By Annika Ruohonen
For the past few days I’ve been exploring a remote mountain village called Sappada in Northern Italy. The valley is secluded amongst gorgeous, steep, snow-topped mountains Monte Sierra, The trio of Monte Terza and Monte Ferro. At the bottom of the valley there is the beautiful Fiume Piave, a mountain river that runs all the way down to Mediterranean. We have been following it on our trips back and forth to Venice. At some parts there are fantastic rapids and waterfalls, and sometimes there is just a peaceful little stream in the middle of a huge valley with limestone pebbles.
To get to Sappada you have to cross dozens of bridges and dive into numerous tunnels. My sons have already decided to count them on our way back. The longest tunnel is four kilometers long. My younger son keeps calling one of the tunnels the time warp tunnel because everything is so different in each end of it. I guess that is where we pierce into the defining wall of rock in between the sunny southern side and the secluded snowy side in the north. I keep wondering how they used to make the trip before the time of the tunnels. And I hope that the roads will be clear that morning when we have to drive to Venice to catch our flight. There are lots of broken down trees and snow on the steep slopes by the road. I keep telling myself that somehow the Italians always seem to make it work, even with those funny three-wheeled moped cars and the hair-raising traffic behavior of their fellow countrymen.
It is very quiet here in Sappada and hardly anyone speaks any other language except Italian. That suits me fine. Apparently it is quite easy for the Italians to understand Finnish and vice versa, even though the languages are not even remotely related to each other. The key to everything around here is to smile and greet everyone. Bongiorno. Buena sera. Without it you are considered extremely rude, but if you remember it, you might even get a dinner invitation to a local house. I met a local man called Luigi by the church one day. He was delighted to meet foreign people in this old village and wondered how we had managed to find our way there. He said that most of the people he knew in Sappada when he was a small boy have already passed away and he comes to visit them at the cemetery.
It is the Italian way to have the cemetery in the middle of the village so that the loved ones who have passed away can be visited every day. People stop by on their way to work and bring fresh flowers and light candles. He said that he moved away when he was little, but comes back every year to spend his vacation in his old hometown. He is 73, has 10 grandkids and a couple of them live in Finland. This discussion was the only one I have had here in English. I wouldn’t have understood this much in Italian. However, the discussions that I have had in Italian, even though I have never studied the language, include for example the following: the beauty of the mountains (in sunshine in comparison to when it’s cloudy or foggy), the agony of carrying once skis to the elevators, and the names of the local mountains in Italian. And I’ve witnessed the Italians understanding perfectly what we say in Finnish. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t about the words. It is about being present in the situations, wanting to understand and wanting to make a connection with another person. The rest is gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice and smiles.
For photography this place needs to be experienced and studied for a few days. It is not easy to know when there is sunlight and when the darkness falls. The mountains form an uneven wall around the village that defines the amount of light so that all afternoon you can follow the sun slowly moving west just above the snowy peaks, then it disappears for a while behind a slightly higher peak of the Monte Sierra, only to come back and show it’s glorious orange form for the final view at a grotto between Monte Sierra and Monte Terza. Just how low in the valley you happen to be, defines your chances to see it. And then there is the mist of course. The open Fiume Piave in the valley bringing it up in the mornings and in the evenings. My sons like to think of us being in the cloud. Well, the internet cloud it isn’t for sure, since those kinds of connections here are very rare and weak.
It is amazingly quiet here. There is only the sound of the open rapids in the mountain river, tree branches breaking under the weight of the snow, and the occasional skier passing on the crispy bed of snow on the other side of the river.
Words & Pictures: Annika Ruohonen
This piece originally appeared on Annika’s wonderful blog and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to repost it here on Under a Grey Sky.