Walking back from the café, I held a slice of freshly baked apple pie wrapped in foil, feeling nauseous.
New to living in northern Italy, the generosity of local people is a constant revelation. The gift was warm, and I had met the gentle cook who’d made it.
As I was a regular, even with beginner’s Italian, the friendly staff routinely exchanged warm pleasantries and offered helpful advice. The father-owner, with little sleep, managed to find a smile and humor customers. Each morning, he'd greet me with a new and more complicated form of saying hello, knowing I wouldn’t understand a word. We’d laugh, and he’d make a perfect latte macchiato.
Today, he joined me at my table, and at first, we exchanged banter about the unusually luxurious cars parked nearby. At some point, I'm not sure how, the conversation turned to ‘April 28’, the date Mussolini was executed, and when, I've come to learn, a significant number of locals make a deal of remembering him, fondly. My coffee companion was one.
It was a sad moment. In another restaurant nearby, the dictator’s portrait hangs on the wall... but here??
I think the color must have drained from my face as he immediately recounted the crimes of communism - a common narrative today in Italy - before I had said a word. I questioned why he would support harm at all by arguing one source was not as bad as another. Well, he said, if I have to choose, I know who I choose.
Here we are, sitting in front of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and the closest thing to anything resembling conflict was the passion locals inject into everyday conversation. Isn’t that a false choice, I replied, and a choice that divides people. Why support violence at all?
He shifted the conversation to the mountains in view, and how he just likes to climb up high and away from it all. He wasn't budging from the stories he'd heard since childhood, stories that were part of who he was, nourished in a society that never faced its past post-war. I continued feebly. “And up there, from the view,” I said, “are we not all human beings? Why wrap ourselves in flags at all?” The Ferraris began to rev and before long, I was swept into the kitchen and handed cake.
As I left, I checked if I had missed a photo on the wall of the founder of fascism, who had inspired Hitler, murdered political opponents and whose troops were responsible for mass atrocities, murdering thousands of civilians, using poison gas, starving children in concentration camps. I walked home by the water haunted by the stench of sweet cake.
How is it, in Europe today, we accept the flourishing of a positive mythology around a dictator, passed down generations unquestioned? Is this honoring those who lost their lives for our freedom? who lost sons, husbands, brothers, fathers? People say to me there are many secrets here, hands are thrown in the air. The defeatism narrative has much oxygen too. But it's defeatism - and the stories we swallow without question - that disempower us, that can divide and poison our communities, can be manipulated by others, and can sabotage our ability to create a better world.