The desirable whiteness of being: reflections and conversations under the snow.
It all started while reading ‘The White Book’, by Han Kang (and I will come back to it later on, with a separate article). The expression of the writer’s thoughts and remembrances – as heavy as an avalanche and as light as a snowflake – through ‘all things white’, ignited my desire for whiteness.
I am not a mountain person, and I hate the cold weather. I cannot fathom the thrill of sliding down a snowy slope with my feet on a board or on a pair of skis. The long and tiresome process of dressing for sub-zero temperature is enough to leave me dazzled: ski-pants and underpants, layers of socks, thermal underwear and turtle neck shirts, scarf, fleece and woollen jumper, down-feathered jacket, cap and gloves with under gloves and finally…snow boots. By the time I’m ready to leave the house, my thin-framed body feels caged in a spacesuit, like an astronaut —minus the thrill of space exploration. As I finally approach the door, ready to face the polar winds, I have a vision. I am at the beach. My naked toes draw doodles on the fine grains of sand, the sound of the waves wetting the shore inspires peaceful thoughts, and all I wear is a bikini, sunglasses and a hat…
But we must acknowledge beauty – always – when we encounter it.
Therefore, the place where I spent part of my Christmas holidays deserves a special mention.
After a tiresome search on the Internet, on November 20th 2017, I bumped into a ski-area I had never heard before: Valgrisenche. It is a narrow valley in the Valle d’Aosta region – an autonomous region located in the north-western part of Italy, at the border with France. Valgrisenche takes its name from a legend that tells the story of a grey cow which, once taken out to graze, disappeared every day from the herdsmen’s sight only to come back, after a while, with its stomach full. The herdsmen, suspicious of its behaviour, decided to follow her up the mountain. Once there, as they looked down, they discovered a valley unknown to them before, rich in streams and pastures, and they called it ‘Vallée de la vache grise’ (valley of the grey cow), a name that later was contracted into Valgrisenche. Valgrisenche is known for being a cold valley, and its particular micro-climate ensures that there is always an abundance of powdery snow. And of snow, this year, there has been indeed plenty.
There is a passage in Han Kang’s book dedicated to the snow. In Warsaw, a snowstorm erases the outline of its streets, but as it falls on a black coat sleeve, it will ‘reveal its crystals even to the naked eye. Mysterious hexagons melting clean away.’
There is probably no other graceful, more beautiful and soft white miracle in Nature than snow.
Still, my biggest worry was the freezing weather. Nonetheless, driven by unconditional love for my children, too eager to perfect their snowboarding skills – and bearing always in mind Winnicott’s theory of play and cultivation of meaningful interests as crucial to the development of authentic selfhood – I finally booked the place where we would spend five days: Valgrisenche.
As the snow fell heavily and we climbed, using four-wheel drive, up the hairpin turns while treading on a white and soft carpet, I started to appreciate the view of the different pine trees, and of the mighty mountains, and I felt more at ease.
In Chinese culture, white stands for the metal element and also symbolizes purity. However, it is also associated with death and mourning, and it is often worn during funeral ceremonies. White is the dove, white is the bride’s dress and in the Christian tradition white represents purity, virginity, innocence and birth. White are the many objects and memories Han Kang focuses on: a good way to ponder upon a colour and to relate to it, bearing with the pain those recollections bring forth, and overcoming it in a process of regeneration, through writing.
I needed some white, at that point, during my holiday, to start the New Year on a blank page and erase some disturbing scribbles that were travelling through my mind— and that seldom abandon me, unfortunately. I would not say that I have been successful in this endeavour, because I am still bothered by the scribbles and the scrabbles —my problem being that I care too much about them— but I managed to acquire some inner peace.
The cold I expected was not really as such, despite we reached -15 degrees Celsius. It was extremely dry, so it was not perceived as such. In the morning, I opened the window to breath in the freezing but crispy air, while admiring the snowflakes falling, the icicles hanging from the roof tiles, and the immobile fairyland landscape in front of me. It seemed too unreal, and I could not recall moments of such immaculate and total silence in years, and probably there had been none.
It snowed and snowed, unrelentingly, and the whiteness was so blinding and imposing that it almost seemed that it would never leave that place. It was as if the landscape remained forever frozen in time, as if it were inside one of those crystal snowballs of our childhood: turning and turning under the snow at the sound of the carillon.
One morning, we wore snowshoes and went ‘for a walk’, climbing the mountain that overlooked the dam. What was visible was only a part of the concrete structure, and nobody could tell what it was, because the water had turned into ice and the snow had subsequently covered it. Ms Anna explained to me the ordeal of the families that in the Fifties were forced to leave that part of the valley to make space for the Beauregard dam. The population shrunk from 300 to 190 people, and that is now the actual number of inhabitants of Valgrisenche. The way Anna described it was quite dramatic. ‘One entire village was wiped out,’ she said. And for a moment, before I could get what she meant, I imagined apocalyptic scenarios of floods or avalanches.
During our walk, dunes of snow appeared, and their shape was so perfect that it made me think of the desert dunes, chiselled by the wind’s skilled hand.
The slope of the mountains were at times covered with trees, aligned in perfect symmetry, and other times lifeless, completely white and smooth. There was a chilling breeze and the air was more rarefied at 1900 meters altitude, but that was nothing in comparison to the sensations I felt on the Tibetan plateau, where even going up a staircase, once landed at Lhasa, had been a humongous effort.
Too much white, I conclude, is maybe not good. It highlights all the dirt in the world, the slush we step on as we walk in the city streets.
All cities were too big and unappealing to Anna. She told me that she would never leave the valley, where she felt free, and that Aosta was already a chaotic town. ‘My daughter studied in Milan, and lives in Piedmont,’ she said. ‘My son is now back in this area. My husband also left to attend the University of Padua, when he was young, and to pay for his studies he worked as a guide at a mountain shelter 3,000 meters up, here,’ she pointed at a map. ‘I also moved there for 3 years, running the shelter, but only during summertime. Then, we converted this place, which belonged to my husband’s family: it used to be a little house with stable and barn, and now it’s a B&B.’
With her husband, Piero, I had an interesting conversation about the language I heard him speak with Anna. The people of Valle d’Aosta have their own patois, the Valdotaîn, a Franco-Provençal dialect, and it is a joy listening to them as they talk, and trying to catch the meaning of what they say by piecing together French, Italian and some unknown words. Piero said that he was not sure if their language was a dialect or a proper language. ‘It’s a matter of interpretation and of point of views,’ he concluded. But he was certain that it was an important part of their distinctive heritage.
‘And how’s Hong Kong?’ Anna asked me one day. Sincerely speaking, I did not know what to answer, after witnessing her enthusiasm for a life lived in solitude and slow motion. ‘It’s a very efficient place,’ I finally replied. ‘We waste no time.’
Anna had been fast in answering to my enquiries, until her phone broke down and she was forced to use an old one that had no Internet function and therefore no WhatsApp.
‘Please send me an sms or call me if you need anything,’ she had told me in her last message.
But I did not need to call or message Anna again. I had already decided that I would give a chance to that valley with the strange name, the mountains, the ever-falling snow, the cold weather and all the white that surrounded it and that gave me a sense of peace and quiet, despite the noise in my mind.