Saturday, December 13, 2003

About a week ago I wrote that there had been no signs of Christmas on the Italian streets through the autumn; refreshingly, the shops choose not to bully their customers for one-third of the year. Walking around anywhere except the town centre – even now – you could be forgiven for wondering if “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was written about Italy, not Ethiopia. However now that we’re nearly there: oh my.

Piazza Bra – a large pedstrianisied public space in the middle of town – has metamorphosed from a cyclist’s paradise – open spaces, no cars, greenery and a hugh roman arena on one side – into a claustraphobic’s nighmare. Walking across is difficult; cycling impossible. There’s a giant construction of a shooting star and its tail rising from the Arena and landing in the piazza; there’s a huge Christmas tree covered in lights and there are hundreds of market stalls selling you all that you want for Christmas. Except, it would seem, my two front teeth, which instead are presented with a vast array of choice with regard to self-destruction. The intoxicating sweetness of the place can be smelt for streets around.

It’s all in the name of Santa Lucia. The lucky kids of Verona got a visit from Santa Lucia this morning and then, in 12 days time, Santa Claus visits as well. Actually, they’re not quite as spoilt as that since Christmas Day is less of a big deal as it is in England or, indeed, elsewhere in Italy; Santa Lucia is the big one.

I’m learning that such regionality – Santa Lucia only visits Verona, Mantua (about which all I previously knew is that it’s where Romeo was banished to) and one or two small towns nearby – is common in Italy. Not just festivals but food and language too, to pick just two examples. There are endless regional dialects spoken in Italy and the one spoken in the Veneto – the area of Italy that includes Venice, Verona and Vicenza – is particularly healthy; it’s spoken by young and old alike which, I’m told, is not the case all over the country. In fact, I was told yesterday that the dialect in Verona is different even to that spoken in the rest of the Veneto. As for food, the Alpine regions have had significant influence on the development of Veronese cuisine: horsemeat and polenta are strongly represented on trattorie menus.

I don’t know if the local identity I see and hear about here – it’s much stronger than in England – is the chicken to the egg of the language and food, or vice versa. I suspect that the symbols – the dialects and dishes – are the egg; modern-day Italy is a young country and many of the regions have evolved under several different dynasties. Under such circumstances the retention of one’s regional identity probably increases in importance.

However, I feel at home, even if I’m a guest in this land. Those little things that always strike you as different when you first arrive in foreign climes – the fonts on road-signs, the architecture and the clothes, for example – are now the norm. So I wonder what differences I’ll see, if any, when I visit, say, the Italian south. That would be an interesting test of my familiarity with Verona.

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