03 November 2013

LIFE: Once Upon a Time on Lake Como

CHIAVARI, Italy – I first heard this story one very hot summer day when I went with a friend of mine up to a rifugio high above the little town of Cernobbio on Lake Como. We drove straight up the mountain for what seemed like an hour, through a large pine forest, then round and round the hairpin bends until finally we got to our destination.
 The Italian-Swiss Border
The rifugio was a simple, rustic refuge/cafe that catered primarily to those who like to hike up and down the mountains. I had never been up that high in the mountains before and for me, a confirmed city girl, it was like a trip to the moon. Even more strange was the fact that we were about 10 feet from the Swiss border.  We could have very easily walked into Switzerland and no one would have been the wiser.   

I said that to the rifugio owner, and he smiled and asked if I had ever heard of the “shoulder boys”. I shook my head no, and with that he pulled out a chair and sat down and began telling us the story that I will now tell to you.   
The Shoulder Boys Were More Than Boys
The “shoulder boys” were the smugglers who moved illegal goods between Italy and Switzerland after World War II. They carried contraband in large, homemade backpacks, and plied their trade in the hills and valleys that separate Italy and Switzerland, above Lake Como. They scrambled along the rough mountain trails at night in constant fear of being caught by the Swiss border patrol or the Italian financial police – the Guardia di Finanza.

 It was an honor for a boy to be chosen to be a “shoulder boy” for it was a job usually reserved for men, a profession handed down from father to son since the late 1800’s. Depending on which side of the law you were on, it was an honorable profession.  Smuggling supported more than half the families in the area and everyone in Como and in the towns along the lake knew about the “shoulder boys”. 
The Loads Were Heavy
It started during the second half of the 1800’s with coffee and sugar being brought into Italy from Switzerland.  Then, with the outbreak of World War II, rice became the product of choice and sacks of rice traveled from the rice fields of Lombardy up to Switzerland. The last phase of the “shoulder boys” began after WWII when cigarettes became the hot commodity, smuggled into Italy and sold on the black market. That business continued until the 1970’s with the “shoulder boys” carrying the illegal goods up and down the mountain trails, the merchandise  ‘de sfroos’ as they called it in the local dialect.

Each man carried a backpack that weighed between thirty and forty kilos (66 to 88lbs). The backpacks were made from strong burlap material that had been waxed to make them waterproof. There was always a separate compartment for the food and whisky that would keep the boys going on their long and difficult journey.   
 The Mountains Were Steep
They could earn 60 or 70,000 lire a month, (about $50) which wasn’t a small amount in those days when the average monthly salary for a worker was 40,000 (about $30). But considering the dangers they faced it wasn’t all that much either. It was difficult to be a smuggler. It was hard work, dangerous and illegal, but everyone who could do it, did it.  All the men, that is. They would start working when they were about 12 -14 years old, and worked as long as their bodies and health held out.  The women helped too, but in another way. Their job was to flirt with the financial police and find out which section of the lake they were going to be moved to next. Valuable information when the danger of going around a bend and coming face to face with the Guardia di Finanza was a scary reality.

The financial police were not really the bad guys and when they could they would close an eye, or sometimes both eyes, and let the “shoulder boys” pass.  After all, during the day the smugglers and the financial police were neighbors, it was only at night that they were enemies. But never true enemies. “Stop where you are” was what they would call out when they would see a smuggler with a backpack strapped to his back. In the best of cases the smuggler would escape with his entire load, in the worse of cases he would escape, but without his load.
Cleaning the Mud off of his Burlap Shoes 
The lake was always the final destination because that is where the boats that transported the goods to the other side of the lake to be distributed were. The rule was that the ‘boys’ had to deliver their backpacks directly to the boats otherwise they would not get the 8,000 lire (about $5.50) that they were paid for each load they carried.

The smugglers knew every path and trail from Lake Como to Switzerland. It was essential to be able to move during the night as if it were day, relying on memory and instincts. As they made their way through the mountains they would leave the usual paths and head into the woods, always traveling at night in order not to be seen. Not only was there danger from wild animals like roaming packs of wild boars and wolves and problems with the weather, there was also the problem of the border guards who were different from the Guardia di Finanza, but whose job it was to arrest people sneaking over the borders. But wind and rain, snow and ice, nothing stopped the “shoulder boys” from delivering their contraband and collecting the money for their efforts.

The “shoulder boys” would leave in the middle of the night, around 2 or 3 in the morning, and start the climb up through the woods with their heavy backpacks strapped to their backs and the financial police over their shoulder. They would arrive at the pre-agreed to meeting point in Switzerland at about 8 in the morning.  There they would sit and have a caffe-latte to warm up and wait for their contact person to arrive with the goods they were to transport back to Italy.  
 Soft and Silent Burlap Shoes
Around 2 in the afternoon they would start off again.  Just before they got to the Italian border they would stop and wait for it to get dark. Then they would cross the border and head down into the valley, walking all night and finally arriving at the lake shortly before dawn.   

They lived in dangerous times with no guarantees that a ‘shoulder boy’ would make it back alive.  The most dangerous problem, however, was not the financial police or border patrols, but facing the mountain in the dark with its jagged rocks and landslides and the deep crevices that were impossible to see in the middle of the night.  And during the winter the mountain was even more dangerous when ice and snow made some paths impossible to follow and the ‘shoulder boys’ had to forge new trails and face possible avalanches.   

There is a lullaby that goes: “Ninna Nanna, sleep my little one, your father has a bag on his back, and he climbs through the night, pray the moon doesn’t give him away, pray the stars show him the way, pray the path brings him home.”
 Caught by Swiss Border Patrol - 1898

The “shoulder boys” and the police were the stuff of fairy tales for the children and the stories of narrow escapes or even deaths were told over and over again in many homes in the small towns along the shores of Lake Como. Between 1883 and 1884 the local newspaper, La Provincia di Como, published a serialized story about the Smuggler and the Financial Police. The stories still make up much of the tradition of Lake Como and now you know the story too.

Unless otherwise noted photos are from NBR.

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