Since this topic came up again with a couple of friends in the last days, here is a little thing I wrote few years ago. I wrote this to explain to my dear international friends about the concept of “La Vasca”, which is fundamental for the day-to-day living in Italy. If you are planning to come to Italy this summer (and I know some of you are)… make sure you study this! 😉 [It takes probably 5-7minutes to read… enjoy!]
– LA VASCA –
It was 19:45 (or 7:45pm) on a cold winter night, and I was walking along Via Roma with few of my American friends. They had come all the way to Italy from Atlanta for the holidays to live an Italian Christmas vacation with me. That night, little they knew about what we were doing in Via Roma, in the cold and humid weather, covered with leather jackets and big wool scarves in order to stop that freezing wind from numbing our delicate cheeks. I had just told them that we were going into town that night, to live a ‘real Italian social experience’: something fun, entertaining and… different! So, even though it was not my intention, to them the scope of that evening was quite mysterious… but as good friends do, they blindly trusted me and followed!
It was 19:45, as I was saying, and after having walked for the past half hour on the little stone bricks of Via Roma, stopping often to talk to some of my friends, I suddenly halted again, apparently for no reason, looked at them, and said: “OK, let’s turn around!” Simply puzzled, one of them asked: “Turn around? Why? What happened?”
“Nothing happened”, I replied with a soft smile and a sure tone, knowing that soon, very soon, an explanation would be required not to loose them in some state of cultural bewilderment. I let them absorb the news few seconds, then I decided to speak more. “Nothing happened! Via Roma here almost ends and is not crowded as much any more. If we want to meet some more people, probably it is just better to turn around and walk the other way now. I am sure that way we will meet more familiar faces to stop and talk to. This is what we call a ‘Vasca’: walk all the way from one end of the road to the other and then turn around – very simple concept, isn’t it?”
I knew that every additional statement on the subject I was sharing with my friends was creating in them more and more perplexities, and truly, this is exactly what I was looking for. In fact, I believe that it’s in these apparently little things about Italian culture that someone can learn the most about Italians, and their life’s philosophy. So, I told them more…
“This is a social ritual in Italian culture. It is something that most Italians love to do, especially on weekends, on a slow, lazy and beautiful Saturday evening. It just happens that, while sipping a tasty aperitif from the bar in piazza, someone suddenly shouts ‘Andiamo a farci una vasca!’ (i.e., ‘Let’s go to do a lap’). It just means to go and take a walk, to the end of the road (or wherever we can make it too), to see whom we meet and whom we can chat a little with along the way. My friends do this almost everyday. After work, the plan is to stop home first to ‘freshen-up’, put on the trendiest clothes of the month (or whatever the closet has to offer), and hit the Piazza, and then from there, it is all about the ‘vasche’ (plural for ‘vasca’, of course!).”
Oh, certainly, from a productivity standpoint this concept of walking along cold city streets without any definite destination was not finding in my friends strong supporters: quite the opposite, actually! So, the conversation developed on the purpose of such ‘vasche’ (while still standing at the end of Via Roma, and while still hiding in our wrapping scarves). “What for?” their eyes seemed to ask. What is the ‘benefits-to-efforts’ ratio we’re talking about here? Truly, it was a difficult question to answer, and supporting this social behavior of us Reatini (citizens of Rieti), was going to be a hard task. But I was up for the challenge, and so I continued…
“Doing a vasca is a great opportunity to meet a good friend who happens to be in town that night, and who does not have the time to contact everyone to let them know he is around. Even more, a vasca is great to have a more personal chat while walking side-by-side with a good buddy. At the bar table, you can’t do that: there are always too many people there and sharing some more private matters with a friend might feel inappropriate; at the table it is just too loud, plus there are always eleven simultaneous conversations going on between the ten of us, so focusing on a subject is like asking a single guy to actually read the menu before ordering food at Hooters: it just requires an incredible amount of concentration and strong will! And yet, Italians need to be immersed in a crowd to feel at home, so the Piazza, or a crowded Corso works just perfectly. The vasca is just the perfect way to create a private setting in such a public surrounding. ”
To help make the concept a little more comprehensible, I tried hard to find reasonable comparisons here in the States, and especially in Atlanta. I thought maybe relating this concept to a similar one, which was part of Atlanta’s folklore, could have helped. I first thought of the concept of vasche in a shopping mall. I guess people do vasche here in the States too, right? When you go to the mall, you see this people just walking back and forth in the complex, with no bags or intention to buy a single item from the stores. Yet, these individuals seem very comfortable in this environment, with a charming nonchalance they scope you as you walk by, and often attempt to even initiate a little conversation, while still walking their own way. Then, I realized I was talking about 14 to 17 years old though! Truly, after that high school age, this fascination for the mall-vasca pretty much disappears… and you know why? Because ‘the car’ comes into the picture… the great substitute for the tiring custom of ‘walking’. It was this realization that made me think of a comparison (very appropriate of Atlanta) that more closely would reflect the Italian concept of ‘vasche’: car-cruising!
Oh yes, I had hit the jackpot. Suddenly the corner of my friends’ eyes showed a bright spark of comprehension… “Car-cruising”, exactly! That’s what we do in Italy, but without cars!!! Via Roma in Rieti is like Peachtree Street in Atlanta… around the area of Buckhead on a Saturday night, around 11pm. As in Atlanta it takes you more than an hour to cover a mile because traffic is uncontrollable, in Rieti it takes an hour to do a simple 200 yards vasca, because there are too many people you know and must stop to say “CIAO” to. Same thing!!! A series of ’s, ’s poured from my friends’ mouths. Heads were nodding. Lips were arching, forming smiles… I had found the way to make such a concept a little more comprehensible and acceptable to them.
Now… if on one side the comparison certainly helped me link the Italian custom to a closer reality to them, it still was quite difficult for my friends to believe that this is what many Italians do every evening before dinner time. For many years, before starting my International travels, I believed that a vasca was just part of a very well balanced day. To me, the traditional ‘vasca’ custom was as natural as the one of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. It was a required daily routine, comparable here in Atlanta to the one of going to the gym after work to burn off those extra calories. So, in the excitement of the conversation, trying to play devil’s advocate in a chilly evening in Rieti, after talking about the social benefits of such walks in the town center, I even started to justify this custom with the benefits that it could bring to our own fitness… yes, I was certainly stretching it!
“You cannot even imagine the amount of calories that you can burn by a vasca in Via Roma: it is not just the effort of walking on these extremely uneven road stones; it is not even much related with the skills required to avoid those distracted walkers who could run straight into you at any time; it is not limited to the endeavor of keeping up a conversation (possibly intensely political or philosophical) with your ‘compagno di vasca’ (i.e., “vasca buddy”) while looking at all the other people passing by you just to make sure you don’t forget to smile at who ever even barely knows you or has heard of you… it is much more than that: it is an exercise of the mind… it a perfect balance between physical and mental activity. It is kind-a of like… uhm… YOGA!” [UH! That did not even convince myself!]
As I was loosing myself in such truth-seeking explanations, I found myself walking back on Via Roma again. We had started walking again, and this time the other direction (as I had wisely suggested). Our conversation (and our walk) lasted close to an hour or so… we would keep on touching subjects such as ‘what for’, ‘why’, and ‘how’, and every time my answers were different, and never too convincing for them, while dramatically obvious for me. Of course, it would not help the fact that every five minutes or so into the discussion, I had to interrupt myself to say “CIAO! Come stai?” to a good friend of mine that I would see walking towards me. We would include him or her in the conversation for few minutes, and then he/she would take off again: to his journey of social interaction; to her conversations on politics and her new unpredictable encounters; to his personal path of Via Roma stone bricks…
At 21:00 we were finally home again. My friends kept on joking about all that we had “not done” in the past two hours. As we were around the dinner table, between mozzarella di bufala’s and melanzane a funghetti, and while sipping the neighbor’s home made wine, we recalled all the people we met out there in Via Roma. Funny enough, they had memorized most of the conversations we had with them… of course, only the English ones! As a Don Quichotte on a mission, and between jokes and serious cogitation, I kept all evening defending the ‘vasca-custom’ as one without which Italy could not maintain its identity. My friends listened, and as good friends do… trusted me! Then, it was time to hit the beds.
Next day, around 19:00, I was sipping a Crodino in the garden. My buddies had disappeared for a little while, probably exhausted from a very long day as tourists of the beautiful region of Lazio (center Italy). Suddently, I hear them coming down the stairs… one after the other, all four, came to me and with a grin on their faces, and stylishly dressed said: “Let’s go!”. I asked where to, and they quickly responded “To the Piazza, of course!” My eyebrows raised… then I stood up, went to change quickly, and we left soon after for another night of vasche… everything happened quickly and naturally… I did not even ask them why they wanted to go… after all, no one really would have known anyway!