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.
After nearly five months in Italy, it has finally happened. I have officially turned into an Italian mamma or nonna or zia. Take your pick because the transformation for all of the above is the same. The first sign you are an Italian mamma or nonna or zia is the scent of your hands, which constantly smell of garlic and bleach. Sometimes, lemon gets in there, too. I first recognized this as the “perfume” of the Italian women in my family when I was a kid. No matter the time of day or the event (even at black-tie weddings), when my nonna or zie squeezed me hard, I caught a whiff of that garlic and bleach. At first, it made me gag, especially first thing in the morning. But now I associate the scent of garlic and bleach with admiration, strength, and most of all love.
Yesterday, in the shower, I noticed that I could not scrub enough. The garlic and bleach sticking to my skin wasn’t budging. The transformation is almost complete. Here are the other signs I’ve turned into an Italian mamma (or nonna or zia):
1. I wash my dishes with scalding hot water (by hand) every day. This one isn’t really my choice. We have no dishwasher in Italy. Still, I have a history of this behavior. One of my college roommates used to call me Teta (referencing her own grandmother) back when I was performing this trick at university. Listen, they just wouldn’t be clean without the suds and nearly boiling water. If my hands get red and the heat makes the garlic/bleach perfume stick, so be it. I also often wash clothes by hand, and this goes back to my college days and early 20s as well. I like pretty things, and they need to be cleaned, and sometimes the washing machine is your enemy. Oooh, did I just say that? Despite this, I will be kissing my dryer when I get home to the States because I HATE hanging clothes outside to dry and taking them inside to fold and folding them. (This and the fact that I don’t really iron might be a setback to the transformation.)
2. I cook everything from scratch. Again, this isn’t my choice. Here in Ischia, there are few shortcuts. There are no already-made pie crusts or Pillsbury biscuits that pop out of a carton and into the oven. And they don’t have the boxed cake mixes that I’ve often relied on in the States. So, I’m left with doing my cooking and baking the old-fashioned way. The good news is that everything tastes better, way better. Some things ended up being easier than I imagined. Chocolate and vanilla icing had always intimidated me and now I’ve made both with great success. I’ve had some failures, too, including my first attempt at cinnamon buns. But they became challenges that I worked hard to overcome. Eventually, I had success. Score for the Italian mamma!
3. While doing all this cleaning and cooking, I’ve worn a headscarf – close to a babushka – to keep my hair back, the sweat off my face, and as a preventative measure for headaches (my zia told me it would work, so there!). I think this says it all. I wore it with no shame and I really believe it prevents headaches, even though medical science repeatedly tells me that’s hogwash. Wait, this might be two signs I’ve entered Italian mamma-dom.
4. I have pope towels. Ok, this one also goes back some time. What are pope towels you ask? They are the kind of towels you reserve for when the pope is coming for a visit or that you use just for decoration and not for actual use. You don’t use these fancy towels for your average Giuseppe. I also have pope sheets, pope glasses, and pope espresso cups. I’m sure my collection of pope pieces will only grow over the years. When the collection is full, my transformation will be 100 percent complete. I wonder if some Italian nonna will then present me with a diploma that I could put on my resume.
Our friend Agostino d’Ambra recently traveled from Ischia, Italy to spend three weeks with us while he studied English at Berlitz in New York. (Check out the photo album “Agostino in America“.) When Agostino called to say he arrived in Ischia, he said now that he was gone, I would be getting a break. After all, I would brown bag lunch for Agostino and my husband Antonio, wash their clothes, clean the bathrooms (and the rest of the house), make all the beds — oh and work full time and cook us all dinner. Alas, however, there is no rest for weary me. My mom took off for Florida, where she is awaiting the arrival of her first granddaughter. And I’m here continuing my free cleaning service for my hubby, my father (in mamma’s absence), and myself.
I’m madly in love with my husband Antonio and totally devoted to him, and I love Agostino and our male friends who have stayed in our home. (There have been quite a few of them; my family, in fact, has been jokingly referring to our house as a hotel with all the guests we’ve recently hosted from Ischia.) And my father is the greatest man I know. But man boys — especially those with lots of sisters, who used to clean up after them — are messy. If we all lived by a few simple rules, our lives would be much easier. (Let me add that this blog is also a clever way of introducing you to the various articles I’ve recently written for the About.com Newlyweds site about spring cleaning and isn’t necessarily a reflection of anyone in particular although the guilty know who they are.) If I ever have sons (or daughters for that matter), I’m going to teach them these rules, have them write them on the blackboard 100 times, and etch them into their brain matter.
Rules for Boys (and Messy Girls)
1. There’s no shame in a man — even an Italian mamma’s boy of a man — making his own bed, folding his own laundry (or dare I say, even washing it).
2. If there’s still olive oil in your dish, it is not clean. You need soap and water (preferably hot) to clean a dish.
3. Always put the milk back in the fridge when you’re done with it. Don’t put back an empty milk carton. Put that in the garbage or recyclables (if you’re responsible and it is possible in your community).
4. Follow directions, as in listen when I tell you how to divide the garbage for recycling.
5. Flush the toilet. Clean the bowl, at least a bit if you leave behind anything yucky.
6. This reminds me of when my cousin was a newlywed and gave a glorious, passionate speech at Sunday lunch about tire tracks on underwear and how men should, “Wipe and look, wipe and look, wipe and look — and you’re not done until the paper comes out clean.” Sage advice indeed.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – My husband Antonio is a fanatic about using a bidet and never ever has broken any of these bathroom rules and is in fact probably cleaner than me when it comes to his throne. I’d be remiss if I led you to believe otherwise. But this is another story for another blog.)
7. More sage advice – pee in the bowl and only in the bowl, not on the floor and certainly not on the wall. Ever.
8. A couch or chair is not a closet. Pick up those clothes and put them away.
9. Odor eaters and bleach are our dear, dear friends.
Boys, even though I know you’ll never follow any of these rules, I still love you all. Just be sure to thank me when I’m done cleaning up. (My husband and his friends and my father always do.) Now, I’m off to spend my lunch hour ironing and preparing dough for tonight’s pizza dinner before returning to my desk to continue reporting my latest stories and updating my Web sites. Maybe I’ll find time to eat, too. It never ends. Never. Ever. Never.