Thursday, February 14, 2013

Life and death in a small town in the Italian Alps

This morning was beautiful.  Now that we are halfway through February, the sun climbs above the mountains by 9:30 in the morning, and the sky was clear and blue.  After playing inside for a while, Tadpole, Turtle, and I bundled up and walked across the plaza and into the heart of the village to the panetteria to get our typical mid-morning snack of focaccia from the local baker.  Tadpole is completely addicted to this focaccia - I have to remember to go buy a few slices the morning we leave so she can eat them on the plane.

My father-in-law joined us on our walk, and we rounded the corner and headed up to the ancient stone church to fulfill Turtle's regular request to see the bell tower.  We walked hand-in-hand up the cobblestone streets, pausing in one lane to greet a 3-year-old friend on her way to preschool with her grandmother.  Near the top of the hill, a thin coating of ice and snow still covered the street, leftover from the storm we had on Monday.

We turned left and made the final ascent to the church, which is tucked inside the stone wall of the town, very near the highest point in town.  We admired the bell tower, checked out the thick ice sculptures created by the rushing water of the fountain, and exclaimed over the length of the icicles hanging from the walls of the fort (they were impressively long).  Since we were there at 10:30, we thought there was no chance to hear the bells ring for at least a half hour, but it turned out we were wrong.  An ancient woman was making her way to the church, and told my father-in-law, in the local dialect, that she was on her way to have the bells ring to signify the birth of a new child in town.

The bells of the church here have three different chimes that signify the passing of time, in cycles both small and large.  The small cycle is the hourly one - the bells chime out the hours around the clock, and also toll for a while at 7am (I'm not sure if this is a call to services ...).  Then there is a certain type of ring for births, and another for deaths, tolling the cycles of time on the scale of a human life.  This town has a retirement home, which has residents from all over the valley, particularly from the upper valley which has towns much less populated and no resources for the very ancient.  And many of the young people have left this place to look for work and opportunities for their families, so the average age here, I suspect, is quite high.

Since we've arrived, two months ago, there have been at least 5 or 6 funerals, and probably more that I wasn't aware of.  One of the funerals was for the mother of the baker whose bakery we visited this morning, as we do most mornings.  I often don't know the people who pass away while we are here, or I know of them only because I know some distant relative who is a friend or relative of my husband.  I didn't go to the funeral, but I happened to come upon the funeral procession as I was coming home from one of my regular walks in the mountains above the town.

Funerals here are very different from anything I've experienced in the US, although I know that part of it is because this is a small town and everyone knows everyone else.  Since this woman was one of the people who run the town bakery, she was very well known, and people came from all over for her funeral.  I'm not sure I've ever seen such a big gathering of people in this town before.  After the funeral, which is held at the town church we walked to this morning, the people form a procession and accompany the hearse down to the cemetery, which is located at one of the lowest points in town, not far from the river that snakes along the bottom of this valley.  There was a policewoman who stopped traffic on the main state road between Italy and France, and the bells of the church tolled.

At the time (this was a couple weeks ago), I thought about how perhaps in some ways this ceremony could make death less scary and easier to accept.  To know that at the end of your life, everyone you knew would show up for your funeral and accompany you through your hometown to your final resting place, within the walls of the place you thought of as home for most of your life, and to know you would remain there, most likely with all the people you knew in life - somehow it made death feel less lonely to me.

And then today, I realized that the same woman probably had those very same church bells ring when she was born some 70 years ago.  That those bells rang for my husband when he was born, and I think also for my children (thanks to my mother-in-law) when they were born two and a half years ago.  I thought about how I have nothing like that - no ties to any place on earth.  My mom is from Pennsylvania, my dad from Kentucky, and I don't even know if their parents were from the same towns they were from.  I grew up in one town in California, then we moved to another, and then I went to two different universities and have never felt connected to anyplace.  What an amazing thing to have an entire community so tied together, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, but still human in scale.

I am not completely ignorant, though.  I know that there are down sides to living in a town like this, and I've experienced them this winter.  It can be lonely here, and the winters are cold and dark.  There is little work to be found here, and people are leaving, the population is gradually dwindling.  The shops and cafes and restaurants are closing, there are very few left, and as a result, there is not much to do here.

But hearing the church bells ring, today for a birth, several times over the last few months for deaths, helped me realize that there is something here worth having, as well.  Seeing my children surrounded by a huge extended family that dotes on them, hearing the entire town greet them by name when they are downstairs in my in-laws' shop, makes me wonder if we are giving up something that is more valuable than we are gaining, when we leave our families and our hometowns in the name of opportunity and independence.  It's hard for me to say, really, not having grown up in a place like this.  Still, I think it's some good food for thought.

(P.S. I'm sorry I don't have pictures, if I can I'll try to add some later.)

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