The Promenade of an Italian Village

Quando il sole comincia a tramontare ed una gentile brezza soffia per spazzare via il caldo torrido, in molte città italiane inizia la consuetudine serale della passeggiata, un rituale particolarmente popolare la domenica sera, dopo un abbondante pranzo in famiglia o al ristorante. È un momento per vedere e farsi vedere, prendere un gelato o un caffè, incontrare vecchi amici e fare una chiacchiarata all’aria aperta. La passeggiata è un’abitudine più prominente nell’Italia meridionale, in Sicilia, Sardegna e nelle cittadine.

The passeggiata (promenade) is a popular pastime practiced throughout the entire Italian peninsula, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities. This term, which originates from the verb passeggiare means to go on a stroll. In the U.S., we generally equate walking with the physical effort to lose weight or to stay in shape. Conversely, in Italy, it is more of a leisurely stroll in the company of family or friends. Traditionally, in big cities, the residents walk around areas close to the center, pausing at the shop windows here and there, wishing, perhaps, to be able to buy that trendy pair of shoes on display. Similarly, in medium-sized towns, people stroll up and down il corso, a designated zone closed to incoming traffic to allow the residents to move freely from one end to the other. Comparatively, in little villages, the passeggiata takes place in the piazza in the center of the town. The ritual of the passeggiata resembles a merry-go-round of people and lively conversations.

Depending on the weather, la passeggiata takes place all year round. In the summer, it carries a special meaning, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. On this festive day, this social event is often time the main activity of the day. The walk starts at approximately 5 p.m., a little after the pisolino pomeridiano (mid-afternoon nap). Around this time, the town people start surfacing from the surrounding streets and gather at various meeting points of the piazza. Villagers of all ages are seen flowing down the street at the low speed of a marching parade: neighbor women walking arm in arm, men walking shoulder to shoulder and children enjoying their second gelato of the day. While crossing paths, the townspeople exchange greetings and many ciao or buonasera fill the air. Many stop to chit chat for a few minutes and even jokingly comment about the lock of gray hair that is sprouting on someone’s head.

The promenade gives life to all sorts of animated chattering – congratulating a newly married couple parading their love or new parents on the birth of their infant tucked under an embroidered hand-made blanket, “Che bel bambino! Assomiglia tutto alla mamma” (“What a beautiful baby! It looks just like his mom!”). For the political fanatics, many times the walk leads to an effervescent discussion on the right or wrong doing of the mayor and the consiglieri (council members) of the town hall. For calcio (soccer) enthusiasts, the promenade induces a discussion over the results of the latest match. For adolescent boys and girls, the stroll is often the romantic frame that gives sparkle to that very first infatuation, glimpsing at the secretly loved one and hoping to get a glance in return when they will cross each other again on the stroll.

The passeggiata is also a fashion runway where everyone’s attire becomes exposed to everyone else’s judgment. For Italians who, for the most part, are pressured by the value of fare bella figura (to make a good impression), dressing well and looking good while in the visibility of others is rather important. The most fashion-conscious men will want to assure that their shirts and pants are well pressed. Correspondingly, the women are nicely dressed with their hair well done. For the most stylish ladies, this is the time to show off that new purse so nicely coordinated with the color of their high-heeled shoes. On the contrary, a stain on a man’s pants, a run in a woman’s pantyhose, a hole on a boy’s t-shirt, or a gaudy colored dress will not pass unnoticed to the attentive eye of the walkers.

In a small town, “farsi i fatti propri” (“to mind someone’s own business”) is very difficult. Hence, the sight of people who have been on everyone’s lips triggers all types of colorful comments. The most informative villagers will update i pettegolezzi (gossip) with details regarding what they have heard and seen recently. Nevertheless, the promenade gossip is not necessarily malicious. Many times, it is a benign chit chat to merely fill the time.

The passeggiata fills the streets with townsfolk who create a cheerful collective environment that adds vitality to an isolated environment that otherwise would become dormant and silent. The promenade of a small community creates the ideal platform for its citizens to socialize and strengthen relationships with each other. The townsfolks’ curiosity about others’ affairs, in a way, adds significance to the identity of other citizens who would be a face without a name in a big city. La passeggiata represents the powerful motor that keeps the merry-go-round functioning, the population connected, and, best of all, preserves one of the most engaging and symbolic activities of an Italian village.