A Broom, a Pastry, a Fire: Saint’s Day in Italy

March 19 is St. Joseph day.  Father’s Day in Italy.  March 20 is Spring Equinox.  We’re celebrating. Sort of. We’re cleaning the garage. Not something I ever imagined doing in Italy. 

Three floors below us is one of two parking garages. Each of the ten apartments in this building comes with a designated garage space, complete with a locking door, behind it an area just large enough for one very small car and some garage-appropriate junk. We’ve never used the garage. I think most of the residents don’t use their garage because it would mean five minutes of back-and-forth maneuvering to get a car in or out of its little stall unscathed. Tizi and I have been coming here together since 1978. Until a few years ago, I’d never seen our garage. Tizi always said her Zio kept some stuff in there. Zio Pino. Pino short for, the diminutive of, Giuseppe. Joseph. 

So I wondered, with some trepidation, What could be down there? What did Zio Pino keep in our garage? 

  • the metal frame of one twin bed, hanging on the wall;
  • two rickety wood chairs, hanging on the wall;
  • two more rickety wood chairs, on the floor;
  • a mortally distressed kitchen cabinet, its three doors partially unhinged, the wood delaminating.
  • wire, a tangled mess of it, hanging from the bed frame;
  • an empty suitcase;
  • a table with a marble top (Tizi says she remembers it from her early days in their house up the street);
  • a large metal wash tub (Tizi says she remembers having baths in that tub);
  • also five pots and kettles big enough to cook broth or a whole lot of pasta;
  • a toolbox, Tizi’s dad’s;
  • junk mail and defunct calendars generously distributed throughout the room;
  • four wooden crates;
  • inside one crate, papers and books from Zio’s days as a teacher;
  • inside the other three, empty wine bottles;
  • one large wicker-wrapped demijohn;
  • one small wicker-wrapped demijohn;
  • more cases and crates of empty wine bottles;
  • three plastic buckets; inside them, empty wine bottles.
  • ninety-nine bottles of wine in all; all empty.
  • two large trunks, locked; contents as yet unknown. 

What I can carry, I carry down the hill to the trash bins designated paper, plastic, undifferentiated. For the rest we arrange pickup through the Centro di Raccolta Rifiuti e Ingombranti (the waste and bulky collection center).

The arrangements are not easy. Three times we drive up to the center, actually called the Azienda Autonoma di Stato per i Servizi Pubblici. We drop off cases of empty wine bottles we’ve loaded into the car. And we visit Sonia, the unfriendly trash lady. We have ingrombanti, quite a lot of it. Can they come and get it? Everyone in this place is jovial and chatty, except the one we need to help us. By the look of it she’s overworked. She’s harried, stressed; she takes calls and answers emails. She does not answer our two calls. So here we are. This week we would like pick-up, if it can be arranged. Sonia? 

After pickup, we can sweep.

“That’s broom growing there.” 

On our walks, Tizi has said this a number of times, pointing at the side of the trail. 

I’ve never thought of broom growing, broom as an organic, living thing. I’ve always thought of it as a singular object, a broom, in a closet, the one I bought at Ace Hardware or Home Depot.  But there they are. The long green stems of the broom plant–I think the plant is genista–are cut, bound together on a stick, and voila, witch’s broom. Start sweeping.

(Tizi will use “broom” as a verb, saying, occasionally, that we have to broom around here. I love that.)

In Serravalle two guys dressed in bright orange overalls are fixtures in the piazza. They’re spazzini. They broom. They sweep with these old brooms. I’m on nodding terms with them, on ciao and buongiorno terms. They sweep, they stand and talk, they probably go down to the bakery for coffee and zeppole, the special decadent pastry you see in San Marino and all over Romagna on the feast of San Giuseppe. 

It’s still Lent. We’re supposed to be fasting, undergoing some low-level mortification of the flesh. But the Italians have a good way of managing this problem. You can’t eat that, but you can have THIS. 

The cream-filled zeppole is too good to pass up. 

More than this glutinous delight, St. Joseph’s day is known for fire. On the hillsides, the farmers burn the trimmings from olive trees. During the day you see and smell smoke; at night you see fires in the hills. In many towns a communal burn also takes place, a kind of pagan rite of spring you can see in Fellini’s Amarcord, set in one of Rimini’s squares. In some St. Joseph festivals they also burn a witch, celebrating stregavecchia or segavecchia.

This year we go with our niece Nickie down to the beach in Rimini, where a huge pile of wood is set on fire. It’s a controlled burn, but just barely. Thousands of people drive into town, toward the beach area, to see the fire. It’s a social occasion. There’s music, food, and drink. 


I do not picture Zio Pino managing trash. He was not one, I think, to get his hands dirty. In the picture on his gravestone, he is a thirty-year-old dandy. He looks like he could have been in Italian film. He’s been gone 7-8 years.  In the decades preceding his departure, it doesn’t look like he dusted or broomed down there. He just kept adding to the mess. 

Then again, neglect was not his thing. He helped the family for decades. He and Zia did not have children. They looked after us. For decades he paid bills that came to an empty apartment we did not live in, monthly and quarterly–water, electricity, gas, phone. Every year we came, we would sit down with him as he laid out the expenses since we had last been there, bills and receipts, along with his handwritten tally and total.  “Domani,” he would say, “dobbiamo fare i conti.” Tomorrow we save to settle up.

I knew he taught. He was Maestro Canducci. I thought that would be a connection between us. It wasn’t. Sitting outside the bar one day, I asked him a grammar question. I wanted to speak better Italian. When, I wondered, do you use essere (to be) as opposed to avere (to have) in verb phrases? He smiled and thought for a minute, then reached up and touched the lobe of one ear. “Use the one that sounds right,” he said.

At some point, after Tizi’s mom and dad were gone, he took me to the bank next door to their house and put my name on the family bank account. I added a few banking terms to my vocabulary. Conto corrente. Deposito and prelievo bancario. Assegno, bonifico.

One day when we were having lunch up at their house, he filled my glass with red wine, then filled his own. “Io bevo solo vino,” he said matter-of-factly. I drink only wine. He peeled and sliced an apple, handing me half. “Voi una mesa mela? Mangia una mesa mela.”

Once when we had work done in the apartment, I told him I was going to make an electronic payment. He shook his head. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Drive up to the office. If you pay up there, they’ll give you a discount.” I did. He was right. They gave me a discount.  

Finally Sonia gives us a day.

To get ready for Sonia, we pile everything at the top of the driveway outside the garage, so the mess of junk will be visible from the road. Sonia’s crew will see it. Neither of us is happy about this. What if the truck doesn’t come, and our junk is out there for everyone to see, and we have to go see Sonia again?

They come, like noisy thieves in the night. At 5:00 a.m. there’s a rumble and clank and bang outside, the growl of a large truck. When I check later that morning, everything is gone.

Now we can broom down there.


  1. Sherrie English says:

    I’m amazed you could wait that long to get in the garage, there could have been a treasure. I wonder what is in those old trunks. Any plans on what gets stored in the garage now? I love the idea of this huge bonfire and all the town being there welcoming Spring. Such history.

  2. Is this true?

    Five Things Europeans Do Better Than Us

    1. They have efficient and reliable public transportation. 2. Europeans use local high quality food ingredients.

    3. Europeans put family first. Families in Europe tend to spend a lot of time together.

    4. Wine, Beer and Alcohol are not “taboo” in Europe.

    5. In Europe, who you are is NOT tied to what you do.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. My German Neighbors opinion of the 5 things Europeans…

    I can confirm these, however I see slowly a shift in 3 and 5, but still not close to here I would say… And also some downsides of 4 You see a lot of young kids drinking alcohol…

    Sent from my iPhone


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