I recently said to my charming wife, the ever-lovely Ora, "My dear, when I promise to do something - I WILL DO IT! There is no need to remind me every six months."
So, while she was back in the U.S., I thought I'd surprise her and finally accomplish a few things around our house in Italy. There is no doubt she would have been greatly pleased to have the gutters cleaned, the weeds cut and the railings painted. However, her mistake was to take a trip out of the country when it exactly coincided with Italy's official festival of leisure called Ferragosto.
Not wishing to offend my Italian neighbors, appear culturally insensitive, or risk being arrested, I successfully accomplished nothing around the house. Fortunately, I had plenty of nothing left over from doing nothing all those weeks leading up to Ferragosto. To those unfamiliar with Italian holidays in general and with Ferragosto in particular, let me explain:
If you've ever been in Italy in August, you might have wondered why streets had so little traffic, or why so many businesses, shops, bars and restaurants were closed. You may even have thought that the entire country had gone on vacation together. Well, you wouldn't be far wrong, as about half of Italy's residents take extended holiday trips in August.
The actual day of Ferragosto is August 15th, a national as well as religious holiday, celebrated with huge family outings, picnics in the mountains, long barbeque lunches, or sunny days at the beaches. Traditionally, it started way back in ancient times when the Emperor Augustus decided that 'Feriae Augusti', (Augustus' Rest), was a good way to get positive PR for the Empire and give his workers a break after the harvest. Well this idea went down faster than a chubby kid on a teeter totter. Not about to screw up a good thing, the workers all hailed Augustus while adding more time off making Ferragosto a little longer.
The centuries marched on and so did the Roman Empire but everyone still agreed that time off from work was a dandy idea. They added a few more days for an even longer Ferragosto. Not to be outdone, Benito Mussolini, being no slouch in the PR department, decided that the 'new Italy' should provide cheap rail tickets to all its citizens in August. This way everyone who was someplace in Italy could afford to go someplace else in Italy. Italians packed big lunch baskets so they would have plenty of snacks once they got there. This is one plan of Il Duce's that actually worked out okay.
Later, it was Pope Pius XII who formalized what early Christians had been praying for all along. He picked August 15 as the date of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now, god-fearing citizens who wished to escape their own earthly existence added more days before and after the Ferragosto/Assumption holiday and had a 'heavenly' time getting away from it all. This is how the idea of a national time of relaxation involving travel, food, religion and merriment over the entire month of August caught on. The holiday was so popular that it gradually grew from a few days to a week, then several weeks and even longer. Shops and offices closed; official business was put on hold. Tradesmen left town and wouldn't return phone calls until September. People couldn't conduct business, so they closed their books and their home... and the tradition of Ferragosto became deeply instilled.
Now, if you think all this information about leisure time in Italy is impractical and as useful to you as the 'g' in lasagna, wait. There is a point to my little story. Explaining why certain things are as they are in Italy is like trying to stand up in a hammock. But ask yourself this... how many times have you worked right through lunch? Then ask yourself... how can other people can eat and rest and recreate in spite of all their work?
The answers may be the reason that stress and burnout are almost unknown terms in Italy.
Ferragosto reminds us that there is more to life than work and productivity. There's our family, our friends, interesting places to see, and fun things to do, outside of work and without deadlines. We learn that a nice, long vacation lets people be people again.
But 'leisure time' in Italy is not 'lazy time'. In fact, Italians tear off to the sea or to the mountains or to the countryside to be anything but be lazy. Millions of typical, working class residents leave their jobs, close their houses and abandon their cities in order to join up with their family and friends and travel to distant seaside hotels, remote campgrounds, or exclusive rented homes. Together, they storm the beaches, swarm the forests and share the festive, noisy glory that is Italian life.
Perhaps they show up in Siena, which as it has since 1656, hosts the world's most amazing horse race in the middle of town for thousands of breathless spectators. Afterwards, they may feast on watermelon, gelato and sumptuous desserts. Or maybe it's the seacoast this year. Coastal resorts throng with thongs all day. The sun, sand and surf leads to snorkeling, sailing, and ski-boating followed by festivities and glittering fireworks at night. In small hilltop villages across Italy, they join elaborate processions carrying statues of the Virgin Mary through town. Churches hold costumed pageants and special services mark the Assumption. On steep mountainsides, families host elaborate barbecues and huge picnics while narrow roads carry cars of campers to bonfires, music under the stars and dancing.
Having made no prior plans, I stayed home to work on my 'summer body'. (It's at the point now where I can use it to shade other people from the sun, ensuring that I will be very popular at the beach next season.) In my little town, the streets are quieter; there are no lines at the butchers, or the bank, or the service station. Everyone seems happier than usual and less rushed. Lunches last longer with chilled bottles of wine. Strategic sunglasses disguise sleepy eyes at shaded tables. It's Ferragosto and Italians everywhere are taking time to enjoy life regardless of circumstances. It's what makes the struggle worthwhile.
My charming wife, the ever-lovely Ora will be home soon, but in the meantime I can relax... Besides, I said I would clean the gutters in September.
Frank is an award-winning advertising professional, now retired, from Denver, Colorado who is living the sweet life in southern Italy. In addition to a successful career in advertising, he had stints as the owner of an old west saloon, a film and stage character actor, a certified Santa Claus and a university professor... all of which, he says, are 'remarkably similar'.
He now focuses on traveling, honing his skills as an Italian chef, and writing about Italy as he and his charming wife, the ever lovely Ora, renovate their home in beautiful Basilicata.
Their journey back to Italy started 100 years ago when their ancestors first arrived in the United States. Frank and his wife had dreamed of completing the circle of immigration by returning to their ancestral roots in southern Italy.
Their collective memories of the traditions, values and Italian lifestyle drew Frank and his wife back many, many times until they finally bought their house in Italy and moved there permanently.
In honor of the past, and in anticipation of the future, their lovely home is named, 'La Casa Cent'anni', (The Hundred Years House). 'Cent'anni' is also a celebratory toast of goodwill.
So, "Cent'anni" to you, and to us, and to the next 100 years!