Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost in conjugation

Dear Readers,

Recently I've been in touch with an interesting American woman in Portland, Oregon who is of Italian origin and who has been raising her two children as bilinguals--not always easy when it's not your mother-tongue in the first place and when English surrounds you like a smugly conquering army. And let's face it, Italian isn't one of those scrappy, high-priority languages (though culturally-speaking it's an undisputed heavyweight champion); not many schools offer it as an item on their linguistic buffet.

So I've been thinking about bilingualism and how I'm going to keep it alive once we move back to the New World. I revisited this bit I wrote on my young bilingual children.

Where do we stand now, bilingually-speaking? Well, my kids pretty much still follow the pattern set forth in that earlier essay: Giacomo is the Staunch Purist and Gemma is the Great Mixer, or rather, Giacomo tends toward linguistic Republicanism while Gemma is an unabashed Democrat. At casa nostra we still vigorously stir the linguistic minestrone, tossing everything in as fancy dictates. For instance, we no longer say the very genteel, English "heel" when referring to the crusty ends of bread on which my daughter is inordinately fond of gnawing. We call them "butts", which is a direct translation of the very Florentine culacciolo. As in "Paolo, please toss Gemma that bread butt so you and I can get a word in edgewise!"

Recently my son--always polymorphic when it comes to language--has taken a fiendish delight in merging his screwball 10 year-old boy humor (which focuses primarily on all manner of bodily eruptions) with the intense study of Italian grammar undertaken at school.

"Mommy, I have to practice my verb conjugations. Will you listen and see if I'm doing them right?"

"Of course. Have at it."

Io farto
Tu farti
Egli/ella farta
Noi fartiamo
Voi fartate
Essi/esse fartono


Il sigh.

Yours from the linguistic trenches,


Friday, November 09, 2012

Bringing up baby in Italy, where the wild things are

Warning: scatological content of an extremely excremental nature
Cocktails and suspension of disbelief advised

Dear Readers,

As many of us expat mums know, bringing forth bambinos in Italy is not for the fainthearted. Apart from the scarcity of epidurals ("in pain you shall bring forth children"--Genesis 3:16 and apparently Holy Gospel here in the Boot*) and the crap-shoot (after seeing the state of their bathrooms I want to add "literally", but that's just sick) that is the birthing experience in public hospitals, the toughest aspect of new mommy-hood is undoubtedly navigating the Lhotse Face of traditional Italian child-rearing, typically embodied in the fearsome, meddlesome, and confounding creature that any self-respecting Sherpa worth his yak butter would steer clear of: the Italian mother-in-law.

Come, stroll down memory lane with me, chickens, while I cull a few cow patties from my experiences as an inexperienced American mother who sailed off through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the wild things are....

Not just a garnish

As we all know, Italian MILs are obsessed with bowel movements: their own, their neighbor's, their children's, and especially their grandchildren's. However, when my first was born, I wasn't quite prepared for the vehemence of my MIL's burning, all-engrossing desire and need to know the exact amount, consistency, color and character of every single one of my son's diaperial evacuations, and how often these occurred.  Poor little Giacomo--he never performed well enough for his nonna; it was either not enough not often enough, or too much too often, or just not the right damn kind. But as annoying as all this was, nothing was worse than the dreaded (oooh, I still get chills racing down my spine just thinking about it) stitichezza, or constipation--easily the dirtiest word in the Italian language.

I learned quickly to conceal the true nature of my son's cacca from her, like Yoda guarding the secrets of the Force from the future Darth Vader. But one day--perhaps my husband and I had hit the Chianti a little too hard and let our guard down--one of us let it slip to the MIL that our infant son hadn't pooped in five days.

And she roared her terrible roars and gnashed her terrible teeth and rolled her terrible eyes and showed her terrible claws

"O Santo Cielo! Non รจ possibile! Call the doctor! Call the doctor!"

So we did.

And SHE roared her terrible roars and gnashed her terrible teeth and rolled her terrible eyes and showed her terrible claws

The pediatrician pretty much made us feel like what should've been in my son's diaper. I thought she was going to sic social services on us because we were obviously such crappy parents. Needless to say, I learned the Italian word for enema that day (cristere, for those of you who give a shit--or want to give one to someone else).

Well, since that dark day Giacomo was forever labeled stitico in my mother-in-law's eyes (and me, stronza--i.e. turd), which of course meant that she began using all her old wives' tactics to scioglie (loosen) his sweet, innocent bowels, to most of which I simply turned the other cheek. Then, one fine spring day I wandered all la-dee-da out into the garden with himself in tow, so we could admire the flowers and take in a bit of fresh air. Little did I realize we were about to happen upon a witches coven: there gathered among the olive trees and rosemary bushes was the malevolent MIL, and my sister-in-law along with her mother and younger sister--who was also toting a newborn boy and had the cold, dead eyes of the thoroughly inculcated Italian female. My mother-in-law promptly introduced the two babies to one another, "Constipated, meet Emmanuele." Swift as hawks, they closed ranks.

And they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

They bombarded me with advice and remedies each more preposterous than the last; it was an all-out blitzkrieg of harpy-voiced grenades. And then the A-bomb: "You should use parsley! Yes--parsley! Parsley! Parsley!" they all chanted. "Just take the stem end and insert it into his...."

I said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once...


...and they were frightened and called me the most wild thing of all

Still more cow patties

There was the time I appeared in the MIL's kitchen with baby Giacomo buried deep in a sling over my abdomen, sleeping blissfully. She became apoplectic with holy indignation at my blatant attempt at infanticide and did a pretty good impression of someone in the throes of St.Vitus Dance.

And FYI, she wasn't at all impressed when I said that women in Africa use them.

There were numerous times we came to loggerheads over the infamous maglia della salute, or woolen onesie for newborns, held sacred here. I'd tell her "yes, that's just what a vellum-skinned infant who's been floating around in the soothing softness of amniotic fluid for nine months needs: A HAIR SHIRT!"

There was the time she--doubtless tired of the deaf ear I turned to most of her arguments--sent my sister-in-law into my bedroom to badger me into breastfeeding on a set schedule rather than on demand. I calmly confirmed my presence in the 21st century and said that she was welcome to remain in the 18th, if not my room.

There was the time the MIL, obsessed with Giacomo's weight and sure my breast milk wasn't enough and mystified by my adamant refusal to use aggiunte (formula supplements with crumbled cookies in them--yep, you read that right), forced my husband to rent a scale so that he (baby, not husband) could be weighed after every single feeding. I told her the only thing that contraption was fit for was weighing pork loins (or as a shoe horn for wedging her man feet into those outsize clodhoppers), and refused to use it.

Then there was the time my newborn daughter and I were visiting the Duomo one wintry morning and she decided to offload copiously while ensconced in one of those down-padded baby sacs. After heartily, if silently, cursing Arnolfo di Cambio for not including changing stations in his design, I decided to shrug it off. I figured I had about a half hour before significant seepage, so I went over to Max Mara and made a salesgirl hold Gemma while I tried on sweaters. This I did not tell the MIL. 

To all of these declarations of independence (and many more), the entire ferocious and fakakta Italian female Maternity Police--of which my mother-in-law is commander-in-chief--raised their collective shrewish voices in terrifying, hell-rousing, cacophonous union and


Yes they most certainly did.

"Now stop!" I said, and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper

Then I stepped into my private boat and waved good-bye, and sailed back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and through a day, and into the night of my very own room...

And there weren't any interfering bitches in there to spoil my supper.

The Queen of all Wild Things,
with her little fecal underachiever

As always, yours from the Tuscan trenches,


*The MIL would quote this verse to me during my first pregnancy, bless her idiotic black heart.