I am asked a lot of questions and my job requires me to respond to those questions. I am supposedly knowledgeable about Italy and theoretically I have a pretty good idea on what it’s like to be an American in Italy. Students might give me and some of my colleagues a little too much credit. To them, we seem like all-knowing intercultural, Italy-gurus. Rare is the student who understands that their experience follows almost exactly the same arch as all of the other 700 students that came before them, all of whom we closely followed through the process from beginning to end. While there is always something new, for the most part, we get asked the same questions over and over again and, since we have been blessed with the capacity for long and short term memory, we’ve become pretty good at answering them.
There are questions that leave us perplexed. Maybe one day I’ll write a book with just a list of questions that people asked us. I’m confident that most people would find it mildly entertaining. Here’s one that always stuck with me. Note that this question was not asked in any professional setting. It came during light conversation at a dinner with students.
Student: Ok, so if you could have any state in the United States, which one would it be and what would you do with it?
Me in my mind: What the……?
Me verbally: Well, I’ll stick with Colorado, because it’s got a lot of good things and I would give it back to the Native Americans and let them govern us to change things up a bit. See how it would work.
I was not prepared for the look of horror on this poor student’s face. I thought that mine was a pretty good answer given the premise of the question and that it’s 100% impossible for anyone to be “given a state”. The student’s life prior to that moment had not prepared her for the implications of a Native American takeover of one of those square states in the middle of the country and the thought of the unknown proved too much. She was a little freaked out and the conversation awkwardly turned to the next contestant on “Get A State, and Do Stuff With It’. By the way, freaking young people out in a safe environment is actually part of the goal at our study abroad program. We’d argue that being a bit freaked out is what learning feels like.
Lots of questions and exchanges with students have stuck with me, and really this one would have probably been archived under “stuff I don’t really need” if it weren’t for that it always comes to mind around Thanksgiving time. That question, my answer, and the student’s reaction seem relevant to the holiday and some moral questions that it presents.
Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago and now it’s almost time for Christmas. It seems only natural to talk about all of the holiday diversity between my own American culture and the two places that we’re living in right now. If you’re wondering ‘do they celebrate Thanksgiving in Italy or The Netherlands?’, repeat that question slowly in your mind and then see if you can’t figure it out on your own. If you still find yourself wondering, then you need a quick refresher on some world history. (Please tell me you were able to figure that one out…)
I haven’t celebrated thanksgiving in the US for a long time now, although every year I am with Americans for the occasion. Once I spent the holiday in Switzerland with cousins who were living near the city of Lugano. I’ve spent the rest in Italy, with the students of the program for which I work (Siena Italian Studies). I have to say that it has increasingly become a surreal experience for me.
No matter how much we make efforts to make thanksgiving as real as possible, for me there’s always a hint of fabrication. Maybe that’s because the thing that’s really missing is family. Let’s face it, family is what makes the occasion so important for so many of us. Also, the “real” story of Thanksgiving is either partially or wholly fabricated depending on which opinions you choose to believe. We always have made it a po
int to invite local Italians to our Thanksgiving dinners, and they’re always eager to learn about the tradition. Telling the story of the pilgrims and the natives is always a bit awkward because it’s not entirely true and it’s pretty easy for a non-American to see the propaganda-esque nature of the story. Indeed, Italians are often quick to point out that the early, white Americans exterminated many natives. To counter their high-browed moral stance, I point out that Columbus was, himself Italian and he was certainly no saint. Also, I note that many of those settling “Americans” were indeed Italians. After light discussion like that, we eat turkey, drink wine, and have a good time. If anything, I’ve learned how to talk about one of history’s worst intercultural exchanges during, well, another type of intercultural exchange without seriously offending anyone. Another perk is that I also learned how to cook a real thanksgiving dinner for up to 80 people.
Moving on in the multi-cultural holiday season, the marketers of the world today have realized that Black Friday is a phenomenon worth latching on to if you want to sell things. Ironically, a continent that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving does partake in the next-most-American thing. Believe it or not, despite not knowing what it is or why it is, stores all over Europe have Black Friday sales. The enthusiasm is moderate when compared to the revellers at many US Walmart locations.
Next up spanning a few weeks between November and December for our family were St. Nicolas celebrations in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, they’re still celebrating St. Nicolas in the most racist way possible. See last year’s post for details. The Dutch are making slow but admirable progress towards a more sensitive tradition, and as I’ve mentioned, Amsterdam’s diversity is exceptional. In their defense, they are at least capable of carrying out an open discussion about a centuries-old tradition without killing each other. History shows that this is not an easy thing to do. Our wonderful daycare center in Amsterdam celebrated with traditional presents on Dec. 6 and Sean now fully understands that presents are awesome.
The first weeks of December in Siena, Italy are full of festivities as well. On December 1st the Sienese celebrate Saint Ansano, who around 300 A.D. apparently brought Christianity to the folks in the Siena region. Of course, as with most saints, the ruling Romans dealt with him in a very Roman way by burning him and then cutting off his head and rolling it down a hill (or so the story goes…). Today, it’s not much more than a day off from school and in perfect Italian fashion, one week later there’s another day off from school. This time it’s for the mother of all mothers, The Virgin Mary. Here’s what wikipedia tells us about December 8th:
The Immaculate Conception, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, was the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, free from original sin by virtue of the foreseen merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul (keeping her “immaculate”) at the time of her conception.
Ok, sure… Again, this holiday is a day off from work for most people. And the combination of the two holidays, one week apart often spark a downward spiral where nothing gets accomplished at all in Siena in December. Or, to look at it another way, people spend more time with their families, eating wonderful food. You can’t really argue that the Italians are doing things wrong with regards to holidays.
Finally, we’re at Christmas. In the Netherlands, St. Nick came and went by the time we recognize the Roman holiday for the winter solstice that conveniently coincides with the birth of Jesus. So who brings the presents? Nobody! Well, traditionally speaking, gift giving is not really part of the Dutch tradition for Christmas although it has become common to exchange gifts among family. Marketing strikes again!
In Italy there are rivaling imaginary gift-givers. The more religious families get a visit from baby Jesus himself who gives gifts for everyone. He’s tricky, often knocking on the door, leaving gifts, and then escaping before anyone catches him. Apparently he doesn’t need reindeer. Most Italians know Babbo Natale, a translation of Santa Claus, or better Father Christmas. However, Santa is only a recent addition (30 years or so) to the Christmas scene in Italy. He’s the same guy as the American Santa, reindeer and all except he has a fleet of normal flying reindeer. None of them are endowed with a luminous nose.
I tend to see trivial elements in of all of these holidays but I don’t think that triviality or truth really matters. These, and many others that I didn’t mention, are still important and I respect them nonetheless. The reason that I respect holidays is because they tend to make us think of our families and about those whom we care about. So, I’d like to add another answer to our student’s question (while not rescinding my original wish for the State of Colorado). I’m not going to ‘get’ a state. I’m just going to say MORE HOLIDAYS FOR EVERYONE!
To everyone, whether they read this or not. Happy Holidays.