We are often asked why we spend our winters in England and not in Italy. ‘Haven’t you got it the wrong way around?’ people comment.
Where we live in summer, at 600 metres asl in the Tuscan Apennines, the winters can be harsh. Temperatures can plummet to as low as -15 degrees centigrade. The local farmers are used to clearing roads and preparing for this eventuality. Their way of life is governed by the seasons.
In my second novel, “Now and Then in Tuscany”, I describe how shepherds and herdsmen travelled each winter down to the coast with their livestock. It was an annual trek that continued until the late 1950’s.
“Life followed the pattern that mountain folk from the Apennines had kept to since Etruscan times. Each year our men, boys and sometimes whole families continued to leave for the Tuscan coast, as autumn deepened its hold on the peaks.
“Old sayings are founded on truth and experience and the elderly would mutter as they cast their gaze to the mountains: ‘Quando l’Alpe mette il cappello, vendi la capra e compra il mantello.’ And indeed, when the Alp of the Moon donned its hat of snow, peasants who knew they were bound for the coast would sell a goat to buy a cloak and prepare for their journey.”
(From Chapter 27 of “Now and Then in Tuscany”).
I have a well-thumbed edition of a book written by a local author, Marta Bonaccini “A Veglia dalla Bice”. I love to dip into it to read of traditions followed by the mountain folk. As I mentioned in my last blog, veglia means a gathering by the fireside with neighbours and friends. Whilst stories and sayings were exchanged, hands were never idle. Boots would be repaired, trousers darned, a basket patched up or corncobs stripped of their outer husks to use for stuffing mattresses. Most of the young menfolk were away on the plains, so women, children and elderly kept each other company. Prayers were often recited by the fire, the villagers worried for the safety of their men working in an area rife with malaria.
‘Fatto il pane, ‘mazzato la troia, lascia che bufi, lasci che piova” – In winter, if the peasants had been able to slaughter a pig, and bake their bread, they were fine. There could be snowstorms aplenty, but they didn’t care if they had food for their bellies. I love the word for a snowstorm in Italian – “tormenta”, depicting a flurry of snow teasing and playing with the landscape.
The above is one tiny example of the proverbs, guessing games, songs and stories in this little book. Bice was an old lady who, sadly, died just before the book was published. It is crammed with her memories of how country people lived in the upper valley of the Marecchia. It is a fascinating record of a rhythm of life that risked being forgotten.
And that is why I wanted to write my second book, to record a significant era that is now over. The transumanza does not happen anymore but it was a huge influence on the lives of my local friends. If you want to find out more, here is the link for Now and Then in Tuscany
Transhumance is a type of nomadism or pastoralism, a seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. … (Wikipedia)