“Neighbours…..everybody needs good neighbours……”

And the expat literature available to me before I embarked upon my own Italian adventure led me to believe that mine would be 95 yrs old, dressed head to foot in black, with poor dentistry and penchants for Holy relics. They would eat their own weight in lasagne on a daily basis, take me grape picking (and treading) and help me to plant my very own olive grove for the generations of mini-Not-Treadings to come. They would be harsh, and suspicious of me, the furrin incomer, but this grumpy and sun wrinkled exterior would hide a heart of gold, and I would awaken to find produce so fresh it was still dripping with dew on my doorstep, and eggs from chucks which had never seen a cage. I would be invited to attend extended family Sunday lunches under canopies in the baking August heat, where people would randomly leap up to demonstrate ancient folk dances and send me home with granny’s recipes filling my head. They would all muck in to babysit my barefoot and bilingual Italish children and it would truly be an earthly paradise.

Well, pah and chuh….I don’t know in which part of sundrenched Italy the people who come up with this rose-tinted gobbledegook reside, but it sure isn’t anywhere near me.
Whackjobbery on the neighbour front was not, I admit, something new to me. When I lived all too briefly in Spain we had Pedro Downstairs. Pedro hated us. Pedro hated everyone. Pedro threatened to kill people with an axe on a daily basis. We got used to him, checking the lift for evidence of his fetid presence before getting in, and always travelling, like the agents on Spooks and policemen, in pairs. There were hairy moments when he’d go off on one and chase us down the road brandishing a big leather belt and shrieking obscenities- but by and large, we co-existed. There were tipping points of course, hey, there are moments in all blocks of flats when the police get called by the neighbours because they are  convinced that the blonde woman upstairs is a prostitute no? We did get a bit fed up though when the willy-flopping over the windowsill started. I mean, any need? It wasn’t like any of us 19 year old language students had never seen one before and at much closer quarters to be honest. It was all rather Emperor’s New Clothes. There we’d be, sitting in the kitchen drinking our tea and eating our marmite sandwiches, and a quick glance sideways and downwards and there it would be. Menacing. Threatening. Small and a bit pathetic. “Oh Pedro put it away”. But he kept doing it. Until the day we got the camera out and photographed it, in all its puny middle-aged glory. Next minute, pitty-pat up the stairs and a timid knock. “I really like all of you, you are just the best neighbours a 50 yr old train driver could hope for, but could I possibly have the film out of that camera?”

Chronologically after Pedro, there was Andrew and his Mac…He lived upstairs in a house full of bedsits and had a lovely Chinese girlfriend. We saw his willy a few times as well. He would wait to hear our alarm clocks go off and then come flippy flopping down the stairs in a beige flippy floppy mac….(cliche’d much?) Thank the lord I rarely had my contacts in that early.

And so to Italy…..One of our first neighbours in Italy was MadPsychoWoman. Apparently Mr MadPsychoWoman had once had a torrid affair with a young blonde woman who Mrs thought might be a foreigner (you can see where this is leading no?) and so I always had to be very very careful going past her door. An ashtray to the head here, a broom to the backside there. Battle scars are worn with pride. It made me feel marginally better (but only marginally) when the lovely (and blonde) girl in Benetton recognised my scars and told me she’d met Mrs Mad on a few occasions as she was opening the shop up. One fateful night we were awakened to hear her crashing round the street smashing (presumably) blonde people’s wing mirrors and we did find “Die Bitch Whores” carved into our front door once, but obviously, it must be stated for legal purposes, we have no proof it was Mrs. Mad. We moved out of there quite quickly, especially as the lift kept breaking so, short of learning to abseil, we had to walk past her door and take our lives in our hands.

I live in a nicer area now…..by the sea…. I glance out of my window……. it’s warm out there, and out there he is…..Uomo Mutanda…..Pant Man……in his pants. Y fronts, grey ones, white ones, black ones….and other times the dreaded leopard skin budgie smuggler. But they’re always pants, and he’s always in them. Underneath my house. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gone onto the balcony to hang *my* pants out and shrieked “aaargh” and run back inside holding my eyes. Pant Man is neither young nor old, but his pants are not what one would want to meet on a dark night. Or, come to think of it, a bright sunny day…. He likes the sun. He likes his garden. He tends it lovingly. Being, I imagine, clad as he is, somewhat scantily, wary of the thorns. He has three sunloungers down there, meticulously placed with scientific precision to catch the optimum amount of sun when his gardening is done and he lies down to soak up the rays. In his bloody pants. And resolutely with his legs akimbo to avoid white stripes. We live opposite the sea. The beach. Literally, Pant Man could go out of his gate, and taking less than 30 steps be on a beach with other half nekkid people. This is clearly Not What Pant Man is Into. Pant Man likes to feel special. On a beach he’d be one of many. Under my house he is, very definitely, unique.

Next door to Pant Man are the Pontipines. One person goes in, 46 come out. Must be a lot of bunkbeds in there, that’s all I can say. Before the Pontipines moved in there, there were the transexual prostitutes. Now I’ve sat in the doctor’s surgery with these two, and I can’t honestly say I’m *sure* they were men in frocks, but local gossipmongers maintain t’is so. And that the little old mammy living with them was not only their little old mammy, but their little old business manager. There did seem to be a brother too. Now, I confess I never saw the brother and both of the MenWomen at the same time. Soooo. Whatever, and it’s not for me to judge, but they had a favourite song. The Cranberries, Zombie. Which I can never listen to now, without imagining stubble rash, biceps and lipstick.

Her Downstairs (on the other side of the building to Pant Man’s garden) is a fortune teller and card reader. She hurls sea salt round the building whilst burning incense and listening to (loud) Italian love songs. She has the kind of voice which casting agents for Eastenders look for. She is big and scary. She moved a boyfriend in whose Mammy came round with the police to fetch him home. He was about 45 but even magic spells and voodoo are no match for the Italian Mammy.

Her Upstairs tends her face with the love and precision that Pant Man uses to pick out his underwear. She has spent so much money going under the knife that her fat sausagey lips reach round the back of her head to kiss each other and her face has that weird grimace permanently etched on it that, were it to break into a proper smile, would cause half her head to drop off and clatter onto the marble tiles. We have it on good authority (my sister-in-law) that so much money has been spent on perfecting The Trout that the utility bills get hidden under the bed. Trouty herself did tell me once that someone was clearly plugging themselves into her sockets and pinching her current because there was no way she could really owe the electricity board that much. The truth, as ever, is more mundane. Apparently, due to her plugging herself with the butcher’s lad, her husband had a mini-breakdown and lost his lucrative job and had to Go Away for a while…….

Them Next Door are lovely though.The HommaMommas. Car salespeople by day. Buddhists in their free time. Head Buddhists for the region. They have meetings every Monday when people come round to chant with no clothes on.( I might have made some of that up.) When I asked Mrs HommaMomma once about the chanting I came away a bit concerned she hadn’t quite understood about Buddhism as she told me she was a devout Catholic who did Buddhism in her free time.

As you see, I am still waiting for the wizened old Grannies to bring me bowls of sunblushed apricots and freshly laid eggs…..but as said Granny would have to battle her way through men in pants, transsexual hookers and members of the occult, I shan’t be holding my breath…..

Qua’ si usa cosi…….Holy Communion

“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.