Tim Parks’s best seller, Italian Neighbors , offered a sparkling, witty, and acutely observed account of an expatriate’s life in a small village outside of Verona. Now in An Italian Education , Parks continues his chronicle of adapting to Italian society and culture, while raising his Italian-born children. With the exquisite eye for detail, character, and intrigue that has brought him acclaim as a novelist, Parks creates an enchanting portrait of Italian parenthood and family life at home, in the classroom, and at church. Shifting from hilarity to despair in the time it takes to sing a lullaby, Parks learns that to be a true Italian, one must live by the motto “All days are one.”
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It's a loud harsh voice from far away. At a quarter to nine the morning air is already vibrant with heat and light. Everywhere a steady brightness lies like a pressure on brilliant color.
"Cocco! Cocco fresco!" The voice is getting louder, and it's recognizably a pedlar's voice, theatrical and coercive, the hard double c extravagantly emphasized, the final o almost stretching to two syllables. A young voice pretending to be old and bold.
"COC-CO-O!" You can hear the banging of a bucket now, as if against a leg at every step. "Cocco fresco!"
It's a geometric world we're in. First and farthest away lies the sea, behaving well today, a flat, undifferentiated dazzle, barely wrinkling where it meets an almost white sand. Coming closer, there are twenty measured meters between the water and the first row of sunshades. Old folks walk briskly here, parallel with the shoreline, their sagging or angular profiles sharp against brilliance beyond as they take their tonic morning stroll down the never-ending beach.
The voice is growing more insistent as it approaches.
"Cocco! Cocco fresco!"
The sea, the strip of sand, and then the sunshades: great green-and-orange umbrellas on this bathing station, tall and wide, each two and a half meters from the next, twenty-four in rows parallel to the sea, fourteen in rows perpendicular, with one space at the midpoint of each row in each direction to form a pathway from road to sea, a pathway across the beach (so that seen from above one imagines a bright sandy cross dividing a huge flag of color). On the ground beneath the umbrellas, the sun, still low, though higher every minute, revolves slow pools of shadow around deck chairs and lounge beds, likewise green and orange. The sand is a rigidly patterned chiaroscuro where the early-morning bathers stretch their towels and unfold their newspapers, entirely ignoring the now imperative cry:
"COCCO!" Clank, clank clank. "COCCO FRESCO!"
A small child fussing in the sand with a spade says "Cocco!" in the sort of baby voice that repeats everything it hears. "Cocco!" He looks up from his spadework to where a lanky adolescent is now approaching through a blaze of light, a bucket clanking under each arm.
Bending to adjust the baby's sunhat, a woman's soft voice says, "Yes, cocco della mamma!" Which is to say, "Mummy's little darling, Mummy's cuddly little man." But in perfect baby imitation of the young pedlar, now no more than a couple of meters away, the child shouts: "No, Cocco!" Then, "Cocco fwecco!" As if he understood.
The mother laughs, twists on her deck chair, and signals to the boy, who comes over with a grin. He is tall and straight with Latin-black hair and a smooth bare rather shrimpy chest already tanned to dark toast in early June.
"How much?" she asks.
He sets down his buckets on the sand, and now we can see the slices of white coconut swimming in water.
"A thousand lire."
This is extortionate, but once again the child, rocking back and forth on his nappy and bright red shorts manages, "Cocco fwecco!"
"Very clean," the pedlar knows to insist. He has a golden crucifix round his neck, three bracelets, an earring, a diver's watch, and a bright smile.
The deal is done. The boy pushes a crumpled note into the pocket of denim shorts and resumes his pedlar's cry among the sunshades. Meanwhile, the white coconut, whiter even than the light, dead white, is carefully washed from a bottle of still mineral water, then cut into tiny pieces so that a child can chew on it — my young child, Michele, gurgling in Adriatic light and heat, growing up Italian.
I remark to my wife, Rita, that where I was brought up, if you got down to the sea at 8:30 in the morning, you would freeze to death. But she is busy stopping Michele from picking up a crumb of coconut that has fallen in the sand. And now he's dug out a cigarette stub, too.
I remark that if you set up a sunshade on the beach at Blackpool, Lancashire, where I lived as a child, the chances are it would be blown away. Even with this huge cement base. And assuming you wanted to set it up somewhere dry, that would mean you'd have to walk half a mile out before you got to the sea, with the danger that then the tide would come in so fast it would sweep the thing away. Though of course it would sweep away the cigarette stubs, too.
In Pescara, halfway down Italy's fancy boot on the right-hand side, the sea scarcely moves at all on summer days. Or it's as if a broad dishful of water were tipped ever so gently this way and that. Tiny wavelets creep up the beach a meter or two, only to creep respectfully back, leaving the strollers and sunshades and pedal-boats untouched. The sand Michele is crunching in baby hands a hundred yards from the shore has the soft fineness of sand in an hourglass, dry as desert bone, certainly too dry to make a sandcastle with, but good for tossing up in the air, or pouring over Daddy's legs. Fortunately, there's not a breath of wind today to blow it into your eyes.
A couple more families saunter along the pathway from the road and the bathing-station bar down to their sunshades. The pathway is paved with small, square flagstones, because it is wearisome walking far across soft, dry sand, and then it would be difficult to push a buggy through it. The sunshades have small red discs with numbers to avoid confusion.
I said families, but in fact there are no men in the groups, for it's not the weekend, and not really holiday time yet. Only late July and August are really holiday time. A harassed mother is carrying a huge inflated shark. Her two small boys drag a rubber boat full of toys.
They settle, as they always do, at the sunshade across the path from our own. For that is their sunshade. Rented for the whole summer. Number 34. But no, the boys can't go into the sea yet. No! Per l'amore di Dio! It's too early to go into the sea. Not before ten o'clock! Though the temperature must already have hit thirty. ... Certainly I stripped my shirt off long ago.
"If you waited," I remark to my wife, "till it got hotter than this to go into the sea at Blackpool, you'd never go in at all. Which might be just as well, because ..."
But Rita's worried that Michele has sand in his nappy now, and she's debating whether to take it off. Is this early morning sun already too strong, perhaps, for his delicate skin? And if she puts cream on him, will the sand stick to it?
When you went swimming at Blackpool, you pulled off your clothes in a hurry and were shivering before you'd got your costume on. To fight the cold, you ran fast across the beach through shallow water, or on a hard, ribbed sand that hurt your soles. Laughing and splashing, you plunged your goose pimples into a murky sea and fooled around in the waves for as long as you could without suffering serious exposure, then raced back out of the water to where Mother stood waiting with a big bath towel already opened. Father rubbed your hair furiously, distorting your vision of low clouds over the Edwardian seafront. The sand was damp and sticky and would never come out from all the body's secret corners, perhaps because the towels were never a hundred percent dry. The very air was wet and clung to you. Then there would be flasks of soup and tea and coffee, crouching in the shelter of a windbreak, sniffing and wiping your nose on a sandy wrist. Afterwards, fully dressed again, you dug channels and built dams for the water that lay just below the surface everywhere, all the time keeping a wary eye on a possible pincer movement of the tide, famous for carrying off the less experienced beach-goers. Your overall feeling on departure was one of battered heroism.
Rita laughs. She feels sorry for the English, but she also finds them rather ridiculous. Never once, in all our trips to England, has she braved an English sea, though she is an excellent swimmer.
In Pescara the mothers bring their children early to the beach, to get the sun at its healthiest. Later they will let them go in the water when its coolness can only be a relief. And when the children come out, they don't change back into their clothes, shivering like wet dogs, teeth chattering, but into a second dry bathing costume. Or even a third.
Overhead and a few hundred yards out to sea, a light airplane flies low and parallel with the shoreline towing a long strip of orange plastic. It's advertising "CRODINO," a soft fizzy drink. Nobody needs soup or hot tea here.
Michele spits out his piece of coconut. It appears he doesn't like it. "Cocco," he says cheerily, apparently not having really made the connection. So I get to finish it up, perhaps my first piece of fresh coconut since the coconut shies of Lancashire funfairs twenty and more years ago. One thing about having children is that they remind you of so much. And having children in a foreign country gives you a new awareness of distance, a new dimension to your awayness.
After ten o'clock, as more and more people arrive, the sunshades become a warren of orange-and-green activity, most of it, at this hour, dedicated to the well-being of young children, who have to be undressed, smothered in sun cream, wriggled into their bathing costumes, and given a hat, which of course they take off, so it has to be put on again, then they take it off again, so then it has to be tied on, so that now they begin to cry — and perhaps the sun is already so hot that they could really use a t-shirt, or perhaps not, How hot is it already? and Don't throw sand, Matteo, Don't throw sand, Cristina, and No, you can't have pizzetta, it's too early for a pizzetta. Yes, I know I promised. Well, we'll go and get one at eleven o'clock. No, you can't go in the water yet. Not yet. For the moment just be quiet and play with your toys.
For they all have lots of toys. They have big plastic buckets and spades, and they have rakes and forks and then little plastic moulds to make bas-relief frogs and rabbits and dogs and cats of sand, except that the sand is too dry here, somebody will have to go and fetch a bucket of water, and they have plastic dolphins and rubber rings and water wings and goggles and snorkels and flippers, all in extremely bright colors, and tip-up trucks to move sand and excavators to dig it and rackets and balls and perhaps even a boomerang or a kite.
But they have no father to play with, to make their toys comé alive, because father is in the office, or the factory, or even the fields, working. And for the most part they have no brothers or sisters to play with, because Italians of my generation rarely have more than one child.
The only children nose around their toys wondering what to do while their mothers chat.
For since the mothers always come to the same sunshade, which is their sunshade, they pretty soon get to know all the other mothers who have the adjacent shades, and they do this far quicker, it seems, than the children get to know the other children. After all, adults have had more practice.
The sunshades to our right are taken by two primary school teachers. Sitting on their lounge beds, creaming their stretch marks, their small talk is inexhaustible: TV game shows, supermarket prices, medical tests, friends divorcing, celebrities divorcing, nappy rash, toddling, tortellini, teething. Nearby, the dear children they're more often than not talking about fret with their toys and, if they have a companion, begin to hit him, while the sun creeps up to the vertical, squeezing the shadows in beneath the sunshades.
"It's hard to see why they're at the beach at all," I object as Michele clutches at my toes. Certainly I can't remember so much mere lounging when we were by the sea at Blackpool. We were always up and doing then. It was all games and eating, swimming and shivering and escape.
Rita is reading a publication called Io e il mio bambino — Me and My Baby. There was a free teething ring in it.
I repeat my complaint.
"Because of the sea air," Rita explains. "It's good for the children's lungs. The doctor tells them to come. There's quite a technical article about it here somewhere: the therapeutic action of iodine on the bronchi."
"But you can't even smell the sea."
"Not from here."
This is remarkable. At least to me. Given the calmness of the water, the stillness of the warm air (and perhaps the ubiquity of suntan lotion), you can't actually smell that wonderful sea tang until you're almost in the water. Indeed, if you didn't look in that direction, you might well be in some sort of pleasure-ground Sahara.
The two teachers are comparing the peeling on their shoulders while their two children ignore each other. Not once in more than an hour have they said anything that might betray any professional interests. But Rita isn't interested in my criticisms; she's reading an article about flat feet now. She's afraid Michele may have flat feet. She gets him to lie on his back and examines his soles, which only makes him giggle. To me they look like two nicely puffy bread rolls, and I decide it's time to take him down to the sea.
One can see why Italian mothers are not perhaps too unhappy about their husbands not being at the beach all day. By eleven o'clock the beach at Pescara has begun to take on a distinctly erotic feel of the variety that hardly encourages midlife monogamy. By eleven o'clock the adolescents have begun to arrive and what can only be described as the serious sunbathers. Holding my toddler by the hand, I walk painfully slowly around a somewhat razzled mermaid in a monokini that is no more than a thread of fluorescent green between tightly dark buttocks. With the air of having seen one late night too many, she always comes, interestingly enough, with a fat elderly man, her grandfather perhaps, or perhaps not. Upturned on his lounge bed he is reading La Gazzetta dello Sport with not a trace of a smirk on his face. Summer is the transfer season, and one has to guess which players are going where.
Michele cries. The hot sand is burning his feet. I pick him up and carry him to the central path. On all sides now, among the shades, on the edge of deck chairs, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls are preening and preparing themselves for the solemn business of "taking the sun." They are local, Adriatic girls, smooth and darkly slim in what this year are brilliantly colored costumes cut high on the thigh, though there is always the problem of changing costume from day to day, or even two or three times in the same day, so as to tan as low on the stomach and as high on the legs as possible.
I concentrate on keeping Michele's sunhat on, aware that women and girls are all turning to look and smile, but not at me, no, at my golden little boy as he toddles blondly forward. For myself, I might as well be invisible. Children do this to you. Perhaps more so in Italy than elsewhere. Children are magnets for women's attention. I wouldn't be surprised if some unscrupulous fellows didn't use them the way others buy a fast car.
We break out of the sunshades into those twenty measured meters of empty sand before the sea. No doubt there is a regulation. And it's here that the action is, it's here that people go when they've had enough of their sunshades, when they can no longer just sizzle or chat or preen or read. The sand is beaten hard here, and there is even a meter or two that is darkly damp where the water laps. So you can walk with ease, and games can be played. Or really only one game, tamburello. For in Italy people are remarkable above all for their conformity, for all doing the same thing at the same time. The old folks stride by along the sea's edge, tummies toppling over tight costumes, the scars of their operations everywhere evident; the children rush into sheets of sparkling water; the mothers stand together on the shore to watch that they don't get far away, chatting to each other and occasionally shouting, while the adolescents, plus any able-bodied men who for some reason are not at work, or any women who for some reason do not have children, play tamburello.
If somebody is playing something else, then they are not Italian.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Italian Education"
Copyright © 1995 Tim Parks.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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