I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I’ve heard lots of advice about avoiding the August heat and August holiday, Ferragosto, celebrated on August 15, was established by the Roman emperor, Augustus, in 18 BC (according to Wikipedia). The date also marks the Roman Catholic celebration of the Assumption of Mary, widely marked with religious processions in Italy.
The August heat is just too much for me, reason enough to find a cooler month to visit. But why avoid the holiday celebrations? Here are a few visual aids:
Yes–many businesses are closed for the full week, and often longer, even up to a month. All these signs were along one street in Caserta, where we stopped on our way to Calabria.
In August, families gather, those who have moved away come back to visit in their hometowns. Big family dinners are held, and even those who don’t celebrate the religious holiday take pretty seriously the Latin origin of Ferragosto, a phrase that mean’s “Augustus’ rest”. It’s the Italians’ time to take a break.
So what did five Americans do in Calabria for Ferragosto? We joined a lot of Italians at the beach at Squillace Lido for the day, rented a couple of umbrellas and five chairs for a few hours. By three in the afternoon we were in Soverato having lunch at a seafood place near the beach. They served a special Ferragosto menu, four courses at a set price of 18 Euros per person. Salad of octopus with potatoes, tomatoes, parsley, lots of olive oil. Then mixed seafood lasagna. Then a big swordfish steak (again, heavy on the olive oil). And for dessert, watermelon slices.
By 6PM we were in our ancestral village to see the religious procession with our distant cousin. This was very interesting, and far outside my own Christian tradition. Following a service in the church, the statue of Mary, with a couple of cherubs hanging on, was carried on a circuit through town and back to the church. We visited afterwards with my cousin’s family.
Outside the church, as we waited for the statue to be carried out, my cousin greeted nearly everyone who came by–people she has known most of her life, even though she grew up in Rome and lives in Denmark most of the time now. Scigliano is her home town, and she returns every August, reconnecting with aunts and uncles, cousins and schoolmates, and reconnecting with the church and the meaning it brings to her life.
There are plenty of tourists in Italy in August, non-Italians playing at the beaches, lakes, and in the mountains. But it is clearly an essential Italian family time. As we watched the Virgin carried aloft through the streets, I wondered if my great-grandmother Giusseppina watched the same thing when she was a girl, 125 year ago. I wonder how she felt on the first August she spent in America, far from her village and if she felt keenly the cutting of those family ties–the ties I am trying to rediscover with my cousins in Italy.