Village Life in Italy — FESTA !— Two Months of the Best Time Ever — Part 9
If you haven’t seen an accordion since Frankie Yankovich appeared on Ed Sullivan, whenever that was, Italy during festival season will bring those fondly remembered and galloping melodies to mind. It makes sense when you think of village life. A village is where more kids are racing around the piazza on trikes, bikes, and scooters, kicking soccer balls, sitting on their dads’ laps, eating gelato, or playing tag than are home with a TV or video game. It makes sense in a culture where many of the year’s biggest events have been going on for longer than America’s flag has had at least 13 stars.
The centro storico, or old town, where I live, is medieval; this village itself, already old during the middle ages, became a political tennis ball bouncing from the Papal State to the princes’ realm often enough to yell “Rally”! Every stone and cobble in these hill towns has seen centuries of chaos, struggle and war, and yet, somehow the people and the place that anchors them have survived. Perhaps, as a result, they value tradition and the slightly hokey.
Plastered all over the countryside, posters declaring this region’s annual festas usher in a season of dance, food, trinkets, wine, beer, music and, lots of accordions. From one end of the nation to the other, festas herald summer, tourism, regional pride, animals, and the harvest. On bus stops, telephone poles, buildings, and sandwich boards, the posters signal a wild, Italian leap into celebration.
Festas usually begin in the early evening, often with a trip to church, and they may not shut down until a couple hours before morning mass. A priestly blessing sets the right tone, as in “We’re gonna have a great time, but no one is going to go crazy.” To bolster that silent message, there are always beefy or skinny security officers, a police presence, posted emergency routes, volunteers assigned to traffic control, and EMTs. In short, festas are champagne cork-popping, 100 decibels amping, food to get you drooling, mazurka steppin’ parties that come with a rational set of safeguards.
Parades associated with the festivals are common, with horses, big machinery, and local dignitaries, but they are not required, especially in towns that tend to be vertical. Even in those precariously perched villages, where streets come with brakes, there is always a piazza, which translates in English to “large flat places where you can do a lot of stuff.”
Piazzas regularly pay host to most of the village, providing benches for gossip and relaxation, a large flat surface for passegiatta or strolling, and nearby coffee shops. With the added excitement of a festa, family members show up from out of town and people arrive from areas nearby through word of mouth. A well-organized festa may swell the population by 25–35% for the weekend or the week.
The reason is only partly the party itself. More important is connection. Italian families may be smaller than in generations past, but they are no less affectionate and genuinely happy to see one another. The same is true of friends who have been parted for a while. I saw one fifteen-year-old go tearing across the cobblestones to jump into a pair of friends’ arms before they all burst into tears. Mom’s pushing strollers stop to kiss cheeks and check on the new baby of a former school mate. Village folk don’t simply know one another, they know everything there is to know about one another. Festas and the myriad reunions they bring about demonstrate that this deep knowledge is a profound kind of relationship glue. A few folks may arrive alone, but nobody stays that way.
Rollicking melodies echo off the 15" stone walls around the piazza, and laughter fills the air. From every direction throughout the night, people arrive, greet friends, find family, sit to eat, share news, or grab a willing hand and head to the dance floor. At an Italian festa, there are no wall flowers. Like moving schools of fish, the crowd ebbs and flows between the attractions of food, music, speeches, dancing, wine, and friends. Around midnight a thinning occurs, but, at any time until 3am, an attendee could go home, have a nap, and return for second helpings of happy. Young people, with the stamina of long distance runners, switch dance moves with any change in rhythm. Mom and dad watch from the sidelines and then take to the floor when the accordionist segues into the hully gully or a seductive tango, handing the babies off to grandma and grandpa.
Gradually, garbage bags are tied off, and food service slows to a trickle. Children, asleep against their will, drool onto dad’s shoulder, while older couples, drift down the road, talking quietly about the festa and how it was different from last years.