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.

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