Not Quite Back to Normal

The holiday season is upon us. The beaches are open, the sun-loungers are full, the sea is warm, restaurants are doing a roaring trade and business and factories will soon be falling quiet as they shut up shop for their summer break.  So far so normal. The whole country is, after all, now in the zona bianca (white zone). That said, wearing masks remains obligatory indoors, social distancing is still in place and venues still face capacity restrictions. In addition, access to many events is restricted to those with a ‘Covid Green Pass’, ie those who can prove either that they are full vaccinated, that they have tested negative for Covid-19 in the previous 48 hours, or that they have officially recovered from Covid-19. These sensible measures aside, though, nearly all other restrictions have been either eased greatly or lifted completely. The curfew has gone, we can move freely from one region to another, we can welcome an unlimited number of visitors into our homes, many of the rules governing weddings, christenings and funerals have disappeared, and museums and galleries, theatres and cinemas, gyms, pools and spas have all re-opened. 

Only it still isn’t Italy in summer quite as we know it. For a while I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t just the more Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing in bars and gelaterie. It wasn’t even the almost total absence of hugs and handshakes among friends greeting each other at the beach. And it certainly wasn’t the weather, which has been as hot and sunny as mid-August since early June. It finally struck me the other day on my run into the village. I was toiling up Via Santa Catarina (aka Heart Attack Hill) in the shade of the steep grassy bank that rises up to the small complex of flats just outside the historical centre. The bank that at this time of year is usually bristling with rough timber posts that bear colourful placards advertising some sagra, festa, concert, pageant, exhibition or market taking place in any of half a dozen nearby villages. The bank that for the second year running remains conspicuously bare, the customary placards substituted with a scattering of self-sown sunflowers and garlands of bindweed blossom. For the recent national ripartenza (re-opening) came too late for the vast majority of these otherwise annual events to be able to go ahead and so they have had to be put on hold once again.

And for the second year running that is leaving a pretty big hole in the cultural life of the country, as the sheer number of these local events that normally take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Florence or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – typically holds a series of 3- or 4-day-long events between May and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. Normally we would have had the annual artichoke festival back in May, the annual pizza festival in July, the medieval weekend, the celebration of apiculture and the Ferragosto fireworks in August, and over the weekends in between, there would have been well over a dozen live music, dancing and sports events, many of them especially for children. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the July and August issues of Corriere e Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region normally produces every month, typically contain around a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing literally hundreds of events in several different categories. Usually on any weekend over summer we could choose between, say, A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano, the Palio down in Servigliano or maybe the Street Food Festival in Pedaso. This summer they haven’t even published Corriere e Proposte; it simply isn’t worth it for the meagre number of events that are happening across the region. In Montelupone, for instance, the programme has been reduced to a handful of low-key musical events in the main square, a classic car rally, and the apiculture fair, with access still only available to those with a Covid Green Pass.

One thing that has not changed, however, is that most of these events have, as usual, been organised, promoted and run entirely by the local ‘Pro Loco’, often with a degree of financial or logistical support from local sponsors as well as the Comune (town council). Literally translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy.

Interestingly, the principal purpose of all this activity is not, in the first instance, to attract tourists, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties. As such, the Pro Loco movement is in many ways an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which is rooted in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of local allegiance is in turn derived from the fact that until little over a hundred and fifty years ago Italy was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between adjoining regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. Loyalty to the local was consequently often a matter of survival.

So it is a sad irony that in a period when people from one end of the country have been under sustained attack from a shared enemy in the form of an invisible virus and notions of the common good and reciprocity have seldom been more important, their communities have also had to be denied one of the very means of publicly reaffirming that crucial sense of solidarity and togetherness. We can only hope, therefore, that normal service will soon be resumed and that Pro Loco groups everywhere still be dusting off their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems and (providing we are able to remain in the zona bianca, of course) gearing up for an autumn of celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest and even Advent. And for having got as far as we have through this crisis in the only way possible: together.  

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