Thursday, December 03, 2009

Disparate housewives

Dear Readers,

"I could never move to Italy--it's too much work!!" said a friend of mine a while back (note: said friend is a proud, card-carrying Jewish American Princess). And she's right, of course. If you are a typical Italian wife, whether or not you're a casalinga or have a job outside the home--you work your ass off.

With Christmas approaching, I dread the yearly discussion of ironing which is inevitably brought up by my sisters-in-law at some point during the feast. Florence winters are notoriously damp and clothes hung on the line take forever to dry, thus laundry typically morphs to monstrous proportions. (No one has clothes dryers. No one, that is, except this die-hard). And since Italian women iron everything--even underwear--this means gargantuan mountains of clothes lying about already-cramped homes, waiting to be wrinkle-free and, if not snuggly-soft, at least not as rough as Velcro. Call them masochists, but it seemingly never occurs to these women to just, maybe, ease up a bit and let that t-shirt or pair of briefs go forth into the world with a crinkle or two. And so my sisters-in-law blather on and on: "Goodness, I have so much ironing piled up! Oh my, me too, isn't it terrible? Mercy me, this weather isn't helping! At least spending a couple hours over a hot iron warms me up" Since I am, in this regard, iron-deficient, and since discussing housework is about as pleasant to me as oral surgery, I sit there silently cursing and brooding--like some female Mr Rochester--bored out of my skull, and wondering morosely if I should stuff another piece of panforte down my gullet.

Case in point: my sister-in-law Silvia works part-time, has three kids, and a husband who doesn't lift a finger to help her with housework or matters related to child-rearing (this is, alas, still fairly common among Italian men of a certain mindset and upbringing). My mother-in-law has told me that often Silvia stays up til 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, ironing. She also does all the laundry, cleans the house, cooks most of the meals, takes out the trash, and ferries the kids to doctor's appointments and such. We assume her husband wipes his own behind after going to the toilet, but we can't be sure.

My dear husband--whom I often think must have been adopted--told me that when he was a teenager, he informed his mother of his desire to do his own laundry and ironing. She was aghast with horror and disbelief. "WHAT IN GOD'S NAME DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" she yelled, when she caught him one night surreptitiously ironing his own clothes (in the living-room, in the dark). "That's for me to do!" she nearly wept, sensing that her entire raison d'etre was being snatched from her like the last bag of tortelli on special at the Coop.

At least her other son, Giorgio, is normal: when his wife is out of town, he dutifully drives his laundry across the city to Mamma's so she can wash, scrub out stubborn stains, iron, darn socks and replace buttons to her hearts' content.

Many italiane mop their homes (called "giving the rag," or dare il cencio) every single day. Seriously, you could eat off these floors, or perform complex surgeries on them without fear of infection. Often when walking along the street, I am showered in detritus as some old biddy on an upper floor shakes her dust cloth out the window. This past summer while at the beach, my American friend Kelly and I were endlessly entertained by our neighbor across the way--a lady "of a certain age", as they say here--cleaning her vacation home from top to bottom all day long, every day, while her husband sat on the terrace reading his newspaper. We were fascinated, and yet horrified. We couldn't tear our eyes away; it was like looking at a train wreck. "No, surely she'll stop now--my God, it's 110 degrees out!" She mopped the floor of the kitchen after every meal. She did laundry all the time, even though there was only the two of them. On her balcony was a full battery of cleaning products the likes of which we'd never seen outside of a hospital. Even her washing machine had a cozy to protect it and keep it from getting dirty. (We were surprised she didn't have one to put over her husband, who was about as animated as an armoir).

Bet you thought you'd seen it all

[As an aside, Kelly told me her Italian husband's grandmother used to starch and iron his dress shirts, fold them, wrap them individually in tissue paper, and stack them neatly in his wardrobe. She's in an insane asylum now.]

My husband and I recently left the kids with my mother-in-law when we went out on an errand. We had inadvertently left a basket of freshly-washed-and-dried laundry in the living-room. When we came back, we saw that she had folded everything with military precision, and it was lying in impossibly neat stacks in the laundry basket. I know it's unkind to say so, but I wanted to eviscerate her. Somehow the thought of her handling my undies (I'm 42 for God's sake!) made my skin crawl. But I know why she did it: she was bored. She can't just sit and do nothing. She can't just play a game or read a book with her grandchildren. She can't help herself, poor thing--it's a reflex, like genuflecting in church or giving candy to hyperactive children. I'm certain she would have ironed everything too, but my ironing board and iron are buried in the storage closet where no one--not even me--can find them.

Dear Readers, don't get me wrong, I don't want to live in a pigsty. I simply believe in moderation in all things. But I just don't understand this paradox even though I've lived in Italy going on 10 years now: where is la dolce vita when it comes to housework? Most Italian women don't seem to read, have hobbies (other than getting their hair done every week), or do any kind of recreational sports--so could it be that housework is their hobby? Their aerobic activity? Or is it a Catholic thing: guilt over leading Adam astray? Cleansing one's sins with rubber gloves, a mop bucket and a liter of Mastro Lindo?

I may never know. But I'll tell you this--the unwrinkled life is not worth living.

Yours, glorious dust bunnies and all,



  1. Hear! Hear! When I first moved to Italy about six years ago I ironed all the time with my super-duper steam iron. But then I discovered if I kept the "gire" in the washing machine down to 800 or lower and then hung everything quite damp on the line, the weight of the water pulls out the biggest wrinkles. Good enough for me. Also, body heat eventually takes care of the smaller wrinkles that are left. And ironing things which no one will ever see is just a complete waste I'd rather read a book or write a blog post. Great one, bw. Just discovered your blog and love it. Thanks.

  2. Diane, welcome to the fold and thank you! I just had a look at your blog and am intrigued. Lately, education in Italy has been on my mind a lot, and your experiences in middle school and with homeschooling are very interesting to me. Will have to read more of your thoughts on the subject.


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