In the agricultural heart of Italy, big-bright-orange-roundy pumpkins are aplenty. Our equally big-hearted neighbors, Silvia and Mauro, were eager to help us have a full-out American style Halloween. Jack-o’lanterns, costumes, trick-or-treating — the works. Their adorable children, Alessio, who is seven and a perfect big brother figure to Lulu, and Lara, who, at three years old was about the same age as Lulu and made for a perfect “frenemy,” were both excited too.
Trick-or-treating house to house is not the norm in Italy either, but Mauro and Silvia invited us to dinner on Halloween night and offered to help all the kids go around hollering “Dolcetto o Scherzetto” (literally “Sweets or Jokes” but the lovely rhyming equivalent to “Trick or Treat!”). It sounded like a blast.
The festive events started a few days before our dinner, when Mama Silvia, as Lulu calls her, drove over to our house with her kids and delivered an assortment of pumpkins from her dad’s orto, or vegetable garden.
“Ewww! They are still all covered in mud,” Lulu squealed.
“That’s just ‘cause they’re super fresh from the garden,” I shushed.
Alessio and Lara helped carry them to our front terrace and place them on the picnic table. I put on Halloween music – think Monster Mash over and over – and Lulu and I brought out the Halloween snacks we made earlier in the day. “Witch’s fingers” bread sticks with tips of almond slivers for creepy nails and “mummy face” mini-pizzas with strategically placed black olives forming staring eyes and thin slices of mozzarella becoming the mummy’s wrapping. We all scooped and carved away and Alessio carefully picked out the choicest morsels from our bucket of pumpkin guts to personally oversee the baking and salting of the seeds to crispy perfection.
Our carving party was typical boisterous all-American kid style fun except for the notable difference of the background terrain being dotted by Tuscan cypress and olive trees.
Finally, the big Halloween cena, or dinner, night arrived. Lulu wanted to be her favorite scary monster, a zombie, so I grabbed the face-paint and Scotty grabbed a bottle of wine to take over to Mauro and Silvia’s.
The inside of their house was streaming with orange and black decorations; they had even managed to find balloons imprinted with “Happy Halloween” in English. I thought to myself that clearly the Italians knew a thing or two more about doing Halloween for kids than the Parisians. Since we hadn’t been invited over until seven o’clock, I presumed we’d go out and let the kids gather candy right away before it got too late and we’d eat dinner afterward.
I was wrong.
First, I noticed that Lara and Alessio were still in their street clothes. Maybe we weren’t going to go right away. Well, soon, I imagined. Then Mama Silvia began busying herself in the kitchen preparing some antipasti and Mauro sauntered over to the bar to begin pouring a round of drinks. Silvia called over her shoulder that her sister and her husband were going to arrive a little later so “why don’t the kids go on into the living room and watch some TV and play games?” They ran off and a grown-up cocktail hour developed. The sister and her husband arrived and I looked at my watch. Eight o’clock.
Time passed. More drinks were poured. Finally, at 9:00 p.m., we sat down to dinner. Our bottle of wine was opened. Ravioli was dished out. Lulu’s zombie face paint was now a smeary remnant of its former ghoulishness. She and Lara were alternately playing with, and then fighting over, a plush robot dog, which, as I kept (ridiculously) saying to them, didn’t belong at the table. Alessio was finished with his dinner in two seconds and was trying on his Dracula teeth, laughing maniacally. Scotty and I were just looking at each other. Culture. Shock.
By the time my younger sister Andrea and little brother Brad were old enough to go trick-or-treating with me, we were all dressed and out the door by 5:30 p.m. at the latest. By 9:00 p.m. in our hometown in Indiana, my mom would have already had each of us three kids put our Halloween candy away in the cupboard, told us to go brush our teeth, say our prayers, and have tucked us firmly into our beds.
Italian kids do not adhere to the same schedules. It’s nothing to be out on a summer night in Italy for a gelato and coffee with friends at say, 11:00 p.m., and see entire families with children in tow doing the very same thing.
But I thought that since trick-or-treating would involve going to other people’s houses and actually ringing their bells, the late hour might pose a problem. Apparently not so. Because it wasn’t until around 10:00 p.m. that Mauro contentedly sighed, pushed his seat back from the table and cheerily exclaimed, “Okay! Let’s go get some candy!”
The kids all cheered and grabbed their Halloween bags. Alessio wrapped a vampire cape around his shoulders. Mama Silvia added some red “blood” drips to either side of his mouth and quickly drew a little ghost on Lara’s forhead. I touched up what was left of the smeary zombie-mess on Lulu’s face. We were, uhm, off.
Now to better picture this scene, let me take a moment to explain that we live in campagna, which is to say, in the country, way outside our town’s medieval walls. We’re not in the suburbs, there are no suburbs here. You’ll not find suburban-style close-clusters of identically painted houses surrounding a cul-de-sac, but rather a widespread scattering of Italian-style stucco covered and red-tiled compounds in the Tuscan countryside, each surrounded by an imposing wrought iron fence with an entrance buzzer box on the outside.
If I, or my little sister or brother had ever rung someone’s doorbell at 10:00 p.m. on Halloween night, we would’ve been spanked by my mom, because why on earth were we outside that late? Or more likely, considering the small town in which we grew up, the offended neighbor, whose bell we had rung, would’ve taken a peek outside and called our mother on the phone themselves to personally advise her to spank us because – why on earth were we out that late?
I was worried about our neighbors’ impending reactions now and we were soon to find out. These Italian “compound” houses, as I refer to them, are large rambling buildings with several apartments and which often serve as multi-family dwellings. So, here at Silvia and Mauro’s, all the kids had to do was run around to the side of the house, climb the stairs, and knock on their first victim’s door.
The door opened and at now at about 10:20 p.m., they bellowed in unison the Italian equivalent to “Trick or Treat:” “Dolcetto o Scherzetto!”
Lulu had been practicing this rhyming tongue twister for days and at that moment, along with Lara and Alessio, she got it right in intent, if not in perfect Italian diction. Smiling, Cousin Francesca, still somehow stylishly dressed and fresh-looking at this time of night, welcomed them in. It didn’t appear at all that she would urge any spankings, in fact, she seemed delighted to see them. They chattered in Italian and then she dropped something that looked like a huge brick from my vantage point into each of the kids’ bags. Not a mini-Snickers, or a tiny Reese’s cup, mind you, this turned out to be a five-inch long chunk of chocolate fondant. The kids tore out from there and ran screaming downstairs to Silvia’s aunt and uncle’s apartment.
“Dolcetto o scherzetto!”
Here they were again happily greeted and each received a Kinder Sorpresa. Lulu loves them. They’re remarkable hollow chocolate eggs encasing a tiny plastic toy or figurine inside. You’ll be hard-pressed to find them in the US because, of course, the toy poses way too much of a choking hazard. Like a Cracker Jack back when Cracker Jack toys were cool and not just some lame paper puzzle.
It’s now around 11:00 p.m. The kids run shrieking out of the family compound into the narrow street to the closest neighbor’s house. Surely for an actual unrelated neighbor, this hour is too late, I think. Alessio rings th e buzzer and I am surprised as the gate immediately clicks open. The kids continue bellowing up the stairs to the door of Mara and Roberto’s – an older couple who speak not a word of English, but to whom I have politely saluted with a cheery Buongiorno every time I’ve seen them. I hope that that perhaps soften the blow we are sure to receive.
“Dolcetto o scherzetto!” the kids cry out again.
Inexplicably, this door opens too, and as the children go in, I strain to hear. It’s too muffled to make out anything. But after a few moments, the children emerge victorious, not spanked, again!
Finally, my favorite moment of the evening arrives as now the terrorizing trio stride purposefully across the street to Marzia and Nicola’s house. They’re a young couple with an adorable chubby little toddler, Francesco, or Franci, for short. They’re always friendly when we pass by, but I think that with such a young one, they must be finished for the evening by now. Obviously, not sharing or concerned by any of my thoughts, Alessio leads the way for the kids and rings the gate’s buzzer.
Nothing happens and instead of playing it safe, Mauro calls out to them and suggests they assemble underneath the first floor window that faces onto the street.
The shutter is, of course, closed. But undaunted, Mauro actually raps his fist on the window.
“No way, I can’t even believe this,” I whisper to Scotty.
In only a few seconds, the shutters open Marzia leans down holding onto a not-looking-sleepy-at-all baby Franci. I have never seen either parent without a cigarette, and even now, she first puts out her cigarette in the empty flower box on the windowsill and then smiles down at the kids.
“Dolcetto o scherzetto!” rings out again.
And at 11:15 p.m., a variety of goodies soon come tumbling down from that window into the bags being held up by six outstretched little arms. For waaay past 5:30 p.m. and for a holiday Italians don’t officially even celebrate, it was a very successful night for two local children and a certain American 3-year-old.
I, however, was exhausted.