So, it’s a bit cold in Italy right now. And why not? It’s February! I look out my window at the white valley, listen to the tramontana (north wind) howling, watch the snow swirls. It’s beautiful.
We’re snowed in and probably will be for 4-5 days, but we’re warm and cozy with plenty of fire wood and provisions. We were expecting this storm and stocked up the morning before it hit hard. It’s a little inconvenient that we can’t get out of our valley, but as long as we stay healthy, we’ll be fine.
Being snowed in, I took this opportunity to hike over to our neighbor’s house. I don’t visit them nearly enough and the two matriarchs of family are now in their early 80s. Their husbands are long gone, two of their grown children own half of the house, the other children, grand-children and great-granchildren have moved to various cities. They don’t want any part of the farming life that this family has endured for over 100 years.
We talked about the weather, of course, as we sat by the crackling fire in the kitchen, sipping their Vin Santo. The older sister had just come in from the garage and said with an embarrassed smile that she had just put her laundry in the dryer. The dryer! She smacked her forehead. She cannot believe what she has now: a washer and dryer, an electric garage door, heat, running water, electricity, the Internet for her grand-daughter, freezers, walls that don’t let in any air. They live in a modern house now on their property, their old stone farmhouse having been destroyed in the earthquake in 1985.
Then the stories started. Memories of past winters, their diga freezing and not being able to haul water, farm animals freezing to death, no running water, no electricity, no heat. They told these stories with hilarity, shrugs of shoulders, “what can you do…that’s the way it was”, isn’t our life completely different now…
And then came the story of the winter of 1944. Their husbands and brothers and sons were fighting the Germans as they rampaged their way through Umbria. They didn’t know if their loved ones were still alive–so many men had already died during the war. When the Germans approached Umbertide and the surrounding hills, most of the women of Montone had to flee to the hills.
It was a winter worse than today and it lasted for nearly three months. They hid in the mountains between Montone and Pietralunga for five months. They hauled what wood and water they could find, they slept under thin blankets in old stone hovels, they killed small birds and rabbits with stones to roast over their open fires, risking being discovered by the Germans. One woman gave birth to a little girl; she didn’t make it, she died a week later.
April 1944 brought the bombing of Umbertide, a sad mistake on the allies’ part. In June, the British troops, including the Indian 10th Infantry Division, arrived in Umbertide and liberated it. Fierce fighting continued in the surrounding hills, and Montone was finally liberated on 6-7 July with the British troops and the Italian Partisans engaging in fierce fighting against the Germans. Hand-to-hand combat, house-to-house searches, 20 Germans killed and 85 prisoners taken.
The women of Montone descended the hills on 8 July to be reunited with their village. My two grand dame neighbors returned to their farmhouse and land to rebuild their lives. Not many husbands of Montone returned; there was tremendous loss of life. But they looked forward to the warmth of summer, water in the diga, an actual kitchen in which to make pasta, a patch of garden to grow their beloved tomatoes and other vegetables, and above all, a fireplace that would be safe from enemy eyes for future winters.
It was time for me to go. The wind chilled me to the bone as I trudged up the 300 meters across the fields to our house. I was freezing…and then I stopped dead in my tracks. Freezing? In a down jacket with a fur hood? Snow boots with furry insides? Coming home to a house with radiators, a wonderful stufa, lights, rugs, eider down quilts, three incredible kitties, a loving husband. Freezing? Right.