Friday, May 10, 2013

I died and went to Naples

Dear Readers,

Naples is a whore with a heart of gold.

Frowsy and magnificent, enchanting and appalling, exuberant and guarded, demanding of attention and cautious of careful scrutiny--it's impossible not to be seduced by this sybaritic siren and let her enfold you in her good-natured, knowing embrace. She may rob you, she may leave you spent and much the worse for wear, but you won't care--you'll only be thinking of how soon fate and smiling fortune will let you come back to her again.

This glorious, flamboyant city is the real deal: the deep, dark heart of Italy. Italia verace; Italy DOC. It's the Auntie Mame of Italian capitals; a bohemian rhapsody set in the most gorgeous bay on earth, watched over by a killer volcano as inscrutable as a reclining Buddha.

Like any woman of the world worth her salt, Naples is bursting with stories to tell: tales of passion, greed, calumny, corruption, love, politics. The whole bawdy history of the world is contained within her; no wonder the locals can't bear even the thought of living anywhere else.

Naples is a drug that no promise of rehab will ever entice you into eschewing. You can lose yourself in its exotic vapors and croak here spectacularly--but reluctantly, unsatiated--and spend Eternity plumbing its depths, never reaching the bottom.

The food alone is worth any effort to get here. It just may be the best place to eat in Italy these days: genuine and affordable, true to its roots, honest.

Sausage and friarelli pizza at Starita

If Naples is a whore, then Florence is the Homecoming Queen. Rather a bit too smug in her overwhelming popularity, this Renaissance city--art treasures aside--is in danger of descending into mediocrity and a sad, market-driven genericness. Like a beautiful woman so sure of her charms that she neglects to be kind, Florence lacks the soul--and that refreshing, exhilarating dose of genuineness--that Naples possesses in abundance.

Who wants a Heaven peopled by angels of perfection and symmetry? A clean, sterile, quiet mansion of soft footfalls and hushed voices where there are no more bawdy tales to hear but only pious contemplation? Give me littered streets full of noise and life, catcalls and cacophonous voices raised in joy and blasphemy. Give me beauty and ugliness jostling one another in a crowded metro, and give me human folly in all its splendid madness.

Give me Naples. And do with the rest what you will.

Forgive the veritable Vesuvius of exuberant hyperbole;
it was unavoidable,


Sophia Loren's got nothin' on my daughter

My son the aspiring pizzaiuolo gives Napoli
the big A-OK

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 2

...continued from the previous post's Part 1

But do Italian women even want to shout basta? Are they truly unhappy with their lot? The Family is still the linchpin of Italian society--a fact which permeates every molecule of existence in the Bel Paese, every aspect of public and private life. It is both a great asset as well as, depending on one's point of view, a great hindrance. Maybe Tobias Jones's feminism wasn't so much forgotten in this land as it was never really of the kind suitable to the majority of Italian women--whose ties to Family run so deep--and perhaps they're waiting for something uniquely Italian to take its place, something that would better allow for the role culture plays in their lives. But isn't culture also the problem? The thorns on the rose, so to speak? The crux is that Italian women are themselves integral to and collusive in the very cultural constructs some of them would seek to change.

Basta! Well maybe, sort of....

La mamma è sempre la mamma

Italy is still a rigidly patriarchal society, and it's no secret that within this society women are essentially enshrined upon the pedestal of motherhood (while paradoxically, in the words of one of my favorite bloggers, often being treated like "second-class citizens"*). Men like to think they're in charge, and in so many ways they are. Men are the jacket-clad TV show hosts to the giggling, half-naked women gyrating on stage, who allow their impossibly perfect derrières to be man-stamped "approved for consumption". Men cavort at the stadio while their wives take little Marco or Francesco to soccer practice and the dentist, do the shopping and laundry, and make sure dinner's on the table at 8. Only in Italy can men live with their mothers, wear underwear ironed by her, and still demand (implicitly or explicitly) that their girlfriends mortify their flesh in all manner of ways in order to be considered f***able.

But unpack these stereotypes a bit and you start to understand the power that Italian women wield, at least within the domestic sphere. In many ways, Italian women move through life confidently. Their position is assured, taken for granted, a given: they are keepers of the flame, the guardians of home and hearth, the center of the (often extended) family. Within this tight circle, they are typically the supreme authority (though they may give lip-service to male domination)--and as such typically enjoy respect from both within their social and familial sphere as well a hearty nod of approbation from society at large. Only in this capacity, perhaps, is it so easy and natural for Italian women to make a difference, to matter vitally, to rule with benevolence (despotic or otherwise), to have their efforts rewarded and contribute to some greater corporate good. Thus the creaky and callithumpian machinery of patriarchal Italy is paradoxically oiled by the love, sweat and tears of Italian women.

source: Il Vescovado

I've observed my female family members**--my various Italian in-laws--and, forgive my congenital skepticism, part of me can't help but wonder if Italian women get off on the domestic power trip because it's so often the only game in town. Certainly my Machiavellian MIL operates like a gremlin-sized Genghis Khan or a shriveled Sun King.

L'état, c'est moi

George Bernard Shaw said "the domestic career is no more natural to all women than the military career is natural to all men." But is domesticity, and the sense of satisfaction it brings--as one Italian female commentator seemed to imply in Part 1--somehow more indigenous to Italian women? Is it what matters most to them? And if so, have they been culturally conditioned to this response or do they just have their priorities straight and aren't afraid to admit it? Or is the answer perhaps sandwiched somewhere in between? I suppose there's always a fine line between making real choices and cultural coercion--a sort of gender-based free will vs. determinism conundrum--but I'd say that Italian women often seem to follow a script not entirely of their own creation.

A Florentine friend of my husband, who is married to an American woman and lives in the States, was recently in town and staying with his elderly mother. During his visit, he insisted on doing his own laundry--as is his habit in the New World--and hanging it out to dry on the balcony of their housing block. His befuddled mother begged him to let her do it, pleaded with him to stop--or at the very least to let her be seen hanging it out to dry as if she'd washed it herself so the neighbors wouldn't think she wasn't taking good care of her son. While undoubtedly this kind of thing can be drawn along generational lines to a large extent, is an exaggerated sense of the importance of duty and the female domestic role within the larger cultural context responsible for such zealotry? We've all seen those Italian homes: gleaming, crumbless, dust-bunny-free floors you can eat ravioli off of; bathroom fixtures as resplendent as the Elgin Marbles and wreathed in fumes of bleach and lavender; neat stacks of pressed jeans in the armadi along with crisp rows of dress shirts like so many soldiers ready for victory or at the very least an honorable death. Such an edifice to uphold.

And yet, and yet... Italian women elude easy stereotypes while at the same time appearing to reinforce them. They truly are remarkable creatures: strong, resilient, hard and soft, and capable of such fierce familial love. I think back through those events of the 20th century that stained this peninsula with blood and suffering, and I hear the voices of my husband's elderly aunts from the Mugello, telling stories of hunger and making do, of large families reduced to terrible poverty, of births and deaths and living off the land, and it seems to me that it is always the women: the women who bear the heaviest portion and keep the family from sinking into the abyss. And how these aunts, these wonderful steely ladies, show their capacity for joy; their laughs are like the delightful twittering of birds, their smiles deep and profound. They've raised their families well and are well-loved in turn, and I sense the sure, square peace they've made with their own brand of dharma. These are women who could rule the world.


It occurs to me that perhaps cultures develop symbioses in gender roles, or even coping mechanisms. If the traditional Italian man is a bamboccione, then the role of the Italian woman has perhaps evolved in such a way as to both complement and compensate for this--a kind of gender Darwinism, if you will. Or yin and yang (or--forgive me--spaghetti and tomato sauce). But the problem with this line of thought is that it doesn't take into account the fact that it is these same women who seed and nurture traditional Italian manhood in the first place--and thus gender Darwinism is replaced by a kind of odd what-comes-first-the-mammone-or-the-mamma? sort of argument.

My three sisters-in-law are examples of this. Each are raising her boys to be essentially helpless things--sweet, kind helpless things, to be sure, but helpless things nevertheless***. I often think of their poor future wives. And my nieces have clearly been groomed to assume the traditional mantle of caretakers to the sweet, helpless things they eventually marry. I can only hope and believe that this sort of thing is on the wane, and that my in-laws are--as they surely are in so very many ways--an aberration.

But, in more general terms, how can things change for Italian women--in the ways that many seem to want--if something doesn't change in the way Italian men are raised? And changing how men are raised implies a radical change in the culture behind such gender roles, doesn't it? (Media representations of women, an issue which is at the forefront of the current women's movement in Italy, are manifestations of a male worldview that is surely equal parts culture-nurture, for instance). The power that Italian women wield on the home front seems to be the coiled serpent lying at the base of Italy's spine, a kind of glorious kundalini goddess who need only awaken herself to her own manifest potential; the choice to use her formidable and loving influence in raising responsible, sensitive and aware men--ever-mindful of their future roles as husbands and fathers--is surely the obvious step toward the kind of feminism that perhaps makes more cultural sense in Italy. Of course, this means relinquishing a certain amount of traditional female control and the kind of co-dependency that it so often fosters; when mamma bear teaches her cub survival skills, it eventually goes off on its own into the wild to fend for itself. It probably won't come back and live with her until it's 40.


As to whether or not Italian women are completely at ease in their skin and content with the status quo, or whether or not they would fight for or seek change--well, that's something that only each individual woman can answer. With all that she has on her brimming plate, amid all the tasks she performs for her family so lovingly and so well, let's hope she remembers to ask herself the question.

*For more on the cultural angle regarding women in Italy and a window onto some of the current activities of the women's movement, I highly recommend this wonderfully interesting post by the excellent blogger/writer Michelle Tarnopolsky

**I've written about my SILs and Italian housewifely duties here.

***More anecdotal evidence regarding the raising of mammoni here.