Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Summer's End, and "Free-Range" Venetian Kids

photo credit: Jen

Most Venetians believe in clear demarcations, even if nature (and her weather patterns) don't, and so summer officially ended here on September 13: the day on which everything had to be cleared out of the rented capanne on the the beach at Lido and the season came to a close with all the finality of a screeching metal grate being pulled down before a toy shop window.

If there was any doubt that it was all over--at least among those younger children not yet completely inculcated with an Italian adult's sense of regimentation--school started just a few days later.

Our son, Sandro, however--American as he remains, despite spending the majority of his life here--didn't really cop to this fact until his "bike club" came to an end.

The bike club in its most gratifying form was one of those fortuitous creations of the long lingering light of hot summer days and the spontaneity of childhood; one of those things which adults know can't last for long, but which children are convinced--and happily so--will last forever.

It first took shape in late spring, when the various kids or pairs of friends who rode their bikes around our neighborhood after school began to establish connections with each other, overcoming the boundaries that are a fundamental part of local life. Differences in schools, differences in family backgrounds, parenting methods (slaps upside the head and public humiliation being favorite approaches here), national origin, length of residence--not to mention outright feuds and vendettas--keep both adults and kids from even acknowledging the existence of some neighbors whom they quite literally see every day.

Jen and I know that such factors almost guarantee that no matter how long we may live in this neighborhood (it's been 5 years already) not a word will ever be exchanged between ourselves and certain people--not even if we greet them first. This is not so in the case of kids, though. So that even the local boy who upon first encountering Sandro in the company of a mutual native Venetian friend two years ago, immediately referred to him as "merda"--and whom Sandro thereafter exclusively referred to as "the fat-headed boy"--became part of the bike club.

There was little structure to the first incarnation of the "bike club". Nothing more than a vague agreement among its "members" that they would meet on their bikes after school and tear around our neighborhood's long broad viale and equally broad calli in a pack. To the consternation of various elderly folks, who feared for the safety of themselves and their dogs.

They had, in fact, little to worry about, though, as the grandfather of one of the club's central members was always outside to keep an eye on the club. For his grandson is rarely allowed to venture out of the house without him.

But the appearance of what strikes them as kids enjoying excessive freedom disturbs more than a few of the pensioners here; one of whom, for instance, has been known to appear in her front door and demand from a group of kids drawing flowers and houses and happy scenes on paving stones with colored chalk some 30 meters away: Just who exactly is going to clean up that mess after you're done? 

The children answer, The rain! It will disappear with the next rain.

The old lady shakes her head at such brazen impudence and retreats to the security of her own home, turning the various locks inside her door "at least 16 times!" (Sandro reported), causing general mirth among the chalksters and adding the thrill of rebellion to an activity that was already fun.

And so our neighborhood bike gang rolled into the early summer, their unscheduled meetings getting later in the afternoon, on account of the fact that so many of them spent the day on Lido. One of them would ring our apartment buzzer or shout up at our windows to see if Sandro was available--as kids, it seems (at least from old movies I've seen), were once in the habit of doing everywhere--then they'd peddle around the neighborhood taking on more mass.  

From what I've seen, and read, and heard, this is not the kind of thing kids do in America anymore. Certainly not in Park Slope, Brooklyn, though it has a giant park at one edge and is practically zoned for child-rearing. Not in Asheville, North Carolina, where its own beautiful little hilly park in the center of a historic neighborhood is always empty, though surrounded by houses occupied by families. Not in my hometown of Modesto, California, where the public park I thought was an elegant paradise as a child is also always empty. Nor in Santa Monica, where a friend has resorted to the internet to try to locate like-minded parents interested in establishing a "free-range kids's club"--though any kids' club organized by parents to promote the spontaneity of their kids immediately contradicts itself. Nor in Des Moines, Iowa, nor Oak Park, Illinois, nor even, as a traveling couple recently related to us on a train headed to Liguria, in an affluent family neighborhood in Orange County, California, where a door-to-door salesmen of high-tech home security systems bizarrely referred to the fact that he'd just seen a couple of young kids playing in the front yard of their own house as a sign of just how out-of-control and dangerous their neighborhood was. As if children playing by themselves outside have become, in America, the mark of a slum.

The children of the privileged in America (and not only in America), or of the aspiring (and this includes nearly everyone), are not left to their own devices anymore. There's far too much at stake, the environment far too brutally dog-eat-dog in an all-or-nothing culture to allow kids to have any of those things once synonymous with a fortunate childhood: spontaneity, unstructured play, the chance to test, little by little, a sense of freedom and independence. Kids have lessons, or are scheduled for beneficial activities, or are left to the company of their screens, which in addition to keeping them sedated and out of the way, serve equally well to prepare them for a docile adulthood spent in thrall to yet more screens.

Childhood, in other words, has become a lot like adult work: scheduled, institutionalized, goal-driven. Indeed, what strikes me again and again is how much even our most popular diversions bear all the traits of contemporary labor: an obsession with quantification, with progress (narrowly defined), with goals and money and market values. When we go on Facebook, for example, (as billions of people in the world do) we ourselves engage in all the techniques of consumer analysis (quantifying responses, etc) and calculated marketing that in, say, films of the 1960s and '70s were portrayed as the appalling extreme of industrial dehumanization. Sports fans now accept it as natural that how much players make and the financial standing of their favorite team should be on their minds as much as their team's won-loss record. Film buffs have been trained to worry about opening weekend receipts. Super Bowl viewers about the cost and production values and efficacy of commercials. Though none of these fans or viewers reap any financial gain from such things.         

In short, when it comes to obstacles to a child's play and enjoyment, the cranky senior citizens on our little island here come off as marvelous throwbacks to what is generally (and generously) termed a "more innocent time." Like the various obstacles between young lovers in a traditional romance, or the harrowing adult figures in Roald Dahl, they ultimately contribute as much to the intensity of gratification as they initially impede it.

And, moreover--and, alas, this has become truly rare--such local cranks make no effort to appropriate such childhood gratification as their own, or turn the delay of it (and the promise of its delivery) to their own profit. As, for example, narcissistic overbearing parents do in the first case, and video games do in the second.

(In fact, I'm also tempted to suggest that the phenomenon of "free-range" kids in our neighborhood goes hand-in-hand with the equally unheard-of-in-America phenomenon of "free-range" senior citizens. In most places in America, retirees--by choice, or due to economic or health considerations--are segregated from the general population. They rarely seem to stay in the places they spent their earlier decades of life, and certainly aren't as prominent in the daily life of neighborhoods filled with young families, where they can act as the community's abiding eyes and ears as others troop off to work or school. There's no need here for signs of the sort common in the US announcing "This Is A Neighborhood Watch Community"--meaning the residents have committed themselves to surveilling the area. Rather, for better and worse, you can pretty much always assume there's an eye on you around here.)    

But I've strayed far from Sandro's bike club which, about the middle of July, happened upon its own most enjoyable and exciting form. For it was around then that the kids agreed among themselves that they would have a standing appointment to meet every night at 9 pm.

For Sandro, who'd slowly been becoming more adventurous about going out by himself after dinner, this was a big step. He went from asking us to go out with him after dinner (to the playground outside our window or the local bar down the way on those Friday nights it hosted outdoor tango), to checking his watch while we ate, then announcing it was time for him to go meet his friends outside. We'd tell him he had to be back home by 10:30 pm--and so he would be, flushed and damp with perspiration from his bike riding, and expansive with his new sense of independence. Which grew throughout the summer, though never so much as to make him hesitate to ring our apartment buzzer to tell us through the intercom that he needed a sweatshirt or to change his shoes or whatever else it might be--even if it was, we sometimes suspected, simply to re-establish contact with his home base.

Or with the mother ship, as the case may be. For near the end of August he buzzed to say that a boy was threatening to pop the wheels of the bike club with some sharp object. Jen had answered the buzzer and talked to him and as she walked out onto the balcony to see what was going on right below we could hear Sandro crowing proudly to the threatening boy in Italian: "My mama's coming out right now! Here she comes, my mama!"

At the age of 7 1/2, in other words, he was still young enough to be not in the least embarrassed that when the going got tough he turned to his mother for help. And, as much as we were happy to see how independent he was becoming, we were happy about this, too. Parents, no less than children, need time to adjust to the new parameters of independence.

The summer days were already getting shorter when the bike club first began to officially meet at 9 pm, but, still, at that time, they seemed to linger: darkness sidling up with so little purpose and momentum that it wouldn't have been unimaginable for it simply to stop right where it was for awhile, just to take in everything that was happening in the last soft light, to let everything play itself out at leisure. A hitch in the last long exhalation of the day.

That never happened, of course, and summer kept right on keeping on, too. By early September the bike club was meeting in the dark. Which was exciting in itself, and another nice addition to the adventure of it all for Sandro, it seemed, who didn't take it as the sign that it clearly was of summer's end.

So he was shocked--even though he and Jen had just cleared out the capanna we shared with other families on Lido and turned in its keys, even though he'd been warned that school would begin in three days--when no one showed up at 9 pm for the bike club on September 13. Or on September 14. Or the 15th.

"Summer is over," we told him each night. He refused to believe us. "School is starting," we reminded him. Everyone, including him, had to start going to bed earlier in preparation for the beginning of classes. He simply shook his head. He looked at his watch. He listened at the window for the sound of kids outside.

"I heard someone out there!" he announced.

At 9 pm each night he insisted on at least being allowed to go outside to look if anyone was around.

It was easier, I think, for him to believe that it was something we were keeping him from than to admit that due to the passage of time, the changing of seasons, his 9 pm bike club meetings had simply and naturally reached their end, as naturally and spontaneously as they'd come into being.

We told him that his bike club could go back to meeting after school. He said it wouldn't be the same. And he was right.

He'd had his summer, and it was only natural that he be disappointed at its passing. But we knew, even if he didn't, that his neighborhood play would surely take new shapes in the fall. And we knew, too, how lucky he was that those shapes weren't preordained, that none of us could be sure about what exactly they'd turn out to become.


  1. Summers over, never a truer word said :-(

    1. I'm not actually ready for it to end yet, either, Rob, but it didn't bother to ask my opinion, unfortunately.

  2. It is with a heavy heart that I reached the end of this story. I feel great empathy with Sandro ( in this and other stories) in spite if being 10 times his age!!

    1. And yet onward he goes, Rosalind, probably more resiliently than we do; now with a new game involving the neighborhood kids which involves collecting all the cardboard boxes from the various businesses in the neighborhood, carting them around on his hand truck and other make-shift carts (including a scooter or two), then, after being told unanimously by their parents that the boxes are not allowed inside their houses (where Sandro already has quite a collection in his own room), reluctantly hauling them down to the canal-side place where they'll be picked up tomorrow morning by the "spazzini."