Where the Rich Used to Live

August 5, 2019

When my immediate family emigrated to the US in 1996 we made a commitment to stay in close touch with those we left behind. A major part of that commitment has been getting together for a week every year with our 20 plus UK family. This year we splashed out and booked a villa in Northern Tuscany with 12 acres of grounds, frescoed halls, two swimming pools and even its own chapel. While all these details proved to be broadly accurate, the modern-day reality of our Tuscan villa was not as we expected.

The villa is in the Apennines high above Florence and enjoys a climate cooler than the plain below. The local town does not get much tourist traffic, so the locals were amused and confused by the mix of Americans and Brits who had ascended to their town. Our home for the week had clearly been a marvelous house in its time with dominating views of the town and surrounding mountains. Apparently, Mark Twain stayed there in 1904. I just hope the plumbing was in better condition back then.

Our first day at the villa was a trial in readjusting our expectations of what should work in a house. Water from the faucets came to be regarded as a good thing whether it was warm or cold, finding a toilet that would work was an adventure itself, as was discovering an electrical outlet to charge a phone. The expansive grounds were overgrown with weeds, and dead limbs from ancient monkey puzzle trees were strewn in the front of the house.

As the initial frustration began to settle down, and we focused more on the wonder of our location and less on the lack of modern conveniences, it also became apparent that our villa was probably the last major asset of what was once a well to do family. Two brothers were struggling to keep the villa running, and one appeared to have pretty much given up. Within the house I found many cupboards stuffed with papers going back over a hundred years, which included the awards and qualifications of a former family patriarch set out in painstaking handwriting.

As I wandered around this place of faded glory I could not help but reflect on the responsibility we all have to leave our affairs in some sort of manageable order. Of course, this covers estate planning, and clarifying how assets should be distributed, including giving “permission” to dispose of long held family assets if needed. But, just as important, this means not leaving a lifetime of paperwork for our heirs to sort out. Our two hosts seemed condemned to fight a losing battle to manage the family villa and its contents.  

Despite the lack of home comforts our Tuscan adventure was truly marvelous and created memories which are especially precious when family is spread so far apart. It also provided me with the sobering reminder of how much work is needed to prevent a bequest becoming a burden.

Richard Rushton