countryside, although this will be his first trip to Grottole. “I have been planning on moving to Italy eventually and have made several trips over to look at the different regions,” he shares. “I have a basic understanding of Italian because most of my family spoke the language, so I was around it a lot when I was growing up in Yonkers.” Ahead of the trip, he’s taking Italian classes to further his abilities. “I think being immersed in the language will just take it to the next level for me,” he adds.
Pistone is also no stranger to volunteer work: “I’ve found that helping those around me and being exposed to all different types of people has really taught me a lot about who I am,” he says. “I want to fully engrain myself in the culture of the town by teaching and inspiring others and helping to create a revitalization movement in southern Italy.”
In the process, Pistone is looking forward to how his past and present will merge on the journey — and how they’ll shape his future.
“There’s nothing that I’d enjoy more than to connect with my roots and give back to the community where my ancestors once lived. I’m excited to see if there are any distant relatives still around that I can reconnect with and exchange stories with,” he says, adding, “I am excited to help my grandfather’s legacy come full circle — with his grandson returning to walk the streets and olive groves of his youth.”
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