My small, manageable Italo-Mangiacake wedding.

As you read this, I am scant days away from walking down the aisle. At the ripe old age of 45, I have found my honey-bunny, and will be tying the knot. Honey-bunny is Italian. I am a Mangiacake, the Italian word for WASP. “Mangiacake” and the corresponding short form “caker” have a surprisingly benign connotation; they entered the lexicon when Italian immigrants observed the highly-refined, nutritionless white bread their WASP neighbours favoured, and remarked that they might as well mangia (eat) cake.

Honey-bunny and I have our differences, but our cultures don’t collide: they sort of enter the intersection at the same time, lean on their horns and try haltingly to find a way around each other. In fact, it’s the little cultural differences that I find interesting:

  • Italy is a centre of world-class wine production; Woodbridge is not. The stuff you find at the dinner table in the recycled Gallo bottle is not to be taken lightly, and you may be surprised at the novel and adventurous spirit contained therein. If you want to play it safe, beverages to be consumed at an Italian dinner, in order of preference, are: commercial wine, fruit beverages, table water, nothing, homemade wine. Be alert when someone seems a little too eager that you “try this wine.”
  • The national sport of Italy is not soccer: it is shouting at people you love. In WASP culture, shouting is seen as a breakdown in communication; in Italian culture, it is communication.
  • Dinner at 7:30 is normal. 6:30 is early. 6:00 is strange. 5:30 is highly suspect. 5:00 is for geriatrics and housepets.
  • A significant focus of Italian weddings is organized eating. There is often a shot of grappa, limoncello or brandy at the entrance, and possibly a small treat. Then there is usually an antipasto table. After that is a bread plate and possibly an appetizer (not to be confused with the thing at the door or the antipasto bar). After that is the pasta dish, then the main. At some point there will be a salad and dessert. Then there is a break from eating when speeches and dancing occur, followed by slices of wedding cake and more eating closer to midnight when a sandwich bar / cookie table / whole roast pig appears. This is the Olympics of eating, and requires strategy, pacing and discipline. The cost of all this food is also the reason Italians give “bustas” at weddings, envelopes with cash inside, instead of gifts: the price tag of an eight-course meal and side snacks for 300 people is enough to bankrupt a small town.
  • Dinner at someone’s house is a less baroque affair than at a wedding, although no less packed with food. The difference between WASP and Italian culture is that although there may be some conversation after dinner in WASP households, in Italian culture the end of the meal marks the beginning of several hours of conversation involving your health, politics, a roundup of what each cousin, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, nonna and nonno are doing, and why don’t you want to have kids anyways isn’t that the whole point of getting married?
  • Intimacy in Italian culture means hugging strangers and kissing people on both cheeks. Intimacy in my culture means eye contact.
  • Immigration stories are much richer when you can tell the tale of a weeks-long transatlantic crossing and voyage down the St. Lawrence vs. “Somebody came over from Scotland. On a boat. Probably. A long time ago. I think there was sheep rustling involved.”
  • “I’m Italian” is a convenient excuse for a variety of behaviours, including “I’m in a bad mood right now,” “I’d like to drink a third glass of wine,” “I want to yell at you” and “There’s no way we’re having dinner at 5:30.”
  • Italian mothers are the best cooks. It’s not an exaggeration or a cliche: it’s just the truth.
  • There are never enough crosses in an Italian household, to the best of my knowledge.

Then there are the big differences, and family has to be the biggest. Arthur Miller wrote “There is nothing more important than family,” and family has to be the defining aspect of Italian culture. Miller’s anti-hero Joe Keller places family above everything else for all the wrong reasons, but that’s fiction. Observing how family is the centre of gravity for my fiancee is entirely benign and novel; it exerts a subtle pull that seems to reinforce ties instead of tightening them. I always felt like I had a pretty normal upbringing, but without the family centre I see with my fiancee: for all the minor drama that kicks off now and then, it has a stabilizing influence.

My family drifted apart somewhat and then came back together later in life after illness and divorce, and to help my aging parents out; I get the sense that my fiancee’s family never really ever began to drift.

I’m interested and slightly apprehensive to see what happens when both sides come together for the rehearsal dinner. There will be differences in culture and opinion. There will also be pizza, and we will be eating at 7:30, so I think everyone’s a winner

The Dog Days Are Over

“The dog days are over. The dog days are done. Can you hear the horses? ‘Cause here they come.” – Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over.”

It was a cool morning in early April, the kind that sees cities and towns across Canada peek out from their winter cover and ask, “Is it really over?” Nobody wants to jinx the arrival of spring, but every Canadian hopes and longs for that day – that one day – when the warmth is here to stay, and the mercury promises to not plunge for at least another six months.

This was just such a day. I can’t remember the exact date, but I remember the warmth and the blinding sunshine reflecting off dirty grey snow banks on the roadside, with cigarette cartons and coffee cups slowly melting from their icy tombs.

I too was waking up from a long, hard winter. I had separated from my long-time girlfriend a few months prior, and had found refuge in my sister’s century-old midtown Toronto semi-detached. Down the street was a cul de sac with Canada’s first planned neighbourhood and a pond with a warning sign for (curiously enough) quicksand. On the other side of the backyard was a former maintenance yard for streetcars, now artists’ lofts and a farmer’s market on the weekend. Down the main drag was an upscale bakery, a Mexican restaurant and the city’s best fried chicken, among other jewels. As both a member of the walking wounded club and an inveterate urban explorer, this was therapy.

Each week I would bike or wander to a new part of the neighbourhood, and discover a new gem: a hidden chocolate shop, a new restaurant I could procrastinate visiting, a nondescript Buddhist meditation retreat I never knew existed. The century-old cityscape gave me something to look forward to and explore. I wandered, coming a little further out from under the hurt and sadness of my breakup, a turtle poking his head out of his shell.

The neighbourhood was only part of the recovery process; my sister’s place and its residents were the other. The house was a random, glorious, somewhat run-down affair, featuring a neurotic niece, two cats and the world’s dumbest hound dog. The floors squeaked, the taps didn’t work very well and I needed a space heater in the unheated second-story room I occupied. In spite of that, it was exactly what I needed: an open door. Nobody asked when I was planning to leave. Nobody told me what to do or nagged or screamed or threw anything; there was just the dog, the cats, the niece, my sister and peace & quiet. This refuge was decorated with an old piano, every “Doctor Who” DVD ever made, a red currant bush in the backyard that produced edible fruit, and a hibachi that dependably leaked ash onto the back porch. It was like walking into the domestic version of an absent-minded professor’s study, and I adored it.

One day early in my tenure, the residents figured I needed cheering up post-breakup, and they threw “Mark Appreciation Week.” We went to a comedy club, dinner, a play and other things I can’t remember anymore. I couldn’t remember anyone ever being that kind to me without expectation of reward, and certainly not in the years leading up to it. That should tell you everything you need to know about the importance of that place at that point in my life.

So I spent my time being and exploring. On the early April morning in question, I had decided to walk west down the main drag to see what there was to see: a Peruvian restaurant; an Eastern Orthodox church, complete with onion dome; a Portuguese grocery; espresso bars populated exclusively by old men speaking a language that sounded like Italian but wasn’t; travel agencies with peeling signs that hadn’t been renovated in decades. It was a dog’s breakfast of sites and sounds, none of it glamorous and all of it glorious in its own idiosyncratic, rough-around-the-edges way, a perfect echo of the lovely chaos of my sister’s home.

That day, wandering in the cool sunshine without a goal, a pop song about dog days being over came into my head. I’m a firm believer in the subconscious’s ability to communicate with the higher mind, and as my feet took me in unplanned and unconscious directions, the realization dawned on me that my dog days were, in fact, over.

That was over four years ago. My sister is vacating the house, downsizing after both my niece and I moved out, and another niece and nephew took up residence for university and moved out in turn. My sister will be moving into a one-bedroom in what promises to be tidier and more up-to-date digs, but probably with less chaos and personality. I’ll miss the house and the memories of washing up there after my storm, putting the pieces of my life back together, trying to play a piano badly in need of tuning, eating messy take-out from the barbecue joint down the street, cat hairs in my cereal and a dozen other random, happy thoughts.

I remember walking down the street that day in the sunshine when the lyrics from a pop song popped into my head to let me know that after all the heartache and tribulations, Mark Appreciation Week and unconditional acceptance, the dog days were over.