May Day in Rome, or Calendimaggio

Happy May Day, bloglings!

For those of you from the other side of the pond, the first day of May is European Labor Day and just about everyone has the day off. Like every holiday in Italy, May Day has its own traditions and customs, and in Rome it is most widely celebrated by heading out of town for a scampagnata, a country outing. This generally involves either an actual picnic on some lush hillside, preferably with a vineyard in view, or an interminable lunch in some large country osteria where every table is reserved for the entire lunch shift because table turn-over doesn't exist for these kinds of meals.

If it's not possible to make it all the way out to the country, or for those who dread the traffic, a picnic in one of Rome's many sprawling public parks is an acceptable substitute. And of course, no Italian holiday would be complete without the tradition of some specific, local, in-season ingredients. And May Day in the vicinity of Rome dictates pecorino cheese, raw fava beans, and for the non-vegetarians, some prosciutto. (And a bottle of Frascati wine, it goes without saying.)

 Fava beans and Pecorino Romano cheese   [source]

Fava beans and Pecorino Romano cheese [source]

Another May Day tradition in the city is the free mega-concert in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Every year, between 800,000 and a million people fill the square to hear dozens of different performers, some very well known and most Italian. I cannot tell you what it's like as my agoraphobia would never permit me to attend, not even if I was paid to do so. To be honest, just the thought of being in that crowd makes me almost hyperventilate. But hopefully you don't share my crowd-anxiety, and if you'd like to attend, the music kicks off at 3pm and lasts until midnight.

 Concertone di Primo Maggio, 2011, Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano   [source]

Concertone di Primo Maggio, 2011, Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano [source]

I know you're all wondering, with baited breath no doubt, how your faithful correspondent chose to celebrate this made up important holiday. I'm sorry to disappoint those of you who may imagine that I have some kind of glamorous life, what with living in Rome and all, but I cannot lie to you, dear readers. My May Day has been pretty boring, although productive. I realized this morning that I have literally practically no clothes. And most importantly, I do not own a pair of jeans. Or I didn't until this morning.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I hate shopping. I mean, I really really hate it. It makes me want to throw up just thinking about it. And I especially hate it when there is something specific that I need to buy, because I will almost surely not find it. I should, perhaps, clarify this a little: I hate shopping in Italy. Shopping in the United States, if overwhelming and over-stimulating, is a wonderful, marvelous thing. But shopping in Italy – at least in 2013 – is hell on Earth. Why, you ask, darling readers? Because mid-level Italian designers have decided that it's not 2013, but actually 1991. So the shops are full of baggy T-shirts, off-the-shoulder, shapeless, sweater-dresses, M C Hammer pants, and jeans that are intended to be rolled up tightly at the ankle, like we did in 8th grade. All in the attractive colors of brown, beige, and camel. Every shop looks the same and it isn't pretty. It's a wonder I found any decent jeans at all.

My second exciting May Day event was the dreaded cambio di stagione (change of season). This is when you swap out all your winter clothes for your summer clothes and hope there isn't a late spring cold-spell. (This isn't necessary where I come from, by the way. In Seattle, the temperature is more or less the same all year round.) But it is a must in Rome, where not only does the weather jump from 45 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit sometimes in the space of a few weeks, but also where almost no one has more than a puny little wardrobe (roomy, built in closets are unknown in these parts). Thank God for the soppalco (crawl space).

Jealous, right? I'll bet. But just think, if I hadn't opted for a boring May Day, I wouldn't have had the time to write this post, and that's what really matters, amirite? Um, hello? Anyone still reading?

I do want to mention my absolute best May Day ever. It was in 2010, coincidentally just after I began this blog. Here is the post I wrote about that day: Perfection and Embarrassment (which I had originally called Perfezione e Vergogna until I realized using Italian titles for my posts was not the best idea if I actually wanted people to read them—silly me). It was a wonderful day that included a bike ride in Villa Pamphilj and the requisite endless lunch in the countryside with a big group of friends.

 But those two highly enjoyable outings are not what made that day so special, nor are they the reasons I will remember it forever. No, that is because of something that happened early, early in the morning. Let me set the scene: I was engaged to be married. We I had decided that the wedding would take place in San Pietro in Montorio, just up the street from where I lived at the time on Via Garibaldi. The church is perched on the slope of the Gianicolo Hill, is the sight of Bramante's exquisite Tempietto, and has a view of Rome that makes you me want to weep with ecstasy.

 Tempietto di Bramante, 1502[  Source  ]

Tempietto di Bramante, 1502[Source]

The only problem is, just about everyone in Rome wants to get married there. I had talked to the priest months earlier and he had explained that you cannot book a date at that church any more than one year in advance, to avoid "abusi" as he put it. What did that mean for us me? I meant that we I would have to basically stake out the church on the first day of whichever month we hoped to get married in, one year in advance. And hope to get there in time to get a good date.

We had originally planned to get married some time in early June, but I wasn't sure how early we I would have to get to the church on the morning of the first of June to line up. How many other couples would have the same idea? June is probably the most popular month to get married... would I have to wait all night? (I had a vision of Claudio and me with our chess set sitting on the steps of the church on a balmy June night, waiting to pick our wedding date with all of Rome spread at our feet. Pretty romantic, right?)

But still, I was worried. I'd only have this one chance. What if 30 couples got there before us and grabbed all the weekend dates? I decided to do a dry run the month before. I figured I would show up at the church on the morning of the first of May around 6am (they let people in at 7) and see how many couples were waiting and ask them what time they got there. Well, I can tell you it wasn't easy dragging myself out of bed before six on a holiday, but luckily I lived very close to the church. I was rewarded with an incredible sight. I have seen the view of Rome from the Gianicolo probably hundreds of times (although I never tire of it), but never had I seen it at dawn. The city had a golden-rosy glow with just tinge of periwinkle. As beautiful as Rome is at sunset, I think it might be even more glorious at sunrise.

When I arrived at the church, the parking lot was full of cars. A few people were sitting around. Fourteen couples were already there, most had arrived the night before and slept in their cars. One couple had showed up at 2pm the day before. It did not bode well. June will be even worse, I imagined. Then I noticed that someone had a list. It was actually a calendar with the available days and times for weddings shown; as soon as a couple arrived, they blocked off their preferred date and waited until 7am to confirm it with the priest. I gave it a glance, just out of curiosity. All the 4pm weekend slots were already taken of course, except one: Sunday, 29 May. I thought quickly. Early June, late May, did it really make such a difference?

I jotted our names down, just in case, and made a quick call to a very sleepy fidanzatino (not yet maritino). "What? You booked what? When? All right... whatever...." Yes, it would have been nice if he had been as ecstatic as I was, but the important thing was he agreed on the date. I felt rather pathetic being the only lone bride there while everyone else was with their betrothed (except there was one groom whose fiancée was out of town and he had brought a male friend with him to keep him company; before he explained this I was thinking, "Did they change the rules?"). An hour-long wait and a quick meeting with the priest and that was it: we had a date for the wedding, in a church with one of the most amazing settings in the city. And that quiet, serendipitous morning is what May Day will always be for me.

I can't close this (very rambling) post without at least one nugget of history. Long before May Day was called by the pedestrian name of Primo maggio, it used to be called Calendimaggio. This term comes from the ancient Roman calendar, in which the first of the month was called the Kalends. As is the case with most Italian words in my vocabulary, the first time I ever heard the word Calendimaggio was in an opera. One of my favorites in fact, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio and Lauretta desperately want to get married on Calendimaggio, only their families detest each other. Here's a video of the entire one-act opera, skip to 25:55 for the moment in which the thwarted couple despairs that they won't be able to marry on Calendimaggio.

I first saw this opera as a teenager I decided then and there that I too must wed on Calendimaggio. In fact, this was the original date I had hoped for, but am very happy someone talked me out of it, as John Paul II was beatified that day in 2011 and Rome was bursting to the gills with pilgrims, not to mention the traffic nightmares the Primo maggio concert inevitably causes.

In the Renaissance, Calendimaggio was not only a celebration of the arrival of spring (like May Day around the world), but it was also a day when tradition dictated that young men leave flowers at the doors of their sweethearts and maybe even serenade them. One of the few Italian cities that maintains the tradition of Calendimaggio is Assisi, where a three-day festival takes place during the first week of May every year, with processions, concerts, theater performances, competitions and lots of local townsfolk dressed in gorgeous Renaissance costumes. It starts tomorrow!

 Calendimaggio di Assisi [  Source  ]

Calendimaggio di Assisi [Source]

Happy Labor Day, May Day, Primo maggio, and Calendimaggio!