Yesterday, Civita’s Piazza San Donato witnessed an abundance of asses — and this time, I’m not speaking only of the tourists.

A mixture of religious and secular traditions, the town held a festival to celebrate the symbol of Christ on the cross followed by several rounds of donkey races around the piazza, which drew a stifling crowd of hundreds.

The mood was different beginning with mass, where we found our pews moved to the right side of la chiesa and the center aisle decorated in designs of fresh flowers and leaves running from the heavy wooden doors to the altar. Meek Father Marco was transformed in this celebration, draped in a brilliant red stole threaded with gold whorls and crosses; his voice was stronger when he sang, more firm when he spoke. Whether priests or recording artists, I think when one plays to a packed house, he finds a more ebullient sense of showmanship.

In the early afternoon, Father Marco and his attendants, including Peppi and Antonio, paraded the church’s large crucifix into the piazza, through the main gate, down to Mary of the Incarcerated (who seldom sees her kid), and back to the church before the donkey races began. A band from Montefiascone provided music as we waited, making me smile to know that –apparently– every band knows, “Roll Out the Barrel.”

As the extensive race set-up took place, I considered the connection between Civita, Christ, and the ass. Only until recent decades did donkeys stop being a main resource for carrying goods up to Civita; today, we have a sweet man named Sandro who runs goods up and down with his red tractor. If legend is true, Christ was also a fan of the ass, choosing to show his solidarity with the common man by riding an ass into Jerusalem rather than a horse. Since this was one of his special feasts, the theme began to make more sense.

Enjoying the first warm sun in days, it was a kick to watch the riders attempt to mount their donkeys before steering them toward the start line; enticing them to run forward around the piazza several times was another matter. The crowd tittered as at least one donkey per race, if not both, simply refused to cooperate, either running when he should wait or standing still despite sharp spanks from exasperated riders who watched helplessly as their competitors took the lead.

It is exactly this behavior, which comes off as stubbornness, that gives the donkey a poor reputation; however, when donkeys balk they are actually expressing a sense of self-preservation. Donkeys are extremely risk-averse; they listen to an inner sense of boundaries, and when frightened, they elect not to act rashly. Typically, no amount of force or coercion can force their action; they simply must believe that the danger is lifted before they’ll comply.

Contrary to mass thought, those who rely on donkeys for labor attest to their dependability, loyalty, and intelligence…once they learn to predict and trust their handlers…which can take years.

Visitors are often greeted by these donkeys on the side of the road where their outdoor pens slope up to meet the road to Civita. It’s possible to hear them from my bedroom in the morning as they honk at the rising sun like roosters. In fact, they’ve been a part of this community as long as humans have, which one donkey by the fence reminded me as I walked home after fare la spesa in town.

In 2010, I am my own beast of burden, sweating freely as I carry my groceries in a brown satchel strapped across my chest. Dependable as a donkey, I trek back and forth to Bagnoregio –3 miles roundtrip– every few days to buy food and supplies. (Thankfully, it only involves extra weight for half of the trip.) Today’s journey made me think about the people who live in Civita –reserved, loyal, careful judges of character– and Civita itself: a steady holdout against time, erosion, earthquakes, and landslides.

There are no false moves here, no quick decisions; there’s a careful, methodical sense about completing each minute –whether it involves a fest, a conversation, a glass of wine, or a transaction– without rushing to the end. Civitonici weather storms, destruction, and restoration with the same measured patience, quietly refusing to move a minute before they feel sure to do so.

Naturalmente, this means that change and progress –and even decline– take effect slowly, however I believe that this pace of self-preservation is what promotes the endurance of Civita’s cultural memory. I’ve considered that topic from several angles now, and see yet another layer –a bending of time into slower expressions– as actually being helpful to retaining a communal sense of identity. Residents, workers, and their families absorb the history, meaning, and soul of Civita as they come and go over a lifetime — until they, too, become fully steeped in its flavor like the generations before them.

Life in Civita may require more time and dedication, as well as strong legs and lungs, but I don’t think that’s asinine at all.