If you really want to see how the Italians in rural Italy live, your best bet is to head to the nearest sagra.
Browsing category: Family fun in Umbria...especially the kids!, Food and Wine in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations, Things to do and see in Umbria, Trip Planning Tips for Umbria
When your two and a half year old runs to the john, feigns an attack of vomiting, then looks at you and says with a smile, “Look! Just like Mamma!” there is only one possible explanation.
Yes, folks, we’ve got a bun in the oven. And before I go on, let me just clear up a couple of things.
How you know this is not your first pregnancy
- With your first pregnancy, you decided around month five to go out and buy a pair of maternity pants, mostly for kicks. The second time around, roughly ten minutes after you pee on the stick you are forced to unfasten the top button of your jeans. By the following morning you have already commandeered your husband’s sweatpants and are trying to remember where that box of maternity clothes is stored up in the attic.
- The first time around, you read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” You worshiped this book. You memorized it. You photocopied their pregnancy diet and taped it to the fridge. This time, you get to roughly page 7 (right around where they start getting all self-righteous about taking Tums and eating ice-cream) before you chuck it and go back to finishing off your firstborn’s Easter candy for dinner.
- When people asked you during pregnancy number one, “So, what are you hoping for?” you either responded “A Girl”, “A Boy” or copped out with “Just as long as it’s healthy”. This time when people ask what you want, you look at them with the concentrated intensity of the battle scarred and say, “A Good Sleeper.”
How you know this is not your husband’s first pregnancy
- When you tell him the news, his first reaction is not tearful joy, but “Does this mean we’ll be living on corn flakes and rice cakes for the next three months?” (Answer: yes, as it turned out.)
- When you tell him the news, his second reaction is not tearful joy, but “Hon, this time I think you should take the epidural, okay?”
- When you were pregnant the first time, if you happened to mention at midnight that you had a craving for pierogies, he booked the next flight to Warsaw and had them hot and fresh to you by breakfast. This time, if you ask him to kindly get his lazy butt off the couch to make you a sandwich, he mumbles something about waiting for the next commercial break. If you happen to make any sort of remark about folic acid deficiency and birth defects and how if something goes awry it will all be because of this sandwich, he will finally haul himself into the kitchen, but toss over his shoulder as he goes, “I don’t think you were this bitchy the last time.”
Having said that, let me clarify that we are thrilled. There was a period that we thought number two just wasn’t in the cards for us, and this left me strangely bereft. Strangely, I mean, in the eyes of many of our friends in Italy because families with single children aren’t all that uncommon here. In fact, in many areas especially the further north you go, it is more the rule than the exception.
I think that this is one of the facts regarding modern Italy that most surprise first time visitors. The world seems to have freeze framed Italy in roughly the neorealist period, where women all looked like Sofia Loren and had at least a half a dozen offspring fetchingly dressed in short pants, news vendor caps, and ankle boots. The reality is that birth rates have been steadily going down in Italy for the past three decades, and by 1988 the Bel Paese vied with China and Japan for the lowest birth rates in the world. The current birthrate has risen slightly to 1.25 children per woman, which puts Italy somewhere between second and third place worldwide, depending upon whose numbers you read.
Regardless, one of the main reasons that the birthrate has risen slightly over the past few years is because of the relatively higher birthrates among the immigrant population, which has risen proportionately over the same period. So the fact remains that more than half of all Italian couples, and more like two thirds in the center and north of Italy, choose to bear only one child.
There are various reasons for this tendency of modern Italian couples limit the size of their family. One is purely demographic: many Italian women don’t marry until their early thirties, and don’t procreate until their mid to late thirties. Many explanations are given for this delay, namely difficulty in finishing higher education and instability of the labor market. Well, call me jaded, but the majority of my girlfriends who have put off marriage have been much less swayed by Pursuit of Higher Education and Career Advancement than by Lack of Man Who Doesn’t Fall into the Even if You Were the Last Male on Earth Category. But who am I to go against the big statisticians? The bottom line is when you’ve had your first at 38 it gives you great pause to consider having number two at 40. I, for one, am planning my first uninterrupted night of sleep the day I turn 40, certainly not starting the whole business all over again.
The second reason is straightforward economics. The cost of living is high in Europe in general, and Italy specifically. Utilities are expensive here, food and clothing can be costly, and, most importantly, housing prices are sky-high, especially in the wealthier center and north. Many Italian families live in relatively small urban apartments where space is tight for a family of three, much less four. We know of at least a few couples who gave up on having a second child because there was simply no space to put him or her.
The third, and I think most compelling reason, is socio-economic. Many couples in Italy make a conscious choice about the style of life they prefer. They can either have a second child, or they can have an nicer car, a week skiing vacation in the winter and a month seaside vacation in the summer, and name brand clothes and shoes. It is easy to dismiss this as a superficial preference, but considering modern Italian history I am not so quick to disdain.
Italy was an extremely poor country until just recently. Starving poor. Approximately one tenth to one quarter of its population emigrating abroad in the twentieth century poor. It was a time that the elderly in Italy colorfully call “the years of misery”, a time that my husband’s grandmother left her home in Umbria to travel to the Marche and work as a wet-nurse, leaving her newborn daughter at home who died soon after, quite probably of malnutrition.
The economic upturn began in the sixties and seventies, with a higher standard of living, industrial development, and the birth of a strong middle class. However, in many parts of Italy, including the mountainous rural areas in Umbria, this taste of the good life did not arrive until even later. My own husband did not have an indoor bathroom until 1981, a fact that he likes to bring up every time I suggest a camping vacation. As I recall, I spent the entire twelve months of 1981 bitching to my parents because I was the only girl in the entire school to not have a pair of Nike gym shoes and baggy striped Lee jeans. My husband also clearly remembers when electricity, telephone service, and television arrived in the area. He was born in 1967.
The point I’m trying to make is that abject poverty is living memory in Italy, and economic security or even prosperity quite recent experience. So if young Italian couples decide that they want to enjoy their disposable income in consumer goods rather than try to form a family basketball team, who am I to judge?
Clearly, there are pros and cons to being a single child, which I discovered when I married one. The pros are, of course, that all the energy, time, and finances of the family are concentrated on a single person. Sometimes this produces offspring who are unspeakably self centered, but my experience is that it more often produces adults who are happy, secure, and responsible. My husband has to be the most spookily well adjusted person I have ever met, for example. The flip side is that there is no one else with whom you can shoulder the responsibility when your parents begin to age, which is a problem we, and many of our friends, have just begun to face in the past few years. We have noticed that the adults we know who were raised as single children now tend to have at least two themselves, and those who have siblings are more likely to limit themselves to one. The grass is always greener, I suppose.
Anyway, our train has left the station for destination Baby Two, so it’s too late for us to rethink things now. All I have to say is all previously discussed plans for number three are now officially null and void.
Famous last words.
Yes, okay. I know Part Two was supposed to be done a couple of months ago. Now, what was I saying? Right, small town life.
I have a hobby. I make soap.
I can’t think of a more appropriate hobby for a vegetarian who sometimes reels at the smell of cooking meat than one which, as Step One, lists, “Render suet into tallow.” This is a missish way of saying, “Boil a big vat of beef fat on your stove for so long that your home reeks like a turn of the century British tannery and the stench of it has even the dog retching and the neighbors, who live three kilometers away and raise hogs, sniffing the air and wondering if someone has been burning garbage in the woods again.”
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.
I had been wallowing in a blue-stay-in-your-bathrobe-all-day-and-eat-frosted-flakes-directly-out-of-the-box-for-dinner-writer’s-block-funk (you all know what delicate temperaments we literary types have) for the past few weeks, but got summarily booted out of it this morning after receiving a wonderfully funny and generous email complimenting me on Rebecca’s View. Inspired, buoyed, (guilt-ridden), I sat right down and thumped another one out. So this is dedicated to Sheila L., and all the other kind folks who have enjoyed reading what I have to say and have taken the time to let me know over the past few months. I do it for you. And for that fat check that Pauline sends me every week.
I got a letter from the United States Ambassador to Italy the other day.
Now I know that what I am about to reveal may cause shock and consternation amongst my readers, but the sad truth is, despite my carefully cultivated image of jet-set refinement, cutting edge culture, and general Glamour Queenliness, I rarely get personal mail from Popes, monarchs, presidents or even diplomats. So it was not without a slight frisson of excitement and trembling hand that I opened my embossed envelope. (After a quick reality check. This can’t have anything to do with my taxes, right? No. Okay.)
Inside I discovered an invitation to a cocktail reception at Villa Taverna, the US Ambassador’s residence in Rome. My initial reaction was one I assume most people would share in similar circumstances, “My God,” I thought, “How did they know my address? The CIA must have a file on me.” Upon closer examination of my invitation I found that the reception was being held in honor of the president of the university I attended as an undergraduate. The realization slowly dawned that I had been tracked down by force far more insidious, omniscient, nefarious even, than Central Intelligence. Alumni Fundraising.
But heck, invites including a long, detailed explanation of how to pass the security check in your chauffeur driven car don’t come along every day. Strangely, no instructions on how to get to the place by city bus, which had been my plan until my train to Rome got there so late that I had to break down and grab a cab. When I told the driver my address, he went about ten meters before slamming on the brakes and turning to face me. “That can’t be right, lady,” he said. I asked him why, and he told me that I had recited the address of Villa Taverna. “Exactly,” I said. “Well, that’s the US Ambassador’s residence!” I told him I was an invited guest, at which point he gave me a long up and down and kind of grimaced. In that split second I was reminded of one of the great truths of Italy. Even displaced elderly Sicilian cabbies in Rome who pick you up in the pitch black outside the Termini train station know when you are underdressed for State functions. Unfortunately, I also told him that I was running extremely late, which meant that he managed to gun it across the city in a manner which had me making a mental note to check on my life insurance policy benefits when I got home (and I am no pansy driver myself) while never taking his eyes off me in his rearview mirror. I was apparently the closest thing he had had to a VIP fare in the past twenty years.
To make a long story short, I decided to attend (to much eye rolling on the part of my husband – he was just jealous because his name wasn’t on the invitation). The hook was not meeting the current university president, who wasn’t even at the university when I was there. Had he been, I quite seriously doubt I would have been invited to honor him in Rome, as the few times I ever met his predecessor it was usually while doing things like chaining myself to his office door in an attempt (vain, as it turned out) to persuade the university to divest from South Africa. You know, symbolic gestures which tend to keep you off subsequent cocktail party guest lists for quite awhile. The hook was not even the Ambassador who, as a personal friend of Bushes (father and son), prominent Republican Party activist, and shopping center real estate development magnate, effectively embodies all I abhor. The real hook was the chance to glimpse into Villa Taverna, a beautiful historic residence once owned by the Catholic Church surrounded by the largest private park (something like four hectares) in Rome, a swimming pool built for JFK’s visit in the 60’s, a movie theatre donated by the American Picture Academy, and lots and lots of security people.
It was lovely. The residence is beautiful, the gardens are enormous (though it was quite dark, so I didn’t get to see much of them), the butlers have the US seal engraved on the buttons of their jackets. It was also strange. It has been a long time since I have been to an all-American social function (the SlowTrav GTG this summer doesn’t count, because no one inspected my person for weapons) and I forgot how gosh-darn friendly most Americans are.
Not that Umbrians are not friendly folks. They are largely kind, good hearted people. They are also extremely reserved and reticent at first meeting. A roomful of Umbrians in a social setting will spend the entire evening speaking to their spouses, or, in a pinch, people they have known since grade school. I don’t think that in ten years in Umbria I have ever had an Umbrian walk up to me and introduce himself cold. The few times I have done so have been near disasters. Remember when Michelle Pfieffer crosses the room to talk to Daniel Day-Lewis in Age of Innocence and the scandal it caused? Well, it’s kind of like that. Luckily, as a foreigner I am excused myriad quirks, like actually showing up to pick up my photos after thirty minutes at the half-hour photo developing place.
I often dog my husband about this in the car driving home from yet another party where I spend the evening talking to him, his friends from the third grade, and their wives. “Why, why?” I wail. “Why does no one want to meet anyone new here? Why don’t you want to make friends?” He looks at me quizzically and invariably answers, “Well, because I already have friends. I don’t need any more.” Dynamic guy.
On the other hand, get a roomful of American strangers together for an evening, and the shaky common ground of a shared alma mater becomes the instant foundations of lightning fast hand-pumping, name memorization, and business card exchanging all round. It was almost too much for me. I must have introduced myself to a hundred people in the space of an hour. It was kind of funny, really. Each guest, to a person, held out their hand and regretfully admitted that their Italian was not that good. To which I replied that neither is mine; I am American. “Oh, but you look so Italian!” they all said. Now, I can hardly show my face in an Italian shop without the proprietor immediately excusing his English or, even more often, addressing me in passable German. No Italian mistakes me for a countrywoman.
Americans can also be disarmingly informal. In Italy, you generally know who the important people are, even if you don’t know who they are. There is a certain aura of power which surrounds them, even if their origins are as humble as, well, Berlusconi’s. And the Umbrians, especially in the area where I live around Assisi and Perugia, are extremely formally mannered people. I have know people for years here socially, and we still give each other the Lei, which is a formal, third person address. I have girlfriends who give their mother-in-laws the Lei. That is equivalent to the Victorian practice of spouses calling each other Mr. and Mrs. Smith in bed.
Imagine my surprise to find that the man who had grabbed my hand, shook it hard, introduced himself as “Mel Sembler” and quickly segued into a long discourse on the merits of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign work, turned out to be the Ambassador. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed in our diplomatic representative to Italy. I had envisioned a Kofi Annan sort of figure, and instead found a man who, as a response to my question regarding his diplomatic career before Italy, proudly boomed, “Hey, I’m no diplomat! I’m a businessman!” Oh, dear.
I also discovered that I was making small talk with the current university president only after my answer to his question, “Did you enjoy your years as an undergraduate at the university?” (I replied that my memories of those years had grown especially fond once I had paid off my student loans) was greeted with an uncomfortable pause. Until the president’s wife came to my rescue with her raucous barking laugh, grabbed my elbow, and gave me a little squeeze, which signaled to the rest of the group that a little bit of edgy sarcasm was acceptable. Bless her.
I was then saved again by the ambassador’s wife, who broke the long embarrassed silence which followed her husband inquiring as to what I do (apparently running a service sector business rather than paving over acres of perfectly good farm and wood land, over lighting it so much that it can be seen from space, and plonking down a Discount Warehouse which runs the local small business owners into the ground by illegally employing desperate immigrant workers who mop for five bucks a day under the table is not something one admits to while sipping sparkling water at the Ambassador’s residence) by asking me a series of sincere questions regarding my business, feigning real interest in the answers, and finishing the conversation by asking for a business card. Right. Like the Ambassador and his wife are going to bed down on the farm the next time they come through town with their security entourage. But I appreciated the effort. Now she, my friends, was a real diplomat.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, I didn’t have any cards with me because, in anticipation of a security inspection on my purse, I had done a last minute switch to the only bag I own which did not smell of peanut butter crackers and contain a small fleet of Hot Wheels, two sippy cups, emergency wipes, and the latest in Teletubby literature. It also did not contain any business cards.
As soon as the speeches started, I slowly backed my way out of the room and started opening random doors on the first floor. I didn’t have the balls to go upstairs. I figured someone was bound to be watching on a security camera somewhere and would get around to arresting me sooner or later. I discovered a series of lovely rooms downstairs, full of donated art (some of it atrocious, to be honest) and valuable antiques. The only time the building has been vacated by the Americans since the early thirties when it was bought by the US government was during the second world war. The withdrawing Americans entrusted the estate to the Knights of Malta, who converted it to a hospital for the duration of the war, and painted a large red cross on the roof to deter bombing by Allied and Axis forces. The US reclaimed it after the war in perfect condition.
There was also a large collection of Republican knick-knacks about (framed letters signed by Reagan, for example) which got me thinking. There must be two storage rooms somewhere on the compound, one which contains the Republican relics and one the Democratic. That way when the administration switches over, the Reagan correspondence gets boxed up and the snapshots of Carter trotted out. It’s just kind of amusing, when you consider it.
I stumbled upon the dining room at a certain point, set for about twenty who were apparently staying to dinner. My husband had expressed surprise at an invitation to a cocktail party at the strange hour of 6:30 to 8:00. I told him that it wasn’t that the party ended at eight, it was that I wasn’t important enough to be asked to stick around to eat.
The thought crossed my mind that if I were Nikita, I would have a vial of poison hidden in the heel of my boot and would summarily dispose of quite a few members of the higher diplomatic corps in one fell swoop. As it were, I took a quick gander at the menu and china (with US seal, what else?) before being politely directed to the ladies room by a mirrored sunglasses clad gentleman who appeared out of nowhere.
All in all, an experience that I will certainly bore my great grandchildren with its recounting 60 years from now. As I got back on the train home (at 8:10, at the exact moment that the real VIPs were sitting down to smoked duck breast antipasto), I did the unimaginable. I called my husband on my cell phone, and quickly brought all movement in the rows of seats surrounding me to a standstill by loudly beginning to recount my evening at the US Ambassador’s residence.
Tragically, my glory was short-lived, as my husband cut me off laughing, “Quit bragging to the rest of the people on the train, you loser. You can tell me when you get home.” And then he hung up on me.
The man apparently doesn’t know that I am now a personal friend of Mel Sembler’s.
Okay, okay, pipe down. I know I promised part two of Bedford Falls, but something else happened in the meantime.
I often get asked what the main difference is between living in Italy and living in the States, and I usually respond by saying that it’s not so much the contrast between Old World and New, but between living in a small town as opposed to a big city. Sure, it’s a cop out answer, but it’s also a pretty inane question, so I think I deserve a break.
Everyone has a code word. That special word that signals to the outside world that just one more straw and the camel’s back will not only be broken, but his legs will fall off and he will be diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disorder and pinkeye.
On the fifteenth of this month I celebrated 10 years of living in Italy. Time has flown, time has crawled, time has changed me. In the decade and a half I have known her, Italy has given me many gifts and has been vital in forming the person I have become. How can I ever thank her?
Italy made me beautiful