Today, the 15th August, Ferragosto (the Assumption), is a huge feast day in Italy. Traditionally, there is an exodus to the sea or the countryside. Many people return to their home villages to celebrate with families. Typically, a delicious picnic or lunch is the order of the day. No corned beef sandwiches in Italia, but plates of pasta and roasted meats, salads, cake and fruit washed down with good wine.
And it is an excuse for parties and catching up with friends who have ended up far from their home towns, usually in order to find work. In the Alta Valmarecchia where we spend our summer months, there is a variety of feste to choose from. Some of them have been celebrated down the ages but others are fairly new. There is the 45th annual frog and wheelbarrow race in Fresciano, donkey races in Caprile, in Badia Tedalda, the recent “Salita Divina”, where wine and cheese tasting is carried out (reverently) along the Stations of the Cross trail, the “Festa della Marrone” (beer festival) in Palazzi and, something I want to catch next Saturday, a play (“Il bandito e il cacciatore” – “The bandit and the hunter”) enacted in the open air to celebrate the transumanza, which I wrote about in my latest book, “Now and Then in Tuscany”.
A tradition that, sadly, may die out in our village, because there are insufficient youngsters to organise the event, is the Palio dei Castelli. This happened annually until two years ago towards the end of August. It is a jousting tournament on horseback, played out by representatives of local villages. We were honoured to take part as the Lord and Lady of Fresciano and had to parade through the street and piazza dressed in heavy velvet robes (plus tights for my husband).
It seemed incongruous at the time that two inglesi should be processing in a very Italian parade, but it shows how times change; how traditions evolve with populations constantly on the move. Badia Tedalda is a small town of 500 inhabitants but there are about forty African immigrants temporarily housed amongst us. Who knows what traditions they might introduce to Tuscany? Most are economic migrants from Nigeria, come to Europe to seek better lives. Once their papers are sorted, they disperse. It is a huge social problem and Italy bears too much of this burden. I feel the rest of Europe should be more caring about this situation. Many Italians remember how badly they were treated when they moved abroad after the war to escape dire poverty and they are always generous and charitable to people in need. My friend, Sergio, went to France. “I decided I would never treat another human the way I was dealt with when I stepped on foreign soil all those years ago.” In April 1929 members of my own family, on my maternal side, boarded the SS Samaira and set sail for New York. My grandfather decided not to stay. Who knows how my life would have developed if he had remained.
I’m re-reading Cesare Pavese’s “The Moon and the Bonfires” at the moment. The main character, Anguilla – an orphan who knows nothing of his parents and who was ‘bought’ from the orphanage – returns to his Italian mountain after twenty years in America. Slowly he pieces together the past as he had known it as a boy.
“Thus it was that for a long time I thought this village where I had not been born was the whole world. Now that I have really seen the world and know that it is made up of a whole lot of villages, I am not sure that I was so far wrong when I was a boy.”
We’re all travellers in this world in one way or another, desperately seeking something or other that might simply be in front of our eyes.