A Dream If Ever There Were One

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas break. Mine was a little complicated, for reasons which I will hopefully be able to elucidate during the next week or two. In the meantime, though, I’ll tell you about our magical Christmas Eve, which we spent in a quaint mountain village a century or two ago. We had been planning to attend this event for nearly three years, ever since we had to leave Italy just as the holidays were approaching. In the end, it was even more fascinating than we had imagined.

Although the snow had all but melted in the rain down in our own little valley town, as we wound up the mountain road, we began to see frosted trees and snowy slopes. The road signs switched from the usual incomprehensible Piemontese to some even more incomprehensible variation of Piemontese. We parked the car and walked through the crisp winter air to the village.

I have been to many living history events, from Colonial Williamsburg to the Mormon Battalion day in San Diego. I’ve also dressed up and participated in quite a few. Among other things, I’ve been a Renaissance wench, a Victorian lady, and even a Russian settler at Fort Ross. (Did you know that the Russians had a fort on the California coast?) Somehow, this one was different from any other. Perhaps it was the setting. An Italian village after dark doesn’t need to do much to seem like it was plucked out of some remote century. And this village, terraced right into the mountainside, was an even more perfect example than most. The real, flickering gas-lamps that had been set up for the occasion melted into the scenery as if they had always been there. We walked up the cobblestone streets into another world. Between the real stone houses, they had set up sturdy wooden sheds with one side open so that you could look into them. They were furnished inside just like little houses or shops from some other century. It’s impossible to say which century, since one has the impression that things change very slowly there. In fact, most of the artifacts were probably loaned out by people who were still using them, or at least still displaying them in their homes.

The first was a blacksmith’s shop. In one corner was a little donkey, and on the other side of the shop were two men, hammering away on red-hot metal. They had on long woolen gaiters, and were talking to each other in the Piemontese dialect of their own little village. It looked just like something out of a movie, except that if you talked to them, they would talk back to you, without embarrassment, and without slipping out of their roles, giving you a curious feeling of having been drawn into their world yourself. In fact, it didn’t really seem that they were playing a role at all, or at least not a role unfamiliar to them. I had the dizzying sensation that I was the anachronism, while they were just going about their normal, everyday tasks.

That same sensation persisted as we walked through the village, peering into the windows left open invitingly for us. From the toddlers in the village preschool, dressed up in little bonnets and wooden shoes, to the teenaged boys chopping wood while the teenaged girls looked on, it was all so natural and unaffected. We saw the shoemakers, conversing as they carved the wooden soles, and a family of shepherds eating dinner one room over from a sheepfold filled with sheep of an obviously heirloom breed that was no doubt native to that particular village. The village bakers were using a long wooden paddle to put their bread into the fiery brick oven, and then skillfully remove it again so we could taste it. Across from the bakery, a little band could be seen through the squat arches of the portico. They were accompanying a group of dancers, who were whirling, jumping, and exchanging partners in the energetic yet perfectly orderly manner of a traditional Piemontese folk-dance.

Other groups were carding wool, knitting, or sitting down to a gorgeous repast of very real food. The chestnut roasters offered us chestnuts, and the blacksmiths gave us a pair of nails that we had watched them hammer out. We forgot that we weren’t wearing dark shawls, headscarfs, or woolen gaiters ourselves. We wound on and on through the village, watching the little bits of village life, illuminated by gas-lamps and flickering fires. By the time we made it home, it was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve, and we slipped into bed to continue the dream. That’s how it seemed by then, like a faraway, indistinct dream in which time had shifted subtly and led us into a simple unchanging world of long ago. But in the morning when I checked my pockets, my fingers closed around those two little rough nails, and I knew it had all been real.

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