Ritual blessings

Gentleman of Verona

I've just returned from the UK, a visit somewhat marred by the general election campaign in which, as far as one who now counts himself a foreigner can tell, both sides are offering exactly the same thing and above all, paradoxically, individual choice. Anyhow, I get the family in the car for the Veronese Sunday ritual of a day out at Lake Garda, then am annoyed to find the centre of our village seething with traffic. Significantly, the only car-park we have here is a monstrous expanse of asphalt outside a monstrously modern church. But today even this has overflowed, so that dark-suited figures who have driven their Lancias perhaps all of 300 metres find themselves obliged to parade a further 50 alongside high-heeled wives and frilly children.

"A marriage?" I wonder, "Or funeral?"

"No, prima comunione," sings my elder daughter. All her schoolfriends are getting their first taste of the host today. And likewise Beppino, the boy in the flat downstairs who lets off bangers in any and every season. "Merda" - my wife foresees the worst, "all the restaurants will be booked up." For after committing their souls to Christ, the children must be regaled with rings and chains of gold over a three-course meal. "Where will we eat?" she wails.

Driving up the Valpolicella, I think how well I know those meals, how easy it is to be cynical about them, but how much I love to tuck in: pasta first, of course, then boiled meat, then tiramisu, and the fine tuning of the various wines, your stomach so accustomed to the procession of plates and glasses that the final grappa sends you on your way with the liturgical obviousness of the priest's blessing, or a friend's arrivederci. Until suddenly it occurs to me that your average Italian would have no truck with philosophies of individual choice. For in the end, surely, the Blair-Major chatter about family values is profoundly at loggerheads with the idea of freedom of choice. Hardly one of those kids went to catechism willingly. As, no doubt, they had to learn to like their carciofi. It takes coercion to transmit a culture.

As we drive, the children sing the signature song to a cartoon. In Japanese! And immediately I'm wondering whether people love singing things in foreign languages because they feel freed from responsibility, sliding along the grooves of something they don't understand. Didn't Plutarch remark in Quaestiones Graecae how the ceremonies most lovingly observed were the ones everyone had forgotten the meaning of? Certainly the book on child psychology I just read told me it was far more important to impose rules than explain them. "Don't burden your child with choices they're not ready for," this book said. So, "No, we're not stopping for a brioche right now," I tell my boy, Michele, brusquely. "Not right after breakfast," As if that could substitute for the religious education I haven't given him.

"Jonathan's found a woman he wants to marry at last," I fill Rita in on news of old friends in England. "Only he wants to wait a year to make sure she's the right one." We laugh over Jonathan's legendary caution. Then there's a new acquaintance who would love to have children but her man won't. Because contraception and abortion bring choice, too. The Pope knows we're not ready for it. Meanwhile, my wife brings me up to date on our neighbours' messy divorce: the husband can't choose between the mistress he left his wife for and the young girl he came across when he took a flat of his own. I recall Samuel Johnson's remark that the balance of weal and woe would not be greatly altered if spouses were chosen at random by the public registrar. Nowadays, not only does one have to choose one's wife in the first place (will the Asian communities be voting for individual choice?), but one must renew that choice every day. "Marco just wants to show he's free to make an unholy mess!" My wife naturally supports the wronged wife.

Bardalino. The sunny ceremony of the days here. The passeggiata along the neatly laid-out waterfront. Under enamelled skies. My son fishing from a jetty. My daughters giggling and bouncing about an inflatable pirate ship. My wife with cappuccino and Corriere della Sera. I'm thinking: imagine the barriers to freedom of choice rolling ever back; some future election manifesto: you can choose your child's sex, choose your own sex, you can choose your parents, choose your nationality, choose to come into the next life as a dog, or a cat, or a fruit bat. You can choose to be immortal. Or, most mind-boggling of all, a writer could choose his publisher. Think of the anguish, the responsibility! Who would you blame when you were unhappy, when your books didn't sell? And would there ever be any mental space left for such idle musing as I'm enjoying now? The huge pleasure of a day running on traditional rails while the mind roams free from any choice. "Except," I remind Rita, "we better head on home before the hordes come." For with clockwork reliability the Italians make for the lake in the early afternoon. They don't seem unhappy in their jams. Free thinkers, we weave in and out of their routines. Opening the garden gate in congratulatory mood, a banger goes off almost at our feet, and there's a child's newly blessed, demonic laugh

Tim Parks' latest novel, `Europa', is published by Secker & Warburg at pounds 9.99

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