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by Francesca Di Meglio
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What's So Great about the Italian Piazza on New Year's Eve and Everyday
Looking for a place to celebrate the new year? Head to a piazza, or town center, in Italy
Nowhere in the world is a space dedicated solely to people watching so revered and worshipped as in Italy. In the United States, we have nothing that comes close to a piazza. There is no place to just sit and be. A piazza in Italy is home base for a town, where neighbors gather to debate the issues of the day (from Italy's place in the economic crisis to whether the town should invest in new soccer jerseys), gossip (mostly about who is sleeping with who), judge, entertain, and see and be seen. Usually, there are at least a few stores, a church, and a coffee bar or two in the vicinity. The piazza is the center of the Italian world, which is made up of microcosms, each of which revolves around the individual and his or her circle of friends and family.
In Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples that is home to my husband and my ancestors, I head to two piazzas whenever I can. The first is in Barano, where many of my mother's cousins still live. Some of the people there still remember my great grandmother, a woman I never met but whose face I borrowed apparently. I like to step into the piazza around 5 or 6 in the evening when the island comes back to life after the afternoon siesta. At Zia Giovanna's bar, I might pick up an ice cream and say hello to the regulars who used to play cards with my Zio Battista and keep up the tradition with my cousin Fausto (Battista's grandson). When my grandmother visited Ischia with me, we'd take our refreshments and park ourselves on a bench in front of the kids on the swing set or playing calico (soccer). We would chat and rest and appreciate the slowness of our Italian days.
The other piazza I'm drawn to in Ischia is in the town of Buonopane, my father's birthplace. To outsiders, it's a tiny dive of a piazza with nothing more than the old San Giovanni Battista church and a few houses surrounding its center. Often, abandoned dogs are barking and fighting in the nearby parking lot. But the piazza, much like the town and its people, has history and character. There is beauty in its wear and tear. Everyone knows the hardest working people in Ischia come from Buonopane. They were the contadine, the peasants who worked the land. Now, they keep up the land and whatever professional jobs they have taken on - and they do it with a fervor that the rest of the island simply does not have.
When I go there, I feel at home. Most of the townspeople in Buonopane still remember my father and his brothers and sisters. Some even knew my grandparents, Francesca and Giovanni Battista. They recount stories of when my father still lived in Ischia - how he played soccer when he should have been at school, how everyone called him "ricciulil'" for his curly locks, how he had to follow his sisters everywhere, when he left for America at 13. None of them believe I'm his daughter because he had platinum blond, curly hair with blue eyes, and I have stick-straight, chestnut hair and the brownest eyes. My personality - from my work ethic to my stubbornness - usually helps change their mind about my genetic connection to Papa'.
I mostly go to Buonopane for feasts, such as Pasquetta, when the townspeople perform 'Ndrezzata, a folk dance that my grandfather, uncle, and great grandfather once performed. The crowd in the piazza goes wild from beginning to end. As the performers clink their wooden swords in unison (acting out a war in the form of a dance), I get goose bumps. I can see Nonno Giovanni, who played the clarinet for the troupe and never stopped talking about his days in 'Ndrezzata (even after coming to America), watching with me from Heaven.
What does any of this have to do with New Year's Eve in a piazza in Italy? Well, it's simple really. The point is that whether it's any old day or a celebration, the piazza is the place to be. You'll never be lonely there because even if you're the only one standing in the piazza, you'll still have the town or city to keep you company. There are usually friendly faces and everyone knows your name or will know your name in the next 15 minutes. Whether you're in a big city such as Roma or Venezia or a small town such as Barano or Buonopane, you will find yourself - and probably a few new friends - in the piazza.
On New Year's Eve, you're likely to find a happening party - often featuring musical acts and other performances - in any piazza. If nothing else, you'll find a big screen TV and a countdown to midnight. And a lucky few will find someone to kiss when the clock strikes 12 in the piazza. If you can't make it to Italy, you can catch some of the piazza fun on RAI International, which broadcasts the parties taking place in some of the country's biggest piazzas. Buon anno nuovo!
Di Meglio is also the guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
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