This week’s prompt was initially a great disappointment to me. At first, I thought I had nothing to offer, as I am not a Holiday person. I endure the holiday season, but do not look forward to it or revel in it. Christmas has not been important to me since my children have grown up and New Years, like Valentine’s Day, is not a celebration for a single man and I have been single now for over 21 years. I was geared up to end the year with a flurry of shining wit but I feared my holiday memories would turn into whining shit. Then something came to mind that I felt compelled to share. This is primarily written to entertain Lucy, who has become a fan of my writing and often the only reason I bother.
I was stationed at Aviano Air Base, in northern Italy, in the late seventies. I resided with my wife and three young children in the small town of Porcia, a suburb of Pordenone. We were about 40 miles from Venice, which has nothing to do with this story, but I just think it was heaven to live that close to Venice. We were the only Americans living in a small apartment complex. My children adjusted quickly, as children always do, and quickly picked up the language from playing with the Italian children in the neighborhood. As Italians are generally of the Catholic persuasion and take the command to “go forth and multiply” quite literally, there were lots of issue to play with.
As Christmas came near I decided to do something nice for the neighborhood children. I hired an American who played Santa Claus for several functions on the base to come to my neighborhood and entertain the kids. I loaded him up with candy and small presents, which he was to deliver at a preset time. I made sure he would arrive when all the neighborhood children were outside playing in our dead-end street. I had my camera at the ready and he drove up as planned.
What I did not know was that for Italian children, there is no real Santa Claus. Presents come from La Befana, a witch, who is never seen. You can only imagine their terror when this fat, bearded, fool dressed in bright red ejected himself from his Fiat, and trod towards them shouting, “Ho Ho Ho.” The kids screamed and scattered. It would have been no different had Godzilla arrived in the neighborhood. Some kids could be seen with wide eyes peering out of their windows. The only kids left to receive Santa were my own, who had no idea what had happened to their friends. I should have done a little research into Italian Christmas traditions.
While I have your attention (poor assumption) a couple of anecdotes about our life in Italy come to mind. The apartment building we lived in housed six families and as I previously mentioned five were Italian. Italian women shop daily for fresh food and buy almost no prepackaged foods. Also, they throw nothing away. As a result there was one small garbage can to serve all six families. It was more than sufficient for all tenants, except us. After a few weeks of our humongous heaps of disposable everything dominating the refuse area someone hauled in a small dumpster. It was obvious that it was for our use. I surmised that as it had our last name stenciled on it. Nothing gets past me.
My oldest son’s bicycle was in disrepair and since I have no handyman skills whatsoever and my tool chest consists of a screwdriver and a hammer (with which I have done some remarkable work) we tossed the bike out. The next day one of the neighbor kids was riding it. It was not only fixed but also looked and worked better than ever. I am pretty sure that I had assembled it wrong from the beginning. My son said, “Dad, that boy is riding my bike.” I had to explain the concept of finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers.
Another time I found that one of my neighbors, Lucio, had left his car lights on. Finding his car locked I went to his door and knocked. He answered, and I was ushered in and had to eat and drink. Italian hospitality does not permit one to enter a home without consuming mass quantities.
My three years in Italy taught me much about their culture and customs. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I did get a chance to teach my Italian friends a bit about my culture. Italians did not eat corn on the cob. This was 30 years ago and things may have changed. But then, they only grew field corn, which is fed to livestock and did not grow sweet corn for human consumption. Corn was considered only fit for animals. I introduced them to corn on the cob and until my departure I was always required to bring some corn from the base.
We had an occasional neighborhood cookout, though they had never seen a Weber grill, the men were soon drawn to mine. It is a guy thing. When I left Italy, I left my Weber grill to Lucio. I am certain that it is still functioning.