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