We're not really as sophisticated as we'd like to think. A little over a century ago my great grandfather was contemplating the biggest decision of his life. Whether to take a risk on and take the family on a journey to an unknown destination or stay and live in poverty in 19th century Italy. How did he make his decision?
It is a tradition in northern Italy to build and set fire to an enormous bonfire on the feast of the Epiphany in early January. It has its orignins in pagan roman rituals. Its surrounded by superstition. A figure of a witch is burnt atop the bonfire symbolising the end of all the bad luck of the past year and clearing the way for the next. The direction in which the smoke blows is also a portent of things to come. Blow one way and it will be a good year. Blow the other and it heralds disaster.
Here's an excerpt from my story. The night the decision is made.
The men have separated into two groups now. One group is highly animated and deep in conversation the other drifting off towards the tables. I approach my father and take his hand. He looks at me and smiles and then looks at the bonfire which is now a raging volcano cracking and snapping as it accelerates towards its climax.
‘Look Dominic. Which way are the sparks flying?’ I look to the peak of the fiery mountain and see a spray of sparks explode from the top.
‘Which way is that?’ I ask pointing to the far side of the square. They are blowing away from us, neither towards where I know the mountains begin nor towards the sea and Venezia which I know lies to the south. ‘Is that Milano and the River Po?’
I have learnt the geography of my country from maps on walls and views out my classroom window. Signor Batistuzzi takes us out into the school grounds and has us first face the mountains. This is north he tells us. Then we pretend we can see Venezia to the south. He teaches us north and south and then tells us that even further south lies Roma and the ancient civilizations of the Romans. And further south still the islands of Sardegna and Sicilia where the Italians speak another language, eat different food and have black skin.
To the north lies Austria and beyond the mountains countries with many cultures and many languages until there is nowhere left to go. Only ice and frozen wastes. Signor Batistuzzi does not tell us much about the east except to say that if you go far enough you reach the lands of China and of silk and mystery. And even further lie the islands of the Pacifique, undiscovered islands of mystery and magic.
He has never been east of Udine but of the west he has many stories. Many sound like another country and some are. He tells of getting lost in the richest streets of Milano, of travelling on steam driven trains between cities, of lakes a large as seas and of his own home, once part of Italy, now France.
‘Milano is West?’ ‘ Yes’ confirms my father. ‘So the sparks must be flying…’ and here I stop and face the invisible mountains and repeat my learnt by heart compass points mantra. If I raise my right arm it points in the direction of the disappearing sparks. ‘It’s east papa. They are travelling east.’ My father hesitates.
‘Another unproductive year with another poor harvest’ my father observes. ‘The signs are clear. We will not be here to see another summer Dominic.’ He says this quite calmly. We both look towards mama and Marietta whose aprons swirl as they move between tureen and table ladling out portions of hot soup. I wait but there is no more information forthcoming. He pats me on the shoulder and pushes me towards the feast.