Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Wild in the Streets (or Calli)
On the message board of a certain website I sometimes used to visit before we moved to Venice an aspiring ex-pat once made the mistake of expressing her fantasy about her young daughter wearing a pleated plaid skirt and skipping home after school over old Italian cobblestones.
The poor woman was savaged.
It seems there are a lot of rather unhappy ex-pats lurking on such websites and each of them felt compelled to disabuse the woman with the young daughter of her picturesque notions of Italian life by regaling her with tales of their own dreadful experiences abroad.
I'm not sure whether these horror stories were actually helpful to the aspiring ex-pat, or in any way altered her fantasy, but their tellers seemed to derive no small amount of gratification in relating them.
I'll admit that in nearly a year and a half here I've yet to see a school girl in a plaid skirt--though I used to see them regularly around the Catholic school we lived near in Brooklyn. And I could easily relate some of the unpleasant realities or shortcomings of the Venetian public school system, but what I'm more struck by lately are the particular pleasures of picking Sandro up from pre-school here.
Of course the biggest difference between a child's life in Venice and his or her life in even the most (in)famously child-centric neighborhood elsewhere--such as the one in Park Slope, Brooklyn where we used to live--is the complete absence of cars. With no threatening traffic, kids can run riot. Indeed, in certain narrow calli, a cluster of 4 or 5 rampaging pre-schoolers (on foot or, as above, on scooters) becomes the most likely thing to run you over--especially if you're one of the more infirm and tottering members of the city's elderly population.
But I'm not sure it's only the absence of cars that accounts for the difference between picking up a pre-schooler here and picking one up in New York. There also seems to be a certain difference in sociability here. I hesitate to make too much of this difference, wary of falling into cliches and of how those cranky ex-pat enforcers of the reality principle mentioned at the top might respond, but yet... Well, I can only tell you a little of what I've seen.
Taking leave of one another in Sandro's little class of just nine students is a big deal. On a sunny spring day when most of the kids happen to walk from school together, as each peels off to his or her own route homeward, it's not just a matter of the usual ciao or even arrivederci but the more dramatic addio! (farewell).
Addio! Addio! Addio! They shout to each other as, for example, two classmates climb into the motorboat with their parents which they'll take home. Addio! Addio! they all shout as the motorboat sets off down the canal. Addio! Addio! they shout as they run on the long fondamenta alongside the slow-moving motor boat, waving and clowning. Eventually, as the boat distances itself from them, most of the kids will leave off the chase and the farewells--but not all. Though we'd reached the calle where we needed to turn off and the motor boat was now almost beyond shouting distance, one 5-year-old girl we sometimes take home from school kept after it, singing her good-byes.
I actually had to chase her down. When I finally got her to stop, she turned back, gave a great shoulder-heaving sigh, and said, "Sono innamorata di Lorenzo.... Ma lui non è innamorato di me." (I am in love with Lorenzo.... But he does not love me.")
Other days there are songs, or just the repeated jokey sing-song refrain of "Amore, vieni fuori!" (Love, come out!) They'll address this to the unknown doorways they pass, or, for big laughs, lift the lid of one of the wheeled neighborhood trash dumpsters of Cannaregio and sing it to the unseen contents within.
If pre-schoolers in New York weren't picked up by their nannies or didn't need to hustle off to their private lessons in Mandarin and yoga and hedge fund management, if there wasn't the constant threat of traffic, would they carry on this way? Do they, in other parts of America, before they clamber into their individual SUVs and go their separate ways? I don't know.
I know that I noticed last year how operatic Sandro's leave-taking from even a certain favorite male friend could be. A long embrace, a kiss, then their reluctant separation, their gazes returning to one another as the distance between them grew, an extended exchange of ciaos thrown like a life-line across the widening gulf. If the chance presented itself they'd race back together for another last embrace, starting the whole cycle again.
Lately a new female friend, after a long embrace and a kiss, and many ciaos, cries every time they say good-bye.
In contrast, Sandro's male cousin in Illinois, who lives not far from Chicago, who is also 4, and who is also fond of taking leave of his classmates with hugs and a kiss, was taken aside (along with his mother) by his pre-school teacher and told "I really think high-fives would be much better."