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Growing up Italian in a mac-and-cheese world

I grew up in a two-family house with my Italian grandparents. So my childhood sounded pretty much like this video below. Feel free to skip it, if you’re a ‘merican, but if you have such a grandmother, mi raccomando – WATCH IT

I only wish I had a talent for puppetry and thought of it myself. All I would need to change is the hair. My Nonna had very fine, silky black hair. Plus she wasn’t that cheerful. She was funny, though. Her response to the question, “How are you?”  was “Staiu moriendu!” – I’m dying. And her farewell (forgive the approximated spelling of Calabrese dialect): “Stat’attiendu, ca ti chiappa ‘ngunu!” Be careful, someone might kidnap you.

Growing up in a bilingual, first-generation-American household has helped shape how I look at the world, how I look at America, how I look at a box of macaroni and cheese (never ate it until college, LOVED IT, never told my grandmother about it). And now that my grandparents have passed away, and our family moves away from the culture we grew up with, how do I pass on this part of myself to my children? How do I keep their Italian heritage alive for them, now that they live in a mac-and-cheese world? Actually, C hates the stuff, he prefers meatballs. So at least there’s that, Nonna, can you hear me? I can sense her glowering at me from on high.

To start, I am trying to make sure they at least hear the Italian language. I am not a native Italian speaker, so it’s not natural for me just to speak it to them all the time. But I learned it in school, and am well-versed enough in the dialect that I often use Calabrese terms. There are some things you just can’t translate. Especially insults. Like calling someone “caccata” – you just know it when you see it, and English suffers for not having an equivalent term. Or lagnusu – it’s a slob, but someone who is a slob to the core of their being. And there’s scustumato, malavita, and hopefully you’ll never get called ‘numbala, or good-for-nothing. On the flip side, being sperta, if you’re a girl, or spiertu, if you’re a boy, is the highest compliment. You’re on the ball, you’re quick, you know what’s what without being told. I still aspire to be sperta. How am I doing? Well, I’m typing on the computer instead of cleaning my house, so not so good.

My children don’t take naps, they go ninnano’. And when my son doesn’t like what he gets, it’s chistu o cazzu - this or…let’s say “nothing.” He doesn’t have to know cazzu is a bad word; he just has to know he ain’t getting an alternative. Then there is the childhood favorite uffa! (one of T’s first words), and many more. There’s also the yelling. Yelling is caring in an Italian house.

When C and T were babies, I would often watch RAI International, the Italian-language TV channel, while I was nursing, hoping that some Italian would passively enter their bloodstreams. We would watch this insane cooking/talk show, La Prova del Cuoco, or my favorite, the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars, Ballando con le Stelle. Indulge me for a moment and let me tell you a little about them. Please? I have no one else to discuss them with.

I also had to watch these shows with the babies because, like many Italian television shows, they are so long they would fill up my DVR if I didn’t keep up, and my husband would go crazy (che ‘merican!). One episode of Ballando is four hours! Partly because they have to do a lot of vamping while they “tabulate” the audience votes so they can deliver the results the same night, and partly because of the fighting. Oh, the fighting. It’s the actual reason I watch Italian TV. Le polemiche, as far as I can tell, are as integral to Italian TV as product integration and Ryan Seacrest are to American TV.

On La Prova del Cuoco there was an old dude (Beppe Bigazzi) who sat in a throne off to the side of the stage, commenting on everything the host (Antonella Clerici) and the other cooks got wrong. They’re not cooking the mushrooms the right way; they don’t know the proper provenance of a particular recipe. Oh, this guy was a delight. He could derail the show for ten minutes.

Another all-time favorite is the 2007 edition of the Miss Italia pageant. This aired right after C was born so it was perfect. First, because it took RAI literally twelve hours over four nights to pick out the appropriate broad in a bikini. Then: Mike Bongiorno, the late and venerated Italian TV presenter, introduced his co-host, one Loretta Goggi. She walks on stage, and as she schlepps down this giant staircase she starts beefing and QUITS THE SHOW. On the spot. She just leaves this 80-year-old guy holding the bag, because she was enraged that it took the producers twenty minutes from the start of the broadcast to bring her on stage (she came on after some comedy bit). It was amazing. The reigning Miss Italia offered to fill in, because Bongiorno was just standing there, not knowing what to do. Way to capitalize, I say. La Goggi came back the following night, I think, but she and Bongiorno wouldn’t even look at each other. And they had to carry on like this for a million hours. Of riveting TV.

And then, Ballando con le Stelle. I once thought I was going to write a blog just on this show, but there is way too much there to recap. I just don’t have the time (see blog title). Four hours a week and it would always go over. Before I get to le polemiche, let me just say this for the show. I’m not sure what the opinion in Italy is of Milly Carlucci, but I think she is a very capable captain of some very rocky seas. And I don’t know why, but I can understand her Italian absolutely perfectly. With no gaps in comprehension. So for that I love her. Also, the costumes on that show are (mostly) gorgeous, not some grown-up version of Toddlers and Tiaras gear like they have on the American edition of the show.

Milly keeps things moving best she can as five judges have their interminable say on the dances, and then the celebs and pros give it right back to them. And if that doesn’t take long enough, they always bring in a bunch of journalists and other personalities of dubious provenance to sit bordocampo, next to the stage, and offer their opinions. At length. And they’re always trying to pick fights. Which is not hard to do because fights happen at the drop of a hat. I remember one series in which all the celebs and pros got together and threatened to quit if the judges didn’t recognize their abilities with more respect. Because these judges LOVE to give out 0′s, 1′s and 2′s. It’s not like on the American version, where if you get a 6 that’s a horrible score. There is one judge (who’s Scottish, by the way) who causes apoplectic displays of gratitude in the celebs if she gives them a 6.

All of this was nothing compared to the season that featured a dark, brooding actor named Lorenzo Crespi (just google him and see what ridiculous photos come up – NSFW). Crespi walked off the show just before he was supposed to dance, and no one could find him. He just left his pro standing there alone on the stage amidst the confusion. One of the co-hosts actually took his personal cell phone out on stage to try to call Crespi because he was nowhere to be found. He was probably somewhere in the bowels of RAI’s television studio at Foro Italico in Rome, punching a wall with great passion to the sax strains of “Baker Street.” This chaotic scene was the apex of a season of Crespi railing against his treatment by the judges, angry with every critique, and endlessly proclaiming himself more gifted than the other celebs. Then after he left, the producers milked le polemiche for all it was worth, further stopping the show to analyze, over and over again, what had happened. And badmouth Crespi. Here is just a tiny bit of it:

The whole affair was fascinating, unprofessional, and clearly partly done to grab attention. All of these polemiche are. But at the same time, I admire this mad behavior, because the personalities involved are so willing to drop their masks. These are not choreographed meltdowns, like the kind you see on Bravo reality shows. These people are outright losing it, and they don’t care who knows, because in that moment they feel so passionately about what’s happening. These perceived injustices have become their truth, and that makes them lash out in a most theatrical way. It’s a bit like a Luigi Pirandello play, in which Italian life itself is spectacle and it’s lived accordingly, in a constant state of high drama.

Bigazzi, la Goggi, and Crespi, come to think of it, are like four-year-olds, or at least like my four-year-old. Preschoolers are a little dramatic too, wouldn’t you say? The sky is green, say, because he says so, and to tell him otherwise provokes a fierce spiral of indignation. C is still figuring out how to manage a life that may not always jibe with his expectations, so he converts what he believes into what he sees. Like the play title, Cosi’ e (se vi pare): it is so, if you think it’s so. Appearance is all. This might make him, at times, un pochino scustumato. But it’s also what makes him sharp, what might make him him spiertu one day. I suppose to get at the great passion, you’ve got to take the tantrums. So maybe C is more Italian than I perceive him to be, after all.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. LLZ #

    You are sperta.

    May 24, 2012
  2. Grazie mille! Also you.

    May 24, 2012
  3. Angeline #

    I can’t believe you did not mention in your post the venerable book “Italian Men, L…and S…”! Uffa.

    May 24, 2012
    • I can do a separate post on fine literature. Lorenzo Crespi is just the kind of guy that would be in that book. Yikes.

      May 24, 2012
  4. Even though I am an Italian American writer and lived with grandparents from Calabria, it wasn’t until reading this article that I found out what some of those words meant. Thanks for an interesting, funny, and informative piece.

    Gus Cileone, author of
    Feast or Famine

    May 29, 2012
    • Thank you! I feel like I need to keep using those words just to remember what they mean, even if my family doesn’t understand sometimes.

      May 29, 2012
  5. Reblogged this on Five Uninterrupted Minutes and commented:

    Hello! I am working on another post about the Miss Italia pageant and Italian TV, and it is not ready yet! I’m working in Italian time. So, nel frattempo, in the meantime, here is a post I wrote a few months ago on a related subject. So as they say in the old country, please read this post! Grazie!

    September 12, 2012

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