Yesterday the good wife and I went to the Lygon street Festival in the Little Italy area of Melbourne. The festival celebrates Italian culture by way of food but unfortunately not the drink. Australians drink a lot but they don’t tend to drink well. Go to any street festival in Europe and you will be able to grab a glass of beer or wine and wander around with it in peace and tranquility. Public drunkenness is frowned upon in Europe as is drinking to excess.
Australians and Kiwis take public drinking as an occasion to get off their face and spoil the party for everyone including themselves. So there was no wine or grappa to be had at the festival yesterday, not even a nip of homemade lemoncello.
But it was nice to wander around, sample some excellent gelato and other treats, and most of all hear Italian being spoken. I miss Italy. I miss the evening passeggiata, a daily ritual where you dress up well at the end of the day and wander around the town square while you eye off everyone else doing the same thing. Italians like to get a good eyeful which can be unnerving for an Australian seeing as here if you look someone in the eye on the street it’s usually a provocation to start a fight.
“What are ya lookin at, ya cunt!” is a typical delightful Australianism if you catch a stranger’s eye for that split second too long.
Italians will eye you up and down in frank appraisal and they expect you to return the gesture in kind. This public visual inspection is complimentary. It means that you are deemed worthy by the voyeur of taking up their valuable appraisal time. To not return the gesture is somewhat rude. You will receive this public scrutiny from both men and women. Or you will not if you look like a hobo.
When I first arrived in Italy I was quite unnerved by this as naturally I assumed that everyone wanted to start a fight with me. I spent my first few weeks glaring at people until I finally worked out what was going on. Soon we had a favorite pastime on days off from rafting. We would pile onto the little local train and head down to the city of Trento which is a university town. Adjacent to the imposing cathedral is a line of bars with outdoor seating, and just down from the bars is one of the university campuses. There we would sit, drink large steins of beer, and watch the bevy of Italian beauties passing to and fro throughout the entire afternoon. The girls loved the attention and we would soon identify those who had walked by us an inordinate number of times. These would be hustled to our gathering of tables and we would do our best to practice our rudimentary Italian on them, amongst other things.
Sometimes this developed into invitations to evening parties. At this point we faced a hard choice as the last train for the mountain valley left around 8pm. If we missed that train then we would be staying in Trento whether we wanted to or not. A few times we slept on the station platform to be awakened by a kindly conductor for the 5am train. He soon got to know us and he would exclaim with delight on once again seeing the silly foreigners who liked to sleep on cold concrete station platforms.
The midsummer night festival is held in Trento on the longest day of the year, a huge street party which culminates in a grand procession at the medieval town walls. My first year in Italy I was lucky enough to stumble upon it by accident with a few fellow Aussie and Kiwi guides. We ended up in a private party a few miles out of Trento where naturally we tried to start a fight. Aussies+alcohol+in public=belligerence as I have already explained.
But the Italians treated us like friendly children who had lost their minds. It’s hard to go through with a fight when everyone is laughing with you and commenting on how silly you are behaving. And in time I learned how to drink in public the European way, to the point where I avoided groups of Anglo-Saxon foreigners in public. They were always conspicuous by their collective awful behavior.
I didn’t even notice that there was no alcohol being served yesterday. It only dawned on me when I sat down to write this post. But I certainly would have noticed if alcohol was being served. At least we got to participate in the passeggiata, if only for one day. I’ve had my brief fix for another long year.