This was not a job that was done often, when I was growing up in Italy. It was extremely time consuming, required a good amount of elbow grease, plus the excruciating down time.
These days, most people in Italy prefer the trendier wood floors, especially sleek and elegant parquet, with tile usually installed only in the kitchen and bathrooms. But back then, every apartment had floors made of graniglia, which is a kind of more affordable marble, sturdy and basic. These tiles had all pretty much the same design, with some color variations, mostly in the yellow-orange, rose, and forest-green hue. And those were the ones I grew up with in Portici. I don’t remember too clearly the color patterns, but I believe the bedrooms were rose, while the long hallway was orangish. The living room and my father’s study were green. The dining room, the most formal space in the house, had instead a luxurious marble floor, with a nearly mirror finish.
In order to look attractive, all those floors were high-maintenance. My long-suffering mother, who had a full-time job as a teacher, went food shopping on foot at the open-air market every single day, cooked and cleaned, and often assisted with our homework, tackled that major chore every couple of months. Of course, the floors were all regularly washed weekly, but they lost that coveted sheen, and that was unacceptable.
Usually on a Sunday – since school is open six days a week in Italy – she would wake up in a fairly unpleasant mood, and begin her day of labor. That meant, we had to get out of bed earlier then normal, and literally get out of the way.
After seriously scrubbing all the floors, one room at the time, with a mop and a bucket, she allowed them to dry thoroughly, and we knew better than talk to her or even breathe then. We were confined to a room where the floor had already dried, while my father had cleverly made plans to be gone for good part of the day (usually he went to his office in the school were he was the principal, to catch up on paper work in peace, while listening to Beethoven).
Then came the wax. She would pour the liquid from a little bottle, then quickly spread it out with a special mop, and waited for it to set.
This is when the fun part began.
A smile of satisfaction would appear on her lips, we children released our breath, and got out our equipment: le pattine!
The pattine were two thick pieces of soft cloth with a strap; you slipped your feet under the strap, and, voilà, you were on skates (pattini means skates in Italian)! We each had our own set, and were rearing to go. My mother would begin by going over the entire floor with a soft mop made for that purpose, then she would say Avanti, cominciate! And the race began. Sliding and slipping playfully on the floors, we ‘roller-skated’ in circles, diagonally, and every which way, reaching every corner, sometimes slamming against walls and furniture, especially my very aggressive brother who was prone to turn everything into a serious competition. The floors shined and glowed under our speedy feet, becoming a glorious rink, as our shadows turned into mirror images.
Oh, to fly freely through our spacious apartment, fearless and light, the fresh sea breeze from all the open balconies inflating our youthful sails.
The tedious chore had become a game, directing our infinite energy into a most practical job that didn’t feel like such.
The flawless glory of a highly polished floor. My mother would be tired but satisfied and proud. Only slippers in the house for that day. My father would dutifully admire the result, and praise us for helping.
All was well with the universe.
Till the next time