Paola and the Priest
Paola and the Priest
by Rod Long
The following is a chapter from Belly Laughs by Rod Long (Talion Publishing, Renton WA, 1999). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
“When I tell people I was born in Italy,” says Paola, “they imagine romance and mandolins. But my home town of Turin is gray, sober and industrial. That’s why I left.”
In some conservative places, girls spell relief “m?a?r?r?i?a?g?e.” Paola’s cousin Elena still lived in Turin, protected from the secular world by old?fashioned Italian Catholic parents. For Elena, the time had come to cut the umbilical cord. Even old, traditional parents can’t deny a daughter’s wish to go before a priest and congregation to announce undying love, more closet space and new, flexible social hours.
On her Independence Day, Elena wanted to do something…different. Elena phoned cousin Paola in Holland, and together they conspired to spice up this dull wedding. Rattle some fillings, loosen a few molars.
Influenced by her wild Dutch cousin, Elena had (gasp) been sneaking out for bellydance lessons. Mam?ma Mi?a! Bellydancing! What if her parents found out? There’d be enough novena candles burning at St. Augustine’s to light up a small gymnasium!
She knew her parents would never approve of her (gasp) bellydancing at the reception. Paola was her alibi: blame the belly dancing on “that wild cousin from Holland.”
Arriving in Turin, Paola greeted a horde of people dressed in black, as if they were attending a funeral rather than the first day of Elena’s new life and closet space. The guests quickly figured out that Paola wasn’t a local. She’d forgotten to wear dull colors!
“I wore a bright, shiny dress of emerald green,” grins Paola. “You could spot me from the moon among that gray mass of gray people!”
The wedding plodded through a painstakingly slow ceremony. Minutes stretched into millenniums. Was anybody going to kiss the bride before midnight?
“The priest did several moralistic kind of lectures. I had to fight myself not to run out of the church, because I am quite allergic to this kind of thing,” confesses Paola. “It gives me pimpels.”[sic]
Finally all the gray people headed for the reception, held in a restaurant that appeared to grow from the side of a hill. You could smell garlic roasting in the parking lot. Milling around were 200 somber Italians. Hiding in the kitchen was one wild colorful Dutch belly dancer.
Paola tried to explain her purpose—the secret dance—to the restaurant owner, who also appeared to be dressed for a funeral. Confused, the man mumbled in Italian to the cook. (Mam?ma something.) The cook’s eyes looked as though he’d just developed a goiter.
Nervously chewing angnolotti noodles, the owner approached Paola.
“Can I ask you something, Miss?” He was trembling. “Are you going to take your clothes off out there?”
Like an E.F. Hutton commercial, chefs, waiters and busboys stood behind him straining to hear her answer. Was this the long awaited Christmas bonus?
Paola laughed and explained that belly dance is a cultural celebration, not a lap dance for the groom. A misunderstanding that belly dancers all over the world explain again and again—for this dance was created by women, for women, capturing mysteries that are enchantingly ancient. Paola peered into the reception hall.
Suddenly—and she hadn’t expected him—the priest walked in! Had someone alerted St. Augustine’s that the bride’s obviously fallen cousin from Holland needed additional spiritual counseling, and a longer, darker skirt?
The church?quiet reception crowd stood in unison upon the priest’s arrival. When they took their seats, Turin’s version of party sounds resumed. (Breathing and light chatter that could almost be heard.)
“I burst into the room to clashing cymbals and Egyptian music,” Paola recalls. “I saw the happy faces of my cousin Elena and her new husband. The rest of the people, well … their mouths fell wide open.”
Then something happened:
“This room full of gray people suddenly smiled— then clapped—then shouted their approval,” recalls Paola.
Behind Paola, five buckwheating faces under five white chefs’ hats, stacked vertically like a leaning tower of pizza, peeked out the kitchen door. Paola chose the oldest and most constipated looking chef to join her on the dance floor.
“He did not want to come out. But his friends pushed him into my arms,” Paola recalls. She led him to a marble star in the center of the floor. Apparently the elderly chef with the poker face suddenly realized that he had reached the first minute of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Time was ticking away!
“The old chef just cut loose, and began to dance a spectacular (and peculiar) kind of rock and roll,” says Paola. “It was so impressive, I just stood to the side and watched.”
The waiters howled with laughter. The restaurant owner bolted for a phone—calling Ed McMahon! Attention, Star Search!
“They had to literally drag the man off the floor,” Paola reports.
“Now that the guests were uncorked, I began dancing my way over to the priest. As they guessed what I was doing, the guests stood up! Stamping, laughing—they began to dance on the chairs! I reached the Father,” Paola continues, “and everyone at his table was just loving it. I wondered if I should ask him to dance. But I thought better of it.”
But the Priest of St. Augustine could not hide the twinkle in his eyes. He stood and smiled, taking Paola’s hand. “Well done, my child! Well done. Beautiful!”
Mam?ma Mi?a! A blessing from the priest!
The groom’s eighty?year-old father approached Paola with tears in his eyes. “I lived many years in Libya,” he said. “Thank you, thank you to show me what was only a far away memory. You make me feel 40 years younger!”
Outside the restaurant, a single ray of sunlight strafed the church steeple, softly illuminating the hillside. For a moment, the hill shined emerald green. You could spot it from the moon, among the gray hills of gray Turin.