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