Friday, March 09, 2012

The (un)making of the Italian man

Dear Readers,

Who doesn't like them? And who wouldn't want to have one (at least every now and then)? I'm talking about Italian men, of course.

A group of multigenerational Latin lookers
source: magtrends
They're well-tailored and stylish and typically fit at any age. They have great taste in shoes. They preen and strut like feral peacocks--though at the same time they're sweet and rather boyish. They enjoy good food and know about wine, but they don't get drunk and sloppy (if they make fools of themselves, they tend to do it sober). Yet for all their undeniable, perennial, animal allure, there's a dark side to the Italian man. There's definitely a dark side.

And this is it: behind every handsome, fashionable, charmingly bestubbled, motorino-revving Italian man are two women: the mother who ruined him and the wife who makes excuses for him. Both should be shot.

Pictured here is Captain Francesco Schettino, the man whose ego, irresponsibility, and lack of intestinal fortitude allegedly caused the recent Costa Concordia disaster which claimed so many lives. While I'm not saying that he typifies Italian men (after all, every nation has its moral and intellectual laggards), I'd argue that he's the inevitable product of certain cultural tendencies in Italy, and it is this culture--from whence such a lily-livered lounge lizard springs--that I'd like to explore. I'll begin with a few vignettes from personal experience.


When my Italian nephews were in high school, they used to come over to my MIL's house every day after school got out for a hot lunch, since their own mother was at work. She would have the table set and their primo of pasta ready as soon as they dumped their backpacks on the floor and flopped into their chairs. They'd flick on the TV and zone out to anime cartoons while she busily set the food in front of them, then she'd scurry back into the kitchen to prepare their secondo and side dishes while they wolfed down their pasta. If they needed a napkin (which were located in the sideboard about three feet from where they were sitting), they'd call out, "Nonna! Napkin!" and she'd scuttle out to get it for them and then scuttle back to her hissing frying pans. If she'd forgotten to give them a lemon wedge for their fish, they'd call out, "Nonna! Limone!" After they'd been served their last course of ice cream or fruit, they'd reluctantly switch off the TV, rise from the table with a carefree adolescent burp, volley a "ciao" towards the kitchen where the chintz-swathed MIL was vigorously scrubbing pots, and saunter out of the house--leaving the table strewn with dirty dishes, bread crumbs, spilled water, and orange peels.

I never saw these boys--who are as sweet as bomboloni, mind you--take out the garbage, or hang a load of laundry up to dry, or do any chores whatsoever around the house, and both of their parents work full-time. They always wore trendy jeans and sneakers, had cell phones, ample allowances, and rode to school on their own mopeds (one of them even had an additional motocross bike, just for fun)--which is fine, of course. It's just that nothing was ever expected of them in return. Their mother pampers them--still--even more than their nonna, treating them like babies who can barely be trusted to feed themselves or wipe their own behinds. When one of them--at age 21--was horsing around in front of his girlfriend and destroyed our large outdoor storage bin, my husband waited a week in vain for the young man to at least apologize before confronting him and letting him know that we expected it to be replaced. Rather than deal with it himself, his mother (my sister-in-law) knocked on our door and proffered €50, and somewhat in a huff said, "Matteo รจ rimasto male [is upset at being chastised]. After all, he's only a boy."


One of my husband's old school friends from the neighborhood, Guido, separated from his wife some years back. A 46 year-old father of two, he had a good job and a good income by Italian standards, and drove a late-model BMW. As nearly always happens in these cases, he moved back in with his parents and into his old bedroom, sleeping on the narrow twin bed of his childhood. His mother prepares all his meals, does his laundry, presses his shirts for work, and tidies his room--exactly as she used to before he married.


Okay, this isn't relevant but
I personally have a real thing for Carabinieri ;-)


Another twenty-something nephew of mine recently landed a decent job with a much-coveted permanent work contract. He has a longtime girlfriend and they talk of getting married. Since boyhood he's been sharing a 7 x 10 foot bedroom with his slightly younger brother and his sister who's younger by some 10 years. He still sleeps, contentedly, in the cramped upper tier of a bunk bed which is crammed into the suffocatingly close space, stuffed as it is with the beds and bulky wardrobes and computer desks of two grown young men and a 15 year-old girl. But there was no question of him moving out--instead he bought himself a new car.


One of my brothers-in-law who has two kids has never changed a diaper. (I'll pause to let that sink in fully). Another brother-in-law, once it was established that his gag-reflex was too pronounced, poor thing, never had anything more to do with the diapers, illnesses, or potty training (or much else related to child-rearing) of his three children, even though his wife, like most Italian women these days, works. A third brother-in-law--the one who lives across town--brings his laundry over for my MIL to do when his own wife is away, and insists on dragging his wife and daughters to the MIL's every weekend for a big lunch prepared by mamma's loving hands, even though her age and ailments make this an increasingly difficult burden. (And when the nonni moved into their small granny unit, this same brother-in-law insisted they keep the enormous refectory-style dining table--even though it makes their dwarf-sized salottino impossibly cramped--so he could dine in accustomed comfort on the weekends).


Laura, an Italian mom with whom I'm friendly--our sons go to school together--recently separated from her husband. She confided that for years her husband has simply not been "present" in the marriage (incidentally I've had one other friend and a hairdresser say the same thing about their husbands. They both chose separation). Like so many Italian men, he prefers to hang out at the coffee bar or soccer stadium, or surf the Net or peruse the Gazzetta dello sport, and tends to get restless and bored when forced to hang out with wife and child. He also seems to have had a dalliance with another woman (and the fact that she was a foreigner, to boot--a Filipina--counted as another black mark against him). And yet, like so many Italian men, he expects to find the cupboards and fridge full of food and his dinner on the table every night, his clothes laundered and pressed, and his child scrubbed, homework done, and ready for bed. Well, she'd finally reached her limit, telling me that she already has one kid to look after so why should she want another, one who's 40 years old? But marriage is a two-way street, of course, and knowing how Italian drivers are I think we can allow for a fair amount of  irrational behavior on both sides: in fairness, I have to say that all this woman does when she's not at work is clean her house (or the car, or the stairwell of the building, or the persiane). Seriously. Her house reeks of Lysol. Once when I was over there and she was attempting to converse while frantically scrubbing down the kitchen like some disinfecting dervish, her husband said to me, "Look at her! She's constantly cleaning; it's a sickness." Apparently her own presence in the marriage was up for debate. Anyway, she sent hubs packing and, in typical fashion, he moved back in with his parents.

Too close for comfort? This same mom recently gave her 10 year-old son an enema because "l'intestino era bloccato" (the poor little guy vomited afterwards). And now the two of them live like happy newlyweds in their cozy little love nest, without that pressed-jeans-clad non-entity of a husband casting a pall over the house, and she can coddle her precious, wavy-haired boy to her hearts' content for many long years to come.


Mammoni. We've all heard this term with regard to Italian men: mamma's boys. One thing's for sure, they don't exist in a vacuum; behind every Italian man there's an unbroken line of Italian mammas, nonnas and bisnonnas reaching back in time through conquests and cantos to the peninsula's murky origins. These are the apron-clad culprits who've perpetrated the irreparable warping of long, spooled chains of psychological DNA for generations of Italian men. From cradle to grave, by mother, wife, and eldest daughter--Italian males are pampered and spoiled, shielded from reality and consequences, and their behavior--no matter how outrageous--indulged. If my MIL is sick or otherwise absent, the FIL--who's in robust health--has his meals prepared and his clothes laundered by some female family member. He never, ever goes to the supermarket or picks up his own prescription meds. He certainly never participated in any of the child-rearing or care of invalid relatives (even his own wheelchair-bound mother)--that was solely women's work. In short, he--like so many other Italian men--has been kept in a child-like, irresponsible state, frozen in a kind of carefully cultivated uselessness and degenerative ineffectuality. I often think how surreally wonderful it must be to go through life like an Italian man--a pasha who merely has to sit down at table and a three-course meal magically appears. And when one has eaten one's fill, all one has to do is arise and go on to other pleasant diversions and let the scullery maid (i.e. the wife) worry about such trivialities as cleanup. And to have all one's clothing washed and ironed and neatly folded and arrayed in one's dresser or wardrobe--not knowing if elves or sprites did it, or one's tired, old, long-suffering handmaiden. And not really being bothered to care either way.

How can such men--grown out of this nascent ooze of medieval manhood--become fully functioning husbands and fathers and students and employees and managers and politicians? How can they become contributing partners in marriages, in companies, in the governing of a nation? How can they be counted on to do the just, right, selfless thing when the ship is sinking? How can they be proper lovers--real soul mates--or innovative entrepreneurs or resolute leaders of men when they can't even boil water for pasta?

The slimy shirker extraordinaire

Francesco Schettino comes from the small town of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples. In the aftermath of the disaster, journalists deluged the town and interviewed locals regarding the erstwhile captain's character. Not surprisingly, his wife vociferously lauded his prowess in all fields, and rose to the defense of his integrity and bravery. The local priest followed suit, proclaiming Schettino's unquestionable virtues, while asserting that the overly-aggressive northern journalists and media were demonstrating an age-old prejudice against Neapolitans specifically and southern Italians generally. In other words, the usual battery of excuses was invoked for a man who has doubtless been pampered his whole life and whose rectitude lies limp and flaccid within the starched, molly-coddled confines of his metaphysical Jockeys.

Adorable. But remember: they either live with their mommies or their wives.
Who do you think ironed their underwear?

Insomma, though there exist some notable exceptions, Italian men are like Italian fashions: lovely to look at and to drape over one's body--with some mighty fine detailing and workmanship--but which, alas, usually prove utterly impractical in the end. With every new season, they become obsolete. They become, regrettably, those rather embarrassing choices pushed far to the back of the closet.



*For a fun, informative and spot-on romp on the subject of Italian men, check out Sara's post at When in Florence.