The Importance of Being Italian

I’ve learned several important things being married to a Canadian-Italian woman. Things that define the Italian community I’ve been grafted onto. Things I never really paid attention to when I was young, but which I do now that I’m older. Here are the top three:

The importance of family

I had a pretty decent family growing up. A decent, whitebread WASP-Irish middle-class family. As a kid, I thought we were pretty tight. When I met my wife, all that was blown away as I learned about Italian families, including…

  • Weddings with 400 guests (and a whole roast pig trotted out around midnight).
  • Visiting the in-laws regularly and spending five hours sitting around the dinner table, talking and eating.
  • Attending every communion, confirmation, birthday and other significant occasion for every niece, nephew and mother/father/brother & sister-in-law.
  • Vacationing together.

This didn’t happen in my family, partly because of distance (being scattered around several different provinces and states, depending on the year), but also because we simply weren’t close the way my wife’s family is. Everyone went their separate ways after growing up, and the broader web of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins was similarly scattered, estranged or just not that connected. Time and our parents’ infirmity brought my siblings and me back together, but my wife’s family has never lost that connection.

They have an advantage, living in the same city, but they enjoy a stronger connection that gets reinforced with every text, call and family event.

Arthur Miller wrote that nothing is bigger than family. Miller wasn’t Italian, but the sentiment is. Growing up in my house, family was important, but not everything. For Italians, family is everything.

The importance of food

The main disadvantage of growing up in a whitebread WASP-Irish household was the food. We never lacked for any, and it was good, basic food. When I say “good,” I mean it in the nutritional sense of the word, not “good” in the way Italian mothers apply it to food, which is a celebration, an event and a show of love. Food in Italian households is so important, it’s almost a competition: people will talk about how good someone is at making pasta, how their homemade sausage stacks up, or how crisp their crostoli are.

My family was content to just have something edible on the table. It didn’t have to be gourmet (how many helpings of East-coast delicacies such as boiled potatoes and fried haddock I ate, I’ll never recall) but mom certainly tried. Not to the level that she felt she was in competition with anyone, but she tried.

That’s not the way it works in traditional Italian households. At least as a guest, meals are a multi-stage affair, with a range of antipasti greeting you when you walk in, then the various courses, followed by dessert and a fruit tray after that, maybe with some chestnuts or something similar.

Food and family go hand-in-hand: one facilitates the other. As you eat, you talk and come together. Bonds are renewed and strengthened, and it’s a perfect opportunity to comment on how much better nonna’s gnocchi are than the ones you had at so-and-so’s last week. Food makes it all happen.

The importance of talking

The national sport of Italy is supposed to be soccer. This is not true. The national sport of Italy and its diaspora is TALKING REALLY LOUD.

As kids, we were discouraged from talking too much, especially at the dinner table. Dad’s constant refrain was “I’m trying to eat!” This was a command to give dad a rest from idle chatter after a hard day’s work. We weren’t an expressive bunch, something I chalk up to the dour Scots-Irish genes running through our DNA, equal parts quiet reserve and emotional constipation.

I can’t imagine ever being told not to talk in an Italian household: conversation is an essential social lubricant. Volume is a whole other ballgame. I keep trying to explain to my wife that her “disagreement” is my “arguing” and her “raised voice” is my “yelling.” Growing up, not only was witty and vibrant conversation kept to a minimum, but raised voices were considered dangerous, a failure to keep emotions in check. In Italian households, it would be unusual and highly suspect for people not to raise their voices, and would indicate some deeper problem.

Putting it all together

It might sound comical, but these are significant differences. Family, food and talking weren’t venerated in my household the way they are in my wife’s, and millions like hers. Does that mean I had a lesser upbringing? No. My family prioritized lots of things, from education to stability. Each family is unique. None is better than another simply because of what they hold dear.

I’ve come to accept the volume of our conversations. The food is even easier to embrace. The family thing grew on me: a younger me couldn’t have understood its value, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s importance has become clear.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood for my wife’s. Except for the food.

The Mayor of the Market

I have seen my retirement. It is delicious.

He used to hang around Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto, but I haven’t seem him in a long time. I don’t visit midtown much since moving out in 2010, so I don’t know what became of him.

The first time I saw him, I couldn’t decide whether he was homeless or a millionaire. He looked in his late 50s, with a smoothly shaved head, a deep, lurid tan, an earring and a big belly. His clothes were on the rough side of casual, but not ragged. He seemed to be everywhere: at the hot dog cart, occasionally helping the owner; on the corner watching the world go by; installed in shops here and there.

Everywhere I saw him, he was talking to people, casually and easily, like an old friend catching up, without a care in the world. His whole reason for being seemed to be to watch the world go by.

His Lordship, The Mayor

I nicknamed him “The Mayor,” because he acted like he was in charge of the neighbourhood, somehow responsible for its smooth operation, relying on a mix of casual observation and small talk. He seemed so natural and at ease, with no pressing or prior commitments, in some kind of laid-back, Buddha-bellied communion with the neighbourhood and its people. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I want to be the mayor of somewhere.

Of course, maybe none of that was true. Maybe he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. Maybe he was injured and on disability, with nothing to do but kill time. Maybe he really was a millionaire, and enjoying his neighbourhood was his idea of a plum retirement. I like to think the latter was true, because the idea of spending my golden years tending my neighbourhood appeals deeply to me.

My neighbourhood has none of the yuppie ambition or sleek lines of Yonge & Eglinton. Gentrification has largely passed it over, thanks in no small part to a mix of public housing and heritage protection. In my neighbourhood you’re as likely to run into a busker with three teeth and a sailor’s mouth as you are a bright young thing from condoland. There isn’t the variety of chic boutiques Yonge and Eg has sprouted, but the hustlers and collectors at the antique market will sell you anything from Roman coins to Tinkertoy for the right price. My hood lacks the pretense that dogs much of Toronto, and the epicentre of that authenticity is its eponym: St. Lawrence Market.

Still Life with Pork Chop

The Market holds a special place in my heart, grown over four years of living next door. My wife and I took most of our wedding photos inside, she in her immaculate white wedding gown trailing across the scruffy concrete, me in my tux. Our favourite photo features us posing in front of rows of pork chops at one of the butchers.

There’s nothing elegant about the Market. It resembles nothing so much as a cross between an overgrown barn and a collection of roadside stalls. Any ambience is a byproduct of the chaotic jumble of boxes and people crammed into a city block, hitting a fever pitch Saturdays when Toronto descends en masse.

Duelling green grocers try to establish whether you’re inadvertently trying to pay for the other guy’s zucchini. Boxes of spices overflow in the basement bulk shop, surely Toronto’s cheapest aromatherapy. A butcher rings a cowbell seemingly at random. Is it to celebrate a significant sale? Does it mark the hour? Is it just random boredom? Who knows?

The Stories that Make a Place

I’ve discovered the Market’s idiosyncrasies and details, both cryptic and trivial, over the years, like the name of the flower guy I buy a rose from each week for my wife. I know where the prison used to be when the Market was Toronto’s town hall, shackles hanging from the wall. I’ve learned that if you wait till 3:00 on a Saturday, you can find fish that’s been marked down at least once, and maybe twice. I know that the German-sounding deli is actually run by a Greek family. (“Odysseus” is the best name ever for a cheese-monger. It makes me think of some intrepid soul embarking on a ten-year journey to bring back the finest Camembert from around the globe)

Farther afield is the lunch place I visit each Saturday, where the owner knows my order before I even set foot inside (chicken salad with an extra falafel), and the barber who regales me with the latest on which businesses are moving in or out.

That’s what makes a place a neighbourhood: people and their stories. A neighbourhood needs context and history, roots and randomness, knit together by people you want to get to know. It never ceases to amaze me that in a city as big and cool-to-the-touch as Toronto, there are still places like that. That’s  why when I think of what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 (if I’m still around, healthy and financially solvent) the thought of just being a part of the place appeals to me: sampling the cheese at Scheffler’s, listening to the guitar player compete with the Dixieland combo for change, recognizing toys from my childhood at the antique market, helping out here and there if people need a hand. The thought of becoming part of the neighbourhood by becoming one its stories makes me happy.

Maybe I should visit Yonge & Eglinton to see if the mayor’s still around. Maybe I can tease his story out of him, and find out if I was right. It’s probably better if I just leave his story in my imagination intact, because if I’m right and he was (or still is) the Mayor of Yonge & Eglinton, I feel like there’s a precedent, and maybe I can become the Mayor of the Market.

Who Killed Journalism?

Spoiler alert: not the internet.

I was in journalism school in 1993 when someone from Halifax’s now defunct Daily News visited our class, to explain how newspapers could use a new technology called “The World Wide Web.” They demonstrated the cutting edge of interactivity at the time, a cartoon where you hit a politician on the head with a hammer. The politician made a funny face and a noise when you whacked him. We laughed, filed it away as light entertainment, and got on with the serious business of learning how to report the news. We should have paid more attention. Virtually every news outlet in the world similarly underestimated, misunderstood or ignored the internet’s impact on their business until it was too late. As a result, we may be witnessing journalism’s final death throws.

26 years after that cartoon, journalism still fundamentally doesn’t understand the internet. Newspapers have had over almost 30 years to come to grips with the online world. The fact that they haven’t is due less to the internet and more to bad management.

The internet will kick your ass

30 years is an eternity online, but peanuts in the history of journalism: newspapers have been around for about 350 years. That difference in time span might explain journalism’s inability to adjust and keep pace with technology, but doesn’t excuse it. Three missteps highlight that inability to change:

  1. Insistence on the subscription model.
  2. Misuse of paywalls.
  3. Ignoring the problem until too late.

I don’t subscribe to your point of view

Subscriptions are a relic from a time when you could save money by signing up for a year’s worth of news. On one hand, it was cheaper than buying a newspaper at the corner every day, and on the other it provided dependable, yearly revenue to the publishers. Subscriptions worked well when people had no choice but to receive a large chunk of dead tree on their doorstep daily, and had to wade through ads and sections they weren’t interested in, to get to the stuff they wanted. You paid for all of it: the stuff you wanted and the stuff you didn’t, because you had no say in the matter.

People now have a very large say in the matter. We cherry-pick the content we’re interested in. Editors no longer dictate what content we receive, which makes the subscription model not only irrelevant, but undesirable. Why pay for an automotive or lifestyle section you’re not interested in? Why pay for something to be delivered every day if you only want to read it when something tweaks your fancy?

Unfortunately, journalism has been unable to imagine a future without subscriptions. Micro-payments haven’t taken off, which leaves publishers to either put up a paywall or bleed cash. The former rarely work, and the latter is a dead-end.

The great paywall of nope

Paywalls generally haven’t worked, because (surprise) people aren’t willing to pay for something they can get for free, and until every journalism outfit in the world starts coordinating their efforts, you can usually find a free version of any given story somewhere.

Paywalls also reduce readership, forcing newspapers to choose between a smaller readership that pays for the product, or a larger one they can monetize for ad revenue. It’s a devil’s bargain, and the paper loses either way.

Time was on their side

There’s no easy fix for journalism’s cyber-woes. However, after almost 30 years of the World Wide Web, no major news outlet has been able to come up with a more creative response than forcing people to pay for something they can get for free. This is neither a vision for the future, nor a strategy, nor management acumen: it’s what happens when you ignore a problem until you can’t anymore. 30 years is more than enough time to figure out how to make micropayments, a hybrid subscription model or any other number of revenue models work. The fact that no major outlet has found a way out of this mess is a failure of imagination and management.

If journalism ultimately goes belly-up, it won’t be the fault of the public, the reporters or the editors. It will be the people at the head who ignored the problem, and lacked the creativity and vision to find a way to make it work.