I didn’t think the realisation of where I was would happen so quickly nor did I envisage it would be quite so confronting. Quietly sitting on the balcony on my first morning in Italy, I was enjoying the panoramic view and a large cup of strong coffee. I spied my aunt and uncle amongst the trees behind their vegetable garden, and at first glance thought they were wringing out sheets together. On closer inspection it became clear they were killing and skinning rabbits! (I have spared you the photos). The scene brought back memories of my father and my childhood in the suburbs of Melbourne and I clearly remember my brother and I squirming as we watched my father kill our chickens that no longer produced eggs. My father took it all in his stride and I don’t ever think I saw him flinch once – it was a job he’d done since his childhood, a normal part of everyday life in the country.
I’m nicely nestled in a valley between some magnificent mountains in a small town called Samolaco in far northern Italy. My father was born here, his parent’s house is still standing but now vacant and unfortunately embroiled in legalities and sub-division. Most of my aunts, uncles and cousins live here and I am finding it strange that I don’t know them very well. It’s been 17 years since my last visit so that might have something to do with it and I am doing my best to reconnect with them all.
My family here are mountain people. They walk, hike, cycle and ski. They are fit and healthy. They tend the garden, look after their livestock, go hunting for mushrooms and deer, make preserves, wine, tomato sauce and sausages. It’s a far cry from catching the 112 tram from West Preston to work and eating ready-made Nori rolls from my favourite haunt on Little Collins Street. Mostly what I am eating is straight from my uncle’s garden and orchard. The lettuce is silky and tender, the tomatoes deep red and juicy, and the eggs from his chickens are the reddest I’ve ever seen. Funnily enough I haven’t had rabbit yet.
For the past week I’ve been living in a small summer-house in the Valchiavenna mountains with my cousin Luisa. It has changed so much since the last time I was here. The mattresses are no longer made from collected leaves, there is now running water and a method to heat it, and solar electricity. Once the walk from the car was an hour and a half, but today the road has been made and it only takes five minutes. There is an old photo on the bedroom wall of me sitting on the grass in the sun brushing my teeth with a few buckets of water close by. While nostalgic about this scene I am glad that I can now use the bathroom.
Some things though, are still quite primitive and I think these are what make this place all the more special. The cantina (or cool room) is constructed from tree branches placed together to make an enclosed space that sits in the shade of a pine tree. Our fridge is the windowsill and inside food is kept in an old-fashioned meat safe. We’ve been collecting kindling and lighting the stove to make dinner and heat the living room, and have spent nights playing Italian card games and drinking homemade wine and my aunt’s delicious blueberry grappa. I don’t think I have ever experienced such silence and serenity, this place is truly beautiful.
Not one for being idle for too long Luisa has taken me on several hikes in the area. The guide book says they are ‘gentle’ walks but this Thornbury girl has a completely different opinion. I’ve huffed and puffed my way over mountains, through valleys and streams, dressed wounds on my delicate city feet and nursed sunburn on my pale winter skin. ‘The sun up here doesn’t burn’, my cousin informed me. Wrong. I’m a delicate flower from the city, I burn! The views of course were so amazingly stunning and worth every painful, wrongly placed step. Looking around I can appreciate why my family love it so much and it’s wonderful to see how much the mountains are part of who they are.
The weather has been amazing, and has helped me enjoy my time here so much more. I keep getting told that I have brought the good weather. Makes a nice change from the reception you normally receive when people find out you are from Melbourne. While I’m soon to depart I know that I will probably be back in the coming months. ‘Great’, my cousin says, we can go back up the mountain. ‘It’s so beautiful up there with the snow. Although’, she adds, ‘you know the pipes are frozen so we have to melt the snow to use for drinking and cooking’. Hmm. We’ll see.
Here’s a link to some more photos of the region.