Eli had a super fun birthday party yesterday. And organizing a party in Rome offered us an array of new cultural learning experiences.

When we first started talking about what kind of party he’d like to have, Eli was very clear: he wanted to invite his entire class. Including the girls. And friends from soccer. And friends from basketball. I think that the last time Eli invited his whole class to a party was when his classmates were in diapers. And the last time he wanted to invite girls to a party… well, let’s just say it’s been a long time. So we were very enthusiastic about trying to find a way to make it happen.

The cake!

Our problem was that Eli’s birthday is in late November. That ruled out the party-in-a-park idea. While the weather has been remarkable this fall, November and December are usually the rainy season in Rome, when it is too risky to schedule a party outside. And our Rome apartment isn’t exactly conducive to entertaining a large group of fourth graders.  Fortunately, we now have a network of friends and acquaintances in Rome, and we queried them about potential birthday party venues.  The winning solution: bowling! While the alley felt quite American, all the arrangements had to be made in Italian. Seth and Eli arranged  everything, and it worked out remarkably well.

Roma scoring on Lazio!

One special aspect of the party was the cake. At a BBQ at the kids’ school earlier this fall, we saw some stunning desserts. Seth was able to get in touch with the woman who had created the desserts, and hired her to make a cake. Eli requested a cake depicting a soccer match between AS Roma (his favorite team), and the other local team, Lazio (named for the region of Italy in which Rome is located). The crucial detail was that the cake should show Roma players scoring on Lazio. A few days before the party, we realized that we didn’t know how we’d collect the cake and get it to the party. Roman taxi drivers won’t drive passengers who are transporting food (they don’t want anything to spill in their cabs), and the bowling alley is a taxi ride away. Fortunately, Seth was able to arrange for the cake to be delivered. These are the kinds of details that we don’t have to think through back home, where we have a car and transportation is easy. But it worked out great, and Eli was thrilled to see that the cake did indeed depict the soccer ball in  Lazio’s net! The local parents noticed and remarked that in a short time, Eli has already become a serious Roma fan.

Eli orienting his guests to bowling.

Another issue that we’d heard about from other parents is that in Rome, families don’t tend to RSVP to parties. This was potentially problematic because we were supposed to arrive at the bowling alley with the kids already grouped into teams, so that their names could be pre-entered into the lanes. To our surprise, though, almost everyone responded yes to the invitation. Also, we had the lanes reserved for a specific time, but in a city where almost nothing starts or ends at an appointed hour, we had no idea when families would actually arrive. A pleasant surprise was that the kids all arrived on time and the bowling alley let them play longer than we expected.


A few days before the party, we decided that we should put together goodie bags. We don’t usually do this at home, but we heard from friends that the kids expect parties thrown by American families to provide goodie bags. Who knew?

The younger siblings had fun too.

Our friend Maria told us about a party store in Prati, a nearby affluent residential neighborhood, that would sell what we needed. I walked to where I thought the store was on Wednesday, and found that it didn’t exist. After a quick Google search by Maria, we were armed with the address, and Seth walked over to find the store later in the day on Wednesday, only to find that it was closed for lunch! We finally made it to Party World Roma on Thursday, and discovered that it sold all the American party favors sold in similar US stores… but at a tremendous markup! Funny to find all the familiar plates and trinkets – made in China – imported by the US – and then exported to Italy. The one big difference was that the soccer section was HUGE, so we picked up lots of little trinkets for our guests and had fun assembling the bags. We also stuffed them with particularly tasty chocolates from the shop around the corner from us. But Eli’s favorite was the mini whoopie-cushions, which he demonstrated for his guests as the kids waited for lunch to be served.

Boys and girls at lunch.

Because we are still new here, and we don’t have many opportunities to spend time at the kids’ school, we really don’t know most of their friends very well. In fact, we don’t even know what many of Eli’s classmates look like! How would we know which of the throngs of kids at the bowling alley were there for our party, and which were not? We came up with the idea of giving each kid a fluorescent necklace when they arrived so that we could identify the kids we were responsible for. This worked great, but almost backfired when kids from other parties started asking me for necklaces too! Fortunately, my halting Italian ended those conversations quickly.

Blowing out candles.

We really enjoyed Eli’s guests! Several of the kids told me they had never bowled before – and one of the novice bowlers was just thrilled when she won her lane’s game! Another game was won by the 5-year-old brother of one of Eli’s friends. In a culture where boys and girls don’t tend to play sports together, or mix much outside of the classroom, it was great to see them enjoying each other’s company. And one of the moms was kind enough to surprise us by bringing a platter of fresh baked cheese rolls for the parents to snack on while the children bowled. It was fun to watch how the children organized themselves- there was never a need for any adult intervention with this remarkably well-behaved group.

Teasing each other across the tables.

We had to pre-order each child’s selections for the meal before the kids were seated in the dining area, and arrange bowling shoes. . .but we left those details to Eli’s capable Italian. When we sat down for the meal (hot dogs and burgers and fries, oh my), the boys and girls split along gender lines, sitting at two adjacent tables. We were entertained to overhear Eli’s female classmates peppering Nell with questions about her brother; she was very diplomatic in her responses. There was lots of teasing going back and forth across the tables, but it was all very good-natured. The high point was the cake. The kids and parents alike appreciated the soccer drama that it depicted.

Our first Italian birthday party was a big success. It was also fun for us to get to meet and chat with some of the other parents, who were all just lovely. Indeed, Eli deemed it one of the best parties he’d ever had. His parents agreed, especially after sharing a few glasses of wine afterwards.

– Jenny