My American friend and I, and our two young children, were invited to a 2 yr old’s birthday party. Now, generally speaking, a child’s birthday party in Italy is rarely, if ever, organized with the child in mind, but is planned with lavish and military precision for the benefit of older extended family- some of whom will finish work at 9pm, or will have had a 4 hour sleep after lunch, or been made to travel from far flung towns… It’s thus by no means unusual for a child’s birthday party to begin at 10pm…
We were therefore very pleasantly surprised to be summoned to our friend’s country house (totally not as posh as it sounds- these places are small cowboy built bungalows with few amenities and are used just for the day and only ever in summertime) at midday.
We were discombobulated on our arrival to catch not one teasing glimpse (or indeed sniff) of huge steaming foil-wrapped packages of lasagne the size of football pitches. Instead there was just a couple of discount store carrier bags full of those cotton woolly sweet burger van bread rolls and 2 packets of boiled ham. Hmm. We were swiftly handed bendy plastic knives and instructed to set to with the buttering (except the butter was, in fact, mayonnaise). Our friend did unwrap a focaccia which was placed proudly in the centre of the table….but oh dear, it was a home-made one…..Now, focaccia is a truly wonderful thing and one of my favourite Italian food items, but why make a wheel at home out of old bits of rubber and sticky backed plastic when there’s a Dunlop on the corner? Home made focaccia is bloody horrible. And all these illegal no planning permission country houses are probably built out of it. Whenever there is a “do” the inevitable clamour will arise “Well, I can bring a few home-made focaccias” – and everyone mentally books their dental appointment for the day after. Earlier this year at our church function there was a table visibly buckling under the weight of 24 focaccias (
and 3 packets of cheesy wotsits that I had found in the back of the cupboard on my way out of the door)
As the ineffectual knives flicked mayonnaise and bits of cotton wool bread all over the assorted children, a car arrived containing the extended family… Well, what can I say? My American friend and I had laboured under the illusion that because our friend was nice to us, and didn’t have a problem with us being foreign, that her family would be the same. Hah! The mother (who I recognised as one of the old biddies who rams their supermarket trollies up your backside and gets in front of you in the queue by pretending that a) you are wearing your invisibility cloak and b )there isn’t a queue) just stared and stared at us the whole day long and never spoke. The mother in law had obviously done really well in her mother in law school exams (and our only consolation was that she stared at her daughter-in-law’s family with the same level of utter disgust and hatred with which she stared at us) and the father had a wooden leg and smoked cigars all day and never spoke to anyone either.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more qua’ si fa cosi’ there was an almighty crashing and bashing up the driveway and the Large Family arrived. My word, some homemade focaccia had gone down well in *that* household…Our friend’s sister, her teenage niece and a nephew (whose size and demeanour put him at about 9 but who turned out to be not yet 5 and still in nursery school despite being the size of a caravan). Giant teen thought me and my friend were mother and daughter, which went down well on my side given the 7 years between us ,and even when it had (slowly and clearly and with words of 1 syllable and a bit of sign language thrown in for clarity) been explained to her that we were not, she couldn’t quite get why we didn’t live together with us “being from the same place”. She was very interested in hearing about America though as she wanted to know which season “Beautiful” (a very popular and totally crap American soap that has been on Italian TV every afternoon for the past 485 years) was on in the States, but my dear friend, not having lived in the US for 12 years, and being in possession of more than one brain cell was sadly unable to enlighten her.
Of course there being Italian parents present meant there was a lot of worrying and hysteria about colds, temperatures, nappy contents, feeding times, nap times, dust and er, names for vaginas. One child fell asleep and there was a United Nations style debate and secret vote as to whether her shoes should be taken off as “she’d been sweating and her feet might catch cold”
AT 5 pm everyone (except us) leaped up like some biological Italian inner alarm clock had just rung and yelled “it’s 5 o clock , get the yoghurts!!!!” and every child on the premises (except ours) had synchronised dairy stuffed in its face. This rather reminded us of another one of those what-the moments when, following the clocks going forward that Spring, every mother in the park took part in a lengthy and tormented soul search to decide if the daily portion of fruit should be given at the old 11 o’clock or the new.
We managed to escape early (before the next synchronised nappy content inspection became due) as I had a cleverly arranged doctor’s appointment to attend.
We drove off, for our darkened rooms and straightjackets, leaving behind a flurry of sweeping brushes and protestations about children’s noses, which, as it was getting near on 6pm were about to start running copiously in approximation of some saint who cries real tears twice a year.