Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Firenze: Di Feste ed Animatori / Of Parties and Hosts

As the parents of two small children, we are often on the birthday party circuit here, which allows ample time and opportunities for my lay cultural anthropologist observations.

In Firenze, many children’s birthday parties are, in fact, the scene for two distinct parties: in one space, the children, and their activities; in another space, the adults, and their activities.

Because what is a party, really, if only a portion of your attendees are having a good time?

Honestly. Be honest, now. Do children really want to partake in adult activities? No.
And do adults want to crawl about like children, or scream like Tasmanian devils, or run around and hang out of trees? Even if they were physically able to do so – No.

The adult party features, first and foremost, adult company, with substantial snacks, wine – maybe an open bar. Recently, a DJ, of sorts (I started dancing, but then stopped as I realized no one else was really dancing, so perhaps this was more a backdrop ambience DJ.) We were situated on the banks of the Arno at Rari, and its adjacent boat club, making it feel like a mid-autumn redux of this:

The children’s party involves the usual snacks, favors, activities, fun, and bickering – with one very important addition.

The animatore/animatrice.

Literally, a “host,” but in Firenze, it is much, much more than a host. The animatore/animatrice is, basically, a paid pied piper for the party. The animatore/animatrice ensures that all children are included in the fun activities, if they wish to be so included. (Victor never wants any part in this nonsense, but Eleanor is into it.)

I have some examples of animatore/animatrice whom I have observed, my mouth agape, at this wonderful solution. Because, as a mom, yes, parties are fun and all. Parties hosted by Hunter and Amber in Eastwood Park are what I would fairly call a real double party. But so many parties are not like that, and as an adult, let me tell you how sick I was of Hey Day and Andy Alligator parties when we lived in Oklahoma. These venues were very fun for the kids, yet very little fun was to be had for any of the accompanying parental chaperones.

The animatori seem to me to be about college age. I have no idea what their going rate is, but they seem to be often hired through word of mouth, on moms’ groups on Facebook or WhatsApp.

When I saw my first animatrice (f.) in April, I was surprised. Who is this person, who immediately turned a side room into a child discoteca? She must have been travelling with an entire trunk of fun. This was for a birthday party for siblings turning one and three, mind you, friends of our landlords who lived just around the corner in an equally historic and art- and book-filled palazzo, sunlight streaming in through the south windows. She had toys, costumes, movies and videos to project, stuff to make, and she was dressed up in generalized fairywear. She was also very pretty, which I could see initially as a liability for an animatrice, whose beauty might invite unwanted looks from fathers and side-eye from mothers. I kind of wanted to copy her look for everyday. I also maybe began participating with too much enthusiasm in her games and dancing. But the pop-up disco she’d created was more entertaining than the conversation in the huge salon.

In early July, we were entertained by a horde of at least 20 animatori when we had our “Italian Vacation: Cultural Immersion” experience at Riva degli Etruschi, on the Tuscan coast. They collected small roving packs of older children to play all day while their parents relaxed (that was not the case for us, as Victor was disdainful of such lemming-like behavior, and Eleanor was too young to toddle off in that direction on her own, even though she really wanted to). These animatori were all deeply tanned, extremely positive, and bursting with energy. They seemed to be musical theater types. One in particular must be an up-and-coming choreographer, as some of their shows seemed to exceed the expectations of the audience, and perhaps also their personal frames of reference.

Last month, the Dutch party where we celebrated Delphine’s fifth birthday with a very international crowd was hosted by none other than Elsa and Anna. These women were animating like they meant it. They were dressed up and sported huge fake braid wigs. They kind of looked like Marie Antoinette meets Disney, but the little girls especially loved it. They had so much stuff! Everyone was getting facepaint and blowing bubbles, and dancing on the terrace to the playlist curated by the two female protagonists of the Disney hit movie Frozen. Extra princess apparel was distributed for those wishing to princess along. I talked to Anna in her satin yellow dress as she took a smoke break off the terrace.

“All these kids speak English,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me as she exhaled. “Where are you from?”

“I Stati Uniti,” I told her. I saw she was sweating through her pancake makeup, although the overall effect was still stunning.

She huffed. “Madonna. My English is awful. I live in Prato.”

I suggested she try to speak English with the little kids, who didn’t really care what language came out of her mouth, since her dress was so awesome.

She looked at me like I’d just suggested she move to Mars.

Who wouldn’t want this pair to come to your five-year-old daughter’s birthday party?
Note, this pair are the Disney professionals, not the understudies from Prato.

My fourth animatori to cite are the ones from this most recent party, last weekend, on the banks of the Arno River. This party was impressive, large, well-appointed, with the DJ. and an open bar for the genitori, and a gorgeous lunch spread.

But the animatori were truly inspired. The birthday boy was one of Victor’s friends, turning seven; Lapo is a compact, energetic boy, and his parents are quite possibly the most happy-go-lucky Italian parents I know. Francesca, the mom, seems to default to an exasperated silent laugh each morning when I see her at school, like a Kristen Wiig from Massa Marittima; her husband, Marzio, has a beatific look of distance from, and simultaneous, acceptance of this earthly plane.

The animatori proposed a skate park, after Gleaming the Cube, the 1987 cult film about the forbidden fruits enjoyed by skaters (a type of which I was plenty fond myself, back in the day, so perhaps I was predisposed to
being into it). The young woman was athletic, and her male colleague looked like he was fresh off the beach sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro. The west end of the terrazza facing the river had been repurposed into a skate park, with four ramps and many scooters and skateboards of all sizes, and a few helmets. The kids shouted and skated and went up and down ramps for hours since the party was from one to six on a Saturday. A few teary fights did break out over specific scooters and skateboards, toward the end.

Fortunately the concrete wall and iron pipe railing afforded a secondary, parkour-like outlet for all the six- and seven-year-old boy energy that had been further refuelled by not only cake and orange Fanta, but an open candy bar with Pop Rocks and watermelon gum, next to the adult bar and its dewy chilled bottles of white wine and brut. Another collection of red wine bottles crowded the bar. As the party lasted over five hours, the adults were having a great time.

View from the boat club/skatepark.

I really enjoy Italian children’s birthday parties – and again – appreciate the cultural consideration for guests of all ages at parties. Because if everyone isn’t having fun, then it’s not a good party by the Italian definition.

A special thank you to the families who have included us in their celebrations in our first year here in Firenze, and for making us feel so welcome.

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