Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A very special birthday

Ferragosto is a huge national holiday in Italy which you’ve likely never heard of. Officially, it’s the day to celebrate the Assumption – the day the Virgin Mary’s soul ascended into heaven. I’m not sure the thousands of drunken youth having sex on the beach know that’s what their celebrating, though. In practice, Ferragosto means a day off (not that the Italians need it, since they’ve got the whole month of August off). And in the beach town of Terracina, where I (and hundreds of other braniacs) go to celebrate, it means a huge, blow-out bash on the beach culminating in fireworks and a midnight dip in the ocean.

Besides all of this, there is one particular reason our family loves Ferragosto. The big bash always takes place on Ferragosto Eve, August 14th which also happens to be my husband’s birthday. Before we had the kids, I took him to Terracina for Ferragosto and the two of us swam into the ocean at midnight – me, probably topless – and watched the fireworks explode overhead as we swayed in the black Tierian Sea. It was a pretty incomparable birthday celebration. So when I realized that we had happened to book our travel to Italy over Ferragosto, I was thrilled to repeat the experience and to bring the kids into the festivities.

We started the celebration at 6:30 on the piazza, watching some very trusted churchgoers carry the Santa Maria della Assunzione – a huge icon – down the stone steps of the ancient church onto the street, where they loaded her onto a pick-up truck to get the procession started. I’ve walked in the procession with my grandmother, years ago, and it was an incredible experience, even if I was the youngest person in attendance by oh, 50 years. My mother likes to joke that my grandmother can’t walk across the street but if she has a procession to go to, she can walk for miles without complaint. So me and about a hundred old Italian ladies walked up and down the hills of the town, singing hymns and, when it got dark, bearing candles. I pitched it to the kids this year and they were totally gung ho, for about five steps. We hadn’t even made it out the piazza before they were over it. It’s walking and singing. Got it, Now we can go get a gelato?

So we headed back to my aunt’s apartment for a little party she threw in honor of David’s birthday – spaghetti alla vongole veraci, mille foglie cake and plenty of red wine. With all that wine, by 10pm, I was lying in bed, nodding off as I read King Arthur to Primo. Seconda was already asleep in the other room.

“Mommy, Mommy, wake up!” he yelled, “Aren’t we going for a midnight swim?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, looking over at David, “Is that still happening?”

“I don’t mind if we skip it.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m exhausted,” I said, “Primo, do you want to just stay home and read?”

”No, I want to go!” he said.

“Really? Because it’s a long walk to the beach and then a long walk home, up the huge hill.”

“It’s OK.”

“Are you sure? Because if you don’t want to go, we can just stay home.”

“I want to go.”

David and I exchanged the “Do-we-really-have-to?-I’m-freaking-fried” look. We wearily got up and put on our swimsuits. We wearily walked the 20 minutes to the beach.

When we got there, it was like New Year’s Eve. In fact, in this beach town, Ferragosto is bigger than New Year’s Eve, because no one there’s on Jan 1st but in the middle of August, it’s where everyone is. Every club on the beach was blaring house music and all the Casanovas were out with their shirts unbuttoned, hanging on the ladies with their gladiator sandals and bikini tops.

The three of us sat in beach chairs by the water. Primo was so overcome with excitement to be part of something so special and adult, that he kneeled on the sand and told me he was saying a prayer. We began to feel peppier after that. Soon it was minutes away from midnight and we took off our over-things and shoes and watches and held hands by the shore. Then we heard shouts and whoops and fireworks and we knew it was time. Holding hands, we ran into the dark water, which was cool, but not cold, and jumped the waves and laughed.

Then we wrapped ourselves up in towels and looked up because directly overhead, and I do mean right over our heads, fireworks were booming. I’d never seen fireworks so close up and it did occur to me that we might end up burned to a crisp in a freak Italian fireworks accident. But we stayed anyway and held our breaths and watched the sky explode with color. It was a moment I’ll never forget. It was a moment you squeeze into a tiny. neat bundle and stick somewhere inside of you to remember later. It was sublime.

“I’m glad we didn’t stay home tonight.” I said, “Thanks Primo, for giving us a reason to come.”

He just smiled, stars in his eyes.

And that’s why, despite the jet lag, and the crowded quarters, and the heat, we had one helluva time on our Roman holiday.