The Italians don't decorate their doors the way Americans do!
The flower shop down by the Port of Nervi was a sea of color undulating in the salty October air. Its outdoor pavilion overflowed with giant chrysanthemums in gold, rust, and deep maroon. I have always loved mums in the Fall. They signified the passing of summer and the onset of cooler days and frosty nights. The florist and her two daughters helped me pick out two yellow plants that were so bushy and full that I had to call a taxi to get them home. As I sat, centered in the back seat with my arms around each plant, I smiled as I visualized how they would look gracing our barren front stoop.
I am a sucker for an inviting front door with a pretty wreath and flowers or plants to welcome friends and neighbors. I consider it a basic ingredient to a happy home. The effort had been an ongoing project since our arrival. Italians don’t do the “door” thing, which made it very difficult for me to find a wreath. Their front doors are plain, with no windows and one oversized doorknob smack dab in the center that doesn’t turn. After weeks of searching, I found a suitable wreath and hung it with care using a pretty ribbon that my friend, Kim, had shipped all the way from Michael’s craft store in LA. Now I could plant the mums in two of the empty pots from the terrace, and arrange them on either side of the door.
I arrived home, dragged them up in the elevator, and proceeded to go about potting them. A few neighbors walked by and studied me with concern, not one of them returned my friendly waves. Oh well, new kid on the block.
Soon enough the sunny yellow mums were in place and I stood back to admire our door. It was cheerful and homey.
I opened the door and called, “Hey, guys! Come check out flowers!”
Tim, Katie and Matt put down their card game and came outside.
“Mom, it looks so pretty.”
“So…it’s only flowers,” Matt added but then laughed at his own weak attempt to be sarcastic when it was clear he liked them. Everyone agreed that it lifted our spirits just to walk through the door.
“Want us to help clean up?” asked Tim as he surveyed the layer of dirt that didn’t make it into the planters.
“No, thanks. Go ahead and finish your game. I’m enjoying this.”
They disappeared inside, and I found myself humming as I grabbed the old broom that looked like Alfalfa’s hair and began to sweep. Every few minutes I would stop, lean against my broom, and admire my handiwork. Joy.
“Susan!” I heard my name called from the street behind our building. Annalisa was walking by.
“Oh, hi Annalisa,” I waved and smiled.
“Why you are doing that?” she demanded with a curious edge to her voice.
“That.” She motioned to the wreath and the flowers.
“Isn’t it pretty?” I straightened up with pride.
“In Italy, wreaths and mums…they are only for the cemetery. They mean death.”
“Death?” I started to laugh. Once again, I had run right into another cultural wall. But, since I was getting used to it, I didn’t really care. “In America,” I explained, “this means life…our life… behind this door. And you are welcome to share it with us.”
We stared at each other for a long minute. I could see she was processing the English I had spoken. She slowly nodded, and a half smile softened her features.
“Besides, Halloween is just around the corner so it fits right in.” Her blank stare reminded me that Halloween was not celebrated here. Maybe I should quit while I was ahead.
“Crazy Americans.” She waved a good-bye and headed back into her house. I continued to giggle to myself as I finished cleaning. Funny how something can symbolize death in one country and life in another.
We made a family decision to keep the door decorated according to our own custom. Though we knew it turned us into the “Munsters” on Via Fratelli Coda, there was just something about chrysanthemums in the Fall.