“Mare o montagna?”
“Seaside or mountains?”
A common conversation topic, from an era where cheap air travel was not available and exotic destinations were out of reach.
In Italy we are spoiled: we have a huge choice of breathtaking landscapes and touristic destinations, to suit any taste. Seaside or mountains was a serious question, more of a lifestyle choice than a mere preference. Both had renewed health advantages and sought-after entertainment options, both had shortfalls and limitations. I’m pretty sure that the famed Italian TG1 (the leading news on TV) still airs a couple of times every summer an innovative service over the advantages of spending your holidays in one place as opposed to the other. Year after year the same footage, the same phrases: I can see them neatly folded, ready to be taken out of the archives at the appropriate time, together with ‘the festivity diet’, ‘heat wave alarm’, ‘Arctic frost alarm’, ‘la Maturita’ this year’ (high school diploma), and ‘Internet will make your child sick’. Reassuring, in a way.
Most people used to spent their holidays, at least in the North, in a place different from the one where they spent most of the year. Fresh air was supposed to be good for health. Some families owned a second house, others rented an apartment or went to a hotel. It was not just a week’s holiday like it is most common in the rest of Europe. In Italy everything closed in August for a whole month: factories, offices, every shop and commerce, apart from those in the so called ‘localita’ di villeggiatura’, holiday places, of course. For them it was the busiest month of the year.
My family was no exception. We spent months away from Milan, its pollution and its unbearable, torrid heat. We were mountain people: my father fell in love with the Alps when he was in his twenties and this is where he still spends every minute of his free time. I do understand it in a way, although I’ve grown to be a sea person. When I was a child the long, tiring, boring walks allowed me to discover something I could not have found in any other way. I saw the last shepherds, living in places to be reached only by walking: we bought cheese from them, and I can assure you that cheese bought after a five hour walk tastes completely different. I grew to understand the charms of loneliness, the silence, places remote and lost, where life style has barely changed in centuries. It was important to come to term with our basic needs, what they really are; the need for food, clean water and shelter, something difficult to grasp for a city child unless you show them, hands on. I also witnessed the most beautiful lawns and forests being destroyed by mass skying, year after year; I saw one by one our alpeggi being reached by skylifts and streets. You can’t stop modern times in the heart of Europe. But at least I saw it. And it is still there to be seen, in some remote places.
My father insisted on using some maps he brought home after serving in the Army. I think they were last updated after the first World War. In the meanwhile the paths have changed. A lot. Getting lost was a part of the fun for him, I guess, although I have to admit I didn’t buy this. In the meanwhile, I’ve grown to be very good with maps and path signals, and always bring satellite navigators if I can.
As much as I loved walking and foraging and exploring nearly forgotten villages, our mountain holidays had one big problem: rainy days. It can rain for weeks. One summer it never stopped for the whole three weeks we spent there. We never saw the nearby Monte Rosa. It is not only that it is raining: usually the clouds will be right at the level of your head and you will be lost in a grey, foggy, miserable world. Funny enough I learned not to mind the rain at all when living in Wales. I guess the attitude is bound to change when it rains most days of the year; anyway it feels different, because in Wales it rarely rains the whole day and it is never very cold. Or maybe it is just that I love the sea, even when it is raining. In the mountains rain makes me feel miserable, although there was some comfort in this misery. The first one was curling in front of the fire with a good book. Another thing we did quite often was to drive down, but I did not like it too much because I suffered the car. It was never raining at the bottom of the valley, or in Switzerland, just the other side of the very high mountain. A friend used to joke that the Swiss had enough money to pay someone upstairs and get all the sun. Actually, we always ended up having a lot of friends in the mountains, because when it is raining all you can do is to socialize. And when you socialize, you eat together, of course. One of our closest friends over the years was a family with seven children, the majority of them adolescent males, and a variety of cousins and relatives and visiting friends. Sharing dinner or lunch with them was challenging. When we did, we almost invariably included pasta e fagioli in the menu. A filling, cheap dish, good hot or cold, easy to stretch in order to feed an army. And above all, so good you are ready to take yet another rainy day.
Add the whole beans and onion to the soup, heat and adjust salt. You want quite a liquid soup here because you will cook pasta in it, so thin with some water if needed. When the soup is boiling add some pasta to it. Cook until the pasta is soft (but not overcooked, again). Serve with a generous grind of black pepper and some good quality olive oil.