I am sitting on a rapidly deflating beach toy surrounded by thousands of sweaty Italians, and my legs are making the plastic slippery. Strategically positioned on Via Cavour, one of the roads the festival of Santa Rosa utilizes, I am sandwiched between four smoking men in light pink v-neck shirts and three animated teenagers playing Texas Hold’em. After wiping flying cigarette ash off of my blue cotton dress for the fifth time and nearly being hit by a discarded cigarette butt, I squirm to a standing position, nearly falling on “Angelo,” so nicknamed by my host sister Sabrina because of his angelic appearance, and wind my way through the labyrinth of bodies to find her.
Briefly worrying that I’m being too impatient, a personality trait I’ve been hyperconscious of since my arrival in Italy not one week ago, I decide that a leisurely eight-hour wait is excessive even by relaxed Italian standards. With a timid smile, I ask for the third time when the festival starts, in case I misunderstood. Around nine, she responds, and I look at my watch. It’s just after one p.m.
We have staked out the side of Piazza Fontana Grande waiting for the Festa di Santa Rosa, the most important event of the year in Viterbo, Italy, to begin. A structure roughly 30 meters tall called the macchina, gilded and dazzling, is carried through the city on the backs of 100 men called the facchini, brave men who receive their last rites before the daunting but honorable job. The facchini are told to trample a fellow man should he should trip and fall, otherwise the entire structure will collapse, crushing not only the men below it, but also the spectators it falls on. The entire city prepares for weeks, and dedicates the day to nothing but the festival.
You can watch the video below for a better sense of just how enormous the structure is. The macchina itself changes every year, so it looks a little different, but you get the idea:
Having begun my year-long Italian adventure less than a week ago, I’m thrilled at the prospect of experiencing such an important part of the Italian culture, but assume we are going to explore the city or sample some of the country’s famed gelato while waiting. I am wrong. When I suggest half the group save our prized “seats” — an eclectic combination of beach chairs and beach toys — while the other half walks around, my Italian peers look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. Why? Do I have somewhere in particular I’d like to go, they ask? Then why can’t I just stay and relax?
Everyone is perfectly content to enjoy the moment with their friends and loved ones. Not a single text message was rapidly written, and the iPod was put in speakers so the entire group could listen.
As time fades, bottles of wine and wrapped prosciutto are pulled out of oversized designer bags, and the familiar itch to check the time on my cell phone diminishes. I began to enjoy the calm feeling of simply “being.” I normally thoroughly enjoy my companions’ company, but other thoughts are ever-present in the back of my mind. What am I doing later? Do I have any papers due soon?
I don’t forget about my responsibilities entirely, but I begin to learn how to achieve tranquility when matters aren’t flawlessly in order. One will always have chores and deadlines, so it is crucial to be able to enjoy life before they are completed, because they will never cease to arrive.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above during the academic year of 2007-2008 when, not knowing one word of Italian, I decided to spend the year in Italy living with a host family. I went through School Year Abroad (SYA), a program I cannot recommend highly enough.
Front page image credit: Jason Wirth/@JRWirth1