A crowd throws eggs and tomato sauce at a young woman dressed in rags. They scream insults. “She’s so disgusting!” “Anna, you stink!” Someone grabs a stick and whacks the poor girl on the back a few times.
Despite how it appears, this is not a 15th century witch burning, nor is Anna being punished for having a child out of wedlock. This is a papiro. Anna has just gotten her BA in political science at the University of Padua and this is part of the graduation celebrations. The hilarious, embarrassing tradition is almost exclusive to the Italian region of Veneto, and at the University of Padua, it is something of a rite of passage.
Earlier in the day was the official ceremony, with the announcement of the thesis and photos with friends and family. The relatives stuck around for a while before quietly slipping away and leaving Anna in the hands of her closest friends. Once the friends get the graduate alone, they are dressed in an embarrassing costume. Anna channeled a drunk hobo, but other graduates being paraded through the streets were dressed as strippers, as Jesus, or even as a giant penis with two newspaper-stuffed pillowcases attached, making it almost impossible to walk.
The friends have been preparing for weeks, writing a long poem describing the story of Anna’s life.
When we arrive at the park, they hand out copies to everyone in attendance. Anna will have to read the entire poem, which is printed in tiny script on an immense poster taped to a tree.
The rules are simple: every time she makes a mistake, she must take a drink from a bottle of wine.
The friends, reading along, throw eggs, mayonnaise, flour, and water from Padua’s dirty river at her during the recitation. The splattered food on the poster makes reading even more difficult, which results in the whole bottle of wine being finished with an entire column of text still to go. The poem itself is impressive, taking nearly three hours to read (with breaks, of course, for anecdotes, jokes, and gulps of wine).
Written by friends and siblings, the poem reveals some of the most embarrassing moments in the graduate’s life, from run-ins with the police to episodes of diarrhea to embarrassing hookups.
Anna’s former roommate accuses Anna of constantly stealing her yogurt, and pours an entire tub of warm strawberry yogurt on Anna’s head in revenge. Someone reveals that Anna had taken mime lessons for two years as a child, and she is forced to mime swimming while her friends pelt her with eggs.
The insults in the papiro are sometimes biting, the secrets being divulged are intentionally embarrassing, but I will admit that watching left me feeling a bit jealous. The time and preparation that Anna’s friends took, working together to write this immense poem, sharing all of their best stories and pictures of their friend, all with the intent to embarrass her, is so full of the kind of love that only friends can give.
Of course Anna will get a gift from her parents and money from relatives, but this gift of time and energy and care is something very unique. Watching this reminded me of the sleepovers I had as a child, sharing embarrassing stories with friends and laughing together at the awkwardness in our lives.
I didn’t attend my bachelor graduation in the US. I was abroad when the Chancellor read my name from a list of two thousand other students graduating that summer. My diploma is hanging on the wall in my parents’ study, proof of an academic achievement.
But really, some of the most important achievements of my time in university were learning how to be independent, how to eat right, how to behave like an adult (sometimes), and how to drink without drinking too much. The papiro is sort of proof of these achievements, a diploma that you’ve learned from your mistakes and made friends who love you.
Tomorrow morning, Anna will certainly be hungover, and may smell like eggs and river water. But despite all that, she’ll still be a graduate of the University of Padua, and I’m sure her friends will stick around to make a coffee and laugh about the papiro the next morning.