We’ve lived in Rome for nearly a year now. We arrived last August, and soon became familiar with shuttered-up shops and restaurants adorned with various signs saying “Chiuso per ferie”: Closed for the holidays. People, very sensibly, avoiding the heat, humidity, traffic fumes, and stench of garbage cooking in the dumpsters and dog shit dry-fried on the pavements.
Having said that, there’s also something pleasant about Rome in August: it calms down, marginally.
As summer rolled around again this year, the shutters started coming down. In July, the woman in our local pet supplies shop said to me: “When are you going?” “Going where?” I responded, slightly confused. “Vacanze!” Oh, right, of course. She was checking what supplies I needed for our cats as she was going away at the start of August, and wouldn’t be back till the end of the month.
It’s not like every business closes for the entirety of August, but a reasonable proportion still do. Apparently Rome used to be even quieter in August, especially from Ferragosto – the 15 August holiday that traditionally marks the hottest point of the year. (I reckon it’s heading for 40C ish this year.) The word, like ferie, is close to the Latin for festivals, Feriae, but I like to think of it as “ferro agosto” – iron august, when it’s so bloody hot, it’s like being hit with a metal bar. Or metal getting so hot you can’t touch it. Or something.
Anyway, the fruit and veg vendors I favour said bye in late July, and now the market is half-empty, the various metal shacks totally locked down. When we moved into our current flat on 4 September 2011, the big, popular restaurant on the corner was all closed still, but this year I spotted a sign proudly stating they’re open for August. Though maybe they’ll be staggering their holiday, and closing for September.
As a Brit, this continues to tickle me. It’s just such an alien concept. We have a different work ethic, and a different work-life balance. You’ve got to admire these people for retaining the sanctity of holiday, of time with family and friends. If Sunday is the week’s day of rest, then August is the year’s equivalent.
My only point of reference in British culture is from stories by the likes of W Somerset Maugham and EM Forster, describing a very middle-class, or upper middle-class milieu in Edwardian Britain. But even most well-off Brits wouldn’t consider taking a whole month off these days. It’s not like it’s a comparable class issue here though. Many Italians I speak to, from different walks of life, have seaside or country houses, including our neighbours, who aren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination (she’s a perpetually stressed single mother, for example). Maybe it’s a bit more like the New Zealand culture of the “bach”, a second property to retreat to for a break, be it a shack in the hills or a nice pad on the beach. (Oh, and many Brits are confused by “bach” – well, it’s short for bachelor pad, innit.)
I don’t know whether my friendly grocers have gone to a country retreat, but they’re certainly having a nice long holiday.
A few weeks back, in July, I wanted to get some chocolates for a present from a cioccolateria, and found a sign saying they were off for nearly three months.
Nearly three months! Respect. Is selling handmade chocs really that profitable? This is in Trastevere, a favourite location with tourists, so maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just a practicality. Perhaps it’s just too messy trying to sell handmade chocolates in the summer.