We’ve started a new tradition at the farm. Friday Bocce games with the crew! If you don’t know, bocce is an old Italian game kinda like lawn bowling. Mandy’s Dad Tony, who is a talented wood turner, gifted us with a gorgeous and painstakingly crafted set of bocce balls from hard wood he got from our farm. The amount of time and skill that went into making these is mind blowing to me. I can’t overstate my gratitude to him.
I previously mentioned that my dad’s parents were from Ireland in the St. Patrick's day story, but my mom’s parents were actually from Italy. My mom’s first language was Italian.
When I grew up, we spent our 3 weeks of vacation each summer up in a tiny town on a mountain in Northern California. It was a booming place in the big band era. My grandparents used to go up there during its heyday and dance and have some drinks and laughs with friends. My grandfather used to tell me how he saw Gene Krupa play at one of the dances. Eventually after they had a family, they’d bring the kids for campfires, swimming pools, and horseback rides. It was hard to imagine for us, because although we loved it, it was mostly a dry and dusty place with abandoned resorts and a bunch of old Italians that didn’t follow the herd to Tahoe when it became the new place to be.
We didn’t care. It was the 80’s. There were plenty of kids, a swimming pool, ping pong table, water balloon fights, card games, bingo nights, and bocce ball tournaments. We were thoroughly entertained. The backdrop that we took for granted was a bit surreal though. It was kind of an alternate dimension where old Italians (mainly from Tuscany) took a snapshot of Italy from decades before, brought it to this little town, and didn’t let it change a bit.
Only later in life did I learn just how strange and unique this place actually was. I assumed Italy was like this place. There were old dudes singing operas in their yard daily or playing accordions on the porch on village dance nights. Great grandmothers in shawls on a 100 degree day that didn’t speak a word of English. The tapes and CD’s we listened to at cocktail hour were all filled with accordions and mandolins and old regional songs made popular amongst Italian Americans in the 40’s and 50’s.
When I finally did get to Italy in my 20’s, I was surprised that it was nothing like the “Italian village” I spent so many summers in. I only knew Italian culture from 60-100 years before and just assumed that Italy was still like this. It dawned on me, that when people leave a place, they preserve their culture as it was when they left it. The culture of that place continues to evolve though. I guess that’s why they say you can never go back home. Home continues to evolve after you leave. If you do go back, it’s to a different place. My mom still uses Italian words that are 100 years old that are completely unused in Italy. Only old people remember hearing them in their youth.
If you’ll allow me to get into the weeds a bit, what blows my mind is the village rivalry within this small town. There are cabins and old homes all over the place, with …you guessed it…Italians or their decendents… living, or vacationing in them. But within that, there were (and still are) 2 main resorts that survived the decades of decay and abandonment and remain the center of gravity of this small universe to this day. All the dinners, the bingo games, the bocce tournaments etc…happen at these two places. You can walk from one to the other in 5 minutes…but they barely interact. The people in one resort came from one village in Italy, the people in the other resort, came from a different village. Each seemingly has a grudge against the other. The culture is practically identical! Same music, same food, same dances, same religion, same games, but it’s a different village and a different resort. They traveled 6,000 miles across the world and decided to land a stones throw away from people just like them that they want to ignore for the next 70 years, because they are different.
I say all that, one because it's kinda funny in a sad way, but two, because it illustrates how the human brain is hardwired to create an “us” and a “them”. Tribalism is an inherent drive within the human psyche that served us as a species in the distant past, but currently is one of the largest causes of harm on our shared planet. We all have it. We evolved to see patterns in everything and we are compelled to insert our understanding of self into those patterns. This makes us exploitable by those who wish to dehumanize others in an effort to further their own agenda. It’s a sad state that we haven’t collectively moved past, but every day is a new opportunity to make positive changes.
In the spirit of inclusion and unity, we are bringing this Italian game of bocce to our crew of people with all sorts of backgrounds and family histories. No village is excluded. What is most relevant to this story though is Marry and Naw. As refugees from jungle villages, who I don’t think had even heard of Italy before, they have never been exposed to this game. The first time they played, Marry couldn’t refrain from throwing the ball like a rocket every single time….waaaay past the target. They weren’t good. But we had a lot of laughs.
Last week though. Assassins. They beat everybody, one after the other, for over an hour. It was incredible. Not only were they amazingly good (out of nowhere), but cultural barrier after cultural barrier just melted away as we all laughed and played and really just had a joyful experience of being open hearted humans together.
Traditions are often beautiful and should be enjoyed and cherished, but so should a desire to learn about the traditions and cultures of others and to recognize that they are all just different expressions of our shared humanity. We can value our heritage while remaining curious and open to traditions and perspectives of others.
So on this Bocce Friday, at about 4 o’clock, we’ll be raising a glass of beer or bubbly water to all traditions and all people everywhere and wishing you a happy and open hearted weekend infused with a little bit of play and laughter.