At the Flick of a Finger

Renato and Maria’s house

When we first arrived in this Tuscan valley there were only a few electricity poles strung up from the main road below.  Our neighbour Renato, who had been born in the valley, was thrilled because he could have light ‘at the flick of a finger’. The current was so feeble that is only served some weak electricity bulbs, but his rusty paraffin lamps could now be left hanging from the rafters beside the ham from the pig they had fattened up all year. They had tried to hide it from the landowner’s bailiff when he came to inspect how the harvest was going. He took me up the hillside above the olive line where there are sweet chestnut trees and hazel bushes – so much to harvest in autumn free for all for all to gather. The landowner could not stop them. The trees were too high up the hillside and anyway, it was the tradition for the peasant families to gather chestnuts and hazelnuts together. Grapes and olives were also harvested in family groups but under the supervision of the landowners.

Renato had met his wife, Maria, when he was foraging for firewood and she was tending pigs looking for acorns. The landowner’s wife gave Maria some cast-off sheets for her to make a wedding dress and passed on shoes and other clothes as well as a suit for Renato. When I heard that, I understood why Italians do not generally pass on clothes. Maria also showed me how to wash clothes in the stream. There were two small rock pools conveniently hollowed out to about the right size. She handed me a thick bar of wax-coloured soap and showed me how to dampen the sheet in the lower pool and then pull it up, bit by bit, on to the rock and rub it with soap. Back it went into the lower pool, already foaming with suds, for the first rinse. This was repeated so many times that one’s back began to ache. Already exhausted, I then helped Maria pull the sheets into the clear pool above for the final rinse. The stream is still running into the pools but they are now completely hidden by overgrowth. The electric current eventually became strong enough to power washing machines, certainly but it was a humbling experience to learn how back-breaking the work of washerwomen had been for centuries. Electricity has certainly wrought one of the most profound changes ever in human history, together with the internal combustion engine.

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