My train is travelling fast, cutting through fields where the new wheat is growing. From my window, I can see trees covered in show-white cherry blossom and rows of hazelnut trees marking the ancient boundaries of this rural landscape.
When the train stops in Bussoleno, a small medieval town closer to France than to most Italian cities, I get off, and from the platform, I can see them. The mountains. They look majestic. The snow is melting in some places, tracing the contours of the alpine valleys’ green pastures, and unveiling that same landscape that, 70 years ago, hid young bands of partisans resisting the Nazi occupation and Fascist troops in the months that led to Italy’s Liberation in 1945.
Ugo Berga, the 93-year-old man I have come to interview in this mountain town that was awarded a bronze Medal of Military Valour for its collective contribution to Italy’s War of Liberation, had to hide in these mountains too. Up there, where the vegetation is sparse, Ugo and his band had to find ways to survive while stubbornly sabotaging the enemy for the last two years of the Second World War.
Ugo doesn’t look 93. As I enter his apartment, he greets me with a warm, firm handshake and introduces me to the lady who’s just opened the door. “She’s one of my two carers,” he tells me, “though, to be honest, I’m the one who takes care of them,” he proceeds to clarify with a big smile. The moka on the stove top starts to gurgle and sputter, and the lady serves us espresso in a Japanese coffee set that has been in Ugo’s family since the 1930s. He’s wearing a pair of fashionable Ray-Bans.
Ugo has shared his story of resistance many times in the past. Today, however, he’s agreed to narrate it to me from a slightly different perspective. Rather than focusing on war, loss and victories, he’s going to tell me a story about food, land and community.
Seventy years ago, when the English and Americans were liberating southern Italy, Mussolini and the troops still faithful to him allied with the Nazis and occupied much of northern Italy in a desperate attempt to freeze historical time. Anyone not on their side would be shot.
At the time, Ugo was 21. He was spending the summer months in these mountain valleys with his mother, aunt and grandmother. City bombings in nearby Turin had intensified, and part of his family was Jewish, so these landscapes offered them much-needed shelter.
In 1943, the valley towns bordering with France were placed under siege. The following year, the Nazis were controlling the entire river, the railway and the two major international roads that cut through these mountains. Ugo could no longer travel through the valley.
Ugo’s band developed a tight, harmonious interaction with the land and its local protagonists to survive.
Instead, he joined a group of rebel soldiers, hiked up to the tallest peaks and lived in mountain huts for 20 months, organising the local Resistance with his comrades.
“The entire valley floor was blocked by the Nazis and Fascists. Above, from 500m [above sea level] up, there were partisan bands. There, we were in charge,” Ugo explains, as he drinks the last sip of espresso from his tiny cup, making sure not one drop goes to waste.
In this apparently hostile alpine landscape that managed to offer them hiding, food and shelter, Ugo’s band developed a tight, harmonious interaction with the land and its local protagonists to survive.
“When bands grew bigger and formed brigades, we had an office closer to the valley floor whose main task was to find food. If we lived at 1,600m [above sea level], they were down at 800-1,000m, in a forest of chestnut trees. They stayed in a hut where farmers stored their tools. These kids would try to get potatoes, butter and some vegetables from the farmers. Perhaps eggs, rabbits and chickens too,” Ugo tells me. “Sometimes farmers would give us food for free, but if we had money - which was rare - we’d pay for it all. Otherwise, we’d write them a voucher and commit to pay them back once we’d have the money. I know that, after the Liberation, the newborn Italian government paid them back.
“In the summer, there were shepherds with their herds high in the mountains too. They’d give us some cow’s milk, some cheese. Sometimes a goat, a lamb, some meat,” Ugo continues.
And so partisan bands drew part of their strength from their tight connection to the local ecosystem of food forests and green pastures. This earned them the benevolence of shepherds and farmers alike, who risked their lives to feed and hide the rebels.
Food came to represent more than simple nourishment. It powered coordinated acts of sabotage to cause the collapse of the enemy’s transportation system, together with actions of spontaneous solidarity to help rebuild valley towns arbitrarily set on fire by the Nazis. It helped partisans develop networks of trust within an isolated population under siege, and create an alternative sense of community based upon fairness.
“Our meals were convivial. We’d cook and eat together in our mountain hut,” Ugo tells me. “We’d eat rice every day, I remember that very well. We had rice for 20 months because another band had managed to get a huge quantity of it from the region’s paddy fields out East, and they had decided to distribute it. I remember we had these big army stock pots that we’d fill with water. We’d build a cooking fire with the wood we could find, then we’d put two blocks of butter and add the rice. This… every day.”
And in these temporary moments of shared tranquillity around a table, Ugo experienced true community, or - as he lets me know he likes to call it - “primitive communism”.
“Our motto was, ‘what we have belongs to everyone’. When we had some leftover rice, for example, the hungriest person could have it, not necessarily the individual higher up in the hierarchy. If we found new boots, the person with broken shoes would get them. We lived in complete equality. In brotherhood.”
In these temporary moments of shared tranquillity around a table, Ugo experienced true community.
As Ugo starts to tell me how he hasn’t experienced anything like that anywhere else, he suddenly stops and announces that he did actually feel that another time, when, in 2011, he met the No TAV movement of citizens protesting against the construction of an international high-speed rail link in those same valleys. Under those same chestnut trees. In the shade of those same majestic mountains. And once again, that feeling came upon him with the sharing of food.
“After giving a talk, these people invited me to eat something with them. They felt bad because they didn’t have any fruit, but I told them it didn’t matter. We ate there, on the grass, then I asked the group how much I’d have to pay for the meal. They told me: ‘Here you don’t pay anything. If you want, you can give a contribution, but anyone can eat here, it doesn’t matter if you can pay or not’.”
Then they added that a man had just arrived with a bag full of fruit - of plums. “Because that’s how it worked, everyone brought something to share. I hadn’t felt a similar community atmosphere since those days. It was the same way of being together,” he tells me cheerfully.
Seventy years have gone by since 25 April 1945, which officially marked the end of the Nazi occupation and Mussolini’s rule. Ugo now lives at the foot of the mountains whose peaks were once his home, and he hasn’t fully reconciled with rice yet he lets me know, before saying goodbye.
Everything has changed in those valleys, but similar stories of daring resistance, selfless community and shared food continue to unfold in a place where memory, identity and the land have created a unique sense of belonging.
As my train leaves the station, I can still see the mountains surrounding the valley. The snow-white alpine tops are starting to melt into mossy green. It’s spring again.
Photo credit: Joseph Renalias Lohen11 via Wiki Commons (CC licence)