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Old Italian Rascals



“Do you know that those old rascals hang by the railing on the terrace and laugh at me trying to park my car on the street below?” said my aunt Luciana when I told her where I was headed that afternoon.


This was a few years ago, during one of my summertime visits to my family in Italy. I had walked past some old men playing bocce in the park and that gave me the idea of taking photographs at the local circolino, where I knew someone who could introduce me and make sure that nobody minded my snapping away. Nobody did, they actually played along. At least, those who were not playing cards did; the ones who were, were so focused I doubt they even noticed.




As you can see in the image above, the proper name for the place is Societá Cooperativa L’Avvenire which, literally translated means ‘Cooperative Society The Future’, but everyone calls it circolino. And I had better save this before auto-correct changes it back to circling for the ‘nth time. The location, by the way, is an area of Varese called Sant’Ambrogio, way up in Northern Italy.




How to explain what a circolino is…. uhm….

First of all, it is a very Italian thing, though there may be a French equivalent. Essentially it is a (non-profit co-op) non-fancy bar where old men gather to get out from in between their wive’s feet and pass the afternoon gossiping, playing cards, pool, or bocce where a court is available, smoking, drinking cheap wine and eating bread with salami and cheese, ice cream, potato chips and other such healthy offerings.  Some places, like this one, also have an outdoor area, some don’t. But there is at least one of them in every village in Italy, and several in larger towns, maybe even in cities, and the scene is always the same.




“Where is nonno?” I would ask.

“At the circolino.” Of course, why even ask.

Often, on summer afternoons, we would stop by to visit, dumping our bicycles outside, because he would always buy us ice cream. By we I mean my two brothers and myself, and sometimes my two cousins, as we all lived in the same village, less than two miles from each other.


The other summer memory I have related to this is of said grandfather cycling home just a little tipsy after his afternoon of cards and red wine, carrying ice cream cones meant for us in a plastic bag dangling from the handlebars of his bike. I am talking fresh ice cream scooped out into waffle cones and wrapped in paper, not the industrial, pre-packages kind that would have been less vulnerable. The ice cream would be a mess of melt in the bag by the time he arrived home, but he got extra kudos for effort, and we ate it anyway.




My grandfather is not in any of these photos, but he could be, as he could be any of these men. He passed away when I was 14, in another lifetime of mine, one of the many I have had in this one. I only dreamt about him once, not long after he had passed, and not since. I have often wondered why.


On the day I took these photographs I did not personally know any of these men except one. As I moved around snapping pics, he turned around and “Oh my! Look who it is!”. He is an ex colleague of both my father and I, when we all worked at my uncle’s firm. Yet another lifetime. Here he is in the image below.




The rascals hanging on the bench by the terrace railing – you know, the ones laughing at my aunt’s parking efforts – engaged me in their friendly banter. A couple of them were wearing caps, so I joked and informed them that these days caps are worn the other way around. They laughed, and one of them said he didn’t want to risk being unfashionable, and switched the hat around.




The banter, newspaper reading, card games, smoking, ice cream eating, wine drinking and gossiping progressed long after I had left, I am sure. For me taking these photos was a little dip into my childhood, and whenever I look at them I am virtually transported to a familiar scene, one that is no longer my own, yet still is very much my own. What was it that that other Swiss old rascal with the wild hair said about time and space? I can so see him playing cards alongside these guys.


Time for another round.




Of course, when it was time to find a title for this series of images, my aunt’s name for them stuck: Old Rascals. She’s an old rascal, too, by the way, just a female one.


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