Thursday, December 23, 2010

Madi, queen of the castle

     In Britain where I had come from, and in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany where I traveled later, a 1950s youth hostel was a rather idealistic affair, owned by a national or sub-national association and run for the betterment of young people, generally defined as someone no older than twenty-five, mostly hikers, bicyclists, and those traveling by public transport. Hitchhikers were tolerated, but anybody who drove up to a youth hostel would be summarily turned away. This was not the case in France and Italy. In Italy, especially, each hostel seemed to be a private affair, run by an individual or a couple as their livelihood, and the rules were enforced with a generous hand. On the Adriatic coast, I met a German family, touring Italy by car; the hostel was a flat-roofed building, and the five of them dragged mattresses up to the roof, there to sleep in familial privacy. And our little gang lived at the castle in Lerici for the better part of two weeks, though three nights was supposed to be the outside limit for a hostel stay.
     At Lerici, Madi made the rules. I find that her name was Maddalena di Carlo, and that she had some local fame as comunista e partigiana, Communist and guerrilla fighter, who carried the Red Flag in the annual May Day parade. I can find no one to tell me, however, what her career as partigiana amounted to. Did she blow up German supply trains, carry a rifle in the mountains, turn the crank on a mimeograph machine, or merely grumble about the fascists? I don't know; I didn't ask, young and stupid as I was.
    Postwar, Madi became custode amata del castello di Lerici, the beloved custodian of the castle, which was her home and source of income until she was evicted. In 1974 the citizens of Lerici concluded that she could no longer provide her young charges with "an effective and hygienic management," as one of her fans explained the situation to me. By that time Madi was quite the crone, all but sexless in her cropped gray hair, lean face, and cast-off clothing. I don't remember her particularly, but as the flower children of a later generation replaced the vagabondi of mine, she became hugely popular among the them, which likely caused her to become less popular among the townspeople. Not only did the "Lericini" get rid of Madi as hostel keeper; in time they also voted to close the hostel. "The flow of young people ended," my email friend recalled. "They did not carry money and they created disorder." I suppose that was true. Our gang was fairly well-behaved, I think, but we were products of an earlier time. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

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