The emigrant’s suitcase


In the south of England, finding a ruin to renovate, or a plot of land to build on is the stuff of dreams and beyond the pockets of many. We have helped three British families find their “place in the sun” in our pocket of Tuscany. Call us lousy business people: they were all past guests in our Mulino – and now we’ve lost their bookings. (But gained friends, I hasten to add).DSCN3170DSCN3163
On all my recent walks along dusty tracks and old mule paths in the Apennines and beyond, I’ve seen more ruined houses than I can count. As I walk by and see ivy and old man’s beard strangling crumbling walls, exposing fire-places that family and friends used to sit around to keep vigil in the winter months – or shelves littered with mouse droppings – I wonder about all the folk who used to live there. Up on the hill above me is the village of Montebotolino, where nobody lives permanently anymore. A few of the houses have been done up for weekenders, but many more are reduced to piles of stones. It reminds me of a simple poem.
In “Il treno degli emigranti” by Gianni Rodari (1920-1980), a peasant travelling away from his village talks about the contents of his suitcase stowed above him in the luggage rack. Roughly translated, it goes like this:
“It’s not big or heavy. I’ve packed a little soil from my village so I don’t feel lonely on my journey… and a suit, a piece of bread and fruit and that is all. But I didn’t pack my heart. It wouldn’t fit. It didn’t want to leave to travel across the sea. It’s waiting, faithful as a dog, in the earth that no longer provides me with bread. I’ve left it in a tiny field, up there on high. But the train’s rushing past and I can’t see the field any longer…”valigia-550
Who knows if the peasant ever returned? From the evidence of ruins I pass by, not many did. And now that the Italian State has imposed a tax on second homes, there are more and more country homes for sale, as owners cannot justify the payments. These simple dwellings, passed down within the family, since their ancestors left to find work in America, France, Germany or the industrial cities of Italy, are no longer viable. Once upon a time they might have been used for family holidays in August, but now it’s cheaper to go to a hotel for a week than pay these taxes.
The passing of a way of life is sad. But, there is cause for optimism too. Our friend, Piero Valentini, and his wife, Manuela, put on sumptuous lunches every Sunday, creating dishes from old recipes and based on products gleaned from the countryside. Diners flock for miles to savour this gargantuan, fifteen-course meal. And in a hamlet above our Mulino, the younger members of three farming families are diversifying, by resurrecting old traditions. We can buy hand-made cheeses and other dairy products, and jams made according to their grandmothers’ recipes. They are having to keep their livestock penned inside during the day because of wolves – but that’s a story for another day. For now, let’s just wish the youngsters well and support their efforts.DSCN2918DSCN2910DSCN2923DSCN2928


About Angela Petch

Bit of a story dreamer, written two novels - a third in progress. I love my little family and in no particular order afterwards: Italian culture, food, wine, walking everywhere I can and especially in the Apennines, East Africa, tennis when I can, reading, reading and more reading. So much to discover still before I die.
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8 Responses to The emigrant’s suitcase

  1. Patricia S says:

    Your emigrant’s poem made me cry, Angela. A good thing or a bad thing? Good, because you tell i so well, bad because he probably never went back to retrieve his heart.


    • Angela Petch says:

      Patricia, the poem was not mine. Gianni Rodari is famous in Italy for the “filastrocche” (nonsense rhymes) he used to write – initially for children, and then, for adults too. I love his whimsical style. I expect the peasant never returned and that thought makes me sad too. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Anne-Marie Lomax says:

    This part of Italy is so beautiful and you describe it all so well . It’s great how you understand so much about the history and traditions and manage to bring the ruins alive once more! A real story teller.


    • Angela Petch says:

      Thanks so much. It is quite a special corner. Maybe a little inaccessible to the typical Tuscan spots that feature on postcards and glossy calendars, but it is still easy enough to reach cities like Siena. Arezzo is another jewel. One by one our elderly friends here die and with them, their stories. So, I have a compunction to record their memories.


  3. Angela Petch says:

    In response to Jessie’s comment: the peasants who left to find work elsewhere probably had dreams that, sadly, never came true…


  4. Janet Sutor says:

    That’s a great article Angela. Evocative and descriptive, it tells it how it is. It doesn’t say too much about the beauty of the area in today’s terms when years ago people wouldn’t notice the rivers, rocks and distinct seasons. It was just the hardness of their life, keeping body and soul together which persuaded them to leave.


    • Angela Petch says:

      Yes, I often think that when I’m waxing lyrical about the beauty of the area…it is actually very hard to farm – and as for my comments to elderly friends about the beauty of wild flowers etc., they are more interested in telling me which species are edible. All understandable when needs must and there has been such poverty. Nevertheless, it IS wildly beautiful and unspoilt.


  5. jessiecahalin says:

    You are a dream weaver!


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