Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mamma Mia!

Since we just celebrated Mother's Day (La Festa della Mamma), I thought I'd give you the lowdown on what Italian mammas are really like.

Here's a photo of my mom (on the left) and my mother-in-law (on the right) taken last year when my parents came to visit. My parents and parents-in-law get along really well with each other, in spite of the fact that they don't speak each other's language (or is it because they don't speak the same language...?).

Anyhoo...let's review the stereotypes of the typical Italian mamma:
1. great cook
2. insists everyone eats, even after they're full
3. rules the roost--no one argues with mamma once she's made up her mind
4. loves her children above all else

Well, like many stereotypes, these are all...absolutely true.

There's a saying in Italy that goes like this: La mamma รจ sempre la mamma, which means: Your mother will always be your mother. Now, an American might interpret that as "Your mother will always love you and be there when you need her."

What it means to an Italian is: Your mother will always be there for you. Literally. Even when you don't need her help. Just look over your shoulder--'cause there she is.

I once saw a documentary in the U.S. on Italian mammas and their mammone--which translates as "mamma's boys." They interviewed couples where the man was Italian and the woman either American or English, and every single girlfriend or wife complained about how their boyfriend's/husband's mother hovered over them like a helicopter. One man lived in the town next to his mother's town, and he'd put his bag of dirty laundry on the bus, the mother would pick it up at the bus stop in her town, wash his clothes, iron them, and then send them back via the bus.

My first reaction to this was: Give me a break! My second (more rational) reaction was: Hmmm...I wonder if I could get my mother-in-law to do this?

In interacting with other moms my own age, I've learned a few golden rules of Italian mamma-hood.

1. Sweating is bad.
My daughter took a gym class a few years ago, where the kids would run around, get a little sweaty, and then the moms would pick them up. When I came to get my daughter, I'd greet her, ask what games they played, and take her home. Big faux pas. Little did I know that I was supposed to go to the locker room, feel her sweaty forehead, make a tsk tsk sound with my tongue and shake my head while I say: "Sei tutto sudata," which means "You're all sweaty." Then I was supposed to change her undershirt, put on a fresh shirt over that, comment again about how sweaty she was, whip out the hair dryer and dry her sweaty bangs. Then, and only then, could I take her home. This rule leads us to the next one:

2. No sweating allowed if there's any sort of breeze or draft whatsoever.
Here's my line of thinking: If it's hot outside and you're sweaty, it's nice when a breeze comes along to cool you off. Here in Italy, however, this leads to instant pneumonia. Italian bambini wear undershirts even in the summer, in case they sweat. Huh? you might say, Wouldn't the fact that they're wearing an extra shirt make them sweat even more? Correct. But the thinking here is that if your child sweats, the first line of pneumonia defense is the undershirt. You see, a breeze would blow against the dry outer shirt, while the undershirt would absorb the sweat. Then, in a practiced 3-second maneuver, your mother would change your undershirt so the process can start all over again.

3. Your child may starve if not fed every few hours.
If my 5-year-old is not eating her pasta, my mother-in-law will pick up the fork and offer to feed her. If a toddler refuses his snack, his mother (or grandmother--same difference) will chase him around the house, plying him with other snack options. When I used to tell my mom I was hungry right before dinner time, she'd say, "You're supposed to be hungry--it's almost dinner time." When I used to pick up my daughter from gym class, at 5:45 and she told me she was hungry, another mother would overhear and offer her a cookie.

I scoffed at these rules--surely I'd never become an Italian mamma. But then I started sending my kids to school in undershirts even when it was warm outside...I mean, what would the teachers think of my undershirt-less children? What if the other mothers caught on that my children were actually sweating at recess time without the pneumonia blocker? And if my kids announce their hunger in public right before dinner time, I've been known to concede the occasional cookie. I'm just doing it for appearance's sake, I'd tell myself. So the other mothers wouldn't call social services on me.

And then my parents came to visit last year. We were outside our apartment with no Italians in sight, when I told my girls to go in and get a sweater. My mom looked at me like I was from another planet. "But Natalie," she said. "It's 75 degrees outside."

Eep. She was right. I'd told my daughters to put on a sweater because a slight breeze was blowing. Argh! Although I'm not a full-fledged Italian mamma, I'm not a 100% American mom anymore, either. I am somewhere in between.

But once my kids are grown, they're doing their own laundry...


Anonymous said...

HI Natalie- This one had me cracking up! I have to tell you that my mom (as you know, she is a born and bred American) gives me a hard time when Erin and Garrett aren't in undershirts. She has even been know to buy a couple. Of course, this happened during an east coast winter not 75 degrees ! ;)

My mom also likes to tell of how when Eli was a baby, she refused to keep socks on him. When her grandmother would visit, the grandmother would hold Eli's feet in hers hands- maybe another way to ward off pneumonia?

Talk to you soon!

Anonymous said...

Do their own laundry? Um, yeah . . . right.

Better get the bus schedules from all the surrounding towns now.


Natalie said...

Hey Karen!

I never knew Sally was an undershirt kind of gal. But I guess I can understand the undershirt obsession from grandmothers...but Italian moms my age act this way! Maybe it's just me? I promise not to pack a single undershirt when we come this summer. :-)

Ha, Debi! To that, I say: Don't let the laundry ride the bus! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Natalie,

I love reading your blog! You forgot to tell everyone about the fear of cross-breezes. I always open up my house to get a nice cross-breeze; but I don't live in Italy. :-)


rilla jaggia said...

Hey Natalie,
Had to weigh in on the undershirts. I grew up in India which I would imagine is way hotter than Northern Italy. We always wore undershirts. To protect your pants you wore underpants and to protect your shirt you wore an undershirt! Quite simple really. And it sure did keep our starched white school uniform blouses from getting large sweat stains from a full day at school. No one ever gets pneumonia in India...so it must work ;)

Natalie said...

Hi Sharon!

Yes, the cross breeze here also = instant pneumonia...especially if the breeze blows across your neck and/or back. My mother-in-law has been horrified to see my children playing in a room with a cross breeze. At least I dress them in undershirts when she's around. ;-)

Thanks for weighing in on the undershirt phenonmenon...are you sure you aren't a teensy bit Italian?? Or maybe it has something to do with countries beginning with the letter I...

Anonymous said...

I'm catching up and totally laughing here. I remember when I went to Italy when I was twelve and mio zio, really my great uncle, kept telling me to put on a sweater (we're talking Milano in July) and I wasn't supposed to put ice in my drinks because I'd get a stomachache. I have to say that's where I stop being Italian. What is it with Europeans and lukewarm drinks? LOL!

Anonymous said...

Woops! signed that last comment with my pen name.


Anonymous said...

I am going to send my sister to this blog b/c this post finally explains our mother! She passed away almost 2 years ago, having never returned to Trieste after she married and came to the U.S. in '52 w/our dad. We grew up knowing that some of her practices were just weird ... you've explained it all! We hope to visit Trieste w/our dad in the fall ... I'll keep reading your blog in the meantime!

Natalie said...

Ciao Patrizia!

I definitely miss the ice in drinks, too. Italians say that cold drinks "block your digestion," whatever that means! :-)

Ciao Marinella's kid,
What a nice post! Was your father an American soldier stationed here? I'm glad you're enjoying the blog, and let me know when you're here next fall!

Mary Witzl said...

Wow: Italian mammas and Japanese mamas have a lot in common! Undershirts are de rigeur in Japan and all good mothers have a change of clothes on them in case their kids fall into a lake or something -- I kid you not. I could not count how many times someone gave me the evil eye as I accompanied one of my grimy kids home on the train. And every good Japanese mama knows that a child not offered nutrition every three hours might faint dead away.

Do make your kids do their own laundry: it can be done. I stopped doing my 16-year-olds when I saw that she was changing her clothes up to three times a day, casually flinging the discarded outfits into the laundry basket. Must have been her Japanese upbringing that made her so cavalier -- all those changes of undershirts.