I’ve taken over this Web site. It’s all mine now. Shh, don’t tell anybody. Figlio mio, it will be our little secret. I’m sure I can do it better, and you’ll like me more than the young lady who used to write it. Since you’re ruining your life (trust me, you are), I’ll also be here to help you turn things around when you quit being a royal stunad. That’s Italian for idiot, by the way.
The transformation is complete. I’m officially an Italian mamma, which means I’ll cook and clean for you, but I also expect your undying love in return. Also, you won’t be shocked or offended when I tell you that your man is a good-for-nothing caffone or that merde you call music has got nothing on those old Neapolitan songs your grandparents still sing after the champagne, vino rosso, and all those shots of Sambuca in their espresso at every family function or that you’re too, too skinny. Nobody wants to go to bed with a toothpick, so you betta’ clean your plate when I make you that lasagna or steak pizzaiola. This means that you must fa la scarpetta (swipe the plate of every last bit with a piece of crusty Italian bread and savor it in all its glory because it is indeed glorious). We understand each other? Good. I think this is the beginning of a bellissimo relationship. A presto!
Yesterday may have been Mother’s Day, but today is the good day. This mamma was able to kick things off with a shower and deodorant. I even caught a few episodes of my new favorite show, HBO’s Veep, on demand. Baby Boy is sleeping, well, like a baby, which almost never happens. When you work at home, the first thing you have to give up when your child can’t sleep is the shower. Lemme tell you something, there’s nothing like a hot shower to put you in a better mood. So, today is definitely my mother’s day. Anyone who will be around me today – which is mainly my mom, my 2-year-old son, 4-year-old niece, and nearly 2-year-old nephew – can thank me later for the deodorizing.Wait, other than my mom, the people who are usually around me are far smellier than I am. If I can get them to hang one of those perfume thingees from the car on their pants, then it will be a really great day.
All it takes is one little hand to color a house a home. It’s easy for me to be sad right now on this Italian island far from my friends and family. It’s easy to get down when you have to keep American hours (which means working nights) to keep your American job that you need to support your family. It’s easy to moan and complain about how hard you have it when you’re not resting comfortably in your own king-sized bed with the Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy pillows you bought when you wed. It’s even easier to lose your cool while hanging one more stinking towel you’ve just washed on the line outside while Baby Boy throws yet another fit because you told him to get his hands out of the dirty, standing water that piled up in the planter overnight.
Others hear that you’re on an island in Italy and think you are on one long vacation, even if you’re working every day pretty much, even if every household chore is 10 times harder here, even if you mostly hate it. You walk into the house and think, “This is not my space. This is not my home. This is God’s punishment for whatever I’ve done wrong in this life and others.” Your home is in New Jersey, where you picked the paint color and the flooring, where you snuggled with your newborn when you brought him home from the hospital, where your cousins gather for pumpkin decorating parties at Halloween and cookie devouring parties at Christmas, where your father serves you tomatoes and bread like he did when you were little, where your mother helps you with your son when you’re working long hours or have the flu, where your niece and nephew join your son in building forts and pretending to be pirates, princesses, and dragons.
While New Jersey will always be my home sweet home like no other, when I walked into the house in Ischia this morning, while my son continued to throw a tantrum about leaving his bath of dirty water in the garden where it belongs, I noticed the artwork he had colored on the wall in his playroom/our living room shortly after we arrived in April. The magic eraser takes off the paint that my brother-in-law painstakingly put on the wall before our arrival, so I haven’t touched it.
I saw Baby Boy’s scribbles in a different light today. I thought, “Home is wherever my son is dawdling and doodling.” In fact, I’m writing this as he takes breaks from pushing his toy cars along the tile and kitchen chairs to gently tug at my hair and squeeze me with all his surprising might. Even if he is getting drool all over my face with his wet, wet kisses (which he has pretty much reserved exclusively for mommy), Baby Boy is my true home for the moment and nothing else should matter. Nothing.
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.
Everyone deserves to have an Italian Mamma, even if she’s a virtual one. So, this is my call to adopt you. From now on, you can follow me on Twitter @ItalianMamma10. You can expect all sorts of advice, links to relevant stories about Italia, and virtual hugs from your Italian Mamma from Italy, New Jersey, or wherever I am in the world. My hope is to sometimes make you cry, sometimes make you laugh, and always make you think. To launch my new Twitter account, I wrote an “Our Paesani” column for ItaliansRus and Las Vegas’ La Voce about the 5 lessons you can learn from Italian Mammas. We certainly think we have a lot to teach you, so why not let us?
Before my husband and I brought Baby Boy to Ischia for nine months, I gave a lot of thought to how he would adjust. What I did not think about was my own adjustment. Parenting in a different country – especially when surrounded by natives with different cultural ideas about how to raise a child – can be a challenge. I wasn’t anticipating that. Not at all. Trying to be a perfect mom is even more impossible in the Boot than it is in the United States. Recently, I wrote all about my struggles in “A Day in the Life of an Italian Mamma,” an installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus.com. Read it. Some problems are universal.
My gift to you on this Mother’s Day is a funny list, “20 Signs Your Italian Man is a Mamma’s Boy,” which I wrote for my ItaliansRus column, “Our Paesani.” Check it out. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry (well, only if you truly are with an Italian mamma’s boy). I hope you had a very happy Mother’s Day.