Dutch is not one one of my languages, but Italian is and if any country does cucumber time well, it’s Italy. I anticipated a fall in requests due to the Italian holiday Ferragosto and the tendency for individuals and even businesses to take extra time off around its celebration on 15th August. I did not anticipate the extent of that fall. This did not necessarily harm business – I took the opportunity to focus on some editing work for a British client (as well as the time to work some slightly shorter days in the absence of a holiday since last December) – but it showed me August is a potentially dangerous month for a translator of Italian.
So I have decided to explore first the history of Ferragosto, then how it’s celebrated today and, finally, some ideas on how it affects work in general but, specifically, self-employed professionals.
What is Ferragosto?
It has a perplexing history, rooted in autocracy. Its origins are in Feriae Augusti (“Augustus’ rest”), a holiday established by Roman Emperor Augustus, added to a series of existing festivals that celebrated the end of harvest. By linking this series of holidays together, a substantial rest period was created – perhaps why the holiday occupies more than just 15th August today.
It is said that, on this day, workers well-wished their bosses and received a tip in return. The first coining of Buon Ferragosto (“have a good Ferragosto!”) is said to have been around 2000 years ago, but it was in the 1930s that many of the traditions we saw today really took off – at the behest of a fascist government. Workers were given the days off around the national holiday and guaranteed reduced fares on trains (the so-called treni popolari), giving many the opportunity to see the magnificence of Italy beyond their small towns and villages.
From it’s Roman origins to the Fascist popularisation of the national holiday, the way Ferragosto is celebrated today does have something to do with those leaders’ self-promotion. Regardless, this beneficial summer break has held impressively strong throughout history.
How is it celebrated today?
To answer briefly, with a wonderful range of traditions both ancient and modern. Here are some more detailed examples – beyond beach trips with family and friends and packed lunches.
The Palio in Tuscan city Siena takes place on 16th August. The city is divided into 17 contrade, or neighbourhoods, and there are 10 places up for grabs in a horse race that consists of three clockwise loops of the iconic oval-shaped main square. The Palio refers to the cloth banner awarded to the horse – jockey or no – that comes first. When visiting at the ripe old age of eight, I was told – after the race – that most locals watch (sensibly) on their TVs. If you’re ever in Siena on 16th August and you don’t want to end up with your lightheaded mother in a laundrette-turned-first-aid-room, I suggest you do the same!
Another alternative and – I imagine – hauntingly beautiful way to experience Ferragosto is by attending a concert in the caves of Castellana, Bari, on 14th or 15th August.
A far newer tradition, but one that is nonetheless brilliant, is in Campagna (in the Salerno province), where they host what is essentially a giant water fight every Sunday in August.
Food, of course, plays a huge role in any Italian festivities. And, with this particular holiday having originated as a celebration of the end of Roman harvests, you’re guaranteed to find at least one sagra to attend anywhere you might be in Italy at this time of year.
But what about business?
Someone once told me Italians just love to create an extended break out of one day’s holiday – they call it a “ponte” or “bridge” (essentially a long weekend). Knowing this, underestimating how quiet August would be was perhaps a little silly.
But really, August is a quiet month everywhere. Even in other countries, school holidays tend to fall around August and people take their holidays accordingly. And if everyone is doing so at slightly different times, it takes longer to get things done – if ‘Mary’ needs a signature from ‘Barry’ to be able to send X.doc to the translator, but Barry is on holiday, even if he signs it as soon as he gets back, it’s a week later. And by that point, Mary is off for two weeks so in total it’s three before anything gets done.
So is Italy’s concentration of that time off into the same week or two actually a better solution? Could it be better for an economy as a whole?
A difficult question for me to answer, as interesting as it is. But it looks like mid-August might be a good time for me to take a little break myself, in years to come. And, with the Pope having declared 15th August the official day for celebrating the Assumption of Mary, it’s also a national holiday in Spain, certain parts of Switzerland and many other Catholic countries, meaning this is quite possibly applicable to those working in other language combinations, too. It’s certainly worth knowing when holidays occur in the relevant countries – I’ve added the Italian holiday calendar to my iCal, for this very reason.
By Thursday (30th August), my requests had already returned to something of a peak. So bring on this week: looks like I’ll be busy if Italy is about to play catch up.