Thinking About Italy This Easter Week

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Lake Como, tour guide Marina

 

A tour guide at the back of the boat was pointing to some of the sites as the craft raced toward Bellagio (the real village not the hotel in Vegas). Italy’s lake region is one of the most picturesque spots in a country already stunning with beauty both designed by nature and by ancient architects.

Lake Como’s shore is rich with stories of kings, saints, artists and even Benito Mussolini who was gunned down nearby. Sometimes history can be mind-boggling especially when its characters flow as quickly as a motorboat, but there was one name that gave a rise to all the passengers. “See that building,” the guide, Mariana, said as she pointed toward the shore at a chateau, “that’s where George Clooney stays.” There was a gasp worthy of Michelangelo. Soon the visitors were overwhelmed by another historic landmark, a restaurant where Clooney sometimes ate.

I have been thinking about Italy lately as the country has been felled by THE virus. Conditions have been bad in the United States too, but that is a different lamentation for a different time. As a united country Italy is younger than the United States having been consolidated into a nation in 1861. As a peninsula the land is ancient. Its pre-Clooney history includes one of history’s all-time famous disasters at Pompeii but also global importance: The Roman Empire shaped western civilization.

For the pathos of the moment I am reminded of the little things—the small towns where old men gather at the town squares each evening for animated discussions; nearby, boys kick a soccer ball. There are fountains and ancient churches whose belfries acknowledge each new hour. From the cafes there is the small of frying garlic, anise and olive oil. At the bars the tourists sip limoncello while the locals have another Moretti beer.

I was once in Italy on an Easter Sunday in a town, Pienza, whose cathedral was commissioned by an early Pope, Pius II (1458-1464) who frequently stayed in an adjacent palace designed to be his retreat. This I thought was going to be quite an experience, Easter Sunday in Italy at a church that a Pope built. The church was packed, as expected for that day, but what surprised was that there was no support staff except for one usher. During the mass he also did what an altar boy does helping the priest including holding the plate beneath the chalice during communion. There was no choir, so Easter was a two man show.

There was one parable though: Our group was running a little late so that there was no space left in the pews. The usher directed me to a chair that had been set up near the altar. For my tardiness I had the best seat in the house. Or, to quote Matthew, “The last shall be first.”

Italy is known for its chocolate and seldom is it better presented than at Easter where a specialty is large milk chocolate eggs. Inside there are candies or some sort of trinket. There are no Easter eggs hunts there but rather the discovery of what is contained by the big eggs.

Food is always part of the discussion when Italy is the topic including the story that in 1889 Queen Margherita of Savoy, wife of Italian King Umberto, visited Naples. To honor her a local pizzeria operator, Raffaele Esposito, created a pizza topped with the colors of the Italian flag; mozzarella for white; basil for green and tomatoes for red. He named it Pizza Margherita. Those ingredients had probably been used on pizza bread before but never with a name. From that day the Margherita became famous and so did the pizza business.

Dean Martin’s song “That’s Amore” is about love and contains the line “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

Many great operas have come from Italy, most blending joy and tragedy. May the moon be bright over Lake Como this Easter week. And may joy itself soon move from last to first.

 

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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.

 

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