March to Athens
Day 115-XLI, from Potenza to Vaglio Basilicata, 12 km.
Day 116-XLII, from Vaglio to Tolve, 19 km.
Tolve, March 2
Yesterday at last we reached the mountain pass in Vaglio Basilicata. We enter the little village under the watchful eye of the elderly. They are all sitting in a row on the central square. Most of them were probably born here, they have known each other for all of their lives. And it’s possible that they never went far away from the village. They know the outside world from the radio first, the television later. They never got around to using internet. Then they see us arriving with our shopping carts, and their conversation begins to sparkle. We definitely made their day.
The elderly in the square are exclusively men. The women are at home cooking, or in church praying. When you venture into the little alley ways, you might encounter some of them. Little old ladies curved over their canes, dressed black as crows, spying at you suspiciously from under their veils.
Centuries of social distinction between the sexes can still be felt in these regions. In public, man commands. At home, woman is in charge. And typically, women are much more reserved than men. A couple of days ago, I met an old man on a country road and I asked him about the direction. We had a little conversation after that. From the garden of their house close by, his wife had noticed everything. And so she yelled to her husband, in dialect: “Walk on! Come here!”
“Wait, woman!” the old man answered. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dealt her a blow later on. Because woman may command at home, but she may never question her husband’s authority in public.
In the square I spoke to some of the old men, because I’m trying to find out if the stories about the briganti are still part of the popular tradition.
The men didn’t want to talk. “It’s all in the past.” And so I wonder if they really don’t know anything, or if they don’t want to share their knowledge with an outsider.
In the 1860s, when Piemonte annexed the south of Italy, they imposed their taxes on the poor peasants of the zone.
If you had the fortune of possessing a goat, it was possible that one day the tax collector of the new kingdom of Italy would knock on your door and take away your goat. The only valuable possession left after that would be your gun. You would take it, you would seek refuge in the hills and you would start a war against the state.
The period of the briganti coincides more or less with that of the Old West in America. But while the West has turned into a myth that has become part of the collective memory of the western world as a whole, the story of the briganti has been forcefully forgotten.
The history of Italy as a nation begins with a civil war. The north sent an army to the south to quel the guerilla. After years of resistance the briganti were exterminated, often their women and children as well. The state won and erected monuments to its own glory. In the official version of what happened, the briganti were painted as ruthless outlaws. Any other version was banned.
So maybe it’s true. Maybe the old men in the village square don’t know anything at all.
Come daylight we prepare to start our descent. There’s excitement making its way through the group, because of the news coming in. While we are here, camped on a lonely mountain top between the last heaps of snow, a popular revolt is spreading all over Italy. It began in the Val di Susa, where the locals have been resisting against the construction of a high speed railway for years. They are well organised, and they have become a reference for all the various popular movements.
The last few days roads, motorways and railway stations have been blocked from Sicily up to the Alps. There has been a battle at the barricades on the A32 near Turin. Various villages in the valleys have been effectively taken over by the ‘No-Tav’ partisans.
We read about in the newspaper. We want to play our part. “Let’s do an action. Let’s block the closest motorway we can find…” Many people are ready to go straight away, but the assembly urges them to be patient. Our comrades in Val di Susa have called for a general strike and a complete block of Italy next week. We will be at Altamura, we have time, and we might heed the call…