Last week I visited Italy for the first time. With the help of a phrase book, I had a working Italian vocabulary of about a dozen words. I relied heavily on "per favore," "grazie," and "scusi," coupled with a befuddled look and ready smile. I did a whole lot of pointing, pantomiming, and repeating of what I was told until I parceled out what it might mean. I was so grateful when I was understood that, nine times out of ten, I elicited a smile and goodwill. I figured folks thought, "She's hopeless, but at least she's trying."
So when we went to a tiny café to order a panini, coffee and tea, we worked out the owner's small menu and were invited to sit. We explained we came from the United States. The owner smiled at me. "Buona Festa della Donna."
Okay---I was able to write that out now, but I had no idea what she was saying then. She spoke two dozen words of English (more than I spoke Italian), but the concept was escaping me. Another woman sat at one of the other tables, and between her other dozen words of English, pantomime, and a breakthrough (the owner spoke some French!), I understood. It was March 8, International Women's Day.
She was overjoyed when I understood. She explained that the day was founded by Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin and honored the 146 women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Everyone in the world celebrated it! In Italy they gave mimosa flowers to women. The local gelateria served mimosa gelato for the occasion. Surely I must celebrate it, too.
Sadly I had to explain that the day might merit small print on a few calendars, but we didn't celebrate it in the U.S.
Shock. Surprise. But Rosa Luxemburg, she's so famous. And the fire was in New York. And women here in Italy, they celebrate!
I didn't have enough words to explain that Rosa Luxemburg was viewed as a dangerous Communist by most Americans, if they had heard of her at all.
That afternoon, a man ringing a cowbell gave me a sprig of mimosa. I smiled at all the women who carried their bouquets during the day. I allowed a kiss on the cheek from a cheese seller. And I was glad to spend International Women's Day in Italy where this day to commemorate an American tragedy is truly celebrated.