Wednesday, August 15

August in Italy: Closed for Vacation

Well, today is the most holy day in all of Italy, if not all Catholic Europe. It is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and, it is observed by everyone, even moreso than Christmas. Of course, that’s not to say the modern Catholics still practice the rites of their forefathers; with church services and animal sacrifices.
No here, Ferragosto is celebrated as the holy day of Vacation; a day at the beach or of huge feasts with all the family. Counting the number of people I found in church (19 octogenarians), well, you see what I mean. I had gone to my favorite spot in Rome where there is a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary – I would have paid homage, but, it was closed in observance of the holiday.
In fact, it’s the time when cities literally empty out and everyone goes somewhere else. Rome’s city center still bustles with tourists, but, one step away, you’d be hard-pressed to buy a loaf of bread or even quench your thirst.
Last night, saying goodbye to a friend after drinks, I looked around and noticed ours were the only two cars in the entire parking lot—and on the roads. It was joyous. Home in under 10 mins. whereas in September that same trek will transform into a 30 min. ordeal.
I’ll never forget when an American friend, turning 50, packed everything up and decided to move to Milan. Problem was, she arrived on August 14th. She said she thought she had landed in the middle of the set of a ‘B’ horror flick: it appeared that a neutron bomb had been dropped, leaving all the buildings standing but all forms of life totally vaporized.
In fact, for survival, you could only count on an obscure law passed during WWII: that bread shops could not remain closed for more than three days running. But still, you had to drive out to the highway just to get gas.
Milan has gone to great lengths to change all this, and now, supermarkets, banks, museums and even some shops are open for business. But, more than any City ruling, the biggest factor in changing people’s habits was the entrance of Italy into the Euro zone. Since then, the cost of living has gone up (by some estimates, bread is up over 60%, basic foodstuffs, 140% and gas reaching stratospheric heights); simply put, people just can’t afford to go away.
So now, while cities boast of the (relatively) brisk August business, it’s because we’re all sort of stranded, like castaways on a remote island.
But for me, I hope the August tradition never quite vanishes entirely – I simply stock up the pantry, put on my rollerblades, and, wondering what Mary might think, enjoy my holiday.

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