CHIAVARI, Italy –If there is one thing I know it is that it is difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking about Thanksgiving. For me, it’s hard to get into the spirit of Christmas until I’ve had Thanksgiving. But here in Italy, where they love holidays that fall on Thursday and extend into Friday and even Monday if they can get away with it, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s not that they aren’t fascinated by the idea of giving thanks for what you have, but what do they have to be thankful for they ask. For those of us looking in from the outside, we have to think they are kidding, right? They’re not.
It’s not that they don’t think life is good, Italy is beautiful, or the food isn’t the best in the world. They actually do. But not being too happy about something is part and parcel of the Italian DNA. If you are too happy about something, no, I take that back, if you show that you are too happy about something, you risk putting a jinx – the malocchio or Evil Eye - on the very thing you are happy about.
The Evil Eye is best described as a curse that can be triggered by something as simple as a compliment. For example, if someone tells you your baby is beautiful, beware! The fates have been tempted. You must immediately make the sign of the horn to protect your child from the dreaded Evil Eye.
When I first moved to Italy, a Genovese lawyer told me that if I wanted to succeed in Italy, I would have to stop smiling so much. And not only that, but if someone asked me how I was, the answer should never be –‘great.’ A better, safer answer,” he counseled, “would be “in somma.” Which loosely translated means, “I’m doing the best I can but it’s a struggle.” Truth is, at that time “in somma” was closer to my reality than “great,” so I had no problem adopting the more “Evil Eye” proof response.
Superstition has been part of Italian life since the dawn of time. Using your fingers to make what is called in Italy “the horns” is in reality a version of a crescent moon shape which is representative of various Moon Goddesses worshiped in days of old. Interestingly, the finger horn can also be a sign that your wife is cheating on you - evidently a cheating wife is considered one of the worse curses of all.
A few years ago, when I found out that here in Italy having a bird in the house – either as a pet or by accident – is considered bad luck, it triggered a memory of something that happened years ago. I must have been about 4 or 5 years old. I was with my Grandmother in her kitchen, watching her cook. Out of nowhere a white pigeon landed on the windowsill and walked the few inches of the window sill and came inside the kitchen.
When my Grandmother saw the bird she became visibly upset. She stopped cooking and went out into the hallway and sat down in the chair that was always by the door. I remember her hands were in the fabric of her apron and she was squeezing them together. A nervous gesture.
I stood next to her and waited to see what was going to happen next. Then she turned to me and said, “my brother is dead.” That was all she said. And her brother, who was in the Italian army serving in Ethiopia, had indeed been killed in battle. I was only a kid so I filed it away along with all the other strange things grownups do and say and didn’t think about it again, until now. I read somewhere that the bad luck a bird in the house brings is a very old superstition, but then, aren’t they all.
Turns out there are other things, like covering your mouth when you yawn – which I always thought we did just to be polite, are also based on superstitions. The real reason we cover our mouths is so evil spirits don’t enter our bodies. After all, God gave Adam life by breathing into his mouth – so what’s to stop the Devil from trying the same trick?
Then there is that old habit of saying Bless You, when someone sneezes. That simple saying is a carry-over from the days of the Roman Empire when sneezing was a sign that you had a dreaded disease. When someone sneezed the Romans thought it best to offer up a short prayer to the king of the Gods, Jupiter. A “long may you live,” or “may you enjoy good health,” or a simple “Jupiter, help me” would usually do the trick. Whichever one you chose brought hope that Jupiter would protect you if from whatever the other person was sneezing out. For the unfortunate sneezer, the hope was that Jupiter would help them expel the disease within and keep them healthy.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just in southern Italian thing. In Milan they take the Evil Eye and other superstitions very seriously. The worn out nether parts of the mosaic bull, the symbol of the city of Turin, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Milan is proof of that. Even those who claim to be non-believers can’t resist the Milanese tradition of twirling around three times on the bull’s dangling bits in the hope that it will keep the evil spirits at bay and bring them luck. So the next time you are in Milan make sure you visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and give it a twirl. You won’t have any problem finding the bull mosaic, there is always a crowd of people waiting there to take their turn.
If you are the nervous type and don’t want to wait until you get to Milan, you might want to wear a cimaruta around your neck. Some even hang this Italian charm on their babies cribs to protect them from the Evil Eye. After all, there’s no point in tempting fate. At least with the protection of a cimaruta, you’ll gain favor with the Goddess Diana, Queen of the Italian witches, and that can only be a good thing. I know I’m going to get one and hang it on my computer. Better safe than sorry, no?
So while we Americans have no problem roasting up a turkey and brazenly give thanks for all we have, the wary Italians prefer to go about their business of living large and enjoying life by pretending they are suffering through it all. So now that you know the rules, cross your fingers, touch wood and make the sign of the horn because I am going to wish you all a Very Happy Thanksgiving.
ON ANOTHER NOTE