Travel in Time of War

Balancing guilt, exhaustion, and joy in Italy

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in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan

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When my husband invited me for a short trip to Tuscany in May, the first thing I thought was: “How do you travel for pleasure when your country is under enemy fire?” On social media, my relatives, friends, and colleagues shared brief posts to notify others of their movements — down into a tube station, out of an occupied or heavily shelled territory, to a safer part of Ukraine or abroad. No one knew if they were going to make it safe. No one knew if, or when, they would be coming back. Those who happened to be on a vacation somewhere became refugees in one night. Those who dreamed of migrating abroad decided to stay home and protect it instead. Moving places became associated with danger and separation, trains chock-full of passengers, and day-long queues on the border. The allure of strange places turned to ashes. Going somewhere for fun became an aberration.  

“Is it morally right to enjoy life when other Ukrainians suffer?” I interrogated myself. 

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, all my thoughts had been revolving around the war. My eyes got bloodshot from crying and I felt guilty for the smallest pleasure I had, like a cup of coffee I drank each morning. Whenever I stood over a stove brewing me one, I saw visions of people huddled in basements back in Ukraine, straining their urine so that they could drink it instead of water which was in short supply.  

In my home of the last few years, in England, houseplants drooped and withered, my attention drawn away from them. I checked the news, as if it was my full-time job. I checked on friends and relatives. Whenever I talked to someone, our conversation inadvertently slipped towards the topic of war, which made me feel like a party-pooper, or an attention-seeker, at times, but I couldn’t do anything about it — I had to talk about Ukraine, almost compulsively, as if talking would make the war more comprehensible.  

Worse still, no one knew what to do in such a situation. Everyone in my circle back in Ukraine was busy protecting themselves, their families, and their country. At the same time, everyone felt like their effort was not enough, no matter how much they had accomplished already, whether it was taking their children to Poland, volunteering, or fighting on the front. Online, posts were popping up with clever graphs and tables explaining psychological reactions arising in case of a traumatic event: shock-disbelief-anger-fear-etc., but no matter how well I understood the stage I was supposed to be at, it was like walking through a thick fog of uncertainty with a group of others that were just as equally lost. I badly wished for a calming presence of a person who had experienced something similar before, who had asked the same questions, and, more importantly, had found answers to them. But there was no one like that around, I had to try and find my answers through whatever means I had. 

By May, I was so exhausted from riding the endless emotional rollercoaster that all I wished for was a reprieve. Amidst that storm of death and destruction, Tuscany looked like a distant island in the middle of the Pacific — it seemed so remote and untouched by the madness happening in Ukraine.  

“It could be my oxygen mask,” I bargained with my inner jury, “The one you need to first put on yourself to be able to help others later.” “And besides,” I thought, packing my bag, “I’m not the first one to travel to Italy in the middle of a life crisis.”  

Italy had long been a place for healing and change, after all. For ages, pilgrims streamed towards Rome, tourists chased sunshine there and, sometimes, stayed to buy an old house, which they then fixed, along with their broken lives. I could be one of them, maybe, even though my spirit wouldn’t get mended in a few short days. I would, at least, spend time in peace, among beauty, like a pilgrim who enters a shrine to receive a blessing or a piece of good fortune, if not a miracle cure.  

On the day before we left for the airport, I went through a stack of books on Italy, looking for something to read on the road. There were stories of Venice, Trieste, and Rome, tales of beauty, past glory, and faith. But my hand automatically reached for books about war — it was proving hard to break out of its field of influence. There were volumes written on the causes and consequences of this or that conflict, with battles and suffering sandwiched in-between. There were numerous novels written about war and refugees. I re-read pages from The English Patient, which I had loved so much before. The book was a striking picture of war, dripping with sensuality and death. It was so accurate, so close to the skin that I couldn’t stay with it long anymore and had to put it back on its shelf, with regret.  

It was then that I came across memories by Iris Origo, a biographer, writer, and well-connected landowner, who lived in Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, a century back. During the years of WWII, she kept a secret diary which she published, unchanged, after the war’s end. Accidentally, she was one of those individuals that had spent years restoring an old villa in Tuscany, but she concentrated on other topics in her books. In them, she documented an almost daily progress of war. There were bits of news heard on BBC, information from her contacts in diplomatic circles, descriptions of events that she, her family or friends had witnessed, as well as occasional criticism of Italian politicians, the Nazi government, and the Allies. Her two books of memoirs, War in Val d’Orcia and A Chill in the Air covered 1943-1944 and 1939-1940 and had an immediacy and tension of the social media posts I saw every day. Her words rang in a familiar, nervous beat as if she had lived to a similar rhythm to mine.  

The further I read Origo’s diaries, the more her persona intrigued me. She was born in England but was brought up in Italy. Her late father, an American diplomat, wanted her to be raised abroad so that she, not fully belonging to any place, could be free from a nationalist feeling. They chose Italy, and her mother, a daughter of an Irish peer, purchased Villa Medici in Fiesole, on a hill above Florence, where they settled down. Later, Iris married a nobleman, Antonio Origo, with whom they bought an estate covering 57 farms in Val d’Orcia, a largely impoverished region at that time.  

Through the years, the Origos contributed greatly to the prosperity of the valley. They were also of immense help there during WWII — by sheltering a group of Italian refugee children and POWs on their way towards Allied troops. As much as they could and their connections allowed them, the Origos assisted soldiers escaping from German labor camps and Jews about to be deported to Germany, partisans, runaway conscripts, and anyone in need of food, shoes, and clothes. Their estate, La Foce, became a welcoming stop on the North-South route that the fugitives routinely took towards the Allies.  

As I was marking the valley on our travel route, I discovered that the Origos’ estate was intact and prospering, while the villa, together with its formal gardens, was partly open to visitors and for hire. The valley itself became a popular destination for tourists drawn to its iconic vistas — think bales of hay and rows of cypress trees snaking up hills and along the roads. I was eager to see that landscape, mostly because Iris Origo had inhabited it. Its past connection to war comforted me, as familiar narratives do, which was a painful surprise. War and comfort were strange companions.  

Although we arrived in central Italy before the start of the summer season, historical towns were already besieged by visitors.  

Assisi, in Umbria, the place of St. Francis, buzzed with life. Tourists streamed up and down the hill – from or towards the Basilica of St. Francis. Along the main route, a profusion of shops sold everything from ham to prayer books. Wandering along the narrow streets of the town center, we saw remnants of Calendimaggio celebrations of two days before — candles in pools of wax, burnt-out torches, old straw, rustic benches stacked by the walls. Part of me was happy that we had missed it — I might have been ready for Italian sunshine, but not for festivities, not just yet.  

Three hours further, San Gimignano, in Tuscany, was full of kids on a field trip. The place stood along the Via Francigena — an ancient route that ran all the way from Canterbury, England, to the churches of Rome. It boasted numerous tower-houses — those medieval sky-scrapers — that had been built by rich residents competing for status. Like everyone else, we queued for “the best gelato in the world” there, at Gelateria Dondoli. It was the best ice cream I’d ever tried, but it didn’t ease my heart. I felt as disconnected from the bustle around us, as a person who exits a funeral to be swallowed by a carnival. 

As we moved deeper into the countryside, we saw fewer and fewer people. On the two nights that we stayed in the area, we were the only visitors, the proprietors of villas and farm stays still setting up swimming pools for the summer.  

“There’s a wedding happening by the end of the week over there,” an aged landlady told us over a breakfast of home-baked cakes and prosciutto made of her own pigs. She thought that we came as guests for a wedding that was being arranged at a venue nearby. “The place is popular with foreigners who come to get married in a nice location,” she added. Apparently, there were many soon-to-be-weds traveling from every corner of Europe and even all the way from the States – for a “Tuscan wedding.”  

As it turned out, her family lived in the area for generations. I wondered whether she knew anyone mentioned in Iris Origo’s books. When I asked, the lady seemed not to have understood me. Maybe my Italian wasn’t adequate, maybe the Origos were not that widely known (or had been already forgotten), or maybe my question was in bad taste — wartime is a tricky time.  

As we drove through Val d’Orcia, it did feel as if we were passing through some kind of a secret valley. It was completely a place of its own — serene, wide, lush; not yet baked by the sun, not yet overrun by holidaymakers. Part of UNESCO heritage, it preserved a landscaping philosophy that had been born during a period of Renaissance: ideal governance pleasing to the eye. There were isolated farms, a fortified town nestling on top of a hill, clumps of cypress trees here and there, and fields of grain swaying in the wind, like green sea waves. I could easily imagine carts moving along those roads in the times of Medici. I could also imagine that landscape swarming with soldiers and partisans in the times of Iris Origo. Through her diaries, that pretty Renaissance picture in front of me was deepening, acquiring new shades, and gaining contrast.  

On the way, we stopped in the town of Pienza which had been built on top of a hill, as an ideal of an urban dwelling. It did look beautiful with its paved streets, crimson geraniums, and a viewpoint specially designed so that you could see the valley spread below and a spent volcano beyond it — mount Amiata. We sat at a tiny delicatessen bar with our glasses of Brunello di Montalcino and watched the street. I couldn’t shake off a vision presented to me by Origo when she mentioned Pienza in her daily dispatches: that of carabinieri picking up fathers instead of their sons — the young men who had failed to report to the army barracks and be sent to war, to fight under Nazi banners. Having read about it, from then on, whenever I looked, their shadows still haunted the midday streets of Pienza for me.  

As we sipped our wine, my phone buzzed with similar dispatches from Ukraine — of Russian troops forcefully mobilizing the male population on the occupied territories, to fight under an enemy flag. There was news of intimidation, disappearances, and kidnappings — nothing that hadn’t been done in Italy in the 1940s. 

After Pienza, we set off toward Florence, our main destination. From the car window, I kept looking at a profusion of poppies scattered along the fields. They were a symbol of war sacrifice, but also a dear memory from my native Zaporizhzhia oblast, where they grew along vast fields of grain, just like they did in Italy. As a kid, I would sometimes bolt and run into that moving green mass speckled with the red of wild poppies, my hands stretched out in a wide-as-earth embrace. I would run faster than the wind, I imagined, and then fall somewhere in the middle of that ripening grain, exhausted, licking salt off the top of my lip, and gaze up into the clear blue sky and clumps of clouds moving through it.  

When I looked, wistfully, at the silky waves of those Tuscan fields, I wasn’t the only one with an urge to touch Ukrainian soil. So many of my friends pined for their land while looking for safety in Europe in those days. 

In Florence, along with everyone else, we gaped at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, that architectural torte squeezed in-between dark streets. We had a cappuccino and a cornetto at a cafe full of locals. I bought a few books of fiction in Italian to work on my language skills and ordered a bowl of tripe at the Central Market – lampredotto – because ‘you can’t visit Florence and not try it,’ as they said in one travel piece. We had some Montepulciano wine at a wine bar and, at sunset, watched Ponte Vecchio turn ochre-red. In her diary, Iris Origo noted that it was the only bridge in Florence that hadn’t been mined by the Nazis.  

The city was full of life, it seemed, 24/7 — people were eating, drinking, and chatting nonstop. We walked along the maze of narrow streets deep into the night, and I couldn’t stop looking at the long paving slabs under my feet. Many of them were clearly old, their surface unevenly chipped — by hand, not a machine. Those stones made it through, I thought suddenly. There were bombings in the center of Florence during the war. There were arrests, interrogations, and torture, in the so-called Villa Triste. There was the hiding of Jews and POWs in walled-up attics and basements, despite the danger of it. Through all those years, the paver stones had remained intact. The streets were now full of people, enjoying themselves, carefree. After a late, peaceful dinner, they would have a leisurely walk and stop for a gelato, which they would eat in the warm glow of streetlamps, standing on those old paving slabs of basalt.  

I hoped for a similar future for Ukraine — the one, where people would enjoy a midnight walk through their own peaceful towns (no sirens, no black-outs, no booby traps), where they would have a chat and a laugh with their friends and family, and be happy, despite all the darkness that would, one day, remain behind them, in the past.  

I read Origo’s diaries whenever I had a chance, throughout our trip and on the way back home. Despite the distance in time between the two wars — hers and mine — and the difference in their scope, despite disparities in the political climate of our countries, the similarities in people’s emotions, feelings, and actions – those that she had described and those that I saw or heard of happening in Ukraine — were startling. She had written numerous notes about regular people who had been doing whatever they could in order to help, be it hiding a stranger or housing a group of refugees. Those people had given freely from their small resources, been terrified by bombs, had fought, escaped, and done politics, they had hated, loved, and hoped, just like people in Ukraine were doing it now. If such people existed, I thought, then everything might just turn out ok.  

One passage struck me especially. In it, Antonio Origo said how troubled he was about not being able to help more, to speed up the war’s end. His vis-a-vis asked him what way of life he had been leading before the war started. Antonio replied: “The life of a farmer.” “Then,” the vis-a-vis said, “There is nothing else you can do but wait.” 

That passage rang in unison with the reassurances I had received from my friends in Ukraine: that everyone was in their place, and there was a limit to what one could do from it.  

“It is also important to enjoy whatever nice things you have in your life now,’ a friend told me later, ‘That’s what we are fighting here for.” •

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Olga Kovalenko born in Ukraine, during the last twelve years has been traveling and living in various countries of Asia and Europe, and is currently based in the UK. She has a BA, MA in English and German language, American literature, and translation. Kovalenko writes on travel, food, and society, and dabbles in literary translation of her favourite authors. Her pieces have appeared in a number of Ukrainian, Russian, and English editions, among them Roads and Kingdoms and Lagom.

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