Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A sad goodbye to a woman I never met

Yesterday, Paolo and I attended the funeral of a 32-year-old woman who died after a long struggle with ovarian cancer.

I didn’t know the woman, but Paolo is friends with her husband; he works where Paolo buys a lot of his construction supplies. We knew his wife had been sick for some time, and when Paolo’s friend was no longer at work – he was staying in Rome to be near his wife, who was installed at a cancer clinic there – we suspected the worst. Still, when news of her death came, it was a sad semi-shock.

At some point in the last couple of years, Paolo must have told his friend that we were trying to get pregnant. His friend confided that he and his wife could not have children; cancer had already taken care of that. So when I did finally become pregnant, I always felt like a bit of a heel whenever I’d walk into the warehouse where his friend worked – like I was somehow flaunting our good fortune and my growing belly in the face of their sad, terrible luck.

Paolo’s friend was always kind and enthusiastic about my pregnancy and afterwards, when we brought Naomi into the warehouse. He was no less kind when I saw him yesterday, as I gave him the customary kiss on both cheeks and muttered some words of condolence, all of my Italian suddenly escaping me. In fact, he seemed to be consoling me as my words fell flat and my eyes welled up.

The church was filled to capacity, so we waited outside with several hundred other people who’d come to pay their respects. Listening to the priest’s eulogy and then her brother’s tearful goodbye to his little sister, it was the first time I wished that I didn’t understand Italian as well as I do. I’ve attended other funerals here, but I’ve always been able to zone out as the words and repeated prayers drifted over my head, just unintelligible enough for me to not have to tune in.

But not this time. The priest delivered a touching tribute to this woman who was obviously well-loved in her community, and adored by her family and young husband. He spoke of her loved ones’ confusion and frustration that God did not answer their prayers, and save their daughter, sister, wife and friend. He spoke of how she would join her mother, who died when she was just a teenager. I don’t think he had a good answer for why God ignored their pleas – to this day, I’ve not heard a satisfactory explanation for why God allows so much pain and suffering in life.

When the mass was finished and the psalter had been passed around the coffin, the mourners began to file out, and make way for the casket and immediate family to exit. First came the elaborate flower arrangements, their cellophane wrappers all crackling in the wind – a sound I’ll forever associate with Italian funerals. Then came the casket, carried by four of her relatives. Right behind them was her husband, who seemed to have lost all the stoic calm he held together inside the church. He walked alone, red-eyed and weepy, and I wondered why he didn’t have a friend or family member at his side, to hold his arm or shoulder. But maybe he had to make that walk by himself.

We opted not to join the funeral procession as the mourners followed the slow-moving hearse on foot up the hill to the cemetery. I think seeing a young man give his wife’s coffin a final kiss goodbye before she was lowered into the ground would have been too much for both of us. Instead, we walked back to the car in silence.

Paolo and I have a lot of worries these days. Money is scarce, the Italian economy is tanking, my elderly parents are on the decline, and this brutally hot summer is further proof that global warming threatens to turn the green hills of Umbria into the sands of Morocco. Still, once we were headed back to Allerona, I said to Paolo, “Let’s not complain about anything anymore today.” He agreed.

We picked up Naomi from my mother-in-law’s, and her disposition was sunnier than ever. All yesterday evening, she played and clowned and laughed, and her giggle seemed sweeter than it ever had.

So today, I remain without any irreverent prose or funny stories about life in the Italian countryside. I’m tired, because I have a baby who still won’t sleep through at night. I’m sad every time I think about the poor young widower, walking behind the coffin carrying his wife, and along with her, all their hopes and dreams for a future together.

And mostly I’m grateful, and I don’t want to complain about anything today.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Everyone to the mare!

I really do try to make it a habit to refrain from criticizing, or even poking fun at, my adopted homeland and its denizens. It’s a question of respect: I choose to live here, so it doesn’t seem right to bitch about the place or its people. But there comes a time when, if only for the sake of elucidating for my non-Italian readers some of the quirks of my life abroad, that I have to say of the Italian way of doing things, “That’s whack.” 

And so it is with Italians and their vacations.

The Italian mode of vacationing is peculiar to those of us who think of a vacation as a time to “get away from it all.” Italians vacation in packs, and the vast majority of them do so at the same time each year – during the weeks surrounding “Feria Agosto,” the national holiday which falls on August 15.

So sometime before or after Feria Agosto, Italians pack up their cars with friends and relatives and head to the “mare,” or sea. No one says, “I’m going to the beach.” They’re all going to the mare. (And, admittedly, saying, “I’m going to the sea,” sounds much more romantic and exotic than saying, “I’m going to the beach.”

The more fortunate Italians head to the mare in Sardinia, Sicily, or one of Italy’s smaller, more exclusive islands, like Elba, Giglio (site of the Costa Concordia cruise line disaster earlier this year) or Pantelleria,  which, when not overrun with refugees fleeing armed conflict in North Africa, is an eye-poppingly beautiful  destination for the elite of the elite, including the likes of Giorgio Armani.

Still others go to the beaches of Tunisia, or Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, where they’ll stay in gated compounds and eat Italian food served by Italian waiters, drink Italian wine served by Italian bartenders, and dance to Italian music sung or spun by Italian performers or DJs. Cultural immersion is not the goal of trips to the mare, at least not immersion in any culture other than Italian.

The Italian idea of going to the mare;
this is a beach at Cefalu, Sicily.
Italians of more modest means will find their mare closer to home, and head either to the Tuscan Coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, or to the area surrounding Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea. There, they will camp in tents, rent small houses, or stay in tourist villages or hotels, where all meals and entertainment are provided for a package price.

They will get up and go to the beach in the morning, and rent chaise lounges and umbrellas, which on larger beaches are stationary, and lined up in rows in areas the size of small baseball fields. Those who arrive early get ringside seats near the sea, latecomers are relegated to the spots somewhere within the dense pack of lounge chairs. They will stay all morning, alternatively swimming, sunning and sleeping in the shade. They will play paddle ball, toss a beach ball, or play cards under their umbrellas.

My idea of going to the mare;
Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida
At lunch, they’ll go back to their accommodation and either cook lunch or have it provided at their hotel. Because they believe that you can’t go swimming for three hours after eating, they’ll return to the beach after lunch, but won’t enter the water until the requisite time has passed. This must be agony for little kids, but the Italian belief is that if you get in the water too soon after eating, you’ll get a cramp and possibly die. And that would really put a damper on the vacation.

I admit that I’ve been to the mare in Italy only on a few occasions, and I also admit that the appeal of beach going Italian-style is lost on me. I believe this is due largely to the fact that I grew up in Florida, where almost all the beaches are wide, free and public, and the only restrictions are on pets, vehicles and open glass containers. (Concealed weapons? This is Florida! Bring ‘em on! Just don’t use your Glock to open a beer bottle, or you’ll get a ticket for having a glass container on the beach. Beer bottles are dangerous, you know.)

But I digress. My point is, that I’m used to beaches where there is plenty of room to spread out from one’s nearest neighbors, and the only sounds are of gently lapping waves and the occasional cawing of seagulls.

But Italy is a whole other story.

Once, I went with a group of fellow students to a beach near Ravenna. We rejected the beach loungers as they were too expensive, and instead opted to spread our towels out on the sand. We were soon run off from that spot, as we were camped in the middle of the beach access area for the paying guests on the beach loungers. I guess they couldn’t be inconvenienced at having to walk around our towels to take a swim (three hours after eating, of course). So we moved our towels closer to the other cheapskate beachgoers, all of us relegated to a narrow strip of sand close to the water.

Our Perfect Beach at Argentario,
but not so perfect for Naomi
Most often, Paolo and I go Lago di Bolsena, our wonderfully deep and clear volcanic lake near Orvieto. Even there, the Italian style of beach going is evident. One sunny morning, we arrived early and spread our blankets out under a large tree. The tree cast a large area of shade, and there were several free meters of shady space in every direction. Yet the next party of Italians to arrive parked their blankets right next to ours – right next to ours! – even though there was ample free space. (Strangely, Italians do the same thing on trains – a train car full of open seats, and they will sit in the empty seat next to yours, no matter how you try to avoid eye contact or look annoyed or diseased. Why is that?) Still, despite it’s less than stellar beaches, Bolsena is free from the fields of lounge chairs and rules about private versus public space on the beach.

Another time, Paolo and I drove and drove around the Argentario – the quasi-island in Tuscany for those who can’t afford an island vacation – until we found what I still recall as The Perfect Beach. It was set at the foot of a rocky hillside, and we had to reach it via a steep switchback trail. It was just a small beach, with one bar and grill that rented lounge chairs and umbrellas at a reasonable price. When the sun shifted, the attendant came and moved our umbrella so we were always in the shade.  The beach itself was pebbly and scattered with giant boulders, and huge rock outcroppings poked out of the water offshore. We swam, snorkeled, sunned and slept, all within a reasonable perimeter of privacy – I guess lots of people were put off by the steep climb down to reach the beach. We’ve vowed to go back to that beach, but we still haven’t made it.

This Feria Agosto, Paolo is taking a two week vacation. Neither of us want to add insult to injury by camping at the beach, nor do we like the idea of a self-contained tourist village. I don’t want to go on vacation for a week only to cook lunch and dinner every day, so we won’t be renting a self-catering apartment or house. We always talk of going to Sardinia for two weeks, but it’s always “another year.”

Instead, we’re just taking a weekend at the mare, somewhere close to home. I’ve asked friends for their recommendations for a pristine, sparsely-populated beach with limited services – all we need is a couple of lounge chairs and a nearby bar, and we’ll be set. I’m researching on the internet, looking for a less-trodden beach and a hotel we can afford (ha!) for a couple of nights. I have to admit that so far, I’m coming up empty on all fronts. We really aren’t keen to return to our perfect beach on Argentario, not so much because of the hike down, but because of the walk back up with Naomi and all her accessories in tow. There’s always Bolsena, but since we go regularly, it doesn’t feel too much like a vacation getaway.

So, we may just join the droves of other vacationers and head to a nearby beach, park ourselves shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of our fellow countrymen, women and children, and enjoy our sun and sand sans privacy, Italian-style. And maybe next year, we’ll finally get to Sardinia.
Yeah, this is more like it. The mare at Sardinia. Next year, definitely next year.