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17 January 2014

By Jonathan Boardman


BORDIGHERA is almost in France, so far is it situated along the Ligurian Riviera, the thin pan-handle of north-west Italy squeezed between the mountains and the sea. Only Ventimiglia, at the border itself, separates it from Menton, southern gateway to Le Beau Pays.

To be there in time for the annual Remembrance commemoration at the British and Commonwealth War Cemetery, starting at 10.45, I had to leave Genoa on the 06.41 "stopping" train - something habitual, it appeared, for a fair number of commuters. Before my arrival at Bordighera, the train had emptied and refilled twice: scholars, office workers, and perhaps even the odd tourist on a short haul, not to mention a very odd archdeacon.

I was party even to a tutorial conducted in the seats immediately behind mine by an aspirant teenage English speaker and a slightly over optimistic language coach. A test was clearly looming at school: there seemed little hope that it would be aced. As we departed in pre-dawn gloom, the sun emerged from the sea, which the railway had consistently hugged, just as the first shift of travellers alighted to make room for a fresh influx.

If I had needed an example of what makes this part of Italy special, I now had it: the alchemy of monti e mare, mountains and sea, catalysed by the still strong sunshine of mid-November. If it wasn't quite the eponymous "enchanted April" of Karen Blixen's celebrated Ligurian short story, it was an excellent autumnal second.

Nothing seemed impossible when presented with such a positive vibe. I began even to reassess the likelihood of a respectable mark in the English test for my erstwhile fellow passenger. I certainly wished it for him.

LATER, standing in the terraced, garden-like cemetery, the goal of my visit, I pondered the possible states of mind of the young casualties of the First World War's alpine hostilities evacuated to ultimately futile convalescences in this earthly paradise. Wonder? Disbelief? Certainly, if able to be wheel-chaired outside by stiff-coiffed nurses; indifference at best, total ignorance at worst, if injuries confined them to darkened wards set up in the abandoned Riviera's luxurious hotels.

Italy's war is dated, perhaps uniquely, 1915-18; and so talk of centenary here is premature rather than simply anticipatory. The front focused on a protracted struggle with Austro-Hungarian forces along the Tyrol's Piave river, the setting for Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Italy's allies providing support only very late in the war. Burials of 88 British soldiers (two of whom were Jews) and an Indian driver (surnamed Lal, signifying a Hindu faith?) record almost all their deaths during 1919. Perhaps theflu epidemic carried some of them off in spite of earlier progressmade.

At the rear of the enclosure, a row of 20 or so head-stones bearing the Habsburgs' double-headed heraldic eagle attests the ethnic diversity of Das Ősterreich - names illustrating Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and perhaps Ruthenian identity proliferate, hardly a Germanic name among them. The diocese in Europe is inevitably uniquely well placed to contribute to our national First World War commemorative project in the following years; but here, in one of the very few places where I personally have a stake in it, I cannot help reflecting on the complexity of what it is we will all be doing.

I am tempted to propose British obsession with Eastern European migration at the start of 2014 as a good place to start, closely followed by increasingly heated political debate over a referendum on EU membership as the general election approaches.

BORDIGHERA's coat of arms is remarkably similar to that of neighbouring Sanremo, location of the annual Italian national alternative to the Eurovision Song Contest. Both have a rampant lion resting upon a palm tree in the manner of Madrid's better-known bear and tree.

At lunch with the Mayor and Chief of Police after our reverent remembrance of the multicultural fallen, the contesting claims of the two municipalities to be palm-frond suppliers to the Vatican were outlined for me.

Both towns claim as a native the fisherman who happened to be present in St Peter's Square during 1685 on the occasion of the re-erection of the obelisk at the piazza's redesigned heart. It was he that shouted out that the ropes used to tilt the monument upright should be doused with water just as their loud creaking indicated that they were about to snap. Since then,the fronds carried in processionby the Pope on Palm Sundaycome from one or other of these towns.

For authenticity, however, my money is on Bordighera for no other reason than my new-found partisanship.

ONE of my last doles of charitable giving in 2013 was to three Bulgarians in their mid-twenties who were saving up to buy coach tickets to London. Their polite behaviour and excellent spoken English placed them within the category of migrant more likely to deprive less motivated native British people of future employment than those supposedly intent on benefit tourism.

I like to think of my gift to them as my tribute to the Old Country at the start of First World War commemoration.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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