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.
Italian mother-in-laws are tough nuts to crack. I should know. I have one. My mom is one. And I will someday – God willing – turn into one myself. So many women, who are in love with Italian men, write me to ask about how to win over him and his family. The dude is the easy part, I tell them. It’s mamma you have to worry about. Finally, after all these years of e-mailing readers about what to do to work your way into an Italian family, I wrote an article with instructions. Check out the latest Our Paesani column, “How to Impress Your Italian Mother-in-Law,” and start earning brownie cannoli points.
Yes, Italy is stunningly beautiful with a rich history and the best food you’ll ever eat. But it’s not my home. It never will be. I’ve done my best to make myself comfortable here, and I’ve had some good times. I love my husband, father, ancestors, all native Italians. And my love-hate relationship with Ischia will never go away.
My heart, however, belongs to New Jersey. Often, when I’m in the Boot as I am now, I grow nostalgic for home. When I do, I look at pictures of the George Washington Bridge. I am a Bridgewoman by birth, and it is my security blanket. It earned its post for life on 9-11. After spending the night of 9-11 on the floor of my friend’s NYC apartment wondering how the world could ever be the same, I found my way onto the ferry. On one side of the boat, I saw the inferno of downtown New York and smelled the stench of our apocalypse. On the other side was the George Washington Bridge – brave, strong, intact, and beckoning me home. Indeed, it has become ever more the center of my world. Whenever I return from Italy, it’s always right there. In front of me. Beckoning me home once again.
So, I was inspired by its beauty and this photo my husband snapped while in the car one evening back home. It’s always most beautiful when it’s all lit up or adorned with an American flag, isn’t it? In an attempt to stretch my writing chops (and feel like I’m back in middle school), I chose haiku to express my sweet, sweet nostalgia for home. Here goes:
When I first arrived in Italy in June, I was hauling Baby Boy down the street in his stroller – in the hopes of getting him to nap – and was greeted by the T-shirt in the photo above. The message “Sono una blogger, non sono una santa,” translates to, “I’m a blogger, not a saint.” My reaction was, “WTF?” As a blogger, I took offense. Why shouldn’t I? It was meant to be offensive. I’m no saint. That much is true.
But I know the Italians. They are conspiracy theorists by nature. I already told you that the latest scapegoat for the island’s economic woes are meteorologists who predict the bad weather (even though their predictions have been correct this summer). The next problem child for the Italians is the up and coming blogger. Blogs might be old school in the United States, but they’re still the newest form of communicators around here. This tee suggests that bloggers are a bit devilish, a bit naughty, probably because they tell people the truth and share just a little more than most Italians like. Bloggers make Italians uncomfortable, even a bit nervous.
While the islanders are famously good gossipers, they like to gossip in private. You can’t get more public than the Internet nowadays. Blogs often are like gossiping with the entire island watching. Good blogs are among the first to share the news of the day, even if it isn’t so positive – that photo of you a little tipsy by the fountain, word that apple juice could kill ya, or predictions of bad weather. God forbid. My advice to the Ischitani and people everywhere is: If you don’t want to see it in print (in old-fashioned newspapers or new world blogs), don’t do it. Punto e basta.
Yeah, so, I’m not a saint because I just opened up about this online. Airing dirty laundry is a no-no in the Italian rule book. But like any good Italian, I’m okay with breaking the rules now and then. So, you keep making your passive aggressive T-shirts and I will keep acting in a way that permits me to wear them.
Traveling is a big part of the sweet life. Many an American – especially Italian Americans – have visited the Boot. And made fools of themselves, including me back in the day. So, I recently wrote a list of the ways I or friends of mine have looked totally ridiculous when in Italy. You can learn from our mistakes and avoid Ugly American Syndrome, at least in Italy. Yes, you can thank me later.
Some American relatives invaded the island of Ischia last week, which meant we were eating more than our usual one ton of gelato per week. Usually, Baby Boy has a few licks of mine and is done for the night. But last week he had his own cup and devoured the whole thing, save some that he used for a facial. See photo above. Yes, he opted to eat the stuff with his hands, which attracted a crowd in Ischia Porto. A few folks (besides my relatives and me) actually snapped photos and took video of the little guy. A few of the old school Italian women were griping that I wasn’t cleaning him up fast enough and that there would be pesky stains on those shirts. You know about them and the laundry. Oy. But how could I deny him the joy of that gelato? The mess was part of the fun. And isn’t that what the sweet life is all about?
You gotta love the Italians. They are a bunch of characters. Now that everyone in the Homeland needs to have their android and smart phones surgically removed from their being, they are obsessed with checking on the forecast. It conveniently appears on everyone’s phones without anyone asking. Since we’re knee deep into July, which is the high season for tourism in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples, the folks here are desperate for sunny days. See, the tourists come here for the beaches and thermal spas. If it rains, they don’t show up. Since the window of opportunity to make money is small – limited to the warm summer months – this can be a real economic bummer.
So, whenever there are predictions of rain, especially if it calls for torrential downpours or lots of thunder and lightning, the natives start ranting about the weather people. This summer has been particularly rainy, so whenever I walk outside I see shopkeepers and cabana boys with their phones pointed toward the heavens asking God why he supports these “terroristi.” Yes, they are telling the Big Man upstairs that meteorologists are terrorists.
At first, I thought people were just exaggerating and venting their frustration. But then I started talking to some of my friends about this. These guys really believe there’s a conspiracy against Ischia and other tourist destinations. One way to keep the tourists away, they say, is to predict bad weather and put it on people’s phones, so they don’t come. It’s a way, they tell me, to keep Ischia’s economy in the dump. Who’s doing this? I’ve heard everyone from the mafia (that no longer exists or so people say) to the marketers over in nearby Capri to God himself.
Over the weekend, my friends in the street were furious for the forecasts of monsoon-like weather for the start of the week. “Terroristi,” they shouted. The only problem is that these terroristi were right. The last two days have seen rain, lightning, ocean waters meeting the street, and thunder that shook our house. I’m just waiting for the Ischitani to suggest these “terroristi” are hanging out in the sky, dumping down buckets of water and setting off bombs to simulate thunder. Yeah, right.
If I didn’t laugh at my situation as an American living in Italy, I would cry. Often. So, I choose to laugh. My sense of humor is often directed toward those strangers in the strada who like to give me parenting “advice.” Basically, they’re telling me that my Americanness makes me the worst parent in the world. Maybe they’re right. What do I know? In any event, I’ve boiled down Italian parenting to a few distinct rules, and I’ve shared those in the most recent Our Paesani, “The Italian Guide to Parenting,” column for ItaliansRus.
An Italian boy doing housework has to be one of the major signs of the apocalypse. Well, then, it’s the end of the world because my Italian boy is gonna do housework – and not just because he will have to take care of himself and, perhaps, help a wife in the future. He should also do housework – Italian mamma style – because it’s a real workout. These ladies do everything the old-fashioned way, which is a nice way of saying that they do it the hardest way possible.
When I’m here I make like the Romans, which means I wash the floors with a plain, ol’ mop (no Swiffers around here). I scrub and sometimes have to get on my hands and knees with a brush, which is something I always have to do when cleaning the bathroom showers, not to mention those toilets. I also have to lug giant buckets full of dripping wet clothes that have to be hung on the line outside to dry. Ironing, as I’ve mentioned, is a sport here, which means lots of steam, which means sweating and that back-and-forth motion of the arm trying to erase those wrinkles. Sometimes, you find yourself washing stuff by hand, which means more scrubbing. I may as well be bringing it out to a rock by the ocean, which, I understand, my nonna actually used to do in these here parts. Seriously.
Pushing the vacuum or broom is a part of every single day in every single room in your house. Add these chores to stirring the sauce for pasta and lifting babies, and you can see why these women have the arms of Wonder Woman and the legs of peasant stock. And they can still eat all the pasta they want. Heck, they have to eat it to keep up their energy. Yes, that is why I eat so much here in Italy. That’s it.