Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rapture, Florentine-style

Dear Readers,

Okay, the world didn't end recently as predicted--but some of us aren't off the hook yet. Personally speaking, the end-times are breathing down my neck like an Italian mother-in-law after the birth of her first grandchild, because very soon my two chimp-limbed urchins shall be catapulted from the industrious froth of scholarly life into the placid, lotus pond torpor of le vacanze estive.

Picture, if you will:

The setting: a wide, dusty, unpaved street--the main thoroughfare in a former Wild West boom town, now all but abandoned by decent, god-fearing folk. Tumbleweeds drift aimlessly, the sun a hard-boiled egg yolk consuming the sky, heat shimmers thickly on the far horizon, and there's not a soul abroad in this hell's high noon.

(Foreground) A woman--quite pretty, actually--with a determined set to her jaw and a missionary's gleam in her eye, comes into view. She stands in the middle of the street, wide-legged, hands on hips, sweat glistening on her brow--ignoring the sun's glare and fixing her gaze on two figures who suddenly appear menacingly in the near distance. She's wearing a badge that reads "World's #1 Mom" and has dropped two colorful backpacks at her feet, each chock-full of books and educational activities. She takes a hearty swig of pinot grigio from her hip flask, wipes her brow with the back of her hand, pushes her specs back up onto the bridge of her nose, and steps forward as if to meet her Maker.

(Cut to background) Two reedy rapscallions--a sawed-off six year-old girl with an imp's mug, and a shaggy-maned nine year-old boy with grubby fingernails--stand easy and bold-faced at the far end of the yawning, deserted street (the townspeople--smelling imminent bloodshed--having shuttered themselves away), and lock their cold, calculating eyes with the woman, never flinching. They're cocky. Cool as cucumbers. Looking for a fight. Their stance is equally splay-legged and defiant, and they're brandishing video-game remotes with the confident dexterity of born gunslingers. When they see the fool woman advance up the mean street, they gamely amble forward with the cagey, shuffling gait of rogues who know how to fight dirty.

It's a showdown. Lives and honor are at stake. Or, at least, summer is.

Of course, the end of life as this mommy knows it won't come until after Armageddon--in the form of a brutal onslaught of year-end marathon-length recitals and parties--the worst torture being the pot-luck buffet dinner at the children's school (if you've never witnessed Italians laying waste to a buffet, consider yourselves lucky--they're like obstreperous jackals). The natives of this sunny peninsula, as we know by now, like to exit stage left with a grand flourish, go out with a bellissimo bang, ceremonialize the trivial, elevate the inconsequential into the monumental--and transubstantiate the inanimate into the celestial. Which means, of course, that instead of just letting us all melt away into 95-degree oblivion for three months, Italian logic dictates that in order to commemorate the mere end of another term we must party like it's 1999.

And then, Judgement Day--ah, yes--when all the good Italian mommies who scour their homes in perpetuity, who iron their kids' underwear, who find time to have their sundry limbs waxed, and who squeeze into skinny jeans and totter about on stiletto heels, will go to Heaven (i.e. the beach for the duration), and all the bad foreign mommies who selfishly enjoy time to themselves so they can read and pursue hobbies--the ones who don't always serve three courses at mealtimes, the ones courting death by wandering the house barefoot, the ones who stockpile Hidden Valley Ranch packets, the ones in wrinkled garments who knock back a cocktail now and again--will be drop-kicked straight into Hell and the door slammed after them. Hell being--in this case--summer in Florence with two kids to keep occupied.


(Dear Readers, that's the sound of me girding my loins).

Yours as always,


Monday, May 09, 2011

The juggernaut

Dear Readers,

The season is upon us, like a pox--that time of year when the First Holy Communion Circus rolls into town, like a gargantuan, gaudy, Catholic Trojan horse, obliterating everything in its path, disgorging its cherub-cheeked assailants who then proceed to consume entire weekends in an orgy of inconsiderateness and suck up our hard-earned cash like a brothelful of insatiable hookers.

Here in Italy, la prima comunione has morphed into a metaphysical monstrosity, a sacramental side-show--packing more emotional and material punch than even weddings (the reason for this being that Italians become unhinged and lose all sense of appropriateness when it comes to celebrating their precious bambini). Elaborate ecclesiastical stage productions involving scores of kids are commonplace, with ceremonies lasting longer than the Oscars, and after-parties--with plenty of hifalutin loot--worthy of the Hilton sisters. Of course, this rite of passage didn't used to be such a babel-like behemoth. My husband remembers a solemn ceremony, brief enough, and a small rinfresco afterwards of plain cake and spumante with a few toothless, vellum-skinned, seldom-seen distant relatives--in addition to his immediate family--propped up in chairs lining the musty sala parocchiale. As gifts, he got an ordinary rosary, a small prayer book, and the Italian equivalent of a Mickey Mouse watch.

All the madness of the modern-day version of the event struck me--like a righteous fist--recently, as I walked past a party-supply store boasting a lurid, beribboned, Hindenburg-sized balloon (or mongolfiera) in the window, with "PRIMA COMUNIONE" stamped all over it in gold glitter. It had a cavernous gift basket attached to the bottom, the likes of which could carry a host of little holy rollers around the world in eighty days. Or more.

In reality, that basket is meant to hold a good half-ton of bomboniere, the sugar-coated almonds that traditionally are given as party favors to guests, these days in ever more elaborate and fanciful embroidered linen bundles. Inside each bundle is a little slip of paper with the name of the child and the date of her First Communion in calligraphy, lest you dare forget. Eager parents willingly spend a king's ransom on these bomboniere, and--as with much of the rest of Communion-mania--they have become increasingly secular in tone, and are often adorned with cartoon characters, action figures, or soccer balls and the like. Apparently we've reached that point in civilization when the Son of God needs a publicity boost from the likes of Hello Kitty.

But that's merely the start of the outpouring of cash--there's the fancy luncheon or dinner party to be thrown, the double-tiered gâteau or decadent millefoglie to be ordered from a good pasticceria, the expensive new duds for the ceremony, the trip to the salon for girls beforehand for hairstyling, manicures, and makeup. And then there are the gifts. I tell you, these little squirts make out like medieval sultans after a good plundering.

My baptism by fire, so to speak, was eight years ago when my eldest niece's first communion gala popped up on the calendar. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for--if I had, I would have immediately committed seppuku and been subsequently (and blissfully) absent from the whole affair. First, the gift fiasco: my husband and I had thought to give her a small gold cross necklace of the type that would be appropriate for a young girl to wear--something simple and sweet. Instead, we were requested by her parents (my depressingly bourgeois brother- and sister-in-law, otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Wiener) to chip in "as much as you can" (i.e. hundreds) for a diamond-encrusted, platinum cross pendant  from Bulgari or some such place. I was aghast. This was a bauble worthy of Elizabeth Taylor! (Me being fairly new to this country and to the family at the time, I bit my tongue and the bullet as well, nearly weeping over the loss of two-fifths of our monthly salary. Now, of course, I'd sooner eat a bicycle tire than let myself be coerced into gift-giving. I'd also relish the opportunity to explain to the hopelessly spoiled prospective communicant that you're not supposed to get what you want in this earthly life--that's what being Catholic is all about, goddammit).

In addition to this barbarism, I was forced to endure a hair-tearing three-hour ceremony in a packed-to-the-rafters mega-church, complete with musical numbers and tableaux vivants, and watch some sixty little sheep mince toward the altar where an official event photographer snapped each one posing with the resplendent, golden-robed priest and The Wafer (held aloft)--while Bette Midler's "You are the wind beneath my wings" blasted from the stereo system. My head was splitting, and I had to pee something fierce. Finally the infernal thing came to an end, erupting into a chaos of camera flashes and shouting, and in my delirium I wasn't sure if those kiddies had just been conjoined to the community of Christians or participated in an MTV awards ceremony.

After the elaborate five-course luncheon at a picturesque country restaurant, my imp-eyed niece began opening her gifts and passing them around the huge U-shaped table for us plebeians to see what riches our paychecks were capable of buying. I looked dazedly on while considering the pain-relieving effects of grappa: there was our necklace, smug in its black velvet case, as well as a lovely pair of sapphire earrings, a trendy rhinestone-studded watch, a silver and gold bracelet, and other gewgaws worthy of a maharani. Actually, she was more like the infant Christ turned Elton John and we were the adoring Magi come by way of Madison Avenue. In the years that followed, we enjoyed two more opportunities to dutifully--again at the behest of despotic parents--bestow fine jewelry (and a digital camera) upon my other nieces celebrating their first communion, and suffer through more protracted pageantry.

There may be some Quaker-like mean streak in me, but I can't help feeling that the true meaning of these ceremonies is lost in all the three-ring razzle-dazzle. When did holy get ditched for Hollywood? Don't get me wrong--I'm all for a bit of pomp if the circumstance calls for it, but I think we're drowning the baby in the bath water here.

Because Jesus Christ and Hello Kitty go so well together

Yet I fear we must reconcile ourselves to the onward march of the battalions of First Communion revelers, and resign ourselves to their Broadway-style sacramental blitzkrieg. It certainly seems to be an unstoppable force here in the Bel Paese--comprising as it does that bizarre and powerful mix of Catholicism and unbridled materialism upon which so many Italians seem to thrive. It suddenly occurs to me, though, that perhaps all this sturm und drang really has more to do with satisfying an urge which lies deep in the bowels of the Italian psyche--the boundless appetite for exhibition, the love of spectacle (along with a good party and plenty of good eats)--than anything else. I mean, think about it: why say, merely, "Violetta and Alfredo had a thing for each other," when you can perform La Traviata and bring down the house?

Indeed. Why merely have cake--or the body and blood of Christ, for that matter--when you can eat your cake and flaunt your diamonds, too?



* The above photo has been blatantly lifted from some Italian mum's blog, wherein she was just tickled pink and oozing self-satisfaction at having scored these babies.