Elizabeth Heath is an American-born writer, editor and mom. She mostly grew up in Florida. Since 2009 she has been based in a small hilltown near Orvieto. She is married a local and they have a daughter. For a while she blogged about her adventures and misadventures with the locals of her adopted homeland – My Village in Umbria.
When I lived in the US and well before I had a child, I was very judgmental of the excesses I saw parents heap on their children, especially when it came to birthday parties. Bounce house parties, bowling alley parties, parties at gymnastic centres. Elaborate cakes, helium balloons, gift bags for every child in attendance. Too much. And every year had to somehow be different from and outdo the last.
Now, I live in Italy and I’m the mother of a little girl who just celebrated her third birthday. This was the first year that she really “got” the significance of her birthday, and the idea that she would get presents. Since she’s in preschool now, we decided to invite the kids from her class, 9 of them in all, ages 3-6, for a little party. A simple little affair at our home, nothing fancy. No clowns or ponies or bounce houses.
But, I’m in Italy, remember? For those unfamiliar with Italian culture, there exists here the concept of the bella figura and the brutta figura. Think of it as putting on a good face or a bad face – a bella figura is when one nails the speech they’re set to make; a brutta figura occurs when they forget their lines or trip on their way to the podium. A bella figura happens when guests drop by unexpectedly and your house is immaculate, your child is angelic, and you just happen to have a freshly-made cake to offer along with coffee. A brutta figura occurs when guests drop by while you’re coloring your hair, screaming at your kid to pick up her toys and the dog has just shit on the floor – and you forget to offer them coffee.
You might think that preschoolers aren’t so concerned with the concept of a bella or brutta figura, but Italian mother-in-laws are. After all, it’s not just the kids who come to kids’ parties, but at least one of their parents, most often moms, whose eyes will dart from side to side as they watch their kids play, looking for the first dust bunny or cobweb or dirty kitchen towel, or for the crostata that’s too sweet or the cake that didn’t properly rise.
So, my mother-in-law and I set to menu planning for our little party. Despite my efforts to keep it simple, our entirely homemade menu included: mini-pizzas, six or eight types of savoury canapés, chips, popcorn, breadsticks, five types of mini-sandwiches, two crostatas (one with fruit, one with Nutella), two types of cookies (my contribution to the food-fest), cream-filled beignets, a filled orange cake, a Bavarian-cream cake with blackberries, and the pièce de résistance, cream and chocolate filled cake with white-chocolate icing in the form of a butterfly. My daughter said she wanted a butterfly cake and damn it, my mother- and sister-in-law made sure she got a butterfly cake.
The party started at 4, and I figured we’d have everyone out the door by 6. I knew one guest was going to arrive late with her son, as he had a swimming lesson to attend. So everyone lingered well past 6, even though we were mostly family and just two or three kids with their moms. Then at 6:30, just as I had concluded that none of the preschool moms liked me and they were punishing my darling daughter as a result, a horde of kids and parents came marching down the driveway. I mean, I know Italians take scheduling with a grain of salt, but 6:30?! So when the last guest cleared out by 8 pm, we all collapsed in a heap on the couch, exhausted, surrounded by mountains of used paper plates and plastic cups, with platters of food leftover that needed to be put away.
“Next year” I said to my husband and mother-in-law, “let’s just go to a pizzeria, bring a cake and some balloons, and have the party there. Nice and simple.” We’d spend about the same amount of money, I reasoned, when we took into account how much we’d spent on groceries, and cut out all the prep work and clean-up. “Oh no,” my mother-in-law said, recoiling in horror at the thought that I might actually be serious about the idea. “That would be showing off.”
So, my question is, what do we do when she turns four? Ice sculptures? A chocolate fountain? Or should I just start pricing pony rentals now?