Cobblequés: Ferragosto – W.C. Fields is alive and well in Italy
The late, great American vaudeville comedian and screen actor W.C. Fields once summarized his feelings about his hometown of Philadelphia by stating, “Last week, I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed.” He was, of course, referring to the City of Brotherly Love’s lack of nightlife at the time and not inferring disdain for his birthplace.
On a day like today, I could easily rewrite Mr. Fields’ line and state, “This week, I am in Vicenza, but it is closed.” Let me explain.
This afternoon, I attempted to pay a few of my utility bills at the main post office in Piazza Garibaldi, but when I arrived at the front door – you guessed it – it was closed, tighter than Philadelphia after 9:00 p.m. A posted sign explained that, “From August 6-31 transactions will only be handled weekdays between 8:25 a.m. and 1:35 p.m.” That’s three full weeks at half the normal operating time from the main post office of this fair city. Funny thing is, I wasn’t upset at the closure, I was really upset at myself. Why? Because I should’ve known better. This is the time of year when Italy turns into one gigantic ghost town and everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, loads up his/her car, puts pedal to metal and frantically gets out of Dodge.
This annual flight of Italians out of the cities and up into the mountains and along the seacoast is known as Ferragosto – the Festivals of August, so named in honor of the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus. More recently, the Catholic Church proclaimed August 15th as a holy day of obligation, the Feast of the Assumption, to mark the taking of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s body into Heaven. Because Italy is a predominately Catholic country, this single religious holiday eventually became the epicenter of this week-before, week-after phenomena and its associated business closures in which I now find myself trapped.
As the summer builds here in Italy, more and more people take their one, two or maybe three-week vacations; less the three, more the one-weeker. This is also the period when just about all businesses – government offices, banks, museums, supermarkets, gas stations, etc. – pull back on their operating hours or simply pull down the shades and hang a big CHIUSO (closed) sign in the window. Some shopkeepers even display handwritten notes explaining that they’re awfully sorry that they missed you, but that they’ve “gone fishing” and won’t return until pigs fly.
Misery loves company, right? Well, just to add a little more heartache, along with the gigantic departure gate that is Ferragosto, it’s also the time of year when city administrations – those still at the desk – take advantage of the “dead season” and fly into action, and off the handle, with countless public works projects. In Vicenza, that means a traffic nightmare just shy of biblical proportions. Backhoes, bulldozers, dump trucks and guys manning jackhammers belt out a rhythmical hard-knock beat, just up the street from where I live. As part of this construction-site concerto, I become part of one of the orchestral movements as I can actually feel the jackhammer soloist’s vibrations under my dining room chair.
Cobblestoned side streets – the kind I really like – and main roadways are uprooted to make way for new roundabouts, gas and water lines or just repaving with hot, sticky, dark-as-night asphalt. Just about on every corner, yellow-hatted, neon-green-vested road guards tell you when you can and cannot cross the street, or turn right, left or go straight ahead in your cars or on your bikes and scooters. There are so many “men at work” and “don’t go this way/that way” signs that my GPS, once I arrive safely at home, is still “recalculating” hours after I’ve parked my car for the night.
Ahh, Ferragosto – Italy’s two-week-long mass exodus enjoyed by those who manage to escape, but dreaded by those just stuck in place. Question is, whom do I blame for my predicament? Myself? Emperor Augustus? The Catholic Church? City Hall?
Aw, what the heck. I think I’ll just pack a bag and go visit Philadelphia and see how W.C. Fields is doing.
©The Palladian Traveler
©Tom Palladio Images