Monday, March 21, 2011
Getting close to Italy’s birthday
Wednesday, March 16
On so many occasions during previous trips to Italy, we will walk into a shop in a tourist city, say “Buongiorno” or “Buonasera” or “Vorrei un cono di gelato” and get in response: “Hello” or “How many scoops?” Sometimes I don’t even say anything, and I am greeted with, “May I help you?” It’s like I have a big sign on my head that says “Foreigner!” This used to really irritate me, because I have been told that I look Italian, so how do they know I am American? In fact, it still does irritate me, but I have grown to accept it as inevitable.
I admit that the accent is probably a giveaway. Even though I think my buongiorno sounds pretty good, I realize that when an Italian says “Good morning” to me, I can hear the accent right away. It is pretty nearly impossible for an adult to learn a new language without an accent. But how do they know I am American before I even say a word? I must concede that another giveaway is my lovely wife, who is taller, blonder and more white-skinned than the typical native. But there is even more to it than that. We have a friend, Pino, who once explained to us that the way we dress and walk gives us away, too. It is something that defies easy description, he said, but there are subtle clues that set us apart. He suggested that if we want to blend in, we should shop at Italian clothing stores, and that is part of my motivation for the two trips I have taken to Torello Abigliamento in the past three weeks.
Today I am wearing my new Italian sweater and boots as we walk through Firenze, but right off, I am met by a young person who wants me to sign a petition opposing drugs. I have said nothing, but the request is in English. What’s up with that? Did I just throw my money away on a sweater and boots? The same thing happens when we go into a bar and I order “Una cioccolata calda, per favore,” and the cashier tells me the price in English. I may have my certificate of citizenship, but I have a long way to go before real Italians will consider me Italian.
Tonight is the eve of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and the streets of Firenze are packed. We walk over to the Ponte Vecchio at dusk, and as the skies get darker, the bridge seems to stand out more and more. Then we notice that it is not all the same color. One end looks greenish, and the other looks reddish. Leaning over the stone railing, we discover spotlights of different colors directed at the bridge, which is gradually becoming green, white and red—the colors of the Italian flag—as the evening darkens.
Back in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, we find drums beating and sbandieratori marching. Sbandieratori are performers who carry flags on poles that are weighted at the end, and in synchronization they swing the flags around, throw them in the air and catch them in a dazzling display of color and dexterity. In earlier times, sbandieratori were soldiers who bore the flags not only as a source of pride and strength but also to communicate with the troops when to attack, what formations to use and other information about important phases of the battle.
The sbandieratori stop marching and form a circle, and pretty soon flags are flying through the air from one side of the circle to the other. I am kneeling down in the front row, trying to snap a picture at the precise moment when a flag is caught. So intent am I that I don’t realize a flag has gone astray. I hear some gasps around me and then a thump. I look up and find the crowd near me has backed up, and I alone remain, but only a foot away from me is the fallen bandiera. It must have narrowly missed my head, but I alone was fearless throughout the incident. Of course, I alone was the only one who had no idea what was happening.
“Tutto a posto?” says the sbandieratore as he touches my shoulder and picks up the errant flag.
“Si, sto bene,” I answer.
I have come about as close to the celebration as I can come, and this close call gives me my own special event to help me remember the day of the country’s birth.