Giovanni Castagneto, aged 87, died on Sunday.
He was already an old man when we met him. We caught glimpses of his sister (she of the long skirts and kerchiefed head) and of him from time to time when we moved to San Maurizio, but it wasn’t until we’d been here for about 5 years that Giovanni decided it was safe to make our acquaintance.
There was a knock on the door one day, and there was Giovanni, paying an official call. With him he brought two small pages, on which he had carefully written the first names of everyone in his family. He introduced us to each in turn, lingering over the cousin, “I should have married.”
He never did take a wife, and lived always with his older sister. She never took to us, at least not to the point of actually meeting us. But then, she had not had his cosmopolitan experiences.
Giovanni served in the Italian Army during World War II. He was sent to Russia, where he suffered terrible hardships during the failed winter siege of Stalingrad. (You can read about the Italian Army’s Russian misadventures here). We don’t know what befell Giovanni in Russia, but we know this: he walked back to Italy. That’s a hike of 2,680 kilometers (1,665 miles), undertaken in appalling conditions. In his old age it was those battles and that long walk home that filled his mind. Whenever we met, the conversation invariably turned to Russia. He would get a distant look in his eye and say, “I was in Russia,” almost as if he couldn’t believe it himself. Was he 8th Army? Alpino? We don’t know, the conversation never got beyond the fact that he’d walked back, that most of those walking with him died on the journey, and that it was cold winter.
Giovanni was, in the years we knew him, a contadino. He took care of his vines, his olive trees, his chickens and his garden. He was too old to be a fast worker, but he was steady and efficient. And he was generous. Frequently we would open our door to find a little basket filled with grapes or figs, or just some flowers. Whenever he gave us something we’d try to use it in a way we could share with him. Grapes became grape jam (not the staple here that it is in the US), erba Luisa (lemon verbena) became liquor. It was the only way we could think of to repay his kindnesses. That and when, as always happened, a conversation turned to Russia, showing honest interest and a truly felt amazement at the transformative experience of his life. I wonder if, as he drifted away at the last, he was once again in a snow-blind day putting one foot in front of the other, walking home.