grandparents

Myths about Italy: 1. Italians love children

Some stereotypes are so strong and well established internationally that they will be the first thing you hear when meeting a foreigner. I have a beautiful, über smart Brazilian friend who owns more PhDs than all the people I know but keeps being asked on first meetings about her mastering of samba. I have been asked a thousand times about Berlusconi, who apparently has become a synonymous of Italy as Mafia and Pizza. Since I had kids, though, all the foreigners I cross paths with are eager to tell me about Italian mothers. It varies between “Ah, an Italian mamma, always around her children” and “Ahhhh, children in Italy are treated like kings! All Italians love children!” and then, when they are a certain age, they take a dreaming look and start recollecting stories from traveling on the Italian coast in the 70s, when kids would play football on the streets and someone was always around giving them candies and distributing kisses and hugs.

The Wall Street Journal even dedicated last year an article to the apology of Italian-American mothers, described as “warm, affectionate, passionated and generous”.

This perfect picture illustrated the WSJ article on Italian mothers

I feel compelled to reestablish the truth: Italians DO NOT love children. The loving, brave, patient and constantly kissing Italian mother is a thing of the past.

Wandering around with children, surrounded by Italian families, is an anthropological epiphany. Neurotic is the nicest thing I can say of Italian parents. Or, to be honest, grandparents, for parents are rarely around to be seen.

Children are never talked to as small individuals but the sort of attention they get resembles more the type you’d give to your favorite pet. As pets, they are kept on a leash and constantly reminded of the imaginary dangers they could run into if they, simply, live. The bush they are climbing could break, and let them fall down, injure their spine and end up in a wheeling chair for the rest of their life. They can’t swim in the lake because it harbors a monstrous dragon, ready to eat them alive. They can’t run too fast because they could have a heart attack. I have personally heard all of these things.

Motherhood is less a choice than a chore. The main Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has produced a web mini-series, aired a few weeks ago, which was widely praised: “Una mamma imperfetta” (An imperfect mum). It tells the story of a 40-something mother and her best friends, juggling work, home and kids and basically trying to hide from their life in every single episode. They giggle when the perfect mother (which means decently dressed, actively involved) has a hole in her tights and they line up every friday morning in evening black dresses to stalk the handsome dad of the school. Grandparents and fathers always save the day while mothers are constantly too exhausted to interact or even educate their brats.

I have already written about the outlandish arrangements of the average Italian family, where parents outsource child-rearing to grandparents while they are apparently too busy living their forever-teenager life.

Nowhere else I have witnessed so clearly an innate lack of accountability. A child is constantly lied to (as in the horrific lake monster story), officially for safety reasons, and whenever he breaks the rules he’s justified by his brainless child status, which usually continues to provide an alibi till teenage.

From time to time, the neurotic Italian parent will yell at his child for some trivial reason. Preferably in a crowded place, so that everybody can listen to his show of paternal authority. The humiliated child will listen quietly, then turn his back and start doing whatever he was doing wrong all over again.

No one is ever taught the simple relations of cause and effect or the meaning of being responsible. Would you teach your dog about responsibility, when you can keep it out of troubles by walking him on a tight leash?

Then people wonder why the vice president of Italian Senate can call a black minister “orangutan” and then refuse to resign, as a naughty child refuses to apologize for his pranks.

Going home and living in a bubble: when you take a holiday from expatriation

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Everybody needs a holiday once a year. Some need physical rest, some others a change of scenery. Some need time to spend with their loved ones and yet some need space to find their true selves. My expat self (which counts for a shocking percentage of the whole thing) needs its own vacation from time to time. Going to the homeland is not enough, as an expat often goes through a phenotypic transformation that prevents any true relaxation in familiar surroundings. I have to confine myself to my parents’ house, in the middle of a sun-kissed countryside, rich in olive trees and vineyards and cats. And not much else, to be honest. Here I am not an expat, nor a mother and not even an adult. It’s my personal Neverland.

My two decades of expatriation translate to my parents as a series of odd and worrying eating habits (some years I rant about the importance of organic, some others on my new egg-dairy-wheat free regimen, this year I am all into protein and greens powder in my morning smoothie…); a mild weight gain related to growing old, having kids and living in a sun-deprived country and maybe (maybe!) a surge of occasional wisdom. That’s it. They never asked a single question on how life is out of the national borders or who I made friends with or what people say, up there, about us down here. They don’t care. I am just their child and as unnerving as it was in the early expatriation years, when I just wanted to tell them over and over again how cool I was for living abroad my little adventure, I ultimately find it relaxing. The show is over for a few weeks and since none is interested in my personal philosophy I can even take some time off from my usual rantings.

My children are the actual stars of the season and I can’t even compete. Who’d want to spend time with an almost middle-aged and compulsively dieting child when you can hang around with a couple of blondish, angelic-faced little things who will love you more for every candy you hand them? And what child would obey to the same ol’ lady he sees and hears every day when reality suggests she’s not boss anymore?

So that is how I stop being a mother in my little home bubble . My children don’t recognize my authority anymore and deliberately choose to follow the grandparents’ lead. Which is always sugar-coated. Literally.

There was a time when I tried revolution. You know, teenage style. Like telling my parents all the time how child rearing was a different story up north, how they were stuck in pre-liberal era, how we should educate children to become independent individuals and not spoiled pets. How plastic toys were to be banned, as were DVDs and candies. How mine was a sugar free house and how “youknowsugarisreallybad”, how modern people live now and eat healthily and so “no carbs please, what with all that pasta?”. It didn’t work. I didn’t insist.

I now enjoy this magic place where I can retreat to my room as my 16 years old self (minus the oily skin and the perpetual love chagrin) and when I occasionally switch on my hearing to catch my mother telling her grandsons that “there is a big, nasty man going around houses to take away all the naughty children” in the same way her mother used to talk me into eating my lunch I don’t care anymore. I’ll tell them later there is no such thing as the nasty man, in case they’d be actually worried about him. In the meantime I’ll just lie down and savor the free time.