Thursday 6 March 2008

Festa della donna

There are many symbols in modern Italy that have become synonymous with the country and being Italian; to my mind one of these is Mimosa, that bright yellow seasonal flower that has come to embody the day known as the “Festa della Donna”, otherwise known as International Women’s Day. The origins of this day are not entirely black and white. That the day is synonymous with female empowerment in the modern age is without question, although it predates the feminist movement by half a century or more. There is more than a fair share of politics thrown into the mix too; some of its early origins place it at the beginning of the Russian revolution, with protests by women marking the early stages of the Bolshevik uprising. The date of March the 8th began just a few years before the First World War, when women, who had become an integral part of the industrial age workforce, were campaigning fervently for better pay and working conditions. However, what began as a fundamentally socialist ideal, a “militant celebration” for “proletarian sisters” as a Russian revolutionary deemed it, and revived again by the feminist movement of the Sixties, has now become somewhat more commercial in nature, at least in Italy.

In truth, the reality of the “Festa della Donna” in modern Italy is really one great big, nationwide, oestrogen-fuelled hen night. This may be a slight exaggeration, but it probably makes for better reading and, besides, some of the stories I have heard cannot be put to print here… Traditionally on the 8th of March ladies from Piemonte to Puglia are bestowed with small, neatly crafted bunches of the yellow flower Mimosa, their stems wrapped in aluminium foil and, on occasion, couched in mouse-sized wicker baskets for added effect. The plant originates from South America, where the flowers were gifted upon news of engagement to be married. The same symbolism is at play here too, although being engaged to someone is not a prerequisite for receipt of the above-mentioned wicker basketry. Indeed any close relationship with a woman, whether she is your wife, lover, mother or work colleague, requires a man to do the honourable thing and cough up the flowers. Naturally if a man were to forget to buy some mimosa for his wife, it would be tantamount to a request for divorce, such is its importance. One can almost picture the florists rubbing their little green hands at the beginning of their lucrative annual trade of plucking, wrapping and miniature-basket weaving.

So, the flower giving tends to get done during the day, but it is what goes on at night that really demands closer inspection. Getting a table in a restaurant, for a man or men, on March the 8th is a bit like trying to find a decent, family run restaurant in Rome in the middle of August: almost impossible. For those of you who have not been to Rome in August, anything even vaguely authentic is closed, because the owners are lying on the beach, leaving the steaming city to us poor foreigners. On Ladies’ Day, everything is booked up well in advance and the country’s men folk are consigned to the kitchen at home. Of course, in true Italian fashion, the women have usually cooked the men’s dinner prior to donning glad rags and hitting the town; after all, men cannot be trusted to buttare la pasta and feed themselves properly can they? Restaurants, bars and clubs are festooned with the omnipresent yellow blooms and set menus echo with the clich├ęd names of girl-orientated antipasti and cocktails. From the way some of these ladies behave, one really does get the impression that they are only allowed out this one night of the year, such is the revelry that these testosterone-free tables incite. A friend told me that the first time she went to one of these evenings, she was stunned by the sight of 60 year old ladies creating phallic symbols from table napkins and talking, it seemed almost exclusively, about you-know-what. Once dinner is over the groups usually adjourn to a club, where a male stripper is, naturally, the order of the evening. The hysteria that this apparently creates sounds akin to a hundred Chippendales shows back to back. On Charlie’s first (and last) March the 8th, the stripper, apparently drafted in at the last minute as a replacement, hopped whilst removing his socks and then proceeded to neatly fold each item of clothing onto his chair after removal. Men are only allowed into these establishments after midnight, by which time, one can only guess, finding a new lady friend might just be the opposite of finding a decent place to eat in Rome in the middle of August…

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