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At Leisure on Labor Day

Labor Day in Italy is a day at the beach.

Labor Day in Italy is a day at the beach.

It’s May Day around the world, but in Italy, we’re celebrating the Festa del Lavoro or Labor Day. Following close on the heels of last week’s Liberation Day holiday, our town’s residents are all outside soaking up the sun and eating gelato. If there’s any work to be done, it’s a single-minded focus on the start of summer tanning.

Labor unions in Italy organize free concerts in big cities on Labor Day (Photo credit: www.huffpost.com)

Labor unions in Italy organize free concerts in big cities on Labor Day (Photo credit: http://www.huffpost.com).

From what we can tell, Labor Day in Puglia is spent attending concerts, eating long lunches with families and friends on shaded patios and going to the beach. Somewhere there may be public demonstrations or protests to improve workers’ rights and conditions or public outcry about the lack of work at all since la crisi has taken hold in Italy. In our town, though, it feels like an especially vivacious Sunday in the summer: 86 degrees, bright sun, a slight breeze and happy chatter echoing through the twisty, stone streets of the centro storico.

Wild orchids among the fast-growing grasses all over the Valle d'Itria countryside.

Wild orchids among the fast-growing grasses all over the Valle d’Itria countryside.

Yet many workers who have jobs are still working today. In the country, the end of olive pruning season has arrived, so anyone who hasn’t finished the job is trying to beat the hot weather to ensure a plentiful harvest come fall. The recent high temperatures with a few days of light rain have caused overnight growth of native grasses, so tractors and rototillers can be heard all over the countryside today trying to keep nature at bay. Farmers are turning the earth, setting out tomato seedlings and planting beans. Olive prunings are drying before being baled into tidy bricks. Fires dot the landscape as spindly branches are burned, their ashes nourishing the soil for another year.

An array of artisanal gelato flavors back by popular demand now that summer is just around the corner.

An array of artisanal gelato flavors back by popular demand now that summer is just around the corner.

In town, restaurant and bar staffs gear up for the afternoon passeggiata onslaught. Gelato has made a welcome return after the long winter hiatus. There really is truth to the old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Children and their parents line up for the season’s first taste, keeping workers hopping. And after a long, lean winter, the hospitality industry here is thrilled to see the crowds.

Labor union rally on Labor Day in Italy (Photo credit: www.24oresole.com)

Labor union rally on Labor Day in Italy (Photo credit: http://www.24oresole.com).

The first Labor Day celebration in Italy took place in the late 1800s to recognize workers’ achievements in fighting for their rights. Labor unions continue to promote the importance of union protection by hosting a series of free concerts throughout Italy. This year, though, the country’s collective focus is squarely on the lack of work. Italy’s unemployment rate remains close to a 20-year high as companies refrained from hiring amid political gridlock and the longest economic recession in two decades. It’s even worse for young people between the ages of 15 and 24; some 36 percent of those who are seeking work can’t find it. And the euro region’s third-biggest economy will shrink 1.8 percent this year amid rising unemployment and low consumer and investor confidence according to a Moody’s Investors Service forecast in late April.

It's hard to get too depressed when a beach like this beckons.

It’s hard to get too depressed when a beach like this beckons (Photo credit: http://www.pugliablu.com).

You might think all this grim news would put a damper on a national celebration that acknowledges workers and their contributions. But even in 1950, la Festa del Lavoro provided workers all over Italy with a national holiday to spend at leisure with their families and friends. Then as now, the sun was shining, the scent of lilacs and honeysuckle wafted through the air and the sea was an expanse of sparkling blue. All of it is free and accessible to everyone, so it looks like we’ll wait another day to worry about the future.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gilla #

    Better celebration of May Day than in the USA. Why do they bale the dried olive tree trimmings? I seem to remember my wife and daughter buying gelato in the Winter. Is not being available until May 1st a regional thing?

    May 1, 2013
    • Great questions! The olive trimming baling process is fascinating. Once the dead or unnecessary branches are pruned and left to fall to the ground, the large ones are separated and cut up with a chainsaw for summer grilling or winter fireplace fuel. The thin, spindly cuttings are heaped into long, straight bushy piles to dry a little before the baling machine arrives. The baler scoops them up, forms them into square blocks and wraps wire around them, spitting them out neatly to be gathered and stored. They’re used like kindling to start fires–nothing is wasted! As for gelato, yes, it’s available year round, but on a much more limited basis. Really good, artisanal gelato takes a vacation during the winter and returns right around the Easter-ish with seasonal flavors. Right now, our favorite gelateria is featuring toasted almond, pistachio, hazelnut, dark chocolate, stracciatella (chocolate chip), strawberry and all the usual vanilla variants (fior di latte, crema, zuppa inglese). Summer is right around the corner . . .

      May 2, 2013

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