That moment you realize you haven’t really made lasagna from scratch until you’ve drawn blood, specifically on your fingers while grating cheese. It is a rite of passage for every Italian – man or woman, really. And don’t worry. Those few drops of blood will blend with the sauce. No one will notice, and it will make it all the sweeter for you because you will feel satisfaction at the blood, sweat, and tears that you literally poured into the meal.
This is part of a series of brief blogs that will reflect on the pivotal, earth-shattering (and often hilarious) moments that most Italian mammas experience at some point or another.
For Americans, the holiday break ended yesterday. But we Italians still have one more day of celebrating to do. Today is the Epiphany, the day the three kings arrived at the manger to greet baby Jesus. In many parts of the world, people call this day Little Christmas. Because it was the kings who brought gifts to the newborn child, this is the day that folks in Europe traditionally exchanged presents. Through the years, the idea of Santa Claus coming on Christmas Day has changed all that. Still, the Italians are home from work and feasting on great food and waiting for a visit from another holiday personality. As a result, I wanted to offer you this list as my gift to you. It was also a chance for reflection on the holiday season that just past. Everything on this list literally happened to me. If at least three of these things ring true for you, too, then you can call yourself a bona-fide Italiano. Here goes:
10. In place of wrapped goodies under your tree, your relatives placed grocery bags…filled with groceries. Merry Christmas. True story.
9. After you popped open the third bottle of homemade vino on Christmas Eve, your brother and cousins put the Elf on the Shelf and Befana dolls in compromising positions. Bet you still can’t get that image out of your head.
8. Nonno got very upset about the grandkids changing up his presepio (nativity scene) art and throwing the artificial snow around.
7. The amount food at your holiday events might not even fit in Juventus’ home stadium.
6. Hearing your father try to sing, “Jingle Bells” with his Italian accent and broken English never got old. In fact, it has you looking forward to next year already.
5. You had to break up a fight over the Tombola board. Italians take that sh.. seriously, man.
4. You played Scopa for peanuts or beans.
3. You’re still drowning in leftovers.
2. You ate as many lentils as you could fit into your mouth on New Year’s Eve in the hopes that it would make you rich.
1. You woke up this morning to either carbone (coal, if you were naughty) or regali (presents, if you were nice) after you let an old Italian witch into your house last night. In your defense, it was late and dark and she was sweeping up with a broom. Add those orthopedic shoes, kerchief, and rolled down stockings, and you could easily have mistaken her for Nonna.
“America e’ sempre America. America is always America.” -my father Pasquale Di Meglio and everyone else in my family
Whenever I’m in the United States, I’m Italian. Whenever I’m in Italy, I’m l’Americana. The truth is that I’m somewhere in between. Any child of an immigrant will tell you the same. You live this life with one foot in one country and one foot in the other. Italy will never leave us. It’s in our blood. It’s like the Sunday sauce runs thickly through our veins. Our food, our fighting, our faces can be traced to Ischia, that little island off the coast of Naples in Italy. It’s inescapable. And for that reason, we’ll always be somewhat foreign to our American neighbors. The rabbit on our Sunday dinner table and the fact that nonna and zia are the only acceptable babysitters and we know women who iron sheets and underwear (and don’t put them in an institution) on a regular basis separate us from everyone else in the States. There’s nothing that we can do to change that.
But the more time I spend in Italy, the more I understand what my father (and really all my immigrant relatives) mean when they say “America is always America.” We chose to pack up our things and move to America. We saw this country as a chance to live out dreams, rather than just get by. We saw it as the place to go to get rewarded, rather than pigeonholed, for our hard work. My paternal grandparents were already in their 50s and had raised grown children with families of their own when they decided to move from Ischia to the United States. Just imagine leaving behind everything you know, all your friends and family, your culture and your language when you’re already more than halfway through your life. They gave all that up and moved here for me. I think about that almost everyday. Would I be willing to make such a sacrifice for the future of my family, for those who haven’t even been born yet?
Of course, I wasn’t even a twinkling in my parent’s eyes in 1960 when my grandparents gathered up three of their nine children – the only ones who were still minors – and made the move. My father was only 13, the baby of the family, when he joined them on their journey from the Old World to the New. But my grandfather knew that my father would not have to live as hard a life working the limited land and fighting for every last piece of property available. He knew America would give my father untold riches and freedom like none he would have experienced back in Ischia.
Indeed, my father graduated from Fort Lee High School in New Jersey. He is the only one in the family with a high school diploma. He married an American (whose family also comes from Ischia, but who herself was born in the States and graduated from a junior college to boot). Although he works the land as a landscaper, he does so on his terms and as the boss of his own company. He would never have experienced such glory in Ischia. I, his daughter, married an Ischitano. I’ve seen what his future would have been on that small island. The life there is mostly about making ends meet. Sure, there are hotel and restaurant owners whose families can travel and do more than your average islander. But there’s not much in the way of dreaming. There’s not much in the way of ambition. So, I thank God everyday that my grandparents had the guts to come here to give me my American passport.
Sure, times have changed. The United States has weakened in many ways. Our government is more divided than ever. Immigrants have an even tougher time (if that’s possible) than they did before. Terrorism and hatred plague us. There is almost no more middle class – just the 1 percent and everyone else. Some people have stopped believing in the American dream. In my darker moments, I sometimes have my own doubts. But then I travel back to Ischia. It has its charms, but it also reminds me of why I’m American at my core.
That siesta in the middle of the day has a way of getting under my skin. We’re built for work, and we should do it while we can. Naps are for babies, the ill, and the elderly. They have a place in the world but not in the middle of the day when you’re a healthy, young or middle-aged adult. All those vacation days and soccer games and water cooler banter is fine and well. But it all gets in the way of making more of yourself, letting your creative juices flow, and realizing your true potential. Now, I’m not against talking to your co-workers or taking a break from work or leisurely enjoying a delicious meal. I think it’s good for the soul. But I am against the idea that work gets in the way of the good stuff. Work can be the good stuff. In America, you still have the possibility to dream your dreams and live them out. You still have the possibility of making money as your own boss. You still have the chance to move up in the world if you set your mind to it and that’s what you want to do. Determination can get you somewhere. Believe me, other places don’t allow that.
On that small little island that birthed our family, the people are resigned to inheriting property when loved ones die and taking on jobs in tourism. Even the college graduates are waiting tables and opening hotel doors – and these jobs are only available for six months out of the year when tourists are flocking to the place. I, an American, could major in journalism and attempt to work in that very industry. I’ve done just that. Sure, I’m making less money than I would had I went to business school or medical school or just about anything else except teaching school. But it was my choice. It was my dream. And I am able to live it here in my America. Amen.
You have to hand it to the Italians. They really know how to live. Often, they top off one of those three-course, homemade lunches or light dinners with the “passeggiata” or stroll down the street to the piazza or town square. It is where everyone goes to see and be seen. On your way – and once you arrive – you are likely to see old, historic buildings and clock towers, churches with their worshipers, and bars buzzing with people. There is probably a line of Vespas and pretty girls, who look like they have stepped out of a fashion magazine. Of course, somewhere nearby you’ll find gelato if it’s summer. And there will be older ladies and gents dressed to the nines despite their canes and walkers mulling around and talking about the good ol’ days.
When a Jersey girl like me gets an itch to take an Italian stroll, she heads to the mini mall, the American equivalent of a piazza. Recently, I have been appreciating such walks for the opportunity they give you to reflect on the wonders of nature. Few things are more beautiful than colorful autumn. Jewel-toned leaves paint the sky and lift the spirit.
Recently, while the leaves were raining down on us and the crisp breeze caressed our cheeks, I couldn’t help but think that life really is beautiful. Even though Italy has its historic charm, New Jersey is home. Of course, in the Jersey “piazza,” you might still find a pizza joint, an old-school nonna, and pretty Italian boys. Truly, the big difference is the purpose of the piazza. Americans go there in a rush to catch up with errands, whereas the Italians go there to slow down.
I just might be the best wife in the world. At least that’s what I tell my husband every time I get on a 9-hour flight either to or from his native Italy or my United States…all by myself…with our toddler son. We travel back and forth because my husband wants our boy (rightfully so) to know his family, too. Still, getting on such a long flight – really, any flight – alone with a toddler is something my husband admits he would never ever do for me.
Last weekend was the second time I took flight with Baby Boy. One of my requirements is that we travel directly from Naples, Italy to the United States. If you know anything about Naples, you know it’s not exactly a business capital. This means there are rarely, if ever, direct flights. But for a few months each year – at the height of tourist season – Meridiana offers non-stop flights from Naples to New York City. So, we took one of those. And every other old-school Neapolitan-American was on the flight with us – replete with walking canes and newsboy caps. It was like being locked in a senior citizen’s home run by Toto’ and Sofia Loren. I felt like I was traveling with both my father Pasquale and his sister, my Zia Maria. This is not a bad thing. But it did mean I’d be subjected to unsolicited advice and no-holds-barred judgment. People of this generation from Napoli and its surrounding area have severe cases of “I’m so old that I don’t give a shit about what comes out of my mouth” disease. And my son had to face lots of pinched cheeks and adoration of what my Italian-American cousins refer to as his undeniable and inescapable guidoness (oh no).
But I digress (much like all the 80-year-olds on the plane recounting their moves from Italy to the States). I’m not sure I’ve ever touched my son’s face as much as the people on the flight did. Everyone was caressing his cheeks, pinching him, and running their fingers through his thick hair (which they reminded me needed to be cut). “Quant’ si’ bell,’” they’d say. “Good-a boy-a.” My son’s stomach did not agree with this turbulent flight or the unrecognizable airplane food, so he was constantly pooping and we were constantly in line for the bathroom. That’s when we would have these interactions with our in-flight nonni.
The women were the best. They really wanted to help when he would start to fuss a bit. And they had lots of of consigli for me. “Fa tropp’ fridd’ per il bimbo. Mett’ una copert’,” they’d say. “It’s too cold for the baby. Give him a blanket.” A little while later, someone else would say, “Fa tropp’ cald’ per il bimbo, togli la copert’,” they’d say. “It’s too hot for the baby, take off that blanket.” Then, after one of the big poops, one of the nonna stopped to ask if I was taking the baby in the bathroom to change the baby’s diaper. When I said, yes, she said not to do that. “E’ troop’ sporc’,” she said. “It’s too dirty.” Then, she suggested I change the baby in the corner by her because she wouldn’t say anything and it was cleaner. When I said the baby pooped, so I really think we need to go in the bathroom, she insisted I was wrong. I insisted that I could not subject the others in flight to the stench and disgust. Then, she said, “Va ben’ ma non farlo toccare niente, nient’.” Translation: “Fine, but don’t let him touch anything, not a thing.” Sure, I’m going to be able to take a 3-year-old boy, who is too tall for the changing table, into the bathroom to remove his poopy diaper, clean him, and put on a new one, and he’s not going to touch anything in there. Yeah. Right. I smiled and said, “Hai ragione. Certo non faccio toccare niente.” Translation: “You’re right. I won’t let him touch a thing.” I know my people. Those were the exact right words.
Still, the best was yet to come. We had the bumpiest landing I’ve ever experienced and I’ve been traveling to and from Italy since I was 2 years old. As we were descending, Baby Boy turned all shades of green, wiggled out of the seatbelt, and put himself stomach down on the floor. The flight attendants and the nonni were telling me to get him in the chair for his safety. Duh! Anyway, as I was trying to get him back in the chair, he began vomiting. This was no ordinary throw up. It was projectile and chunky and all kinds of gross. After the first few rivers of vomit landed on Baby Boy and me, not to mention the seats the window, the belts and everything else around us, I asked the flight attendant for a bag. All the nonni started throwing me the tiny vomit bags that you find on every airplane. The kid had just thrown up the Bay of Naples on our laps. Those little things were never going to cut it. Finally, one of the stewards handed me a garbage bag, and I was able to fill it up with our rancid clothing. I used an entire package of baby wipes to clean up. After all, a plane full of nonnas would now be inspecting my housekeeping skills, too.
Next, Baby Boy began crying because he wanted to keep on his pajamas with a crab on them even though they were drenched from top to bottom in throw up. As I was forcing him to take them off and get cleaned up, he urinated on the seat. The diaper didn’t do a thing. It was like he didn’t have one on. Baby Boy kept shouting, “Crabby, crabby, shirtie, shirtie, want it, want it.” (which of course sounded like a different word). I was wrestling him in the seat and trying to change him as the others were getting off the plane. I said, “At least we are in New York.” And Baby Boy – too weak to keep fighting for his beloved pjs – responded, “Yeah!”
As we bid farewell to our flight, we noticed a line of about 60 wheelchairs waiting to take the nonni to immigration and the luggage carousels. No joke. The line up swung all the way around and into the terminal. By the time Baby Boy and I got downstairs, our new nonni had already alerted the authorities that we were coming and that we had had a rough flight and found someone to help me with my bags and get the baby, who was still green, his stroller, so he could lay down. My parents – my son’s actual nonni – recognized their people as they were entering the terminal. They asked one of them if there was a mom with a little boy, who may have been crying. “Stanno venendo,” the old man replied. “Si, stanno venendo. They coming.” With the mix of Neapolitan dialect and broken English, long-winded stories of the Old World, and constant criticism of me, I realized that I was already home once we stepped onto the plane. Casa dolce casa.
Ischia might be an exotic – often unknown – island off the coast of Naples in Italy. Yes, it’s super romantic and a bit expensive, which makes it seem like a hot spot for young, sophisticated lovers rather than families. Its catchphrase has always been “Ischia dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which literally means “Ischia where you eat, you drink, and you whistle” but figuratively means eating, drinking and making love.
Still, I’ve been visiting since I was 2 years old because this is the home of my ancestors. And now I married a native and I have spent months and months at a time on the island with my now nearly 3-year-old son. We have found plenty of wonderful activities to pass the time. Recently, I wrote “6 Ways Kids Can Enjoy Ischia, Italy” with specific suggestions on what to do on the island if you ever find yourself vacationing there. Ischia is full of natural wonders, exceptional beauty, and rich history. Really, who wouldn’t want to share all this with their kids?
Despite my objections to southern Italy’s siesta – when stores close down and people, even adults, take naps for three hours in the middle of the afternoon – my son has gotten in on the act. And he always seems to fall asleep in the strangest positions because he tries his hardest to stay awake. He has even tried holding his eyes open with his fingers. It is as though his American self, who is used to working through the day, is fighting his snoozing Italian self. You’ve probably already realized that the Italian in him is winning. And I didn’t even include the video of him falling asleep while eating dinner at the table. Well, all I can say about this is, “Sweet dreams, my love, sweet dreams.”
I should not be amazed by the number of e-mails I receive from women interested in dating an Italian man, a result of an article I wrote about their charms more than a decade ago now. Most of the Italian men I know live up to the reputation of the Latin lover, which has its pros (more passion and romance than you could ever imagine) and cons (ick, the jealousy), but is absolutely alluring. Since so many women contact me for advice on how to date an Italian man and many of them are not Italian themselves, so have no idea what they are in for, I recently wrote a story about “How to Date in Italy” for the Our Paesani column on ItaliansRus.
With that in mind, I want to encourage people with an interest in an Italian man to give it a whirl. It might not work out because of some of those cons I brought up before, but you never know. And it’s always better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Anyway, there are three very good reasons to date (and perhaps marry) an Italian man (as if you needed a reason):
3. They’ll feed you better than anyone you’ve ever met, and they’re not afraid of women having some meat on their bones. In fact, they rejoice when a woman cleans her plate and appreciates a good meal. (They like cooking with her, too.)
2. They’re romantic. The idea of the principe azzurro (Italy’s description for Prince Charming, which literally means blue prince) is alive and well. Italian men have a way about them that makes the object of their affection feel like she’s the sexiest woman alive. Forget the roses and chocolates. Most of the time a wink and a smile is enough to woo you.
1. They’re super sexy. No further explanation necessary.
Weekends in August in Ischia, Italy can get pretty gloomy, at least for some of us. It’s the height of tourist season here, so the natives are busy hosting all the tourists. My husband has been working morning and night literally. When he is home, he sleeps. So, Baby Boy and I are pretty much on our own. The streets and beaches are littered with people, and all our friends are hard at work, too. So, we have been staying in. Still, home has its perks – delicious food (ordered in or made by the in-laws or me), making silly faces for iPhotoBooth pics, and the ability to iron all those white shirts that hubby needs for work. Ok, so the ironing wasn’t so much fun. But it certainly needs to be featured in a collage about an Italian mamma’s typical weekend. When in RomeIschia…
All the parenting and food bloggers are writing about school lunches now that the first day either already happened or is around the corner. I feel compelled to share the experiences of an Italian kid packing a lunch for an American school. For starters, while other kids had those little brown bags that you buy in a package, my parents saved the huge brown bags in which you put your groceries for our lunches. No joke. Yes, I was the 6-year-old kid with salami and provolone on Italian bread instead of those PB&Js everyone else had in first grade. But that was just my antipasto. Then, I’d have a thermos with pasta or lasagne or meatballs. I often had some sort of treat, such as a zeppole. Once in a while, my mom, who is Italian by ancestry but born and raised in the States, would give us an American cookie. And we had snacks – a fruit, pretzels, carrot sticks, a granola bar. This was all happening back in the ’80s, when it was still socially acceptable to drink juice, so we had a juice box, too. (Capri Sun, sometimes – shhh, don’t tell anyone!)
There was so much food that we usually could trade for something else and still have plenty of our own meal. Since I was going to school in the melting pot that is Fort Lee, N.J., I had classmates who were Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Latin, etc. Often, I traded homemade pizza for seaweed or rice, matzah or challah bread. And no one ever thought I was weird for my salami or spaghetti. They were just grateful my parents made so much. Lunch actually enticed them to sign up for play dates at our house. Food made my brother, sister, and me pretty popular, in fact. When I went off to work and was still living at home, my parents often made those big brown bag lunches still. I can’t pack groceries without getting misty eyed over roasted red peppers and mozzarella sandwiches, linguine and pesto, and the notes my mom would write to me.
In fact, I was so inspired by these lunches that I used to pack them in more traditional brown bags for my adult, Italian guests, and my husband, who visited and took English courses in nearby New York. As I sent them off to school, I would hand them each their brown bag, which I would personalize with their names and little pictures or stickers. They got a kick out of having American lunches, so it was egg salad, PB&J, homemade macaroni and cheese, various soups and stews in a thermos, etc. Their favorite part of the meal was the carrot sticks because Italians aren’t much for eating raw carrots. It was all new to them. One of them still gives me raw carrots in a bouquet when I’m back in the Boot. Of course, I wrote them encouraging notes and stuffed them in between their goodies in the bag. No bento boxes or sandwiches in the shapes of snakes or anything. It was just good homemade food, usually with stuff from our own garden (because what Italian family doesn’t have one), packed with a whole lotta love. There’s really nothing sweeter.