First rule, breathe in. Breathe in and out, slowly, deeply, allowing the fresh air claimed to the heavens by jetstreams and northern winds to enter your lungs and nest a bit more of ozone and rosemary infused oxygen into your bloodstream. This is what Damiano was thinking of, as, in the morning, was walking down the steep steps from his house to the beach. The village was at its seasonal turning point, with the first signs of summer surrendering to the strict rules of society. School, work, and all other components of the well-oiled machine of the world, were starting up again their movement. And, as at the end of a seasonal play, people were abandoning roles and characters they acted for long two months. The nice man with flip flops was going back to be a lawyer and the fascinating woman with a pareo he was meeting in front of the local bakery every morning was ready to go back to her hospital, where she was a nurse. And all his friends were bound to disappear, for the long months till another summer. But each one of them would have been a new person, a new him/herself. Till, the eyes, Damiano brought to his own attention, the eyes are the same.
The first signs of this gigantic migration back to the ‘normal life’ were the declining number of boats and fishing dinghies on the bay and less and less windows open to the sunrise, with their décor of flower pots and clothes suspended, like dickensian ghosts of past fashion, to dry. Sport t-shirts and indie chicks dresses were disappearing, leaving alone the tired shirts and blue-collar overalls of local people. Breathe and remind yourself of the transient nature of a seaside village’s life, circa 2013, Damiano thought. And avoid the parish's cat, who decided to run straight into his legs.
His holidays were not over yet, he had still two weeks of time before he had to face the road and his parents arguing on how to pack their stuff, how to fill the car, where to stop to eat, how long will it take to go back home. A way to mend, he believed, that sense of departure, of leaving behind a somewhat precious part of themselves. Summer shines us through and it makes us radiant. Kind of.
That evening, when he arrived at the bench, Maria was not alone. Rebecca, her little sister was there too. “No worries, my uncle is not with us. My parents had to go to see some friends so we are going to babysit Rebecca, I am sure she will love our short stories”. Damiano smiled and said “No problems. Interestingly enough, tonight I have a children tale.” He sat on a wooden box in front of Maria and Rebecca, as some form of storyteller from another era, and he started:
“During the second world war, the majority of the men of the village were mariners at sea, or, some of them, were aligned along the coast, as guards and to defend the close large harbours. Distance from roads and other forms of focus for enemies’ troops was considered as such nobody would have ever tried to attack the village, let alone disembark troops in a part of the region with difficult access to anywhere else. The village was inhabited by mothers, children and the elderly. Kids were helping their families and some of them, the oldest, were going out to fish with their grandparents. Imagine a civilisation without dads. Somebody told me recently that Iceland was a bit like this, during the Viking period. No men but only teenagers and toddlers. So, as the war raged all around and at night it was possible to see the orange glows of explosion out at sea or along the coast, this was only an echo and the village was more than ever on its long story, conflictless….
Till, one day of end of August, the local policeman spotted a boat, a large boat. It was a tanker of the German marine, coloured of a dark green and grey tone and full of boxes. Around its hull, it was possible to see cannons and machine guns, surrounding the ship like a crown of thorns. The kids of the village got all excited, but their mothers and the elderly got worried. They hoped the ship continued further up north, but, when its silhouette changed from lateral to frontal, they knew they have been spotted. Maybe not that day, but for sure the morning after the Germans would have been arrived and not as tourists. It was that moment of the war where nobody knew who was an enemy or who was a friend. The King of Italy was deciding what to do with Mussolini and there was the sense of a pending revolution or complete climb up of war and destruction. So, technically, the village had to welcome their German Allies, but the villagers were concerned as this may have dragged American and English airplanes to bomb their houses.
Everybody gathered inside the Church, to discuss about a solution. There were many ideas, ranging from full board hospitality to the Germans, asking maybe to leave the boat anchored in some of the deserted surrounding gulfs or to run away, all of them, towards a closer village on the mountains.
People were discussing, rising their voices and mixing local issues with views about international politics. Till a little boy, called Mattia, came by and asked the priest to talk. He had on his hands a red pencil. He said ‘Let’s fake we are all sick of some strange illness, like chicken pox. We can paint spots on our face and let the Germans believe there is an epidemic and claim that many people have died. We can plant fake crosses on the beach and we can cough when they get closer. They will be so scared that they will move over.”
The priest kindly asked the little boy how he is sure this would have worked. And Mattia looked at the old clergyman and told him “well, it worked with my grandma already three times…it may be working with Germans that won’t be even get closer”.
The villagers started arguing about the idea, but, well, it was a very good one. Maybe not with that red marker the boy had on his hand, but it may have worked. They still had at the Major’s House one of the yellow flags used on ships to report somebody sick on board. And they could have more yellow signs and somebody greeting the Germans as soon as they would have started to disembark. It was not an aggression, in reality they were helping them not allowing them to get in contact with sick people.
So, the night was all about getting ready, planting crosses on the beach, getting flags from each visibile pole of the village and writing on the side of the harbour in big black letters ‘Epidemia – Non Attraccare’. They decided to write it only in Italian, as anything in German would have raised some suspicion. And the ship arrived. Close to the harbour, closer and closer. Everybody breathe and gulped as they saw the perfectly dressed German soldiers and their captain climbing into a small emergency boat and then row till inside the harbour. One of the eldest people of the village, who spoke German, and the Major, were standing on the bay, shacking a red and yellow flag, as to attract the attention of the German mariners. The major had painted some very gruesome and realistic scars on his face and his hands, dark spots with something red coming out of them. It was disgusting to look at. When the Germans got at nearly breathing distance, the old man with the Major screamed “Acthung!” and he started with some basic description of the situation. A lot of people were dead, the wells were poisoned by an unknown illnes (as the doctor was the first one to die) and the only survivors were busy burning corpses or finding scrappings of food to eat. To add to this scene, three women were carrying on the beach what was looking like a body covered by a blanket. The German Officer took off his hat, as sign of respect or to scratch his forehead. He was pondering and weighting risks of him allowing his troops and soldiers to get in contact this these people, or leave immediately. The Major started coughing in a very noisy manner and this was the end of the German Captain’s Risk assessment. He thanked the villagers’ representative for their warning and he told them that they were leaving immediately. As soon as the warship was out of the way, the villagers gathered around the church. In silence. And Mattia was there, with his mother and his grandmother, playing with other kids. They have been saved by a little cheating technique of a five years’ old boy. It was completely the contrary of any moral tale, as a little white lie had the best over good behaviour and honesty. But they were safe and the village went through the war unscathed.”
Rebecca and Maria smiled and the little girl said “It is like Pinocchio winning his fight with his father and the Fairy. Lies are not always bad, then”.
Damiano replied kindly ‘It was not a lie, it was a representation, the villagers were just playing like actors. Theatre is not lying”. But he knew precisely what Rebecca meant. As the summer’s representation started to fade away, with actors and cameos of life turning back into reality, he knew he had to breathe in all that properly fresh air.
Cinematic Orchestra - Breathe