February 16 is a huge big deal in this part of Italy: after almost a millenium of persecution, Religious Freedom was signed into law this night in 1848, granting the Waldensians civil (not religious) freedom (a nuance that escapes me). News traveled fast up the valley--by bonfire, ending in Bobbio. Since that night, people make a torchlight pilgrimage up the mountain to commemorate their ancestors’ endurance and final victory.
Now the bonfires start in Bobbio and go down the valley. And neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail can stop Bobbio. “How can we not remember” was a comment I heard over and over.
The topic of conversation in the town square as everyone gathered—a colorful sea of umbrellas—centered around the hardships of the Waldensian forebears, while we had the good fortune of warm homes to return to, proper clothing, and umbrellas. What did we have to complain about?
More folks turned out than I ever would have imagined--from the elderly Emma to the toddlers in strollers--everyone chatting cheerfully as Pastor Grigorio arrived with the torches. They were quickly distributed, lit and dutifully photographed. And then the procession began.
I had the delight of discovering Silvano, Jane and her daughter in the crowd. We trudged up the mountain together, the stories flowing as steadily as the rain; I learned more details of the valley, its history, and Jane herself.
We arrived at the bonfire in time to see the first torch carried up a ladder to the top, and soon the soggy mess gave way to a hot blaze, sparks flying up into the night. Below us, we watched other bonfires blazing into life, one by one. Behind us, an adult choir sang traditional Waldensian hymns.
Mulled wine and hot chocolate followed, after a welcome in several languages by Pastor Grigorio (we marveled at his nod to our international community). Jane and I elbowed our way through the soggy crowd to get our warm drinks, thoroughly soaked but happy in the muddy magic and the memory.
The evening came to its end all too quickly, and we descended in the pawta (mud) and dark, contemplating the bonfire that starts in Bobbio and travels down the valley. What fire could we start or be part of as well? Part of our acceptance in the community has been our solidarity with the present-day Waldensians, who are not particularly religious, but deeply committed to their roots and one another. Our two communities have intersected one another--to what purpose? The Waldensians are as curious about us as we are about them. Time--and lots of conversation in the coffee bars and trattoria--will tell.
In the meantime, time to get out of the soggy clothes and into bed. Our next week of school is about to begin.