IF YOU DON’T LAUGH, YOU’LL CRY
There’s living in Italy (cue the mandolin and beautiful people serving copious amounts of delicious food and wine)… and there’s LIVING IN ITALY (cue the honking cars and 10 kilos of pasta weight). One can be very very different from the other.
In one scenario, you are Diane Lane in that stupid Tuscan movie that everyone loves so much. In the other scenario you’re me, getting yelled at by the neighbor every day, “a couple your age should have a child, not a dog!”
Why does Italy look so glorious through the veil of a newly divorced American woman who has enough money to do nothing except restore a Tuscan villa? BECAUSE SHE’S NEWLY DIVORCED! She can dream about that sexy dude in the white linen suit without having to get the inevitable Lambrusco stains out and talk to his mamma every day. She hardly speaks or understands any Italian, so she can pass every day in blissful ignorance of the stuff people are saying about the way she dresses in town. She has no concept of what a “brutta figura” is, so she doesn’t notice when people judge her for speaking directly. She still thinks that lack of boundaries is charming!
There’s a lesser known sequel to ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. It’s set a few years later, after she is remarried to that sexy Italian man and is welcomed into a traditional Italian family.
It’s called ‘Screw This Place’.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My marito is awesome. I have no idea what I would do without him. But, as I think many people will agree, marriage is not just about the love between two people… you want to know what it’s REALLY like to be married to an Italian?
Let’s examine that dream image you have in your head. You know the one I’m talking about. The one where you find yourself face to face with a gorgeous, tall, dark, swarthy Mediterranean piece of eye candy (that’s you, my love)… his white shirt unbuttoned and flowing the light breeze of a sunny Italian morning. You’ve just entered the kitchen after a night of delirious love making to find him preparing a breakfast of fruit and wild berries with a little vase of freshly picked flowers from the Tuscan hills that are practically rolling right out of the living room’s open doors.
Really let that image settle in…
and then follow these simple instructions for me…
1. Remove the hills and replace the view out the window with an old lady hanging underwear on a clothing line and yelling at you, while peering into your apartment as much as possible so she can judge your sub par cleaning methods and un-ironed sheets. That whole Tuscan hill thing is bullpoop. Tuscan hills make up less than 8% of the land mass of Italy; the residents of Tuscan hills make up 6%, more than half of which are living in a dense town or city; half of the less than 1% of Italians living in detached villas on the top of a rolling Tuscan hill are a gender which you are most likely not interested in… or are married already. So get over the idea that you’re going to meet some gorgeous Italian who just happens to own a luxurious villa perched upon a hill. Please, let’s be realistic.
Remove the hills, replace them with a nosey neighbor, and we’re a little closer to accuracy.
2. Get rid of the sun. “Sunny Italia” is a myth that only applies to the southern half of the country, and even then not necessarily in winter. Keep in mind, Rome is more or less the same latitude as New York. Six months out of the year my sunny Texan self has to endure days and days of endless grey storm clouds, la nebblina (fog so bad it gets its own name), and general yuckiness. So, yeah, take away the sun… but then take it away for EVERY winter FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. This is where seasonal depression enters, and as the years pass you start to become a bitter, bitter person.
Keep imagining your scene… but with the nosey neighbor instead of hills, and the clouds instead of the sun…
3. No sooner does that light breeze pick up the corner of his shirt and start to pull back against his chest… than his mamma comes bolting through the door with a scarf to wrap around his neck and a stern warning about the drafts!
Italians have an intense fear of any sort of air movement, and it is said to cause all kinds of ailments. For sure, your dreamy Italian man would not be caught half-naked in any sort of breeze. His mamma will have felt the air movement ahead of time and noted from her balcony that your patio door was open, rushing over to offer her help in this time of crisis. She will have “knopened” the door (that’s when the person knocks WHILE opening the door), because there are no boundaries when it comes to La Famiglia. Everything that you imagined to be appropriate up until now is completely thrown out the window. It is not only socially acceptable for a family to be all up in each other’s business, it is encouraged and even desired! A family that is not all up your grill probably doesn’t like you very much.
Remember: good intentions are expressed via meddling; love is shown with force-feeding.
So now you’re closed up in this tiny apartment, it’s doing that freezing-rain-fog thing outside, and your dream man’s mamma is offering to cook up a little pork for lunch (yes, it’s 9am, but it’s never too early to start discussing the next meal).
He turns to you… gazes into your eyes… and says, “my mamma’s arrosto maiale is the best!”. You can now start to see how that dream you had can easily slip into a nightmare if you aren’t careful.
While my rant here is somewhat sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek (one might even say bitter), the point is this: Even with the most wonderful Italian man in the world at your side, it will be a constant struggle to recognize, communicate, and really understand why these cultural differences are so appalling that they’ve been classified as a form of shock.
If you don’t realize now that the dream you had in your head is just a wall blocking your view from reality, you will very likely hit that realization at full speed. You may even (to borrow a phrase from my fellow COSI blogger, Miss Evans) “freak the fuck out”, a sentiment with which I am QUITE familiar.
Sometimes it’s so ridiculous that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Every marriage requires work, but I believe that a cross-cultural marriage with an Italian also requires a healthy sense of humor. And an occasional meltdown.
THEN I FINALLY HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
By Rick Zullo of Rick’s Rome
The problem with Italian bureaucracy is not that it’s so dense…which it is, but I guess that could be said for most bureaucracy anywhere in the world. No, the endearing feature that gives the Italian brand of red-tape its own special degree of aggravation is that nobody seems to know the procedures, least of all the people whose job it is to do so. While you might think that this would produce some degree of compassion among these employees, the fact is that many of them appear to gain pleasure from their own incompetence. On four previous attempts to submit my residency application, the civic employee who was charged to help me and my fellow stranieri did little to hide her contempt for my type; which is to say anyone who interfered with her rigid schedule of coffee and cigarette breaks. She found any and every possible excuse to thwart my efforts with no inclination towards actually assisting me in the matter. Nonetheless, I was optimistic on my fifth attempt. I had my forms filled out properly, my tax stamp from the tobacco shop affixed in the right location, a certified copy of EVERY PAGE of my passport (yes, even the blank ones), and a sample of my blood for DNA analysis. Everything was perfect, no doubt. Proudly, I presented all of this to the pathetic little underling, trying to conceal my satisfaction. As she leafed through my papers, an evil grin slowly emerged from the corner of her mouth. “Signore, mi dispiace, ma quest inchiostro non e’ nero. E’ scuro, si, ma mi sembra una tonalita’ di blu. Deve rifarlo.” Sir, I’m sorry, but this ink isn’t black. It’s dark, yes, but it looks to be a shade of blue. You must redo it. And then I had a nervous breakdown.
EVERYTHING WAS COOL, THEN I FREAKED THE F%£& OUT
by M. Elizabeth Evans of Surviving In Italy
My first year in Italy was pretty rad so I wasn’t ready for things to be less than ideal. It wasn’t until I became serious with my husband that I really started to struggle. I was thrown into a southern Italian family and an Italian friend group with the assumption that I’d be accepted and in no time everyone would love me and we’d all be buddies. I was an idiot. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about shooting myself or at least getting addicted to heroin as every day I felt more and more like a small voice in my husband’s ear instead of three-dimensional person. Everything that I’d ever been taught was polite was interpreted as rude, I was bossed around, treated like a child. I was the outsider and none of my feeble attempts would help me to fit in. I couldn’t be myself anymore. I was weary to talk because my go-to subjects were always inappropriate somehow. Sarcasm? The hell? Everyone always talked to me with a “knowing” smile. My husband, admittedly, was embarrassed that I was American. Neither his friends, nor his family, took our relationship seriously. I was temporary, I was “fun,” I was disposable. Then they realized that the disposable thing wasn’t getting trashed. Things changed but instead of acceptance it was more like bitter defeat. Instead of avoiding the people who disliked our union instead we attached ourselves to them. We spent every vacation, every holiday, every other weekend, with his parents whose favorite thing to do in life is criticize. The family engulfed us. They controlled our life in subtle ways and large ones. My husband (then boyfriend) was okay with it, it was “normal,” but for an American, spending half of every vacation with your in-laws is unheard of, asking parental advice for every decision in your thirties is on par with a mental illness. It really got bad when his parents chose an apartment that they thought we should buy, they demanded I become Catholic (which I didn’t) and they fully expect our children to be indoctrinated, something that has already been brought up more than once. A simple, “no” should suffice but it doesn’t so I have to say,“If anyone is going to talk with my kids about masturbation, it’s going to be me, not a forty year old man who hasn’t had sex in three decades,” and that just offends everyone. My husband never wanted to speak up because he felt spoiled and ungrateful to disagree with them. Nothing was sacred. My mother-in-law would poke at my body and comment on it, I need a new hairstyle, I wear too much black. My father-in-law yells because I won’t fetch for my husband, I won’t clean up after him, I wouldn’t press his shirts (because it’s the 1600’s and his penis prevents him from pressing his own damn shirt?), for drinking coffee in the morning before taking a shower. When we came to the US my in-laws unpacked my luggage and repacked it while I stood by yelling, because, “I’m lazy, disorganized and don’t know how to pack.” They tried to talk my husband out of marrying me. When they came to our home in Florence, my mother-in-law would bring decor to furnish our home, orange and brown, and then reorganize as she saw fit. She would move my hand towels, I’d move thm back. It went on for days, the battle of the towels. Then, one day, I flipped the fuck out. I started packing my bags about the ten millionth time I was told my place as a woman and how my place was iron and clean (because it’s 1534). My husband married me because I’m not a “typical Italian woman,” so please, stop trying to make me one. My freak out caused a reaction of freak outs. It lead to my husband freaking out and then my in-laws . There was screaming, crying, wall punching and at some point I think someone even threw spaghetti. In the end they realized that they wouldn’t win the battle they thought they were fighting. It’s the little things that make life worth living. In the face of adversary scream, “THIS WAS PERSIA!” and win with boundaries. The most difficult part of moving to Italy was the communication barrier, learning to laugh at the fact that I’m always “weird,” and becoming part of an Italian family and learning how to put my foot down. The fact that I was willing to stand up for myself made them choose their battles more wisely. Italians are tough, if you’re going to live in peace you have to set boundaries, stick with them, and be unmovable. In my husband’s family it worked. Now, they still drive me crazy, of course, but it’s an amount that I can sanely manage. We’re all happier now and I can focus on the parts of Italy that I like instead of suffering through one nervous breakdown after another.
4 thoughts on “Our collective nervous breakdown.”
I am in the process of renewing my Permesso di Soggiorno for the 5th time, so I am aware of the delights of this system…different every time I try. Every time I have to go to the Questura I hold my breath and hope for the best.
I was married to an Italian man 40 years ago and had the whole family thing. They were all great except for his sister who was EVIL. I gave up and went back to Australia for 25 years.
Debra, why did you have to renew it a 5th time? I think I was told after 5 years you dont have to keep renewing it-who knows though, this information is probably wrong. Nothing surprises me here anymore. So, did you return to Italy or are you in Australia?
I loved reading this and I have experienced signore telling me off for wearing sandals while it was raining, at least I think she was telling me off, I couldn’t understand a word so just stood there and let her rant then watched her shake her head and finger at me and walk away, but I have also seen mouthwatering pictures of what can only be delicious food your marito cooks and photos of your new old house and can’t help swooning and hanging out for your next post 🙂
Ben fatto ragazzi. I feel your pain, keep on seeing the funny side of things!