Sometimes, stereotypes exist for a reason. Among the Europeans, the Italian culture is very much a touchy-feely one. There are a lot of hugs and kisses and embraces and talking loudly and closely with operatic hand gestures. So in the Age of Coronavirus with its masking and social distancing and definitely no pecks on the cheeks if you’re not quarantining together…what’s a good Italian to do?
That was the challenge (and not just for Italians) facing Erika Myers, Director of Houston’s Italian Cultural & Community Center. Normally, the native of Veneto, Italy would be planning or participating in the many events that take place at the historic house and meeting center on Milford in Montrose.
That includes cooking demos, wine tastings, musical programs, history and art lectures, language classes, and film screenings – all of which normally involve people being in very close proximity to one another. No more.
“It all happened so quickly. Back in the spring, we were in the midst of preparing for a fashion show that would benefit our scholarship fund, then COVID spread in Europe and New York. We weren’t so sure [how bad] we’d get it here, then everything was shut down,” Myers says.
Like many other event venues, Myers had to work quickly to pivot to a mostly-online platform. And while a number of them could not really work in a virtual version and have been put on indefinite hold, one thrived and even grew. The Italian language classes for both children and adults, which now have students not only from all over the city and state, but the country. “We’ve even got one in Massachusetts!” Myers laughs. “And the teachers have done a wonderful job. They had to adapt to the program and make it exciting over Zoom.”
The Italian Cultural & Community Center regularly screens Italian movies as part of its Contemporary Italian Film Series. An initial test showing in June attracted about 20 people, with audience members sitting apart from one another, wearing masks, and only consuming water and soda. Extra hand sanitizing stations were also spread throughout the Center.
The next installment on September 16 will feature 2019’s Il Campione (The Champion). It’s a comedy-drama about Christian Ferro (Andrea Carpenzano), a talented but unpredictable football player (that’s soccer to you Americans), whose latest in a series of public screw-ups makes the team president assign him an educational tutor to help him pass an exam and control his anger. That tutor, Valerio Fioretti (Stefano Accorsi), is a shy and solitary professor, the exact opposite of the mercurial sportsman. Their relationship—at first disharmonious—ends up changing the both of them. It was directed and co-written by Leonard D’Agostini. This screening will be in Italian, with English subtitles.
Myers and Center Board member Sandra Celli-Harris choose all the films for the Series from a distributor’s catalog. They strive to pick recent films, and balance comedies in drama. She says that Il Campione features one of the country’s most popular actors (Accorsi) with a storyline involving most popular sport (socc…er, calcio). There will be an audience capacity of 30, and advance registration/ticket purchase is highly recommended.
Myers says that the dearth of activities has been especially hard on some of the Center’s older members and attendees, for whom regular social interaction is nearly as important as breathing.
“They understand why we can’t [have events] because they’re also concerned about their health. Everyone’s worn masks and no one’s complained,” Myers offers. “But we can’t have the cooking classes and wine tastings, and those are very popular. We will have probably three more movies, and maybe a lecture or two before the end of the year.”
Finally, there’s the fate of the Center’s most high-profile annual event – the multi-day Festa Italiana held on the grounds of the University of St. Thomas each October. The 2020 Festival was already cancelled some months back, and Myers is cautiously optimistic for 2021.
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“We’re really hopeful, and we’re keeping a close eye on the situation and what the health authorities say,” she says. “We hope there’s a vaccine soon and people can resume their normal activities. I hope the situation is clearer in the spring.”
So, since the Catholic Church is populated with patron saints for seemingly every cause and facet of life, we pose the question to Myers: Is there a Saint of Lost Festivals one can start praying to?
“Ah! I’m pretty sure! There’s saints for everything in Italy!” she laughs. “I might think of Santa Rita. She’s the Saint of Impossible Miracles. Give her a prayer or two!”
Il Campione (The Champion) will screen on September 16, at 7 p.m. at the Italian Cultural & Community Center, 111 Milford. $10 members/$15 non-members. For more information, call 713-524-4222, ext. 7, or visit ICCCHouston.com.