“I can’t wait for the leaves to turn red and golden and purple when Autumn comes” my little boy announced a few days ago.
“Er, they won’t go purple” I said.
“Yes they will,” he insisted. “We’re doing Autumn at school and we wrote a poem about the leaves going purple.”
Upon investigation of his school book, he admitted he had remembered the colours wrongly. The grapes are purple. The leaves go orange.
Of course the fundamental problem here was that he hadn’t actually seen autumn leaves. As my best friend in Sicily – who comes from the far north of Italy – pointed out recently, in a state of great irritation, Summer is brown in Sicily then as soon as Autumn comes along, everything goes green.
“Ir’s so, SO WRONG” we both agreed.
I got all excited a few weeks ago. It rained heavily and cooled off so much that I could actually wear my new cardigan for half the day. I dared to hope Autumn might actually have arrived. Then the sun came out, the rain dried up, about twenty million newborn mosquities flew out of the puddles, and Sicily was back to normal; stinking hot, itchy, and a little bit smelly in places.
We are all getting so fed up that it has now become completely normal for strangers to say to other perfect strangers as they pass in the street “Uffa! I can’t take it any more! WHEN are we going to get a bit of cool weather?!!” We are manifesting our impatience by creating bizarre outfits. Some people can be seen in T-shirts and woolly winter hats. I’ve seen a few young girls in vests, shorts and boots. “Phew! Just imagine the smell when she takes those off” was my husband’s comment.
“Mummy, is it really true that the leaves go red and yellow in England when it’s Autumn?” my son asked me, not sounding completely convinced. I told him, when I was his age, we used to collect the colourful leaves and glue them on big pieces of paper to decorate the classroom with Autumnal collages.
“Wow!” he said. I had clearly impressed the socks off him.
“Doing Autumn” in Sicily consists of learning all about how beautiful and wonderful grapes are, every squashy detail of how wine is made, and the name of each part of a wine press. It spills into every subject. In Religion they learn how God gave us grapes as a special gift and we drink wine during mass as it is so precious. In Italian they copy poems about it. In Art Appreciation (yeah, Italian kids do art appreciation classes when they’re six) they stick a still life by Caravaggio in their exercise book and write about the use of light and colour (purple!) in the original painting. In Science, they learn the name of every component of a grape vine. Did you know Italian has a special word for the tiny stalk that the grapes hang from, another word for the big stalk, and another one for the main stem of the plant? In Music Appreciation they are played “Autumn” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while they draw any Autumnal scene they feel inspired to produce, and learn to identify the sounds of the musical instruments.
They go into the same level of detail on how olives are harvested and how oil is produced. I thought I knew this, roughly, but compared to all Sicilian seven-year olds I am an ignoramus! They label parts of oil presses and put the pictures in order. They learn words for olives that have been mushed up, and another word for the gubbins left over after you’ve pressed the extra virgin oil out but not done the second pressing to extract the oxidised, acidic junk you’re going to sell to foreigners who don’t know any better. There are about eight different verbs for different types of olive mashing, and my little boy knows them all. He even knows how to write them in joined up-writing. Some schools actually take the kids on outings at this time of year to see a local frantoio – that’s the machine that presses the oil out.
This has made me realise how much of what we are taught at school creates the national culture. I think one way you could define a culture is “the stuff that just about everyone thinks is obvious”. It’s terribly difficult to work out just what this is, until you meet someone from another culture who doesn’t know something that you have known for a very long time indeed.
When I was in primary school, I coloured in maps of Europe and learned each country and its capital. That’s why we English always think Americans are incredibly stupid for not knowing the European countries. We don’t actually stop to ask ourselves if we could reel off the capital of each of the states of America. (Actually, we could; it’s just that we don’t want to).
I memorised Bible stories with a relentless frenzy imposed by teacher after teacher. I am perpetually flabberasted that Italian children do their first communion and all that, and come out of it not knowing one single bible story. I mean really, not one. They don’t even know the proper details of the life of Jesus as told in the four gospels.
I spent lots of time learning about early British history. We did the Picts and Scots and Celts, we did the Romans, then we learned how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded from Germany in the 5th century AD. That’s why the British press mocked Mitt Romney, aka Mitt the Twit, after one of his aides made his “we have a shared Anglo-Saxon Heritage” comment in England. If he wanted to endear himself to us, reminding us that we once got invaded by a bunch of ruddy Germans was not a good plan. And anyway, what about all the other tribes?
(I would hate to mislead any American readers into thinking the UK is behind Obama and prefers him to Romney. In reality, Mr. Obama’s carefully calculated Brit-antagonising antics have been so successful that we now hate him more than we ever hated Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Surveys have shown that, among the younger generation, the majority believe the US is no longer worth pursuing as an ally; they feel we should focus efforts on wooing up-and-coming countries like India and China instead, which is more likely to succeed, and which will reap greater benefits in the long term.)
I could go on and on, but instead I need to make my son cut leaf shapes out of red, yellow and orange paper and turn them into a collage; I don’t want him to grow up into the kind of twit who thinks Canadian Maple leaves turn violet in September.