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 along the road. Tomato vines climb sticks set in a triangular shape, their fruit just ripening, many not yet red. It is morning. Birds sing and roosters announce the news. One of my neighbors, Maria waves at me from her garden where she is picking basil. From where I sit, I can see the houses that border the end of the street. Many are empty now, but fill up on the weekends when their owners take a respite from work. In the distance I can see the mountains and scattered villages.

A few days after arriving I take a short walk that meanders through gardens, an old pilgrims path. Now and then I see a shrine, a statue of Mary and Jesus, a saint. Farther along, I can see views of more mountains, another garden. There's grain for hay, fruit trees, lettuce. On my way back, I see men and women in the field—the men scything the hay, shirtless and donned with straw hats—as if from an impressionistic painting come to life. Experiences like this have are now common for me in Borseda and the villages in the valley of Calice, in which it is nestled, yet I constantly wonder if I'm in a dream. I write to friends and family in disbelief of my life in Borseda, hoping that through the telling I'll be able to believe experience and that I haven't eaten an enchanted plum or wished on a magic ruby mistaking it for a stone.

On my second Sunday in Borseda, I walk to Veppo with a new friend, Donna. She is an artist from Virginia who in the summer lives with her husband in Santa Maria, a village two over from me. We reach Veppo in under an hour. It opens to the other side of the mountains. From here you can see the sunset, unlike Borseda as the landscape is expansive and faces westerly. We look down the hill to farms, grape vines, the church whose bells ring in the hour. The alps are in the distance. More plum trees line the road, blackberry bushes, wild mint. We see goats in a pasture, a garden ripe with pepper and tomato vines, lettuce, green beans. This Sunday Veppo is celebrating a saint. (I still do not know her story, so it will have to wait for another post.) A small church has opened its doors in honor of the saint. The rest of the year, its doors are shut. Later, when I walk to the church to use the bathroom, it's empty. It's heavy with the aroma of burning wax candles commingling with the scent of stone, and a kind of piety and reverence only found in village churches in which the villagers have worshiped for centuries.

Those who have come to celebrate and eat at the festival—of course there is eating!—sit at tables set in a grove of trees. Some are preparing ravioli, plates of salami, cheese. Donna and I order and wait with the others for il cibo, the food. And when it comes the plates are overflowing. Even though we share, I cannot finish it all. We drink wine, then coffee, then grappa and more grappa. And after a few hours of jovial conversation I find myself in the passengers' seat of a young farmer's car. He is driving, his aunt Laura and two men, Theo and Yaron are in the backseat. In exchange for lodging they are helping Lucca, the farmer. Theo is French and speaks English and Italian, Yaron is a New Yorker, straight from the Bronx. We swim, dive in the water, and lie in the sand. We leave as the sun lowers, the shadows grow longer. We go home to Lucca’s house, where his mother is cooking pasta that his father and Theo have made earlier in the day. The farmer's mother boils it then adds sauteed zucchini from their garden. Once she's served the pasta we add olive oil and shaved parmigiana to our bowls.

No matter how many days I spend here I think I will eternally be surprised at how contentment comes with so little effort. And though Borseda is much emptier than it used to be, and though it is isolated and I'm without a car, I do not feel trapped or lonely. Friends have come easily and quickly. I've been overwhelmed by the famed generosity of the people. A jar of homemade pesto sits in my fridge, handed to me by a woman who after seeing me passing on the street a few times invited me to her terrace for coffee and cookies. And just as I finish editing this post, my neighbor Paolo calls me to his garden to hand me a tomato bigger than my hand.

The bedroom in late afternoon

-Sarah Leslie

Borseda, Italy

I first came to Italy forty-five years ago.  Today, May 7, 2017, I find myself in Italy once again, with a friend, about to embark on a writing fellowship.  Our destination is Borseda, a small village in the mountains of Liguria, the last village on the road that leads to the Calice Valley.  On Monday afternoon after a train trip from Florence, we climb aboard our rented Fiat Cubo and head from La Spezia towards Borseda, a distance of only 19.1 miles.  The road soon becomes narrow, full of hairpin curves with more than a few pot holes. After about two hours of driving and dealing with more than one wrong turn, we arrive in Borseda, supposedly just 50 minutes Google informs us from our departure from La Spezia.   

Although Borseda is small, it is divided into two parts:  Upper and Lower Borseda.  Our home for three weeks will be in Lower Borseda in a house built in 1865.  A few years ago, the family, who owned it for 150 years, decided to sell half of their home to the Rensing Center, a non-profit that aids various visual and literary artists.
We climb the steep stairs and enter the apartment with all our worldly possessions, including many of our groceries for the next three weeks.  Our place has a small but well-equipped kitchen, a recently renovated bathroom with a powerful shower, a living room with a free standing, wood burning stove, and a small bedroom with an old, wrought iron bedframe that seems ideal for a princess.  When we arrive, everything seems to function well.  But after a few minutes, I realize that I am not able to light the gas burners of the stove.  We later find out that this is due to a block in the gas cylinder located in the cantina below our building.  The wood burning stove does not function well either, but this is due to the extreme humidity. In fact, we can’t get a piece of newspaper to stay lit, because of the humidity.  Everything at first seems strange, but interesting.  

After three weeks in Borseda we have met five people who actually live here.  Many villagers left during the last two centuries in order to make a living.  The migratory phenomenon was so extreme that there is a large sign in Veppo, the closest village to Borseda that commemorates the exodus and explains that emigration offered the former villagers a better life.  Initially, the emigrants used old mule tracks to escape.  On this rather large sign in Veppo we read that emigration afforded the former villagers both work and a better income during the Napoleonic times.  Later emigrants also went to Switzerland, France, Argentina, and the United States.  Now many homes in many of these villages have been shuttered and abandoned.  Outside many homes there are “for sale” signs.

One would need an entire lifetime to know all the small villages of this mountainous part of Liguria.  It seems that after every curve on every small road there is another small village.  We feel fortunate to have an apartment in such a beautiful village, with a rental car which we can use to do our shopping, or to take a weekend trip.
After just four days in Borseda, when we are just beginning to know this part of the world, we decide to leave Borseda for three days to visit Camogli, Genova, and San Remo and a few small mountain villages including Baiardo, Dolceacqua, Isolabona, and Busana Vecchia located to the north and west.  It is great to get away for a few days, to see an art exhibition of Amadeo Modigliani’s paintings in Genova, and to visit the town of Camogli while it actively prepares for its annual fish festival, Friol, which will happen in just two days.
We take a room in a small hotel that looks out onto the harbor of Camogli.  The hotel is called I Tre Merli, or Three Blackbirds.   I drive our rental car right down to the entrance of the harbor where the hotel is located, a totally illegal move as I find out later, because the harbor city has to set up this area for the annual fish fry.
We return to Borseda after our three-day holiday, and it seems like we are returning home, to the hearth.  We talk to our new friends in Borseda about our trip to San Remo, yet we don’t tell them that we travelled to Menton, France, by mistake, while trying to find the Handbury Garden located near Ventimiglia, Italy.
Now Borseda seems like home.  The people of nearby Veppo and Villagrossa are our friends and neighbors.  Now we have something to talk about with them.  We think that we have something more interesting to communicate after visiting another part of Liguria.
After a few days, some friends from England pay us a visit in Borseda.  Everything is a bit crazy because now there are six adults who all have competing desires.  Five of us take a walk from Borseda to Villagrossa.  We follow a well-trodden path that goes down and then up the Vara valley.  The walk is arduous.  We see goats, bee hives, alpaca, and a lovely picnic site.  There are lots of abandoned houses and a few homes where we can tell that someone actually lives.  We spot the alpaca in the distance. They seem out of place, truly surreal.
At the end of our three weeks in Borseda we take another car trip from Borseda, this time to the airport in Bologna to pick up my husband.  I have an hour free before we are due to leave, so I decide to take a walk to burn off some excess energy.  I know that there is a path that goes from Lower Borseda to Upper Borseda but I quickly lose my way once I reach Upper Borseda and take another path out of the “upper” village.  The path becomes slippery in parts and seems to disappear for a while.  I’m lost. I find myself jumping over a barbed wire fence two times in order to stay on what seems to be a path.
I think of Dante, and I am convinced that he, too, had this concrete experience of being lost in a “dark wood.”  There is a reason that the Divine Comedy is known as an allegory.  There are several levels to his story and one of them is of an actual man who is lost in the selva scura and who does not know which way to go.  After two hours, I remerge but unlike Dante, I do not see “stars” but the same path that I had taken at the beginning of my walk.
Due to my unplanned journey, instead of arriving at the Bologna airport about a half hour early, we arrive after my husband has landed and emerged from customs.  We then drive to Parma where we have lunch with some close friends, who have prepared a feast with several appetizers including prosciutto di Parma, an exquisite piece of aged Parmesan cheese, tortelli filled with wild greens, tortelli filled with pumpkin, an octopus salad, strawberries with a selection of various flavors of artisanal ice-cream and lots of champagne.

We take a tour of the central city of Parma and see the duomo, the baptistery, the Reggio Theatre, the central square with its unusual statue of Garibaldi on his feet instead of the more typical statue found in almost every Italy town of Garibaldi astride his horse, and then we return to Borseda.
-Marjorie Eisenach

La mia prima memoria

My first memory of Italy is of our arrival in Milan around dawn.  The train station seems mysterious, very, very large and full of smoke—dreamlike.  The first word that I hear spoken by an Italian in Italy is “porter.”  Although my Italian after two year of studying the language at the university is still very rough, almost nonexistent; I understand almost immediately that it is a porter who is announcing his services.  After another two hours by train, we arrive in Bologna.  It seems that the train arrives at the very last track because the walk from the train into the station is interminable.  It is very hot.  My suitcases with all my clothes for a year are extremely heavy.  I sweat a lot.
We go in a small bus to our boarding house.  When my friend and I arrive at our boarding house, we know immediately that our landlady does not like foreigners.  She doesn’t say much to us except that there will be no hot water until the end of October.  We begin our search.  We are very hungry and are searching for a restaurant for lunch. We walk everywhere in the center of the city of Bologna.  It seems that many restaurants are closed.  Every time that we find an open restaurant, inside there are only men who are eating.  We understand only later the reason for this.   It is Ferragosto, the time when all Italians take their summer holiday.  Almost everyone has left the city and the few who remain are businessmen.
Finally after many hours of walking here and there, we stop at a bar that is located only a few steps away from our boarding house.  We look at a young man who seems quite friendly and who seems to intuit that we are hungry.  He says, “A sandwich?”  Together we say, “Yes, yes, a sandwich.”  He asks us, “A ham sandwich?” We say, “Yes, yes a ham sandwich.”  These are our first works in Italian in Italy.

La mia prima memoria dell’Italia è il nostro arrivo a Milano verso l’alba. La stazione ferroviaria sembra misteriosa, grandissima e piena di fumo—quasi un sogno. La prima parola che sento parlata da un italiano in Italia, è “facchino”. Sebbene il mio italiano dopo due anni di studiarlo all’università sia tanto ruvido, quasi inesistente, capisco subito che è un facchino il quale annuncia i suoi servizi. Dopo altre due ore arriviamo alla stazione di Bologna. Sembra che il treno arrivi all’ultimo binario perché il cammino dal treno alla stazione è interminabile. Fa tanto caldo. Le mie valige con tutti i miei vestiti per un anno sono pesantissime. Sudo abbondantemente. 

Andiamo in un minibus alle nostre pensioni. Quando io e la mia amica arriviamo alla nostra pensione sappiamo subito che alla nostra signora non piacciono gli stranieri. Non ci dice molto eccetto per dire che non ci sarà l’acqua calda fino alla fine dell’ottobre. Io e la amica, Linda, incominciamo una ricerca. Abbiamo molta fame e cerchiamo un ristorante per pranzare. Camminiamo dappertutto al centro della città di Bologna. Sembra che molti ristoranti siano chiusi. Ogni volta che troviamo un ristorante aperto ci sono dentro solamente uomini che mangiano. Ci rendiamo conto solo più tardi che la ragione è il Ferragosto. Tutti sono partiti dalla città e i pochi che rimangono sono uomini. 

Finalmente dopo molte ore di camminare di qua di là di su di giù, ci fermiamo ad un bar solo pochi passi dalla nostra pensione. Guardiamo un giovanotto con un aspetto tanto amichevole che sembra intuire che abbiamo fame. Dice “Un panino?” Gli diciamo insieme “Sì, sì, un panino.” Ci dice, “di prosciutto?” Gli diciamo, “Sì, sì, di prosciutto.” Allora quelle sono le nostre prime parole in italiano in Italia.

-Marjorie Eisenach

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...