If there’s one thing that really bugs me, it’s blaming the victim. But when it comes to discussing gender relations in my little corner of Italy, I find myself with my back to the wall. There is no other way. The truth must be shouted from the mountaintops.
Umbrian women have made their own beds.
Imagine this: It’s our wedding day and my soon-to-be husband pulls me aside before the service and says,
“Okay, honey. This is how it’s going to be from now on. I’m going to take care of all the housework, including cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, ironing, mending, and basic yard work. I will also raise our children, manage all relations with your family, keep track of and organize the celebration of everyone’s birthdays (including my own), make sure everyone gets regular medical and dental checkups (including you), coordinate our social life, plan our vacations, and spearhead our religious participation.
While doing this, I will also work full time, so that you can afford to have that expensive car, watch, and week skiing that your friends all have.
And I will keep myself slim and attractive. If I happen to slip on the slim and attractive thing because I am working myself to the bone and your mother is making me age prematurely and all that time in the kitchen cooking just naturally leads to a bit of weight, or if you just get bored with me because with all the parent-teacher conferences and ironing I don’t really keep up with current events and have abandoned all outside interests and hobbies, I will turn a blind eye to your justifiable philandering.
I will do all this with a brave, cheerful face and only lament jokingly about the intrinsic unfairness of this situation at dinner parties amongst the other husbands, as we all roll our eyes in affectionate and resigned acceptance.”
You folks think I wouldn’t have signed on? Heck, I’d have him in a half-nelson and be dragging him down the aisle bellowing, “Where’s that priest?!? Someone get me the priest, STAT!” and make sure the whole thing was signed and notarized before he could come to his senses. Who wouldn’t?
As it was, we had quite a different conversation about a week after moving in together, during which I carefully explained to my husband who Archie Bunker was, and why I had absolutely no interest in living with him.
Clearly I am exaggerating for comic effect, but in my experience, at least here in provincial Umbria where traditional gender roles are still very predominant, this is the tacit agreement between the vast majority of married couples. I want to be clear that not all Umbrians (and certainly not all Italians) live so traditional a lifestyle. I have quite a few friends here who share more or less equally the weight of domestic and family obligations (though the vast majority of them are couples with women who are either ex-pats or Italian but not from Umbria.).
I also want to be clear that I am by no means being disrespectful towards the women who do assume a very traditional role. On the contrary, I admire their energy. Especially because so many I know are able to do everything listed above, and still be dynamic, fascinating people with interesting hobbies and passions.
But the point I’m trying to make is that much is said about the Italian Man, but in my opinion it is just as much the behavior of the Italian Woman, in its passivity, which dictates the culture of gender relations. It is the women who seem very complacent about their assigned duties. Sure, most bitch and moan, but very few make real demands on their husbands to pitch in. On the contrary, there seems to be a bit of culture of “earning your stripes” in complaining about who has the most good for nothing cohort who couldn’t boil an egg if his life depended upon it.
I have found it surprising what an Italian man is able to do if given no choice in the matter. Especially if you commence with the yelling, banging things around, and wearing really unsexy things to bed. They start sitting up like little Pavlovian pups after just a bit of behavioral therapy.
Now, I will admit that my husband was never a big Mammone. Sure, at the age of 27 he had never done a load of laundry, but once he and the washing machine sat down and really got to know each other, they seemed to hit it off just fine. We set out the ground rules early (i.e.: You work and I work, so we both share the running of the household) and things have gone pretty smoothly over the subsequent decade. Okay, his filth threshold is higher than mine. He has been known to, when faced with the insurmountable task of ironing a dress shirt, just go buy a new one. But on the whole he has grown into his new millennium husband and father role with aplomb.
This is a source of endless amazement amongst my Umbrian girlfriends. They are forever listening with mouths agape when I tell them how I have gone out of town for the weekend and left my husband alone with our toddler son, and come home to find them both well fed and the house…well, okay. They were well fed, at least.
“Oh, my husband would never [fill in the blank],” they invariably reply. Clean. Cook. Dress our child. But when you really get to talking about it, it almost always turns out that they’ve never actually asked him to. They either assume he won’t, or, a response I especially love, like to have things done their own way and don’t want their husband to interfere. (Well, then don’t whine about how he never does anything around the house, lady.) Like I said before, you’d be surprised what a husband will do under duress.
I remember when our son was about two weeks old, and my husband had still managed to never change a diaper. So, one evening I grabbed the car keys and said over my shoulder, “We’re out of milk and I need a break. I’ll be back in a little while. And the baby needs changing.” And I booked outta there like my butt was on fire.
Now, if Baby Poop Footage was used as a rating benchmark like Full Frontal Nudity and Strong Language, my house would have been XXX rated when I got home. My husband had gone through at least four trial runs and three outfits. The changing table was covered. The wall was smeared. His shirt had to be burned out back.
But, miracle of miracles, he had changed the baby. A fact he managed to bring up at least every twelve minutes over the next few days. To his colleagues at work, “You know, I was thinking over those numbers again the other night while changing my baby’s diaper…” To his mother, “Woo, hoo. Thank God we use the disposable now, Mom. I woulda really had my hands full the other night with cloth!” To the gas station attendant, “Man, smell those fumes! Of course it’s nothing like when I was changing the baby…” I finally had to break it to him that the Nobel Committee would probably not be contacting him. Millions of people successfully change millions of babies every day on this planet. But I made it clear that it was not My Job, and with a little prodding he took up the slack.
“Sure,” my girlfriends say. “But your husband is different. You have no idea what a Mamma’s Boy I married!”
No man is too far gone. Let me tell you the story of two good friends of ours. I’ll call them Mary and Gianni. Gianni was a Mamma’s Boy. Big. Big Mamma’s Boy. Around the time Mary and Gianni first met (and were still just friends), Gianni’s parents went out of town for a few days so he invited over a group of people for an informal dinner party. (This is one difference between Italy and the States. In the US, when your parents go out of town you invite over your entire high school to get drunk and trash the place. In Italy, when your parents go out of town you invite over your closest companions to take advantage of the opportunity to cook a meal together. In the US, it’s great to drink without your father breathing down your neck, and in Italy it’s great to cook without your mother doing the same.) He asked Mary to grab something out of the freezer, and when she opened it she saw dozens of those little plastic margarine tubs in there. “What are those?” she asked. It turns out Gianni’s mother had made coffee (two espressos for every day she was to be gone) and had frozen them, so all he had to do was warm them up for himself. “Cripes,” thought Mary. “Who is ever going to marry this guy?”
Well, life is a trickster. Mary ended up marrying him. And about five days into living together, Gianni came to her clearly upset. “Someone has stolen my underwear,” he said. “Huh?” she replied. He took her to the bedroom, where his drawer was open. “Look,” he said. “There are only two pairs in there. There should be seven.” Well, to make a long story short, for his entire life Gianni had undressed at night, left his dirty clothes on the floor at the foot of his bed, dressed and left the next morning, and during his absence his mother would wash, dry, and iron his clothing and have it put away by the time he got home in the evening. He’d never before had a pair of underwear missing from his drawer.
Mary patiently explained the use of a laundry hamper, and that God created Saturdays so that we could all do our week’s laundry.
So we’re talking about a person pretty far gone, here.
After more than ten years of marriage, Gianni is almost unrecognizable. He does not cook, he lovingly crafts pasta by hand. He does not clean, he remops after Mary has just finished, because “she doesn’t do it right.” Once Gianni was on total bed rest after having a hernia operation. Mary came upon him lying prone on the couch, and gripping the back of the it in pain with one hand. With the other he was running the vacuum cleaner over the section of the living room rug he could reach.
Of course there are those few subjects who truly are unreachable. But my thoughts on them are, “Hey, don’t marry ‘em.” If no one marries them, they won’t reproduce. And in just a few brief generations of genetic selection, we can weed out those bad apples forever.
Not only do many Umbrian women tacitly accept the traditional role that provincial society projects onto them, they also create work for themselves.
Umbrians are generally very “house proud”, as they say in the UK. Umbrian women keep their homes spotless. I don’t think I have ever, ever seen a home here with dirty dishes in the sink, or dog hair on the sofa. It is customary to immediately excuse your messy house when you have guests arrive.
Now, when an Umbrian women says, “Oh, please don’t mind the mess!” it is your cue to launch into (well-earned and sincere) compliments about what a pristine home she keeps. When I say to people, “Hey, sorry about the mess!” what I really mean is “Don’t worry about that sticky stuff on the floor, it’s just OJ from last week. Let me clean the last four weeks of laundry off the kitchen table and try to locate a clean mug, so I can offer you a cup of coffee. Oh, and avoid sitting on the couch, unless you like the look of red play dough ground into the butt of your slacks.”
But it can also get out of hand. I know of quite a few women here who routinely iron eight hours a week. I think if I summed up all the time I have spent ironing over the past 32 years, I might clear five hours. (Though I freely admit that I am no ironer. When the war in Iraq first broke out, and the Consulate took it upon themselves to send me information regarding a possible evacuation of American citizens from Italy – because Lord knows I would be much safer in Chicago, the third largest metropolitan area in the US, than rural Umbria – they of course told me I should “have my affairs in order”. “Well,” said my husband, “I certainly hope they don’t mean catch up on your ironing, or you’ll never make it on the last copter out of Saigon, my friend.”) However, if you iron things like a) bath towels; b) bed linens; c) socks, your time at the ironing board can grow exponentially. I also know quite a few women who mop every day, for example. My own mother-in-law scrubs her garage floor with a bleach solution once a week.
Yes, cleanliness is certainly a virtue, but it can also border on obsession. There is a telling commercial on TV, where the scene opens on a mom reading a bedtime story to her little girl. Halfway through the tale, inspired by talk of magic brooms, the woman hops out of bed to grab a mop and dust under the furniture as the girl continues to read to herself and then drops off to sleep. It makes me nuts. I want to crawl into the TV and shake that lady and tell her to drop the frigging mop and cuddle with her daughter while she still can. Dust doesn’t leave home forever at eighteen. But, of course, neither do Italian kids.
Again, I have committed the terrible sin of blaming the women who often suffer under the weight of their traditional roles, but to these women I say, “Hey, light a fire under the old man’s butt. If he can drive a car, he can run the Hoover. And skip ironing his undershirts. Grab a good book and a glass of wine, instead. I’ve done it for the past ten years, and no one’s reported me yet.”
Actually, I don’t really need to say it here. I’ve been telling my girlfriends this for years. They look at me with that patient, bemused expression you use with the benignly mentally ill.
In my next life, I want to marry an Umbrian woman.