One of the Luckiest Men in the World

There’s a certain cliche you hear every time a guy gets married: “I’m the luckiest man in the world!” I hate cliches; journalism school rung them out of me. The only time I’ll use a cliche is when it’s true. That’s why – and I’ll qualify it slightly so you don’t think I’m exaggerating – I’m one of the luckiest men in the world.

Finding the right woman in your 40s is not easy. In fact, most of the time it feels damn near impossible. By the time you reach your 40s, you’ve gone through years of dating hits and misses: countless hours spent scouring online dating sites, going to parties and social events when you’d really rather just be at home chilling with Netflix, using every means at your disposal to meet people so that maybe – just maybe – you find that one girl.

The struggle is real. It’s not like being back in college where you’re swimming in a sea of potential. Every year you get older, that sea seems to get shallower and shallower. But you keep going out to those parties, professional events, social events, an occasional date with someone who looks and acts nothing like their “OkCupid” profile, and after a while, maybe you start to lose hope. After a while, maybe you start to accept the idea that you’re just meant to be alone. That might be the way it was meant to be, and maybe that’s not so bad after all: the new season of House of Cards is coming up, and home alone with the dog and a bag of Doritos seems not so bad after all. Or so you tell yourself.

But then maybe – just maybe – you get invited to another party, an ordinary birthday party for a friend. “I don’t want to go!” you tell yourself. And then you think about it a little more. “Ah, I’ll go. But I’m not dressing up; I’ve had enough of trying. I’m just going to throw on a hoodie, some jeans and sneakers.” And you go. You chat for a few hours with friends, and just as you’re getting up to leave, maybe you see someone… someone pretty. Someone who, as it turns out, has a real personality. “Oh, hey. How you doing?” (Opening lines are not everyone’s forte). After another couple of hours of unplanned interaction, you say “Hey, let’s connect on Facebook because – you know – professional networking and such. No pressure. No big deal. We’re cool. Yeah. See you later.” You don’t want to seem too eager.

You go on a few dates and get to know her. She’s smart, whip smart. She has a serious job. And she likes Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Check, check and check! You go on some more dates, things start to get a little serious, and one day you say, “I love you,” and she says “I loke you.” “Loke?” What does that mean, “I loke you?” She explains that it’s halfway between “I like you” you and “I love you.” At that point you realize that perhaps things are going more slowly than you had at first anticipated. But that’s ok; you can wait. You think, potentially, this is worth waiting for.

And then one day, many weeks later, she says “I love you” back, and we are no longer in Lokeland. But things aren’t all rose petals and unicorns. Your combined age is over 80, and thus you’re both very set in your ways. Like the way she wants you to rotate where you sit on her sofa so the wear pattern evens out over time. Or the way the spice jars in your place need to be kept in a certain order that reflects which ones are used more, because that actually makes sense and results in maximum spice efficiency. All these little things that couples have to get used to about each other are the same, but by the time you’re in your 40s they’ve had 20 years to set like concrete. Sometimes it is murder letting go of all those things you’re used to, all those things you think you need to be a certain way for you.

But here’s the important part: you make it work, because in the end being with her is more important than just about anything else you can think of, and you know she’s the best thing to happen to you in a very long time. One day, many months later, you pop the question and she says yes, and then proceeds to tell everyone how nervous and dorky you were popping the question. And eventually you find yourself in a room full of people explaining how lucky you are, because in spite of all the years of being alone and all the looking and striking out and dating blind alleys, and people looking and acting nothing like their “OkCupid” profiles, you stumbled across someone whip smart and beautiful and successful and stubborn and driven and frustrating and challenging and rewarding and the whole nine yards. Somehow, against all odds, you found her.

Which is why I’m one of the luckiest men in the world.

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