This is a story about August. One of the most peculiar of months where the days are getting noticeably shorter but the sun is relentless. As if it knows that soon we will be turning away from it to start our journey into winter. That last month of full-on summer when the heat is at its most intense and fall is still just a whisper.
August can be a difficult month. In the US, school is starting back – a ceremonial end of summer when, in fact, summer is not done with us yet. Vacations are over for those whose calendars revolve around the school year. The flowers are starting to fade, tired and straggling from the long days of June and July, now being bombarded by the hot August sun and perhaps not enough rain. They look like we feel – wilted, baked by too much heat, Grass may crunch underfoot, trees’ leaves droop.
But in Italy a magical thing happens in August. Italians use August as a month to take a pause, to relax, and to just do what they are known worldwide for doing – living the sweet life. While they are happy to entertain the world in any other month, in August they want the country to themselves. They take long vacations, almost always to the seaside, where they lie under the Mediterranean sun and watch their olive skin darken. They close their businesses for days, weeks, maybe even the entire month. They don’t send their children back to school until well into September so they, too, can enjoy this month of leisure and learn what a vital part of life it is.
Right in the middle of August is one of the most popular holidays in Italy. Ferragosto, always on August 15. Here you are asked by everyone, “Where are you going for Ferragosto?”. When we reply nowhere, they look at us with a great deal of pity. In the days leading up to it, everyone wishes you “Buon Ferragosto” with the same enthusiasm and anticipation as “Merry Christmas”.
Ferragosto has a storied history here. Started by the first Roman Emperor, Emperor Caesar Augustus in 18 BC, it was a celebration of his victory over Marc Antony. From there it grew into a celebration of the end of the long work of the summer and the harvest. Even horses were given the day off and were festooned with flowers and garlands. Once Christianity took hold, the Catholic Church used the day to mark the ascension of Mary into heaven. So now it’s part secular and part religious, like so many things in Italy.
Festivals and events abound in August. Even our little village, Anghiari, has a couple of traditional events that coincide with Ferragosto. The most important one is the Tovaglia a Quadri (checkered tablecloth). I’m not sure why it’s named this, but the tables are indeed dressed in checkered tablecloths. Busatti, no less. We went for the first time this year. It’s a dinner theater with the play written and performed by locals and it unfolds as we sit at the tables having a feast. The setting is a 13th century castle, with the long, communal tables, glorified with their checkered cloths, set up in the courtyard. Under the stars on a perfect late summer evening, with this story being played out between courses, and wonderful conversation taking place during the courses – well, it just doesn’t get much better than that. It was a charming evening with a play about women’s rights, medical ethics, and the power of art and beauty. And we loved it.
Views of August
The August landscape here is hazy. Views are obscured by a layer of dust that hangs in the air. Not enough rain and many fields and white roads form this veil that partly settles back on earth – on cars, outdoor furniture, pavement – and partly raises skyward until it thickens the atmosphere. Clouds in the afternoon hint at rain, but the thunder rumbles and the clouds pass and the dust continues to rise. We long for rain, just a shower to wash the landscape and cool the soil. The plants drink the water we faithfully pour on them but they, too, need a good dousing from the heavens. That pure, clean rain that no amount of hand watering can duplicate.
August nights are magical. After the sweltering heat of the day, the evenings bring cool air, light breezes, and a sky full of stars. The nights feel clean and crisp, with no hint of the haze that blankets the days. They come to us now sooner than they did in July, a sure sign that summer is slipping away. They hold the promise of the coolness to come in just a few short weeks. I actually had to put on a wrap one night and thought that it was perhaps the first time in my life I had worn one in August.
Tractors are starting their circuit from field to barn with the newly harvested tobacco. They traverse the roads, snaking up hills, stalling the faster cars that wait behind them. Soon the air, already thick with the dust that these tractors are stirring up, will have the unmistakable scent of tobacco curing. That sweet, smoky aroma that in just two short years I have come to associate with fall. Just as you can smell rain coming, you can smell fall coming.
Living here for over two years has opened my eyes to many things. Probably the most profound thing is the love Italians have for life. Most of them don’t get overly worked up over politics. World affairs are a concern, but when your soil has been witness to the battles theirs has, you take that in stride as well. Economic woes are important and you hear many tales in the piazza about how hard it is to make ends meet. Unemployment is high and it seems that the young, even the educated, have a terrible time finding a career.
But if August does anything here, it teaches us that no matter the trials you may have in your life, no matter the state of the world, you can still enjoy a late summer evening with your friends. You can go with family to the seaside and let the ocean wash your cares away. You can listen to music under the stars, eat a wonderful dinner at a sagra, go to an outdoor performance and just be together. Simply loving the life that you have been given. For the world may have its problems, but Italy has August.