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

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