It’s harder than ever, visiting Italy, to get that delicious jolt of something foreign to American habits and tastes. Partly because we’ve gotten to know them and vice versa (I once ran into a busload of Italian tourists in a remote New Mexico town). And also because we’ve appropriated so many aspects of Italian food, fashion and culture into American life (I met those Italians in an espresso bar).
A few things, however, remain distinctly Italian (and endearingly so, for the most part).
Men in scarves. Out for a spin in his convertible, our friend Luciano flings a voluminous scarf around his neck. Now that’s a look not often seen in the U.S., except for a few urban fashionistas. His behavior touches on Italian notions about health as well–the desire to protect against maladies of the throat. That same preoccupation with chills and drafts explains why the signora in the house where my daughter Kate stayed during a semester abroad tucked a cashmere-lined hot water bottle into her bed each night and argued strenuously against going to bed with wet hair.
Street watching as a major life activity. Italian men (usually but not always oldish) typically do this in groups, sitting on benches or chairs outside a store front–or maybe playing scopa at a club with one side open to the street. They chat or doze for hours, content to be part of the changing street scene.
For women, street watching tends to be a solo activity. They peer at the street through a living room window or from a chair on the front stoop. Staying a few days in a Sicilian town called Scopello, I kept an eye on one such street watcher. Except for breaks to eat, nap or fetch water from the village fountain, she relied on piazza life to entertain her all day long.
Paying bills at the P.O. Along with just about any dealings in an Italian bank, the system of paying bills and taxes at the post office has always perplexed me. These days a lot of business takes place by electronic transfer from one party’s account to another, but the P.O. is still the place for many transactions. When I showed up to pay taxes owed by a couple for whom we were housesitting, the postal worker sent me away.”Come back when I’m not so busy–this is going to take a lot of time,” she complained irritably.
When I returned later that morning, nothing had changed–the line was the same length. She sighed and began to fill out the forms, page after page. Meanwhile, I held my breath–I wouldn’t know the exact amount until she had done the calculations and only hoped I had brought enough euros. This system I find utterly without charm but it does qualify as alien. (Of course, I don’t imagine an Italian would enjoy a visit to our DMV.)
Doily know-how. Using doilies as a child to make paper Valentines–that’s the last time I did something purposeful with these lacy circles. But every Italian with a well-equipped household seems to have a quantity of doilies, crocheted by someone in the family. If you come for coffee in the afternoon, they’ll slip one between the cup and the saucer. They have paper doilies, too, to line a dessert platter. Doilies provide a genteel touch that I love but would feel ridiculous emulating myself.
Rooster heads and other exotic fare. At a street fair–a sort of progressive dinner– in a small Tuscan town called Bucine, my husband was delighted to discover a local home cook serving up stuffed rooster heads. That was an easy challenge–we just ate the stuffing and left the heads behind. I’ve also tried donkey and can confirm that octopus, cuttlefish and even lattume (tuna semen sac, a Sicilian delicacy served in spring) are delicious if strange looking. But I can only down a bite or two of tripe, and find it mystifying why some Italians have a taste for lungs and nerves in the age of mad cow disease.
The weirdest of all, for me, is the maggot-ridden pecorino called casu marzu. These vermin, introduced deliberately into the cheese, chew and excrete their way through the cheese, giving it a soft texture that is prized. I bought one of these cheeses by mistake, discovering its nature only after I proudly carried it to the dinner table. I’ll generally try anything once, but ewwww! I tossed the cheese into the freezer–anything to make the maggots stop writhing–and then into the garbage.
A lot has been published on the mammismo that keeps men living with and being fed by their mothers into middle age. Women aren’t immune, either. A Wall Street Journal story talked about a delivery service that delivered a southern Italian mama’s eggplant parmigiano to her working daughter in Rome.
But perhaps those differences between our cultures are narrowing. After all, we have “helicopter parents” who lavish attention on their children to the point of following them to college. And the Italian emphasis on multi-generational households starts to make sense in an age as economically stressful as this.
Italians are soccer crazy, but so is the rest of the world. Americans just need to catch up, and our kids, who have grown up playing soccer over the past quarter century, will make that happen.
Politics? These days, it’s hard to feel smug about the dyfunctional nature of Italian politics. Looking at how the U.S. Congress operates, I’m thinking we can’t be outdone.
Besides, there are other things to think about–like what is that musical instrument and why are the grapes propped on top?