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Posts from the ‘Growing up Italian-American’ Category

“The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” over at Medium – check it out!

The blog has lain fallow for a while, mostly because I have been writing some things offline. I also wanted the opportunity to use “has lain” in a sentence.

One of the things I’ve been working on: my essay, “The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” is now up in the Open Ticket collection over at Medium. Go there and read a tale of brigands, a baroness, library books, and things lost in translation. Go read it now! Please and thank you!

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My mother hates Dr Seuss! and other stories

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week my son brought home The Cat in the Hat from his school library, which is fitting because on March 2, Dr Seuss, the great children’s author and illustrator, would have been 109 years old.

He was great. Wasn’t he?

“Oh God, I hate Dr Seuss! He’s the worst!” my mother says. This jibes with my childhood memories; I had a ton of books at home growing up, but not a lot of Seuss. A few, yes: The Lorax, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (but not the first one), and that’s about it. On my mother’s list of forbidden childhood fun, Dr Seuss came in at number two, just beneath Santa Claus. Number three: Play-Doh. Number four: every other toy that was messy in any possible way. Number Five: Fun-Dip or Fun-any kind of candy. Funyuns also. No, she’s a great mom. Really.

Recently when my son took One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish out of the library I realized I had never read it before. At least as a child. After college I worked at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes the works of Seuss: the ones he wrote when he was living and the ones he wrote after he was dead. One of my tasks was tracking the sales of Seuss books. The top title, if I recall correctly, was Green Eggs and Ham.

I did not read that in my house. I did not read that with a mouse. I did not read it with my mother. She did not like it, so don’t bother!

“Why do I hate Dr Seuss?” she said, when I called to ask her. “Can’t it just be fun and simple? Why does he have to be a such a smarty-pants?”

This makes sense. If there is one thing my mother can’t abide, it’s a smarty-pants. “It’s like he’s trying to prove he’s so smart so he goes on and on and on. Sam I am Sam I am who cares? You know me, I want it short and to the point. Not impressed.”

Green Eggs and Ham

Sam I am enough already (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years my mother worked in the library at our local kindergarten center, so she has a pretty good knowledge of kids’ books. What was your policy on Dr Seuss in the library? I asked.

“Of course kids took the books out, but I didn’t promote Dr Seuss, I didn’t read Dr Seuss. I didn’t tell them not to, but I wasn’t going to read that jibber-jabber out loud. The Lorax, and all that stupid stuff? There’s nothing about it that I like.”

All righty. So, who are your favorite kids’ authors, then? How about Maurice Sendak? “Nope, didn’t like him either.” I almost hung up. I think that Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most perfectly written books, for kids or adults, ever.

“But I love Little Bear [which is illustrated by Sendak but written by Else Holmelund Minarik],” she said. “It’s so sweet and charming. And what else? God, I can’t think, I’m out of the library business. Kevin Henkes [I agree, I love everything he writes]. And Rosemary Wells [Oh that Max and Ruby!]. The Arthur books. Tomie De Paola. I don’t know, something that made you feel happy and cozy and comforted. Or something really funny. I don’t find Dr Seuss comforting or funny.”

“So can I pin this dislike for Dr Seuss on your childhood?”

She pauses. “Yeah, probably.”

My mother was born and lived, until she emigrated at five, in the south of Italy, in a poor, rural, mountain village. It was not unlike the setting of Strega Nona, the Tomie De Paola book which is a favorite of hers. Strega Nona is set in a fictional, fairy-tale Calabria, the region she was from, with its rough edges softened: Catholic and hardscrabble and peopled with goats, stubborn country folk and witches, like her mother, my own Strega Nona, without all the smiling and kiss-blowing.

It’s the kind of upbringing that looks romantic and interesting only in retrospect, from our family’s new vantage point on the U.S. east coast. But at the time, there was little room for romance in a medieval house with no heating and dirt floors. There, I would imagine, you’d seek comfort. Coziness. A simple happiness found at the edge of a desperately practical existence.

Old school.

Old school. My mother’s village in Calabria.

As we were talking about Dr Seuss my aunt walked into my mother’s house. She immediately gets on the anti-Seuss bandwagon: “Oh, I never wanted to read Dr Seuss to the kids either,” she says. “Sam I am? I am Sam? Really?

“And The Cat in the Hat? In our house cleaning up was not an option.”

“Our mother never left the house, so we never got the chance to make a mess,” my mother added. “That’s for Americans with leisure time.” Oh, the zingers you’ll zing.

I will grant them their literary tastes. It’s a free country after all. You can have unusually strong opinions about whimsical children’s book authors if you want to. But I can’t let Dr Seuss go undefended on his birthday. Especially now as a parent, watching my five-year-old, newly-reading son, read Seuss books.

As fanciful as Seuss books are, it was Hop on Pop that introduced my son to reading in the most sensible way. The book repeats simple words and then switches the final letter, and encourages kids to note the differences as they are helped along by the bright, silly pictures.

Children’s books serve all sorts of purposes. The books published before Dr Seuss, were, in many cases, cozy and comforting, and those books, like Goodnight Moon, have their essential place. And there were those, too, like the work of the excellent Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House), which took on the real world is a wonderful, honest way.

On the other hand, Dr Seuss, smarty-pants extraordinaire, introduced twentieth-century children to a world beyond the comforts of hearth and home, a world that recognizes the importance of letting your imagination run amok. Yet, they are not just flights of fancy; many Seuss books have essential lessons that burst right through the silliness. Think of The Lorax, The Sneeches, the Grinch, on and on. These books were of little use for my mother and aunt whose imaginations were shaped back in the old country, where they pretty much lived in the sixteenth century.

A few minutes after we spoke, my mother called back. “Here’s another quote for your blog. Everyone says they love Dr Seuss, but do they really?” When we say we like Dr Seuss, are we all just pretending to like something that comes off a bit highbrow? Like jazz, or Champions League soccer? I asked my son when he got home from kindergarten.

“O darling child, may I ask you something? Please, finish your quinoa and locally-sourced beets first.”

“Hm?” Looks up from book of mazes.

“Do you like Dr Seuss books?”

“Yes,” he says, unreservedly.

“Why?”

“Because they’re funny.” (Take that, Mom!)

“Why else?”

“They’re cool.”

OK, I can see that this is going to be the typical cavalcade of one-word knee-jerk responses. Not the burst of enlightenment I thought my research would bring me. But suffice it to say, he likes the books. He wants to read them, or have them read to him. My two-year-old does, too. He even likes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But he’s old school.

“What are else are you going to write about me?” my mother asked. “‘She didn’t bake, she didn’t play games, she didn’t do arts and crafts,’ right?” Well, she didn’t really. Those things aren’t in her bones. But listening is. And she talked to us. Candidly. And all the time. She still does.

So right now I’m going to call her back, for the fifth time today, and tell her: my grandparents schlepped all the way to America so that their descendants could sit around and enjoy piffle like Bartholomew and the Oobleck. So let’s, shall we? Oh, the places we can theoretically go!

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, s...

Happy birthday to you. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Missing teeth

A young boy after losing two baby teeth, exfol...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.

My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.

In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.

Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck.  Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?

After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”

“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.

I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.

Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”

I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.

I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.

I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?

I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.

“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”

“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”

Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family.  I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”

Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.

They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.

I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”

“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself.  When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.

A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.

“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.

“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.

“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”

I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?

I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.

I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.

Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.

Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.

My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.

When watching grown-up TV with your kids goes wrong, #3: the Miss Italia pageant

Miss Italia 2012

She’s going to Euro Disney! Giusy Buscemi, Miss Wella Professionals Sicilia, is Miss Italia 2012. (Photo credit: Fiatontheweb)

It’s September 10: the last day of summer vacation. Kindergarten is starting the following day. So let’s take it easy. Playground in the crisp morning, a late nap for T; C is working on his latest Lego Star Wars set: “The Battle of Naboo.” I’m pottering around. I gasp -

September! That can only mean one thing! When is Miss Italia starting? Oh no! Have I missed it? I drop all the awesome tasteful crafts I make in my spare time according to the laws of Martha Stewart magazine, and run to the TV. Translation: I drop the Martha Stewart magazine I read with feelings of inadequacy (Why did I insist on all those garish colors at the boys’ birthday party? Children love parties with an all-white theme!) and make a very short leap to the TV. Channel 1772 – the Italian-language station, RAI International. I subscribe to the channel just for stuff like this: so I can practice my Italian by watching people speak the language in its most natural form, which is arguing and carrying on.

Sure enough, it’s on when I turn to the station. And it’s live, in the middle of the afternoon here, and not even listed in the channel guide, which instead lists a program called Techetechete’ (I looked it up, and I still have no idea). But, look, there is Fabrizio Frizzi. Our hapless host. He hasn’t quit yet, like that other host did once. Phew. There are still 20 contestants in the running, down from 101 (and there are only 20 regions in Italy!), so that gives us a few solid hours left. And sure enough, I enter in on an argument. More, as I mentioned in my previous post about the pageant, polemiche. Polemics.

I sit down to watch while C sits at the dining room table with his Legos. Miss Italia runs for two nights, for at least three hours per night (it used to run for four nights, before it was half-cancelled last year). Who knows what I missed on the first night? Well, let’s imagine:

The judges, aided by voters from home, aka, “il televoto,” whittled down the contestants from 101 into smaller and smaller groups. When elimination time comes, the cameras panned to each woman individually, when she’s told if she is in or out. If she was out, close-up on the face: looks of annoyance and/or despair, and/or pretending not to care. That gets replayed immediately, giving the audience chances to lip-read for any cursing or bestemmie, blasphemies. The rejected Miss are kept bordocampo, on the sidelines – all the better to catch any tears, or storming off, or colluding with the other rejects to storm the stage. They are definitely allowed to step up to the mike to protest their eliminations. Last year’s winner no doubt then sang a song. More eliminations. Pause to watch le Miss dance around to a Madonna song, or with scarves maybe (this actually happened on night 2, something similar no doubt happened on the night 1). Then the proceedings are hashed out by the judges. Then more arguing with a crew of assembled journalists kept on hand to mix it up. And so on. Pause to plug tourism in the new host town, Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany. It’s a nice place; no arguments there.

Montecatini Terme, Toscana, Italia

Montecatini Terme. Oh, Italy, for stuff like this, we’ll forgive you this crazy pageant. And Silvio Berlusconi. And Fabio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back to the argument at hand. The judges are defending their choices for the Top 20, as well as the inclusion of the televoto, up against an audience full of angry mamme e babbi whose daughters weren’t chosen, or fans whose region wasn’t represented.  From the next room, I hear C spouting fake Italian: “Fresha pizza! Bacalabaraciabara! Mutandi Wow!” All those dreams of raising my children with the Italian language, come to naught. Where’s my copy of Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino? We’re dumping Captain Underpants at bedtime, I don’t care who understands what.

He comes in the living room. “Why aren’t those people on your show speaking regular?”

“They are speaking regular. We speak English here. But in Italy, they speak another language. Did you know that this is what Nanny spoke when she was little like you? She lived in Italy and spoke Italian. So did your great-grandparents, my grandparents. Nanny still speaks Italian sometimes.”

Oh yeah! Malavita! Chist’ o cazzu! Fresha pizza again! Well, at least I’ve gotten two Italian terms, common in my house growing up, into his vocabulary. They’re not that nice, but still.

I think it would do him good to hear the language for the remainder of our afternoon at home, so I keep watching as he plays. I don’t think he’s watching the screen from the next room, so I don’t feel the need to elaborate at this moment on the extremely sexist nature of the program. At this age, all I can do is keep stressing to him that boys and girls, men and women, are capable of the same things. That they can both be doctors, or nurses, or Jedi knights. That the queen of his Playmobil castle can be just as strong as the king.

Of course Miss Italia objectifies women. At least, unlike the American equivalent, the Miss America pageant, it does not pretend to be a scholarship competition. Le miss just stand around in bathing suits most of the time (though this year, bikinis were banned), and when they are dressed, they are beautifully so, instead of looking like a bunch of Blanches from Golden Girls at age 22. Most of the contestants are there to try to get a job presenting one of the three million talk shows on Italian TV, and winning this is a good way to do it.

Look, I know it’s bad. It’s terribly antiquated, even for an antiquated country. But I like it for pretty much the same reason I like the Tour de France, or the Olympics, or Champions League soccer. It’s long, and mainly monotonous, giving me the chance to sink myself into this European dream, where I can pretend I’m not on some street in Massachusetts with a boring name, but in a villa, or a garret, or a even a hovel in the heart of Europe. Which is mainly where I ask Calgon to take me.

I watch shows like this on RAI to listen to the language, as its spoken now; I like to hear poetry in the names of the Italian regions, read 101 times and splashed across le fasce, the sashes: Miss Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Miss Valle d’Aosta (that’s practically France; she never wins), my family’s home regions: Miss Campania, Miss Calabria. These women, in their own superficial way, represent deep ties to these little towns in corners of Italy where their families have probably been living for a thousand years, places where they claw their ways out of the regional pageants near churches where their ancestors were married, the camposanti where they’re buried. It’s dumb, but it’s true; it’s a slice of a life of a place I dream of. I only wish I could see the commercials too, for the banal little items that fill these lives: boxed pasta, furniture sets, cheese like Nonna made, spreadable ham (really!). But we don’t often get those – they don’t apply to us and our market, so they are usually cut out and replaced with a Miss Italia best-of reel, of winner after winner crying, their hair and eyebrow thickness changing through the years.

C keeps fervently working on his model of the Battle of far-off Naboo while I watch eliminations, indignations, altercations, explanations, and further complications. Then he saunters into the living room with his Lego accomplishment, a smirk on his face announcing a big joke prepared:

“The Battle of Naboobs. Like those,” he said, sing-song, pointing slyly at the TV.

Like every good Italian daughter, I should have listened to my mamma.

“He hears everything,” she told me just the other day. “Even from the other room. So watch it!” Every discussion of breastfeeding, ill-fitting undergarments, everything boob-related has apparently gone straight into his ears, bounced off the TV set, and come right back at me. So much for his big language lesson. Instead, a pun on the female anatomy. And is anyone else’s five-year-old going through a private-parts obsession lately? Because that remark is one of many made concerning any part of the body usually covered by underwear, male or female. Aren’t they supposed to be in some sort of Freudian latency period or something?

As the lone female in this household, I have my work cut out for me, I see, as spokesmodel, er person, for womankind.  And the moment for these lessons has come more quickly than I would have thought. As in so many aspects of parenting, I feel like I am constantly playing catch-up to my kid; like I am parenting the child of a few weeks or months ago, though he has already made leaps since then, and continues to change so much, all the time. So, step one, a new reality: even more careful about what I say. And step two: watch Miss Italia after bedtime. Stick to better quality Italian-language shows during the day, like…Techetechete’? I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that one.

The Battle of Naboobs. Sigh. (via tvblog.it)

For more of my parenting foibles, see also:

When watching grown-up TV with your kids goes wrong, #1: The Tour de France

When watching grown-up TV with your kids goes wrong, #2: National Geographic: Volcano!

Reblog: Growing up Italian in a mac-and-cheese world

fiveuninterruptedminutes:

Hello! I am writing 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!

Originally posted on Five Uninterrupted Minutes:

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…

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An Ode to the Dreamcrusher

[This post was featured on Freshly Pressed as part of the Daily Post Challenge!]

It’s funny that I should be writing a tribute to my car. I have never cared about cars, nor found any romance in them. I didn’t even bother to learn to drive until I was 19, which sounds like sacrilege for an American teenager, but back then I went to school in New York and never intended to leave. I thought I would take the M4, and then the F, and work my way through the alphabet for the rest of my days. Now I live in the Boston suburbs with two children, and when I told my five-year-old that his Manhattan cousin takes the bus and the subway everywhere, he said, “What is he, French?” I don’t know what happened.

Now, too far from the diminutive Boston T, with its colonial-sounding stop names (like Alewife and Quincy Adams, and don’t forget Wonderland), we all ride around in another bit of alphabet soup, our Honda CR-V, and it is in praise of this car, which we call the Dreamcrusher, that I write.

The Dreamcrusher.

Half the people in this town must drive CR-Vs. The other half drive Subaru Outbacks (one of which we also own). Though I try not to meet the gaze of a passing driver in an identical navy blue car, I don’t really mind this type of conformity. For me, car choice is not where I choose to express my individuality. I don’t want to turn any heads as I drive down the street; I don’t put on bumper stickers (COEXIST!); I don’t even fix all the dings I’ve received in the nursery school parking lot (none of which were my fault, in case any insurers or my husband is reading this).

We chose the car to get from place to place safely; to have enough trunk space to tote groceries and a stroller; and not have to worry about a temperamental engine that might require service in the middle of any given hectic week. Which is what I guess every CR-V driver wants. They are probably, like me, in their thirties, with young children, and care that the passenger door opens to 90 degrees so you can haul a car seat out more than that it only has four cylinders. I don’t even know what I’d do with two extra cylinders. Route 2 is not the Nurburgring, though people drive as though it is.

My husband and I started calling the car Dreamcrusher after watching the CR-V’s latest the ad campaign. Open any Real Simple magazine, and you’ll see a pleasing two-page spread, featuring a little vignette about some guy who’s about to get married wants to tick x, y, and z off his bucket list (in the ad they call it a “leap list” – ie, things to do before you make the leap to marriage or children). There’s also one about some nice young lady who wants to do ever so much before she has children. These hopeful types dream of backpacking in Yosemite, learning to fly, starting a garage band…the usual prosaic stuff that marks youthful accomplishment prior to settling down. The ads are meant to say: “There’s so much in life yet to do! This car will take you there!”

But anyone who is seriously contemplating buying a CR-V can read the subtext:

“It’s too late to buy that Mini, or the Jeep with no doors. It’s not practical now. I’m about to make the leap from the corner bar to my couch every night, so I might as well get it over with and get the boring family car. I can tell myself I can always throw a drum kit in the back, but I’d have to move all those reusable grocery bags I keep forgetting to reuse and the portable potty. The garage will house a Cozy Coupe now, not a band. Let’s face it; if I haven’t done it yet, it’s not going to happen in these last months of pregnancy. My dreams are officially crushed.”

Your new roadie van.

Why do you think Honda chose Matthew Broderick to front their new ads? An actor who, even in squidgy middle age, is still Ferris Bueller, still embodies that young American vigor, the spirit that tells you you can do anything, and then you do. Just take the Ferrari keys and go. But look at him now. He’s not that guy anymore, and neither are you. But I see him, with salt-and-pepper hair, and his shirttails hanging out hopelessly, and I think, I’m OK with that. Where do I sign? No, I don’t need a moonroof.

Matthew Broderick

The Ferrari’s been crashed. (Photo credit: nick step)

I like the ads. They’re not lying to me. They are letting me down easy. They’re giving me a little wink toward my past, and a reminder that my present and future is not about me, it’s about my boys, and their dreams. The places I’ll take them. In a car with five-star crash test whatever and side airbags. So Honda, for that, danke schoen.

And now, in spite of the CR-V’s ubiquitity, the Dreamcrusher has become a microcosm for our own particular family life. There are the scrapes where the two-year-old threw a rock at the bumper (now you know, Dad), the Wiggles and the Guided by Voices discs that alternate in the CD player, and the Matchbox cars tucked into every available pocket. The sippy cup of sour milk under the seat. The Saint Anthony card from my grandmother’s funeral watching over us from the dash. Fourteen half-full wipe containers, and just as many empty sunscreen and Purell bottles. Sand from five different beaches. A Star Wars book I held out the window, threatening to chuck it if a certain someone didn’t calm down. A world of lost Lego.

Well, actually, not anymore. Somehow I felt that if I cleaned up our dirty family car, and organized it with color-coded pouches for every eventual necessity, that my whole life would feel more orderly and calm as well. So a week or so ago I took the car to be professionally cleaned. In the cool morning, with fall in the air, I pulled out the car seats. It was like when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault. Remember all that dirt that fell out of that thing? That’s how many Goldfish crumbs were under those seats. I hoped that saint card on the dash wasn’t a secret portal to my late Italian grandmother‘s soul, because if she could have seen the carpet of bright orange nightmare that was under there, any protection she might have sent me from on high would be revoked. Oh, the shame.

Now, it’s September. We’ve said goodbye to the beach, we’re getting ready for school (which we can walk to, thankfully). As I take the Dreamcrusher to the car wash to vacuum out the last bits of summer, I think back to when I was little, when my Dad drove us in his red 1966 Corvette down the causeway to the beach near where we lived in Long Island. I, the oldest, sat between the seats, with one sister on the floor, the other in my mother’s lap. He’d point out rabbits on the roadside as we sped along to the oceanfront, the salty wind whipping our hair. Those days we’ll never see again. Mainly because my parents would be arrested if they put all those kids in a car without restraints.

But thinking of those days reminded me how much romance there is in our cars after all. They don’t have to be red and screaming, but whatever they are, our cars do more than drive us from the supermarket to the playground to karate and home again. They represent the open road, the conveyance of our dreams, all the things we want for our families: vacations we’ll never forget, graduations, visits to friends and family, unexpected adventures. The Dreamcrusher will take us there. And when our kids grow up, God willing, we’ll take out the car seats and the potty and have room again for the drum kit, or the camping gear, or a Metrocard - all those silly youthful dreams that took a backseat to what would be our best dreams. But hopefully we’ll have a new car by then.

It’s just a flesh wound!

Near the Indian restaurant we like and the music store where I bought C a ukulele for his second birthday, at the main intersection in this New England town, there is a corner park where an old train track runs catty-corner to the streets. Elsewhere in town, the route of the old tracks runs nearly parallel to the main road, and has become a bike trail. Weaving over and under the streets it crosses, and almost everywhere shaded with oaks and willows, the Minuteman Bikeway traces, as near as it can, the path Paul Revere trampled with his horse when on April 18, 1775, he (and others) rode to Lexington to warn the new Americans, “the Regulars are coming out!” (He didn’t actually say, “The British are coming!” Thanks, internet!) Now the words that usually ring out on the Minuteman sound more like “On your LEFT!” or “Move that stroller!” or worse sometimes, huffiness dependent on the seriousness of the cyclist.

The Minuteman Bikeway. Look, I’m not Ansel Adams.

On his own second birthday, recently, I took T there after Indian food and he stepped on and off the rails, holding his cousin’s hand, while I looked in the sheet music sale bin, filled with old Suzuki violin practice books, the same as I used to avoid as a child, and a piece of music called, “Pleasure Time.” And in the park there is also this stone monument, one of many in the town that mark some moment or other of the Revolutionary War. I held T’s hand while I took this picture:

The old Yankee spirit.

I love this. Of course I don’t love the idea of anyone, especially not the British, dying. But in it there is so much to love and remind us about the New England persona. The best part of it, anyway: the part that is resolute, resilient. Full of stick-to-itiveness, as they say, with a little touch of stick-it-to-’em.

My cousin also loves this marker. We laughed as we thought of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the knight who lost limb after limb and still stood fast, in his own insane way. “It’s just a flesh wound!” (Here’s a link to the scene, though I still maintain that, as great as Monty Python is, no one EVER sounds cool quoting it. I’m doing it, but I never said I was cool.)  “It’s so New England,” she said, laughing. “Samuel Whittemore was just like all the other old coots around here, coming at some scamps yelling, ‘Get off my land, you whippersnappers!’”

Looking around, that sentiment remains, and it’s transferred from dry, crotchety farmers to local urban types: the Charlestown resident digging four feet of snow out of a parking space, then putting an old chair, or I’ve even seen a dresser, into it to save the spot that’s been dug out, and raising holy hell if anyone dares move that chair and takes the spot. Or my friend’s neighbor in Somerville, who cursed me out in front of a one-year-old C for daring to use his driveway to turn around on a narrow street (I’ll drive to the next town to avoid parking anywhere near the apron of his driveway, slapped up with menacing yellow paint). Or there’s the Boston driver willing to take a ding to the Subaru rather than let someone move in front of him (especially if that person has New York plates).

And then there’s me, having a canary and yelling at people who would park in my driveway when we lived in Cambridge (“It’s the principle of the thing!” I remember yelling at a neighbor. “If you would have asked me I would HAVE SAID YES!”). Isn’t that what we fought the Revolution for? John Locke? Life, liberty, and parking spaces, er, property! And a getting a good parking space truly is the pursuit of happiness in these parts.

When Samuel Whittemore stood his ground, when muskets were drawn on the Battle Green, anyone I was ever related to by blood was far from here – they were in the hot, dry mountains of the south of Italy, or the volcanic fields near Naples, or in quiet villages in the flatlands of the north of Germany. But nevertheless, the old Yankee spirit has found its way under my skin. Each time I enter a rotary to do battle with oncoming traffic, something deep within my flesh tells me not to give an inch. To stand my ground. Even if by law, I don’t have a leg to stand on.

A beginner’s guide to Anglophilia

The first bite of pasta and tomato sauce for an Italian-American baby is a momentous event. This is what they’ve been building toward since birth: getting past the milk and mush to a plate of macaroni. My Italian-American baby, C, had his first bite of the stuff at a wedding in a country house in England. And this was exactly how I wanted it to be: a perfect marriage of his inevitable upbringing, with a little bit of balm on the raging case of Anglophilia I’ve had since I was a teenager. Can we blame Morrissey? Maybe, I don’t remember when it started. But it remains.

So when our good friends were getting married in Devon, we popped onto a plane to Heathrow with a nine-month-old C. Along with a car seat, and case; stroller, and case; diapers, clothes, a bear and an extra bear. He squirmed and cried in a strange baby hammock given to us by Virgin Atlantic, which was hooked onto the bulkhead wall. People walked by and grimaced. But we made it. And it was all worth it when I pushed him out into his first bit of British air: the sandwich aisle inside the airport Marks and Spencer where I immediately ate a well-deserved egg and bacon sandwich. I swear I love England for those triangle sandwiches alone. They know exactly their worth; they’re not trying to be heroes.

On the way to Devon we stopped at Stonehenge so C could commune with representatives of his ancestry: German tourists. We had come dressed for our idea of English spring: cozy tea behind rain-fogged pub windows. But the sky in the Salisbury Plain was perfect blue, stretching on cloudlessly without end. C covered his eyes with his blanket, and I listened to the audiofuhrer, as the Germans call it.

Cheap sunglasses at bright Stonehenge.

In Devon before the wedding we stayed at a thatched cottage with friends. I mean, really. It was awesome. In the early morning, before everyone else was awake, I fed C Tesco-bought baby fruit from those little squeeze packs that we didn’t have in the US then. It was a wonder. I squeezed and looked past him at the sun coming up over sloping fields, and far-off forests that probably held fairy cottages and cairns. Or not – I couldn’t hike that far with a baby on my back. But even in more reachable places like the patio, the pub, the village church, or Tesco…oh please let me put in this Wordsworth quote – even though if you read the whole thing it doesn’t really fit: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!”

For the wedding, we dressed C in a seersucker suit and took pictures of him with a fascinator on his head. I wanted to wear one myself, but I knew I couldn’t; people from Long Island can’t wear feathers or insects on their heads and not look like they made far too much of an effort. Look here’s Kate Middleton laughing: ah heh heh ha! ha! ha! Oh, it’s all just too grand being you.

The England that I love, that I imagine, and that I see (or choose to see) when I get to go there, is something I can only peer at from outside a window. In fact, as someone said to me at breakfast the day after the wedding, as I tried to open a leaded window in the dining room of the impossibly beautiful Elizabethan estate that we were so lucky to stay in: “Careful, that window is older than America.” Duly noted.

Windows older than America.

I think that remark sums up what I find so beguiling about Englishness or what I, as an American, perceive as Englishness. First off, that was a quick, funny remark; it’s why I love British comedy television so much I’ll admit membership to New Hampshire Public Television’s Britwit Club. But it’s also emblematic of how the English, unlike we here, live in the shadow of a long history – a history that gives England a rich culture and community life: quaint Medieval villages around a green, gnarled hedgerows, listed homes, Iron Age remains by the layby, the local pub, a rich language for Americans to destroy…Ordnance Survey maps. Anthony Trollope. Only Fools and Horses. But with the legacy comes the stewardship of it: living up to its glories, facing up to its wrongs, keeping the best of it alive while trying to move forward. I don’t mean to dissect the entire English psyche here, and I don’t think that the person who made that joke to me was getting at some huge meaning, I am just saying that perhaps part of being English means sacrificing a little bit of yourself to maintain that history. Stiff upper lip and all that. Choosing to schvitz, say, rather than risk breaking the lovely old window. Unless you’re Kate Middleton. Then you can do whatever you want and people call you a duchess. No, I’m not jealous.

I think this is why in a lot of great English TV comedies (which is where I get many of my ideas about England, for better or for worse), there is such a strong sense of irony – the people in these shows aspire to better lives, higher things, more money or status, but those attempts are foolish, to be mocked. Look at Basil Fawlty trying to put on a “gourmet night” at his sad little seaside hotel. Look at Del Boy Trotter, who says, poignantly, “This time, next year, we’ll be millionaires!” but he never (quite) makes it out of Peckham. There’s the ridiculous Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet), Blackadder, David Brent, Edina Monsoon…on and on.

Meanwhile, in America, it’s all meritocracy, the sky’s the limit! The road stretches on forever! You can be anything you want to be, darn it! President? Astronaut? Go for it! It’s what we tell our kids, and look at the TV shows that are produced here for children. So few of the kids on them are typical; most of them are extraordinary. Look at Big Time Rush, Hannah Montana, iCarly, even Dora the Explorer: everyone’s a rock star of some kind or another (this is why I prefer Caillou). It’s an impossibly positive message, it’s the vastness of land and mind that this country is built on, which is great…but it’s annoying, isn’t it? Because, and I think the English know this, one in a million of us will make it to some higher eschelon, fame, fortune, whatever we determine to be outsized success, but most of us? Won’t. Which is fine. And in the face of that, you need to take comfort, more than comfort, pleasure, in everyday things: a cup of tea, a good joke, a well-done day of work in whatever it is that you do. We all have dreams, of course, we all want to be as good as we can be, and we should always try. The British themselves have achieved a bit of success over the years. And I’m not saying in London jigs of glee are being danced every day at elevenses. But look how happy they look on TV when someone brings them a cuppa! That’s nice.

Anyway, there’s got to be a halfway between the UK and USA in this way of thinking. That you can dream but not let the dreams overtake you. What’s halfway? The middle of the ocean? No, look at the Titanic. Canada? Have they got it figured out? I don’t know, ask Caillou.

So back to the kid. When C’s off being president of the United States of the Moon, how will be remember his dear old mother and her fondness for the English way of life? How will he build on those first experiences of British sun and pasta coursing through his little body in those tender years? After the wedding dinner (in England, do you call it a “wedding breakfast” even if it takes place at dinnertime?), he went up to his crib while we danced to Parklife in the old hall, the baby monitor straining to transmit through ancient stone. And then it was time to go home.

On the flight back to Boston, desperate to stop him crying so that we (and everyone aboard) could have a peaceful flight, we jettisoned the baby hammock, propped him up in his car seat, and turned on the seatback television. We discovered Pocoyo, and he watched a string of episodes whilst shoveling Virgin America pasta and tomato sauce into his face. Now that’s his first AND second bowls of pasta outside driving distance of Flatbush Avenue. But it worked. And he discovered a show that he loved, narrated by Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie a...

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in the TV series Jeeves and Wooster. (Wikipedia)

Like the Italian language, I think it can only do him good to get the tones of Stephen Fry in his young ears. Pocoyo is a Spanish children’s show, narrated in translation by Fry. Against a white backdrop, Pocoyo and his animal friends (including Pato, the fussy duck) have a series of silly adventures. It’s sweet – a sort of whimsical Caillou, that Fry enhances with a gentle wit. It’s just fun, none of the characters have Grammys or their own talk shows. And when he is a little older (but not much), together we’ll read my favorite English author, P.G. Wodehouse, and watch Fry and the incredible Hugh Laurie portray Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Why? That deserves its own blog post. To come. In the meantime, I know Fry’s voice can pull C out of a cranky mood, which I understand. It’s what I do to stop myself from crying sometimes. I turn to Fry, Laurie, to Wodehouse, and to the comforts of an imaginary England.

I like to think, maybe even in England, there is someone that might find some romance in the place that we live. I hope so. That would make me feel less like running away to run a post office in a small village in the Cotswolds. Maybe someone there wants to come see Mass. Ave., that looks so straight and dreary to me, full of nail salons, pizza parlors and CVS stores – and find some beauty in it. The streak of Paul Revere as he rode to Lexington, say, or the start of a western trail that blazes across a country, full of hope, without limits. I don’t know, maybe I can squint and see that myself. I’ll keep admiring those worn old colonial route markers that pop up along the way. I’ll drive out of my way to pass them, and pretend they’re Stonehenge.

Richard Scarry and the tiny world of toddlers

Busytown

Busytown (Photo credit: stephen_bolen)

My “four-and-a-half boy” is bombastic. He’s larger than life. He takes up all the air in the room sometimes, with his charming, perplexing talk of Star Wars, and preschool politics, and numbers larger than “a trillion-ninety-nine.” C and his interests take up most of the word count in this blog too, so I thought I’d write a little post dedicated to the toddler, T, whom I still call the baby, at 22 months old. While C is often in the middle of the living room, kicking up a fuss, T is quietly in the corner, kicking a*s.

He’s happy zooming his dad’s seventies-era Matchbox cars around, pausing for a sip of milk (not chocolate), and an animal cracker. He likes to put the dirty laundry into the machine, and the clean, folded laundry back into his hamper. He likes to color, on paper and on walls. He can sing two songs: the theme to Spectacular Spider-Man – which is an amazing theme song by the way – and the Ladybug’s Picnic song from Sesame Street, which he learned in his music class. When C won’t leave the playground at school pick-up, T picks up his jacket and lunch box for him and gives him a little nudge toward the door. And when C builds enormous Star Wars-inspired spaceships out of Legos and wooden blocks, T is there to knock them back down to earth.

Right now, he really loves Richard Scarry books. The big, tabloid-sized hardcover ones. He carries them around the house, dropping them at (or on) my feet when he wants to read them. Which is most of the time. We have Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, Busy Busy Town, and Best First Book Ever! , to name just a few. We sit together and point out all the props of our busy days: breakfast things and household tools, clothes, toys, shops on Main Street, farm machines, the vrooming beasts of the highway, railway, and airport. And there all of the characters that you meet in Busytown: Lowly the worm, Huckle Cat, polite pigs and rude ones, the hapless Mr Frumble who can never catch his fedora, carpenters, police officers, teachers, big brothers. Mice in a little cheese car.

Busytown

Busytown (Photo credit: stephen_bolen)

We even have a few Richard Scarry books in Italian – I’ve mentioned before how I am trying to keep the language in my kids’ ears, and here is one way I try to do it. A relative brought Scarry’s Primo Dizionario back from Rome for me, when I was little, and now we look at that, and Il Libro delle Parole, and remember all the words that that we used to know, long ago.

These kind of pages, like this one I’ve scanned in above from Il Libro delle Parole, are T’s favorite. They show all kinds of tiny things, things that we, as grown-ups, lay our eyes all the time, but never stop to notice. The yellow-orange of an egg yolk, a ripple on a slice of bacon, knives and forks we toss in a drawer. But T, with his brand-new eyes, notices them all the time. In his little world, everything is novel and fascinating. Scarry has done an incredible job of picking up on that, cataloguing a toddler’s unjaded world in miniature. C, at nearly five, has moved on from this a little bit, setting his sights now on bigger, more fantastic realms – the night sky, mythical beasts, Tatooine.

But T is still awed by what’s in front of him, and he notices things that neither C nor I do. Tiny bugs, little flowers growing between rocks in the driveway. Butterflies are always in his peripheral vision. He hears a distant airplane and can spot in in the clouds long before I can. Robins hopping along a park path are meant to be followed until they fly away, and he watches them till they are completely out of view. His eyes are like microscopes, trained on the tiniest details. He will often pick up a cookie crumb off the patterned living room rug, show it to me, then throw it in the kitchen trash. How does he even see it? Maybe he’s trying to tell me something about my housekeeping.

Right now, I’m happy to accept T’s little gifts of crumbs and leaves and polliwogs, and share in his thrill at the sight of a duck or a dump truck. And I look forward to turning more minutes into hours with T and Richard Scarry, reveling in the little things that in time we forget to see. Soon enough, he’ll move on to bigger things, I know. I’ve seen it happen all too quickly before.

20120815-114337.jpg

T’s little world.

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.

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