La mattina – Morning
I love the smell of morning in Italy. Even in a large city, I love it. Yes, even the morning exhaust from cars and buses smells different in Florence or Rome, not as offensive. In Lucca there is less exhaust, but more of that Italian morning smell: The scent of the brick walls, the paving stones, and the iron bars on the windows, all warming under the creeping sunlight, stretching out lazily to embrace it, letting go of the heavier odour of night; the aroma rising from the burbling Bialetti espresso makers of all sizes whooshing on gas stoves in kitchens everywhere; of Cimbali machines in bars, breathlessly providing ‘cappucci’ or macchiati to the bar patrons spilling out into the street so that Italy can continue chugging along for another day (seriously, how else have they done it all these years…?); that heavenly ‘come hither’ scent of fresh bread from open doors of the panifici (bread shops) and alimentari (grocery stores).
There is a freshness in the air which is different from that in Canada; the green is sharper in the morning, the sun on the poplar leaves shimmers brighter. Even the cars grazing your hip as you walk in search of the ‘perfect’ focaccia seem more benevolent in the morning sun. I realize that it’s all in my head, but, then again, there are many truths under the intense Mediterranean sky. .. So, who knows?
Cani e bambini
Let’s talk about dogs first. Remember? The ones that trot along beside their owner as he or she pedals a bike on Lucca’s wall, or through the narrow, congested streets filled with lucchesi, studenti, and turisti.
I’ve yet to mention the ones who ride comfortably in the wicker or plastic baskets attached to the handlebars of their owner’s bike; these pooches (and, yes, these are little dogs), often ribbon-adorned and perfectly coiffed, look very 18th century-regal as they zip by the poor schmucks who are hoofing it beside them and dodging pesky Fiats and Audis and Mercs. I keep expecting a tiny paw to rise up and twist delicately back and forth, in a Queenly wave, acknowledging the plebeians all around.
Then there are the wee canines settled comfortably in their owner’s bag while shopping (ah-huh, grocery shopping). My personal favourites were spotted in a small Coop (Co-op) grocery store in Florence: The twin-canine-carrier was wrapped a tracollo, diagonally across the mistress’ shoulder and ample bosom, while two adorable curly, white heads poked out of opposite sides of the cloth snuggly, pointing their wet noses at any especially appetizing cheeses and afftettati (sliced meats) they were passing, hoping their mistress would get the hint.
It is typical for dogs — of any size — to be brought into most shops, banks, bars, and restaurants.
Even churches. In Lucca I watched a man walk up to the altar to take communion carrying a well-behaved Fido in his arms. The priest placed the host on his tongue (the man’s…), smiled at the pooch, then patted the gentleman on the arm. This led me to believe that this was not a new event — but certainly one of which Saint Francis, at least, would heartily approve.
Now, with all this gadding about town, your pet needs a vacation!
Obviously, many people in Italy believe this. In the cities visited since arriving here, I’ve seen many people and their pooches touring the ‘must-see’ sites, churches included. I can tell either by their accents/dialects, or by the lost and confused look on their faces, that these are not locals. They have arrived in their car from other cities, from other parts of Italy, with their favourite pet in tow. You wouldn’t leave your child at home — how could you possibly leave your pet? Many hotels and agriturismi accept dogs as part of the family: in other words, you want the business, you accept the four-legged member.
My zia Morena, my aunt, was ahead of her time, I now realize. Twenty years ago she would go nowhere without her little dog, Sisi. The car was equipped with a special collapsible pet dish, water bottle filled with clean water, blanket, snacks. . . all the necessary accoutrements to make Sisi’s life more pleasant while on a journey, regardless of its length. And they never went very far. (The little beast also ate from a crystal desert dish at home, and only food that my aunt cooked for it, but let’s not dwell on that.) On outings in the Garfagnana hills with my aunt and uncle, we humans had to fend for ourselves in the thirst department and hope that an adequate bar came into view around the next bend. At the time it annoyed me that we would have to stop every hour or so to let Sisi drink and pee, but perhaps I was just jealous. What embarrassed me most at the time, however, was the way zia would sneak the little ball of white fur into a restaurant and hide it under the table. Of course the waiters knew. They chose to look the other way and indulge an overprotective mamma and her baby. The beginning of the slippery slope, I now see. These days it is common to see a dog lying by his master’s chair at restaurant or bar. No one bats an eye, just wags a tail.
Children have always enjoyed a special status in Italian culture, especially since the 50’s and 60’s when the post-war economic boom allowed almost all levels of society to spoil and indulge their offspring, to dress them in those exquisitely-made, delicately embroidered outfits one sees displayed in store windows and sold at exorbitant prices, to buy them extravagant strollers and high chairs made by Peg Perego, Inglesina, Chicco. But now Italy’s birthrate is the lowest in the EU. And with good reason. Most young people cannot find permanent work, regardless of level of education and qualifications. With very little permanent, stable work available, it is difficult to plan for a future, to plan to raise a family. With a lack of children, both younger and older folks are turning to raising dogs. It seems to me that man’s best friend has replaced children where none of the latter are available. Who else can a nonna or nonno spoil if their own child cannot, or refuses to, provide a grandchild? The same is true for younger people trying to satisfy a parenting instinct. Italians need to lavish love and material goods on some form of bambino; if none are available, the four-legged variety will have to.
Witnessing all this Italian dog devotion can turn a visitor’s head as well. In Lucca there are a hefty number of foreigners who have decided to call this walled city home. Soon after my arrival, I read about two such people, both retirees, who, once established here, decided to have their dog brought over from Australia. They used a special service that sends an employee to accompany your pooch on the plane. Upon arrival, the companion hands it to the Italian representative in Milan or Rome, who then transports your pet to you. After reading about the couple in a monthly English publication in Lucca, I recognized them on their morning walk on the walls, and then again, in town later that morning. I approached them and asked if they were the people in the article (with picture) that I’d read and indeed they were. The pet in question seemed very happy to be with mom and dad once more, and a more dog-friendly city he could not have hoped to land in!
** I didn’t have the chutzpah to take photographs of many of the situations I speak of in this post. I must confess that I relied on the internet for these two cuties.
***Our dog Sam, Mr. Guilt-Trip. Photo courtesy of dear friend Shirl.