Fall in Love with Eric Newby

Love and War in the Apennines

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Prior to seeing the collection of Eric Newby books at the bookstall at the Tavistock Pannier Market, I had never heard of him. I now realize two things: I should have purchased them all, and I am kind of smitten. In this memoir of being an POW in Italy during WWII and then a fugitive from the Germans after the Italian Armistice, he recounts what life on the run in Italy is like. It’s a pretty surreal experience. Not only does he meet his future wife, he is helped by many Italians who risk their lives and livelihoods to feed and shelter him when they themselves have so little. He writes with warmth and humor about those he met and his experiences in the Apennines.

I was not expecting this type of memoir. Normally when I think of POWs or people in hiding from the Germans, I think of terror and fear, of which there is quite a bit here, but I wasn’t expecting the humanity or the beauty of the mountains. Newby brings the setting to life to where I felt I was there. His writing and reflections reminded me of Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and his descriptions of the Spanish people right before the Civil War. During the Spanish Civil War and WWII there were many people of the Resistance who helped people cross the Pyrenees, and while those journeys are written about, I have not read a first hand account of them and have wondered how such a journey is made. Newby fills in that gap with the Apennines. I was also not expecting this to be funny, and Newby has a wry sense of humor and finds the absurdity in many of the situations he is in.

While I am smitten with Newby, I love those who worked to hide him. The Italians he met seemed to straddle the old and new worlds. They worked without electricity or running water; they relied on homegrown remedies for illness; they maintained the art of storytelling; yet they were modern and savvy to keep abreast of what is happening in the war and in their area– enough to keep Newby safe for most of the remainder of the war. They used both worlds to their advantage. I kept thinking that with our reliance on our phones and GPS, we would be absolute toast in the Apennines. They also had generous spirits– much of what many our country today could learn from: they took someone who was once the enemy into their homes and fed him when they had so little. They helped him without any expectation or desire of reward. Newby mentions that after the war the British government tried to recompense them for their generosity and bravery, but they did not want money; they most desired to hear from those they helped save.

Let Newby take you back in time and renew you with the best parts of humanity.



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Rick: The Relationship-Saving Cat

One night Steve came home from being out with the guys and invited our neighborhood stray to spend the night.  I looked at our guest, a randy orange tabby, and replied, “The cat does not want to spend the night.”  Steve, who had been enthralled with the couch-surfing cat in our building, disagreed, “Of course, he does!  See– he followed me in!”  The cat looked at me expectantly.  I capitulated.

That night the cat, knowing I was the one he had to win over, climbed on my pillow, curled his body around my head, and purred into my ears all night.  It seemed he liked our place the best since he became a regular, and Steve and I decided to name him Rick.  The name captured his man-about-town nature.  Rick got free room and board and quickly learned that he could come and go through our back window.  It went on this way for three weeks, but we hadn’t officially called him ours.  There was the tacit understanding that he was a stray and could leave us at any time.

Rick on my pillow.

On Rick’s three week anniversary, Steve and I left town to visit my parents.  We kept Rick, by nature an outdoor cat, outside and had our neighbor Wendy watch out for him.  The second day of our trip, Wendy called us.  Rick had been hit by a car and crawled into the basement of the home behind us to die.  The owners found him and recognized him as the cat they often saw in our back window.  They came over to tell us about Rick, but finding us gone, left a note.  Wendy found the note and contacted them.  Rick was still alive, in severe pain, and they took him to a vet.  Because he didn’t have tags, the vet wouldn’t take him.  They called around until they found a woman who ran a cat-rescue who vouched for our cat in order for the vet to see him.  At the time of this phone call, Rick received care from the doctor.

Steve and I rushed to the vet once we rolled back into town.  The prognosis was not good.  Rick had not used his hind legs or walked at all and could possibly be crippled.  He was also unresponsive to people. The vet tech said, “He’s going to need help with everything, including going to the bathroom.  Are you up for taking care of him?”  We nodded our heads– we would do anything for Rick.  She took us back to his “hospital room” to see him.  He was a pitiful sight with dried blood on his face, bandaged legs and lying in the back of his cage.  When he saw us, he began to shift around and pulled himself up onto his hind legs to walk over to us.  The vet tech burst into tears.  I comforted her while Steve comforted Rick.  And so began our journey as Rick’s humans.

Family portrait.

As humans, Steve and I had our own issues.  We had just moved into together a few months before.  I was new to the area, having left college life full of friends, activities, and comfortable surroundings.  I had had three roommates and there was always something going on.  Now I was in an unfamiliar place, living in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend who had been living here for six months and had established friends and routines.  I had no job, no routines, and no friends.  Lonely and frustrated doesn’t begin to cover it.  By the time Rick showed up, I had a job and Steve’s friends were my friends, but he and I still struggled with what it meant to be together.  We are both independent people determined to have our own lives, yet be a couple.  We argued a lot, and there were times I wondered how long we would last.

The cat’s in the bag!

Rick, an easy-going cat, wasn’t receptive to our arguing.  He realized that he could make a bigger stink than either of us, and used it to his advantage.  Shortly after bringing him home from the vet, we had a fight.  As our words escalated, Rick hopped into his shallow litter box by the kitchen, impersonated Niagara Falls, and kicked urine-soaked litter all over the walls, cupboards, and floor.  Suffice to say, we stopped arguing.  Enemies seconds before, we were now comrades-in-arms cleaning up the mess, laughing at the disgusting mess and at Rick, who looked rather pleased with himself.  And so it went.  We’d argue; he’d make a toxic dump.

He was very good at holding the towels in place.

Sleeping in his favorite spot.

Rick also loved to get into trouble by climbing up on stuff and hiding wherever he could hide.  He loved to sleep in Steve’s underwear drawer.  One day I came home and couldn’t find him.  I looked and looked, growing concerned until I saw the underwear drawer closed.  I opened it, and there he was curled up asleep oblivious to the fact that he had been locked in a drawer all day. Rick also enjoyed riding in cars.  I had a little Toyota pickup with a bench seat, and I’d take him for rides.  He enjoyed putting his paws on the passenger window and looking at the other cars passing by us.  When he got bored with that, he ‘d climb up onto the back of the seat, curl up, and look out the back window.  Rick eased my loneliness and gave Steve and I something to work together on: taking care of him.  He made us laugh with his antics.  Especially the day when he caught a bird and strutted proudly indoors with it, still alive, in his mouth.  At my shriek, he dropped the bird which pummeled itself into the sliding glass doors and pooped all over the blinds.  I tossed Rick into the bedroom, and eased the bird to freedom.  Later as I cleaned up the mess, Rick swatted my hands and me, angry and disappointed that I didn’t fully appreciate his efforts.  His anger didn’t prevent him from participating in our bedtime routine.  He’d sit on the chest of drawers waiting for me to go to bed; once I did, he’d hop onto the drums to the bed, crawl onto my stomach and bite the bow at the neck of my pajamas.  Every single night he did this.

Perfect.

We had Rick for three years until another car took away his ninth life.  That was an awful night and the first time I saw Steve cry.  It didn’t hit me until I went to bed.  There was no good-night routine, and Rick’s absence permeated the room.  Steve and I realized that even though he was gone, we still had each other.  Rick had taken us through some of our most difficult moments and kept us laughing (and cleaning).  As it is with all pets, I have to ask, who rescued who?  In this case, Rick rescued us.

(I apologize about the quality of pictures.  We don’t have a scanner, so I had to do this old school.)