The turning point of our holiday (in the sticks, on a mountain surrounded by goats, mud, country folk and rather a lot of rain - at least on the weekend in question) came when we were invited to the village festa. This in itself was a success of sorts - we'd rented out a little humble abode in a village that during the harsh winter months has a live-in die-hard population of ….one. In the summer all the occupants under the admittedly very picturesque stone-slate rooves topping the fifty or so houses, reaches metropolitan proportions of at least 200. Our holiday home chosen could be described as a cross between a tent (temperature and comfort) and a wooden hut (aesthetics and size). However what our live-in shed lacks on the inside as far as material comforts go (no washing machine, dishwasher nor hot water in the kitchen) was compensated for richly on the outside, in terms of mountains, human warmth, companionship, wine, cheese, and a beautiful view.
I say that our invitation was a bit of a "result" as anyone venturing in from surrounding cities is considered an outsider: here we were in a minuscule ever green corner of Val Sesia, a family of "Milanese" including no less a South African Brit. It wasn't exactly a passport to making friends and influencing people. However we managed after a week not only to be invited but to "take part" in the annual village fete. I nearly failed the test from the start when the infamous "Leader of the pack" and village glue in human form: a sprightly elderly gentleman named Alfonso, informed me that I would be given the chance of making a cake for the grand occasion. I rather pathetically declined, mumbling that my cake making ability was comparable to my skills in synchronized swimming. ie. zero. He sighed at me with a disappointed look yet with kind eyes as I awkwardly tried to make up for my lack of cooking skills and the gaffe by promising to buy "a really good one".
As the day came and the event unfolded we walked around and through the five cobbled streets and numerous gardens of the village stopping at various stalls offering Sangria and goats cheese, to cakes and cola. I was introduced to everyone by our friendly adopted neighbor Alfonso (I'd obviously passed the cake test despite the oven unused) including to the young Sindico ( the a town mayor). At one point an old lady (who had she been a brit would have donned blue-rinse hair) came scurrying up to me and surreptitiously, sweetly asked who I was, adding that she had been sent by "the villagers" to find out. Actually had she been a Brit she would have simply peered behind quivering net curtains before weaving a story from what she'd observed over a bone china tea cup. One 90 year old woman was sitting on the flowered draped balcony in a rocking chair observing the proceedings in the little field under her house, and being visited by the neighbors in droves - ok I guess "droves" is an overstatement considering they number about 15 - anyway she was treated like royalty. It was all wonderful to see and to take part in.
The next day the vice-leader-of-the-pack and unofficial -events organizer - younger than Alfonso yet rounder and with a passion for the mountains, the village, social get-togethers and wine (all on equal footing ) invited us no less, to the village outing taking place the following day. A two hour walk up the mountains to be rewarded by a plate of polenta, stew and liters of "vino" on offer at the rifugio at the top. Obviously we accepted and it was one of the nicest walks we'd gone on so far. Even Nina our four year-old loved it.
The next two social events were held on the same day - the most important was the children's play - organized by two roman actors "Midsummer's night's dream" was shown at the local cupboard-like theater. We'd decided to go as the local goat farmer's daughter and friend of Melitta's was in it and …well….it just seemed a nice thing to do. But it was more than that. It was fascinating. A real lesson of life.
Whilst I sat wet and shivering on the theater chair, Nina perilously perched on my knees, Valerio (back at the ranch) was taking part in the another community effort - "la cena delle miacce"(miacce are a kind of crepe, a speciality of the area - folded around gorgonzola, or Toma and ham, they are delicious). Valerio witnessed neighbors taking it in turns to cook the miacce over an open fire with use of a metal pingpong-racket shaped instrument with a long handle. Miacce were cooked with lard, effort and sweat before being offered around and swigged down with a glass of red. The whole village had been invited and then most of them, full and merry made their way down through the torrential floods to the next village to see the children's play.
As I looked around at the audience, excited kids who the night before had played hide and seek noisily under our window until past midnight, proud grandparents whom I had seen pottering in the gardens of Grampa (the village name - how cute is that?!) pruning basil , parents merry making in the aisles with toddlers weaving between the chairs, it suddenly after less than 10 days all felt very familiar and homely. Warm.
Through the clapping and laughter I suddenly realized that THIS was what a "sense of community" was all about, everyone doing their bit (even if only as spectators). The young mayor was there to take photos (ok, his twins were IN the play so I guess that's normal) Anna the local teacher and goat farmer (yes, both) dishing out homemade cakes and the elderly compliments to the young. A net of support that at Grampa and Mollia is wound so tight it becomes a security blanket, giving everyone a sense of being needed, being useful and above all being PART.
I wouldn't have swapped the children's village play for an opening night at La Scala. It (plus the other events we had been invited to) wasn't about performance nor charity but about Community.
And it is this knowledge and meaning that I hope extend and to take back post-vacation with me to Milan. Along with a generous chunk of Toma. Thank you Val Sesia.