“Has this view always been this amazing?” — Raul, as he glimpses towards Lake Como through his car window from atop the mountains of the Italian alps.
If man is a product of the collection of experiences he/she experiences, then beauty is defined by experiences of joy, interest, a beating heart, some goosebumps and a sense of serenity. It results from the senses through visual, aural, tactile, edible and odorous stimuli. Beautiful is the scene you grew up looking at since infancy and still be amazed by how it makes you feel. It is the sparkle in the eyes, a subtle smile and the urge to stop the car, to get out and for a moment, to illude time to stop.
For a few days in April, over a long weekend, my friend and colleague Raul, invited a few friends to his small town of Premana in Italy. Premana is nestled atop a group of interwoven mountains, overlooking a valley, not too far from Lake Como and the Swiss border. A town of 2000 people, it is famed for its production of scissors and knives. Its location makes it hard to find a large flat space in the town, instead different houses are seemingly interconnected through narrow passageways and stairs. The center of town is a small square with a church dedicated to St Denis with a few benches overlooking the valley and the neighbouring mountains. It is very unlikely that one would even for a second forget that Premana is a mountainous town. “Mountainous” does not only describe the town itself but also its proud inhabitants. It is in their interests, leisure activities and fashion. They might have their own dialect and a strong attachment to what seems to be a remote rural town, consciously fighting to maintain their peculiarity, however it is still Italian. Their meals, smiles, humor, hospitality and certain degrees of commonality are shared with the rest of Italy and the other cultures of the mediterranean. In fact, I had the impression that the people of Premana are still more similar to other mediterranean peoples than to their northern counterparts.
In a way, Premana reminded me of home. Driving through luscious green trees with roads that twist and turn embracing the mountainous environment man decided to inhabit, connecting villages to each other and beyond. I constantly had deja-vu the entire time I spent there; in the wind that blows through the car window, in their light-switches, their sink, the bidet, the kitchen table cloth, the pictures and statues of catholic saints in each room, people’s mannerisms, the gathering of the entire town in the church square after mass and again, in the hospitality offered to outsiders. It is feeling self-conscious when having to greet random passersby on the street.
Life in Premana is about people. It is the sheer definition of communal life whereby family, friends and neighbours all seemingly know each other and privacy is but a luxury. On Friday, Raul invited us to meet his friends at one of two bars in town that also functions as a café in the mornings. Although in need of some alcohol to be confident enough to speak in English, hurdles in communicating were but mere details for these young people who are full of life and would have a good time with just anyone. As soon as it was known that we were foreigners who did not speak Italian, the first and sometimes only phrase in English locals knew was, “Do you like Premana?” asked with a pleasant Italian intonation. Pizzas, glasses of Spritz and wine bottles simply appeared on our table throughout the evening. I butchered my English, French, the little Spanish I know and probably cringed Dante in his grave with my non-existent Italian.
Raul’s grandparents are a peculiar couple. His grandmother who goes by the name Pinetta, is a loving maternal figure who seeks to comfort those around and in prime Premanese fashion is an active and assertive woman. Her husband is a laid-back man living with women who have strong personalities. Over Sunday barbecue, I asked them about how life in the town was like when they were younger and if they feel hopeful about the future. Pinetta reminisced about the past and voiced her discontent with how industry in town is dying and its youth yearn for life elsewhere. I sincerely did not expect an honest and pragmatic response. Alternatively, I expected it but did not necessarily want to hear it. I hoped for a romantic vision of the future that we could smile and possibly laugh about, instead I held back tears.
The Premanese’ attachment to their village, mountains and dialect made me think of my own experiences and that of my family. My ancestors who lived in a similar environment in the Armenian Highlands would be foreign to me now, a cliché city-dweller. Armenians’ attachment to micro-localities and the different village dialects they spoke are no more. It has gradually but forcefully been replaced with a supra-form of belonging. The Armenian I speak is of the Western Armenian dialect, today based almost entirely on the dialect previously spoken by those from Constantinople, who were essentially the intelligentsia. Instead of mountains and dirt roads, I grew up by the sea with cement roads, pavements and cars in a suburb of a city with around 3 million people. While my ancestors possibly knew most, if not all, the people in their town, I only know those I have been acquainted with or introduced to. This attachment to village-life and the mountains is not just an Armenian or Premenese phenomenon, but also a Lebanese one. I would argue the majority of people living in Beirut today are descendants of those from villages in Mount Lebanon. In fact, we would be asked as school kids for the name of the village we are from and I would often not really know how to answer that question. My ancestors were ethnically cleansed from their villages in Anatolia at about the same time that my Lebanese peers’ grandparents moved to the city. Should I have replied with names of Anatolian towns?
I had never truly spent a good few days in a small rural community before. In Armenia, I spent weeks going from one small town to another but I never got the chance to experience certain peculiarities of one village and my visit was not really for leisurely purposes. In the Italian alps, although witnessing one of the most beautiful sceneries I’ve ever laid eyes on, I was unable to see what my other friends, all from other small towns in their respective countries, saw. I hiked for the first time — twice. I would be lying if I said it was a pleasurable experience. I was displeased with the process, stress, fear and the outcome of what constitutes a hike. That breathtaking view was not worth the effort — for me. Our last day in Italy was spent in Milan. As the mood in our friend-group got tense because they would rather have spent the day in Premana, I, on the other hand, came alive. The noise, the colors, the different scents, architecture, streets and people made me realize that we have such different lifestyles and experiences as humans, whether its urban-rural, cultural or simply the weather. One does not cancel the other and all are equally valid. I had a lot to think and contemplate about since this trip. Bridging the past, my present and where I would end up in the future, I recognize the magic of rural life however cities like Milan make me feel alive. I somehow get distracted by the different stimuli the chaos of the city offers that I just do not spiral as much in my head to keep me busy.
If we all sought to live in the same small area of the world, life would have been unsustainable. That being said, I am filled with immense gratitude to my friends and Raul’s family for an opportunity to expand my horizons and to experience lifestyles different from my own even for just a few days. Premana reminded me of my mountainous roots, had me reimagine how my life would have been otherwise and taught me respect.
A dignified life for everyone, regardless of their past, origins, accent/dialect, lifestyles and where they stand on the rural-urban divide is worth fighting for equally.