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."


  1. I think that is generally a wonderful Italian characteristic...don't you notice how LONG it takes one of your Italian friends to get off the telefonino? Many ciaos, many va bene, many si si...and in leave-taking also. I don't have anything to attribute it to except that I do love to participate in it and was so aware of my American self when I just said hello/good bye and hung up while - it turned out - friends
    were still taking their good byes.

    ...and I don't believe I've said how much I enjoy your writing! Grazie mille

    1. You make an excellent point, pc: when viewed in the context of the leave-taking of Italian adults--even on the phone--the behavior of the kids makes complete sense. Both my wife and I also admire those extended good-byes on the telefonino & elsewhere, as if most Italians are so oriented toward socializing that breaking off can't be done neatly, but has to be worked up to (or wound down to).

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. How lucky Sandro is. Such a pity that his cousin's teacher is so narrow minded. We ought to be able to show our emotions and if we can't do that as infants when can we do it?

    1. I agree, Andrew, and was surprised when I heard about Sandro's cousin and his teacher. At 4 years of age a lot of kids are just getting the hang of socializing with other kids and to be hit with that kind of restriction already... It's really too bad. High fives just aren't quite the same.

  3. Give me that warmth, exuberance, freedom to show your feelings any day, over the button it down, stiff upper lip, don't touch mob.

    Yes, Sandro is lucky to be spending his formative years in the Italian emotional climate, he'll be a better adult for it, I'll wager. Aw, and his new female friend cries when they must part for the day! I love her without ever seeing her.

    1. Yes, Italy has plenty of problems, but there are still some good things about it, one of them being an emphasis on forming friendships in childhood that can last a lifetime. And S's new female friend is really very sweet & certainly deserves better than some of the all-too-boyish response she gets from him (such as "Look at my muddy hands!" yelped while shoving them nearly into her face). But they also spend a lot of time walking hand-in-hand from school & chatting.

  4. I, too, wanna cry when Sandro leaves. Hugs and kisses to you all.

    1. Sometimes Jen & I want to cry when he refuses to go to sleep at night, but, yes, we know what you mean. He can't wait to see you guys soon, nor can we.