On our first full day in Borseda I was immediately struck by the beauty of our ancient village. Driving up the mountain the day before, we had seen it, but not really seen it because we had been concentrating on the hairpin turns in the road. We had been looking, too, for signs to our little village. There was a sign that we failed to see at first. It was located just before the village, partly obscured by foliage, no help in finding the place, but providing reassurance that we had indeed arrived.
The terrain is steep in these mountains, the Apennines, and the walk paths are many, some connecting to the Alta via dei Monti Liguri, the high trail that follows the peaks of the Ligurian mountains and overlooking the Val di Vara, the widest and longest valley in Liguria. The Alta via, connects with the Via francilia, the network of paths used by pilgrims between major religious sites. One starting point is Assisi, Italy, and perhaps the most well-known destination is Santiago di Compestela, Spain, but there are others in Italy, France, Spain, and the Holy Land.

For those who have grown up in Calice (the handful of permanent residents living in lower Borseda were born here) getting around is surely simple. But, at first, I was afraid to go far on my own. What if I got lost?  Or, what if I turned an ankle?  How would Marjorie, my traveling partner, or the villagers ever find me?  I frequently take serious hikes with my husband, and I now realize that I’ve taken for granted the sense of security I get when I hike with him. It is mostly a psychological security, but he is also strong, so he provides another kind of reassurance too. He returned to Minnesota after two weeks in Italy before Marjorie and I met in Florence and then traveled to Borseda.

Here, the birds chirp all day long and there are feral cats at every turn. The cats easily climb a few stairs and jump onto our terrazza for potential scraps. Their sense of smell is keen. They know when we are cooking in our small kitchen, and they know it when we are eating prosciutto although we have merely unwrapped it and served it. Two black cats, one with little stubs of ears, take turns jumping onto the terrace to see what food they might steal. Another calico cat lurks in the tall grasses below the terrace near the garden compost pile. I shoo them away with great animation, for Marjorie has a long-standing fear of cats that she readily admits is irrational although it was well founded early in life. We eat every meal on the terrace, at our oblong table, which we’ve covered with a colorful plastic tablecloth showing different varieties of rice. We sit comfortably in white  plastic armchairs. Marjorie sets the table for the simplest of our meals. Back home I sometimes eat on the run or while standing up in the kitchen. I realize what I’ve been missing during those hurried meals.

Sheep bleat in the distance, and at times we hear a cow or two lowing. The guard dogs near Villa Grossa, or some other hamlet, bark intermittently in unison. Churches in the villages ring their bells in the morning, at noon, and at night, but otherwise it is quiet and peaceful here. We see no evil, and with Trump as our new president, we are happy to retreat from the current events of our country and the world. But it is not long, during our second meeting with our neighbor, Maria, before she talks about her childhood memories of the Germans holding this village. Her memories are potent, and the trauma from those events still move her. She wants to talk about them, but suddenly she pulls away. She was not yet born when the war started, and her first memories of the partisans and Germans in Borseda date back to her preschool years. I can imagine Maria when she was young, her eyes wide as her parents and the villagers hid partisans under the snow. The next day Maria brings us three fresh eggs from her chickens, but she doesn’t want to talk much. What a marvel that our friendship can thrive with or without words. Eggs have never tasted so good.
Walking down the road toward Debeduse and Villa Grossa, we see a plaque in honor of Daniele (Dani) Bucchioni (1917-2013). He died on June 27, 2013, at age 94. I am surprised to learn that Borseda was an active Partisan stronghold involved in both the action in the municipality of Calice and in the region of Liguria. Of course, this would have been the perfect place to hide, thick with brush and trees and varied in terrain. Partisans from Calice (the municipality that includes Borseda and other villages nearby) are credited with liberating Aulla, a village to the east, and with providing an escape route and guides for Allied prisoners traveling across the Magra River and into the mountains further south. The Brigade operated in Borseda from October 1943 to May of 1945.
Seeing and hearing the admiration for Dani, I recall Minnesota’s political hero, Senator Paul Wellstone, who died with his wife and daughter and five others in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. For me, he was the most inspiring of all of our Minnesota politicians. We need more heroes like Dani Bucchioni and Paul Wellstone, willing to risk their own safety to fight for the ideals they know to be true. At the time of his death, Wellstone was on the campaign trail in a struggle to win his third term. Despite his bad back, he often campaigned around the state in a renovated green school bus with his wife Sheila. For this trip, though, to the funeral of a Minnesota politician, he and his wife and others took a small charter plane, which crashed as they neared the small airport of Evelyth, killing both pilots and all of the passengers. A beloved professor at a small college in Northfield, Minnesota, he liked to remind us that education is worthless if it doesn’t help to make the world a better place. He was a dove: he abhorred war. A fine orator, he openly opposed the resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Like Dani, it was Wellstone’s idealism that brought him so many followers. He was our hero and Dani will forever be Calice’s hero.
sign in Veppo about Dani

After nearly three weeks in Borseda, and a few days before our departure, Marjorie’s husband, Mike, has come to stay. Early on the day after his arrival, and without the aid of a recipe, Marjorie bakes treats in our small kitchen, not muffins or cookies, but a cross between the two, and infused with some chocolate. Sweets, we have discovered, make the neighbors, and especially Paolo and Aldo, very happy. I take the stairs up to Paolo and Maria’s to deliver the baked goods. When I arrive, the radio is on, and Paolo wants to know if we’ve heard about what happened in Manchester two nights ago. Mike had given us the news, briefly, after we picked him up at the Bologna airport following his flight from the United States. The terrorist bombing killed over twenty innocents, mostly young, in Manchester. We’d heard the news, but we were trying not to dwell on it. Maria’s eyes are full of fear as they were when she spoke of the Germans and partisans, and Paolo is talking too fast (in Italian) for me to follow. He runs down two flights of stairs to his car for a newspaper. He wants me to take it. He wants Marjorie and me to know the details of the terrorism in Manchester. I think of the elderly and the housebound in the United States, and how some watch catastrophic news stories from our country and abroad over and over again until the horrific events seems to have happened on the next block. I know that I am unable to ingest so much disaster, finding it toxic in large doses. But I realize, too, that I’d been unrealistic in hoping that we were getting completely away from our worries of the world only to discover that even in this small, remote village, the residents are checking the pulse of our ailing world. There is no getting away from the suffering, the terrorism, no getting away from President Trump and his political missteps. There is no getting away from wars, current or past, for even after they are over, their effects linger on for decades, centuries, and maybe forever.
Mary Junge and Aldo
While staying in Borseda, President Trump visits the pope. Oddly, former President Barack Obama also visits Siena, Italy, but his visit gets little press. In Parma, Marjorie’s long-time friend tells us that Ivanka and Melania looked “ridiculous” in their lace veils at the Vatican.  Ivanka’s mesh veil was attached to a headband, and Melania’s had a black lace overlay. I wonder what designer made them and how much they cost. Only Catholic queens and princesses are allowed to wear white for a papal visit, but these two had looked as if they were in grave mourning. The Trumps had, according to some Italians we met, turned an opportunity for diplomacy into a sideshow.
It is a tradition for the President and the Pope to exchange gifts during a visit like this. For his part, Pope Francis gave Mr. Trump a medallion with an olive tree on it, then explained “This is a medallion by a Roman artist:  It is an olive tree, which is a symbol of peace...(it has) two branches, and a division of war in the middle.” Mr. Trump responded, “We can use peace.”  The pope said, “It is with all hope that you may become an olive tree to make peace.” Mr. Trump answered, “I won’t forget what you said.” So, I pray that our president’s memory holds, and that his will for peace grows stronger every day.
On our last night in Borseda, Paolo uses his church key to open the doors to the village church and give us a tour while Maria sweeps the cement apron by the front door. The church is bigger inside than it appears on the outside. Paolo explains that at one time it served the 500 to 600 residents living in Borseda. He and his sister, Maria, live in the family home built 500 years ago. Paolo lived and worked in Australia for a time, but Maria has always lived here.
 Paolo showing the church to Marjorie Eisenach
There is a small electric organ in the church, which Mike turns on and plays while Marjorie and I look around. Paolo opens a door to a narrow room that holds a priest’s robe, and he reaches into a low cupboard to pull out several books filled with names and corresponding birth and death dates. “Is your name in here”? I ask. “No, before,” he says. “It was before me.” Soon he is ready to close up the church, and he drives off in his car to a neighboring village. Marjorie and I are flustered. We have brought small wrapped gifts for him and Maria, and we sense the pressure of oncoming grief over our departure. “Tomorrow,” he says. “You give tomorrow.”  But the next morning he is not home at 8:00 as we are preparing to depart. We have train connections to make, with Marjorie and Mike going on to Venice and Lake Como, and with me bound for Rome for two days before flying home. We give Maria a small present, and she has a gift for us too, a small sack of scented rose petals. She knows that we have enjoyed her roses and their strong perfume. These past weeks, with her permission, we cut several stems of roses for our dinner table. Marjorie places packages for Paolo in her hands. We talk a little more, trying to say goodbye as best we can. Marjorie and I then take turns embracing Maria. We don’t know when we might return again, or if our friends will still be here. When we have no more words, when we have nothing more to offer, we simply turn and walk away, as she did on the day she brought us fresh eggs.

  By Mary Junge 

Navigating in the Mountains

From our sunny terrazza in Borseda, I watch one of our neighbors, Maria, as she tends her flowers each day. The flowers that she lingers over are the tall purple irises.  Watching the slow way that she touches them with affection, I begin to think of them as her children.  But from neither the road nor our upper terrace can I discern how to reach Maria’s garden, which I long to see up close.  It seems clear to me where to go only when I am leaning over our terrazza railing, but each time I try to find the garden from the road, all clarity dissipates.

 Finally, I decide to try walking in a new direction, one that is counterintuitive, going first down to the cantina where Paolo showed us the additional wood for our stove, which provides heat for our apartment. Then, I begin wandering the sentieri (paths) of the village.  I hear a noise around the corner, and follow the sound.  An old fellow is opening a padlock on a door. We chat a little. Where do I live? he would like to know.  “The Rensing place,” I say, and to that, he gives me a blank look. I realize later what I should have said: “Ellen’s place.” Ellen Kochansky is the director of the Rensing Center in South Carolina as well as this Rensing outpost in Italy, and her name is well known in the village. We chat a bit more, exchanging names. He is the aimable Giuseppi with the big grin, and he sends me off with a hearty “buon passeggiata.”  Further on, I come across another garden and more irises. These are even larger and with more variety of color, though not of the delicate variety of Maria’s fiori.

 There are some solid yellow, purple and lavender, and purple with white.  I continue walking, and then I suddenly see Maria in her backyard, there with the tall purple iris. I have arrived.  She invites me to take a look. There is a huge rosemary bush, lots of sage, begonias on the verge of blooming, some apricot trees with fruit that Maria says she can’t use, perhaps due to blight, or perhaps because it is too early in the season, along with lots of other plants and flowers that I can’t name. She points to a couple of houses and talks with some distress about the “abbandonate,” the abandoned dwellings in the village. Some are owned by Italians who come for vacations or weekends. Some are owned by the Swiss and others who come here only rarely.  The abbandonate give the place a peaceful, quiet air for the low density, but with a tinge of melancholy too. Maria shows me a set of stairs at the edge of her lawn. They lead directly to our lower terrace.  Taking the stairs would have been the simple way to reach her yard, but I hadn’t thought to investigate our lower terrazza, which seems to be the roof of the cantina (storage area for wood below us).  We cross over the lower terrace every time we enter the green door to our building, so how could I have missed the stairs? Of course, we have not learned yet to slow down; we are still rushing without fully seeing, though it is evident that there is no need to rush here.

So much is hidden in the mountains with its many levels, valleys, creeks and canals.  Surely it was the reason the Partisans hid here during World War II. But the Germans found this place, and they controlled the village.  Maria recalls it with ambivalence, though she was a young child, having been born at the start of the war. She can’t help thinking and talking about it, but the topic is painful, and she then veers from it. She remembers clearly how the Italians hid the Partisans under the snow, and how the Germans sometimes lit buildings afire to roost out those hiding. She has lived here all of her life, and she now lives in the home her ancestors built 500 years ago, along with her brother Paolo. Much is breathtakingly beautiful and easily seen, but there is so much more unseen that is camouflaged or elusive.  And it is not only the sentieri that are challenging to maneuver: the roads can be equally difficult--if you aren’t a local used to navigating without well marked signs. While you may set out to find a destination, and while it is quite possible to find it eventually, often something better appears along the way before your destination.

On our first day in this region, we took the train from Florence, then rented a Fiat with a manual transmission at Hertz in La Spezia. Margarie knows Italy well, having lived in Bologna during her college years.  Best of all, she has driven in Italy during several of her vacations here, and she can drive a stick shift!  The attendant at Hertz hadn’t heard of Borseda, so we had no help with directions from her. She had no idea which route to suggest, but luckily a man waiting to rent a car for himself gave us a few instructions, which were reassuring even if we didn’t end up using them.  We soon put all bets on my phone’s GPS, going right when the helpful customer had said to go left out of the parking lot.  I was the navigator, a term I use loosely since I am not particularly skilled at map reading, and I directed Marjorie to follow along on the map as we traveled.

We seemed to be making satisfactory progress.  We even managed to find the large grocery store, Conad, in the neighboring village of Ceparana. There we stocked up on food for the coming week, and then we continued up the mountain.  We passed through Calice al Cornivoglio, and we were beginning to feel confident (overly confident as it turned out).  Mountains and valleys are not kind to GPS systems, and we were soon off course, turning around a couple of times, backing the car down a steep driveway from a house under construction, and ending up in Santa Maria, east and a bit north of where we thought Borseda was, though it was so small that it did not make our map.  

It was about 5:00 p.m. by now, and we had wanted to get to our abode early enough to get settled by nightfall.  We spotted a bar/hotel, the Stella Alpina, and we went inside where we met one of the owners, Franca.  She showed us a map on the wall, and unlike our road map, the village of Borseda was clearly marked on Franca’s map.  We followed the road down the mountain, slower now, to the turn we needed, and there was the sign for Borseda, with its upper and lower sections.  The next day we’d make our first of several attempts at finding the nearby town of Veppo, which Paolo spoke of with appreciation.  We would surely want to go there for its groceries and restaurant, and perhaps we’d eat there one day at an agriturismo.  The road to Veppo eluded us for days because the turn onto it was just outside of our village.  To take that road we must turn left immediately as we are exiting the village, but we hadn’t even noticed that turn previously.  Of course, like so much else, it had been there all along, right under our noses.

By Mary Junge

A Firenze La Sesta Volta

Before arriving at our writing residency program in Borseda, Rensing Center’s Ligurian outpost, we spent four days in Florence.  What would you do if you were returning to Florence for the sixth time and had seen all the major sites and some minor ones several times?  Of course, you would go to the places that you had missed seeing and return to the places that you loved the most.

So, we visited spots that we had never seen but had heard about, like the Museo Davanzati, a museum that offers an excellent example of what a palatial home was like in the 15th century.  We revisited the restored Orsanmichele, a church which has always been my personal favorite, but had been closed for many years while it underwent substantial restoration.   The statuary on the outside of the church is reason enough to visit. Famous sculptors of the 14th and 15th century executed 14 masterpieces.  Each statue was commissioned by a different Florentine guild.  But for me the most arresting piece of all is the marble tabernacle constructed by Andrea Orcagna between 1349 and 1359 that houses “la Vergine col Bambino con Angeli” (“the Virgin and the Christ Child with Angels”), painted by Bernardo Daddi.  This is a painting that no one should miss seeing.

Orsanmichele just feels like a holy place, although amazingly enough, at one time it was a grain warehouse, which also helps to explain the unusual layout of the church.  Lucky for us, our visit to Florence included a Monday morning when the Museo del Orsanmichele is open and offers free admission.  Many of the original statues that used to be displayed externally are now housed internally in the museum on the top floor of the old granary.  Up here the museum windows afford the visitor an amazing 360-degree panorama of Florence.

We went to Ognissanti, a church on the north side of the Arno, a bit away from everything else, that offers a Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, and we revisited the renovated Santa Maria Novella, which has returned the famous crucifix by Cimabue to its original place and has opened more of the entire monastic complex including the cloister with numerous tombstones.

We stopped by the so-called “Casa di Dante,” a must see for all Dante groupies. We also saw Santo Spirito, as we had somehow missed this capolavoro of Brunelleschi before.  It is well worth a trip, especially if you have just been to the nearby Santa Maria della Carmine, which is famous for its fresco cycle in the Cappella Brancacci, painted by Masaccio and Masolino and completed by Filippino Lippi.  The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is reason enough to visit.  
We revisited another personal favorite, the Bargello. There is just way too much to see at the Bargello, even after numerous visits.  Last time we were there in 2014, there was an excellent exhibit of Bartolommeo Bandinelli’s sculptures.  Bandinelli had been unknown to us before that visit, but now we see his work in other museums and he has become a favorite Renaissance painter and sculptor. It is downright impossible to pick a personal favorite piece of sculpture at the Bargello.  Should it be Donatello’s David, Giambologna’s Flying Mercury, or Michelangelo’s Bacchus?  Don’t ask me to decide.

The museum where we spent the most time was, fittingly enough, the Uffizi, where we spent over five hours.  This included a quick lunch at the outdoor cafĂ©, which has a tremendous view of the Piazza della Signoria and Santa Maria del Fiore.  We still didn’t see everything that the Uffizi offers, but we felt like we had seen a lot and were lucky to have purchased a Firenze Card and were able to avoid the interminable line that snaked around the Uffizi courtyard.

Then we were off to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the view and San Michele al Monte for magical beauty.  That’s right, San Minato in the Mountain.  The church is on a mountain overlooking Florence from the south east.  It is one of two remaining examples of Romanesque architecture in Florence and it, too, just feels like a holy place.

Our personal hit parade also included seeing the inside and outside of the octagonal baptistry in front of the Duomo aka San Giovanni.  The baptistry offers an inner dome laden with golden mosaics and external doors that are jaw droppingly beautiful.  It is dedicated to John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint.  This is where Dante was baptized.  I have been captivated by his description of “my beautiful San Giovanni” in Canto XIX of the Inferno, from the moment that I read his description I could feel his love for this sacred place.  In this canto Dante describes seeing a child drowning in one of the fonts and how he broke an edge of the font in his attempt to save the child.  A thoughtful justification of what could have been a crime and provides a telling explanation of his actions and love for his native city.    

-Marjorie Eisenach

You are here now: Thoughts from my time in Borseda

 I learned something important while in Borseda. I learned that I often don’t fully appreciate things until they are about to end. It’s at that time that I give myself the space to reflect — and that’s no way to appreciate the life one is given.

Of course there was space for writing. For that I am very grateful. An ancient village house, perfectly furnished, in a stunning setting: what more could a writer ask for? Even winter’s last chill didn’t take away from this. (though it certainly helped that my husband, Austin, who was with me is a sorta wood-burning-stove-whisperer) And the delicious (and cheap!) homemade wine from two villages over helped with both the cold and writing too. In Borseda, I finished up an essay that was later published in Guernica. I read, a lot. I dreamt of ideas for future projects.  

But it was departing from Borseda when I think the real gift of the place hit me: I had spent the month in Borseda worrying about what comes next and this took away from fully breathing in life in the Calice valley. It’s beautiful, laid-back Italy, so close to the beaten track, but off of it enough so that you feel removed from the world. It’s the peace that comes from such a place of splendor, of beauty, of ancient ways, that forces us to slow down and teach us just what we need to learn.

— Laura Kasinof

In the Village of Borseda

A view of Veppo (5.3 km from Borseda) The town of Veppo In mid-July Borseda is ripe with plums that overhang from trees...