“Hey, how are you? Long time no see! How is your daughter?”
“She’s fine, 4th year of Scuola Elementare!”
“Wow, so First Communion this year…..”
I have had this conversation with 90% of the acquaintances, friends, and indeed family that I have spoken to since September. And I think it says everything you need to know about attitudes here to “La Prima Comunione”.
It’s a Big Deal. A Very Big Deal. The Biggest of all Deals. The Deal to end all others.
It is, quite simply, the most important thing that will happen to my child until she gets married.
Not her health, or her happiness, or how tall she is, or how she has her first crush, or that she has started violin lessons,or taken up volleyball, or that she wants to write books, or that she does well at school despite, according to her teacher, never shutting up for an instant. No. All the other elements which go to make up my 9 year old pale into insignificance when compared to the fact that this year she will have her First Holy Communion.
I’m not Catholic. I’m not even properly a non-Catholic. I’m not religious. I like to think I’m spiritual, and I’m definitely more than a little woo. I find “religion” and “beliefs” fascinating, I enjoy watching documentaries about how, over the centuries the church has piggybacked itself onto older, more elemental traditions and made them its own. I have avidly followed the current discussions on TV and elsewhere about Pope Benedetto’s resignation and I am more than a little in love with Pope Francesco…but it’s still all very very foreign to me and I like to observe it all disinterestedly.
I guess I should have realised how important the Comunione was when, about a year ago and almost to a woman, all the mothers-of-girls in my daughter’s class began to talk about “of course <insert name of female child> has to start growing her hair now, ready for her Comunione….” And then in response to my ill-disguised look of incredulity “eh, qua’ si usa cosi’” (that’s what we do here)
My daughter had quite a short bob until this last Autumn and then suddenly decided she wanted to grow her hair long again. So she is. And it’s now past her shoulders. ( They all think we are doing it for the FHC. We aren’t. We are doing it because she decided she fancied it long again)
So as soon as the dates are announced by the parish priest, there is a mad scramble of “organising the Comunione” My daughter’s friend’s mother’s husband (with me so far?) was ordered to take 2 weeks leave from work to help his wife research the perfect “sala di ricevimento” (big villa-restaurants usually in the countryside with fountains and outside spaces and maybe even a swimming pool, dancing to Euro-disco or Latin-American group dancing between courses and all for 90 euro a head. 90 euro a head for a lunch which were it not a Comunione one would cost you maybe 25. Qua’ si usa cosi’. They finally reserved 20 or so places at the place where they had had their wedding reception.
Mother of Friend had already been telling me (since January) that she had her outfit ready, she just needed a “coprispalla” (shawl/shrug) to cover her (presumably) bare shoulders. So it was clearly a Posh Frock. Qua’ si usa cosi’. (I will be the mother rummaging through the wardrobe the evening before (when the shops are closed and there is no way Boden will have time to ship me anything remotely dressy over) and frantically ironing something 10 minutes after we should have left for church.)
As soon as the sala was booked, the child’s outfit was purchased. Now, whilst there’s nothing wrong with being organised (I’m just maybe a little jealous that such forethought is not part of my genetic makeup) I do find myself questioning the wisdom of buying an almost 10 yr old an Important Frock for an Important Occasion when there is still almost 6 months growing time available to effectively ruin your best laid plans. My own daughter, whilst still being one of the smallest in the class, has shot up two dress sizes since September. And the shoes? She has already bought the shoes. I don’t know if she bought them with “growing room” inside, but presuming she did – what if the child’s feet steadfastly refuse to grow in the next half year? Or worse….what if there was no growing room factored in and the unruly feet do stretch those toes further and further? When I dared to ask that very question, she answered curtly that she would return them to the shop and that she didn’t care about it being “vergognoso” (shameful) to do so. With which I would concur, were it not for the fact that I’m at this point asking myself the question- then why bother buying them in advance in the first place? But you know the answer to that already, no? Qua’ si usa cosi’.
Then she let slip that the hairdresser was already booked to come to the house the morning of the Big Day itself. Because child would be having ringlets put in. Qua’ si usa cosi’.
Reader, I am feeling inadequate by this point t’is true….but also ever so slightly sane in a sea of insanity. Ringlets? Booked 6 months in advance? (Also slightly reciting to myself over and over that for once I must not be that mother shouting “Have you brushed that hair?” as we dash out of the door. )
The keepsake souvenirs have been ordered (“slightly over budget but it is a comunione after all!”) and huge sighs of relief were heard when they discovered that a brother and sister in law were, after all, probably going to make it as the sister in law’s due date for having her own child has been changed. (They probably ordered the poor woman to book a C-section a fortnight early)
The possible piece de resistance, was when we were talking about how tired the kids are right now, how Spring seems never to be coming this year….how we are always so busy…..and she said that she was thinking of curtailing some of her daughter’s extra-curricular stuff, given that “soon we’ll have to start doing the rehearsals for the Comunione”. In my innocence I thought she was referring to the week prior to the big day when the kids have to go a couple of times to church, so that they know what they have to do and at which point, and to be honest, cancelling guitar lessons henceforth to prepare ourselves mentally for this seemed a bit excessive. No. That is not what she meant, she meant rehearsals with the hairdresser, with the photographer (booked at the same time as the hairdresser) rehearsals of walking up and down in too big/too small shoes and frock. Qua’ si usa cosi’. (It was at this point that my daughter’s very Italian, very Catholic, very traditional father actually turned to me and said “This woman is insane. Completely batshit crazy. That is not normal behaviour”)
Then there are the gifts. The gifts……My daughter had a mobile phone last weekend. She used her Christmas money from her Grandad to buy it. “But what will she have now for her Comunione?” I have, it seems, made a cultural gaff to rival Prince Philip. Children always, and only, have their first mobile phone for their communion. (along with all the frankly revoltingly garish and cheap looking gold jewellery that the Grandparents will always opt for) Hell, slip the kid £100 for her holiday fund…pleeeease. In fact, yesterday, my daughter’s friend’s mother called a family meeting to discuss who would be buying what. Uncle Pasquale will be buying the mobile, Aunty Lucrezia the tablet, Granny and Granddad the gold earrings…..
Apart from the expected expensive gifts, relatives are expected to fly between countries, from one end of Italy to the other, for a ceremony that will last an hour, and for a lavish lunch that will give them indigestion for days. Ma qua’ si fa cosi’.
Except that seemingly qua’ non si fa piu’ cosi’…..thankfully the examples I have given above seem to be at the extreme end of qua’ si fa cosi’. Other friends are doing the same as us. Yes, a nice frock (a Monsoon party dress probably, that can be used as a pretty summer outfit until it’s grown out of) a nice lunch with the family (most of our friends are doing it at their own, or a relatives, villa in the country, (despite the qua’ si fa cosi’s mother’s clamour of horror “but what about the dancing?” Hell, if enough drink has been taken, and frankly, spending an entire day with my handsome swain’s family will necessitate intravenous alcohol, believe me, I’ll start the dancing myself, with no need for a choreographer wearing cutesy little headphones and wriggling his pert little butt in tune with Shakira)
As in so many things here in the south, an awful lot seems to be done to put on a show. To be like everyone else. Or how you perceive everyone else to be, even when categorically how you perceive them to be turns out not to be how they really are. Mother of Friend has spent the last 2 months asking me to ask other mothers in our circle where they are having the party….ignoring totally my first reaction of “why can’t you ask them yourself if you’re so interested?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have surprised even myself about how nice it has been to be welcomed into the bosom of the local parish church. I like going to Mass, and I’ve even started doing the little Catholic gestures, sign of the cross, learning the words to the liturgy etc that were so very alien to me at the beginning.
And I wholeheartedly believe that the church, especially for young people, does a lot of good. The clubs, the summer activities, the niceness of it all, makes me glad for myself and my daughter to be a part.
But I can’t help feeling, that ringlets and £500 mini wedding dresses and dancing at wedding reception style parties were never part of the big plan.