Author Archives: Valentina Scarlata

Never light up a cigarette from a candle

Main piece:

M.P.: If I am not wrong, my grandmother was the one who told me this. So we were in her house and I lighted up a cigarette from a candle. My grandmother basically turned white and told me “No, you don’t light cigarettes from candles”. Whereupon, I didn’t know the reason why. Wait how was it. [pauses in a monument of reflection]. Ah Yes. My grandma said “you don’t light up cigarette from candles because every time you do so a sailor dies”. 
From what I understood there is some sort of historical reason behind this belief, but I am not sure about the specific origin.

Background:

My informant is a 23 years old girl who was born in Bologna, Italy, and whose paternal grandmother is now in her 80s. She mentioned this piece to me, because she remembered being particularly surprised by it, especially considering that, despite having been a smoker for quite a bit now, she had never heard it before her grandma advised her against doing such thing. She also added that, even if she does’t consider herself superstitious, she has never done it after the mentioned episode.

Context:

My informant told me this folk-belief while she was smoking a cigaret between a course and the next one during a lunch. 

Thoughts:

Many are the folk-belief and folk-superstitions which are somehow related to history and historical events. In this case, -despite the multiple assumptions made- this particular saying, mostly diffused in Eastern and Northern Europe, is said to derive from the period in which sailors, after working on sea, used to top up their profits by making and selling matches. Consequently, lighting up a cigarette from a candle, instead of using a match, implied less earnings for sailors, who, left without money, could have eventually starved to death.

In my opinion, two are the things worth of mention. First, it is interesting to notice the process of diffusion the belief underwent, considering that from Eastern and Northern Europe -where the superstition is though to be originated-, it was, someway, propagated in other parts of the continent (if not the world) as well.

Secondly, the aesthetic of belief is, here, one of the principle sources of appeal, as my informant pointed out that, despite her lack of “faith” in superstitions, she has never lighted up a cigaret from a candle never again. This was, probably, due to the fact that it was her grandmother who told her this and, as often happens, older people are perceived as wiser, and, at the same time, the absence of explanation -and the almost mystical curiosity which from it derives- made it more mysteriously fascinating. 

-https://people.howstuffworks.com/does-lighting-cigarette-with-candle-cause-sailor-to-die.htm

The Stony House

Main piece:

M.P.: Outside the center of Monghidoro, there is a beautiful big stony house which is constantly in renovation, even if never inhabited. And I’ve never understood why such a beautiful house, which is also in a good position, has always been abandoned. So one day I asked my grandfather, who used to live in a neighboring town, which is something like…I don’t know, something like 3 kilometers away from the village in which the house is found. I asked him if he knew why. He told me that basically that house was a military command occupied by the Nazis during the War and which served as a sort of prison, for people to be “interrogated” [does gestures of quote citation with her hands] by German Soldiers. Obviously, this interrogations were not spoken questionings, but soldiers used to do everything they could to extort confessions from prisoners. And my grand-father told me that he remembers hearing screams from his house, which was located some kilometers away. And everyone knew. So basically this house after the war was never inhabited again, because even if it was restructured etcetera etcetera [does gestures with her hands], no-one has ever wanted to live there. It is said that screams can still be heard inside of it. Besides, people do not want to talk about this. If you ask questions, no one knows anything about it, no one remembers it. Still, even if they claim of not knowing anything, they do not want to go inside of it, so obviously they know. 

Background:

My informant is a 23 years old girl who was born in Bologna, Italy, and whose paternal grandfather was born in a village on the Tosco-Emilian Apennines-where the mentioned town of Monghidoro is located-, which was, during World War 2, one of the major Italian war fronts. As a matter of fact, many towns and villages ‘hosted’, or better, were occupied both by German and American troops, and many are the legends, memories, beliefs and events related to war times people of the place remember. 

Context:

My grandmother as well was born in those areas, so I got to know some  war-times’ stories myself as well. However, I had never knew about this particular legend, which my informant told me over a lunch.

Thoughts:

This legend surly holds a significant value, both historically and folkloristic-ally speaking. It is in my opinion the perfect example of something taken from history and later transomed, for a reason or another, into a folk-piece. The aesthetic of belief plays, here as well, a significant role, it being the engine which makes the legend propagate through time: when people -even people coming from other cities- hear this story and its legendary value from residents of the place or from the surrounding area, they are immediately indirectly warned against buying that house, and this is the reason why it has never been inhabited since the disastrous events of World War 2. Many are, in fact, the people who search vacation houses in that area, and this would be a perfect, beautiful and convenient choice. Yet, still there is, with to tenets or occupants. 

In second place, another interesting point is the emphasis my informant puts on the fact that no one wants to talk about it: there is a sort of code of slice related to it, which, somehow, recalls the concept of homeopathic magic, in the sense that, if you do not talk about this and you completely dissociate yourself from it, you cannot be touched or affected from the bad energies the place emits. Plus, it is also a form of protection against the bed memories the people of the place have related to the war and specifically the Nazi occupation of the territory. 

Do not go on top of the Asinelli Tower

Main piece:

M.P:So…I don’t actually know from who and when I got to know this thing, but everyone I know, even people that come to study in Bologna from abroad know this. So basically it is said that college students do not have for any reason go on top of the Asinelli Tower in Bologna before they get their degree or otherwise, they won’t graduate. Now, I don’t have any idea about the reason behind this belief or what kind of energy the tower has [laughs], thing is, everyone I know, me included, respect this tradition. 

Background:

My informant is a 23 years old girl who was born in Bologna, Italy, and who is now getting her master degree in archaeology and Egyptology at the city’s university, and who got her bachelor degree in anthropology and oriental studies 2 years ago always at Bologna’s Alma Mater Studiorum. This superstitious legend and folk belief came to her attention as soon as she started college, or maybe even before, when she was younger, but what makes it particularly interesting to her is that also people who are not originally from Bologna and come to study in the city from abroad get to know and follow this. Another thing that makes this belief exceptionally curious to her is that she is not an especially superstitious person; however, she has always -consciously or not- respected this tradition, and, until she won’t have concluded her studies, she won’t “for any reason go on top of that place”.

Context:

This is a well-known belief of my city, which, even if I am not a student at Bologna’s university, I got to know in time. My informant told me about this while we were chatting at a restaurant in the city center of Bologna.

Thoughts:

Various are the things that make this particular folk piece particularly compelling. 

First of all, it can be considered an intersection of belief, legend and superstition, and it’s possible to see how the three genres overlap and leak one into the other. Specifically, it is interesting to notice how the concept of aesthetic of belief is, in this example, perfectly encapsulated, it being the solid foundation on which the piece is established. My informant made it perfectly clear when stating that, despite not being particularly superstitious, she was convinced of its truthfulness because persuasively influenced by multiple sources from the most different backgrounds and identities. Moreover, this belief is somethings which unites a specific social and peer group, the one of the students who are currently attending university and, therefore, sharing the same life experience. 

What makes it even more interesting is that this tradition doesn’t unite only students attending Bologna’s university, but all those people who are currently attending a college, and this is due to two main reasons. First, if you are a college student in another city and you come to visit Bologna, you should follow, anyway, the tradition, because the belief is said to concern every person who is identifiable with the categorization of ‘university student’. Second, -and here comes the really curious part- every Italian city who as an Atheneum has a similar belief connected to itself. University students shouldn’t go on top of Pisa’s Tower or Turin’s Mole Antoneliana, they shouldn’t look at Minerva’s statue in Rome and Sanmartino’s Cristo Velato in Naples, and they shouldn’t visit Ferrara’s Castello Estense or cross Pavia University’s courtyard, or, otherwise, they won’t get their degree.  

The paradigm of Italian hand-gestures

Main piece:

Background:

P.S.: It happened to me countless times, when abroad or speaking with non-Italians citizens, to receive this gesture, articulated in senseless ways, as an answer to my “I am Italian”, and…I don’t know, it has always been for me quite funny, but irritating at the same time.

My informant was born in Belgium from Italian immigrants and spent the first years of his life in Mons, before moving to Italy. Even after his transferring, he continued to visit many times his native country, and he had occasion of traveling and visiting a lot of world’s countries both for business and pleasure during his lifetime. 

Context:

My informant talked about this piece -and then ‘performed’ it- in his living room.  

Thoughts:

I believe it is quite known that Italians gesticulate a lot with their hands while speaking, so much that they are told to ‘speak with their hands’. Many are, indeed, the natural hand and body gestures people from Italy use while communicating, and they represents, for the most part, a genuine and unconscious means of expression. 
This particular piece my informant presents probably is the most famous one, which is often erroneously practiced by non-Italian speakers without acknowledging its real significance. As a matter of fact, this particular hand-gesture is the most-commonly used one to imitate and make fun of Italians, and it’s usually accompanied by nonsense exclamations like “pizza, pasta and mafia”. In reality, this gesture expresses and signifies concepts like “what are you saying?”, “who?”, “when”, so it is basically used to physically ‘supplement’ questions.

“Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler”

Main piece:

“Il faut tourner sept fois sa langue dans sa bouche avant de parler”

Transliteration: 

Il faut: It’s necessary

tourner: to rotate

sept fois: seven times

sa langue: the tongue

dans sa bouche: inside the mouth

avant: before

de parler: speaking

Translation: Before saying something, you ought to think well about your words / Think before you speak

Background:

P.S.: My father used to tell this a lot…my aunt as well. There are similar sayings in Italian as well, but…hum I don’t know, my father sometimes just switched to French to make concepts more vivid.

My informant is my father, who was born in Belgium from Italian immigrants and who spent the first years of his life in Mons, before moving to Italy. Even after his transferring, he continued to visit many times each year his native country, also because much of his family still lived there. Since really young he was told many French proverbs, especially by his parents and by those family members who continued to live in Belgium.

Context:

My informant and other relatives of mine told me several times multiple French proverbs, and, in this particular case, we were in the informant’s living room.

Thoughts:

I believe each culture presents a similar proverb, which encourages everyone to think carefully about his or her own actions and words, as they could easily affect or, even, damage the other. At the same time, it invites people at thinking logically and reasoning reflectively on something before acting, as it often happens that impulsive behaviors or decisions are the ones a person can regrets the most.

This sort of saying has been a fundamental part of my up-bringing, it being repeatedly mentioned to me in multiple occasions by family members.