Thursday 6 March 2008

Having children in Italy

Perhaps it is the phenomenon of “mammaioni” that helps us understand the fantastic attitude that Italians have towards children. A “mammaione” is probably best translated as “Mother’s boy” and sums up perfectly the startling dependence that many people here, but particularly men, have on their mothers. Whilst driving around a few years ago we heard an article on the radio regarding the intense traffic in and around Milan every lunch time on weekdays. Undoubtedly there is a morning rush hour in this great financial capital, as there is in any other important city, but the lunchtime rush needs special explanation. Reporters had conducted brief interviews with the drivers of the near stationary cars, noting the age and sex of the occupants and asking their destinations. The results were conclusive; some 70% of the cars contained a single man, aged between about 25 and 40, on his way to have lunch at his mother’s house. Quite what effect this kind of daily mass exodus would have on London does not even bear thinking about.

As amusing and alien as we might find this however, it gives an insight into one of the strongest links in the Italian social fabric: family. Some 95% of Italians sit down for Sunday lunch with relatives every week. Our next door neighbours are testament to this every Sunday, with son and daughter bringing their spouses and children to eat at midday, without fail, every week. We have hardly begun to even think about lunch before they all drift off for an afternoon of football, hunting or Grand Prix viewing. I once asked our neighbour, Antonietta, if she enjoyed cooking for the whole family every weekend, to which her reply was that she liked having them all over, she did not really like all the cooking but, who else would do it? As the matriarch of family, the responsibility falls to her, but then, she would not want it any other way.

We had always watched this familial activity from afar, until the 10th of May this year when all of that changed for good, with the arrival of Cecily Grace at the hospital near Montepulciano. It had became clear, when Charlie started showing obvious signs of a bump, that her stomach was no longer her own, private possession, but was in fact public property, to be touched and cooed over at every given opportunity. One Sunday at church our family priest Don Giuseppe proudly declared it was to be a “bella feminuccia” and so it was that God had spoken and it was indeed a little girl.

Having Cecily was to prove the key to the Italians’ hearts. A lady who generally wears an almost impenetrable mask of distaste, for which we coined the phrase “lemon lips”, smiled for possibly the first time in her life on meeting her. People whom we knew only well enough to greet in passing on the street were suddenly stopping us for a peek, eager to see a new baby. Even the usually too-cool teenagers displayed their future parental skills. On one particularly fateful trip to the supermarket, Cecily decided she had had enough, causing much fuss and almost bringing the roof down on our fellow shoppers. Preparing ourselves, in a thoroughly British way, for an embarrassing few minutes standing in the long queue, we were surprised to find people parting the way and ushering us past them in a sort of Moses/Red Sea fashion. Whilst one lady took it upon herself to grab the baby and attempt to calm her down whilst we hurriedly threw our shopping onto the conveyor, the cashier neatly packed everything for us and even helped us to the car, leaving the other shoppers waiting at the till.

A trip to the UK during the summer cemented what we had already experienced at home in Italy: that the Italians are just so interested in children and everything about them. Whilst we always try to be conscientious towards others wherever we take our little daughter, it is simply the case that in Italy you are welcome almost anywhere. Tables and chairs are shifted in restaurants to make way for the pushchair, whilst ordering anything takes twice as long as before, due to the now-expected questions and well-intentioned advice from all and sundry. This is not to say that our fellow Britons are not keen on babies, just that nobody seems to notice them in quite the same way. This was further proved when we flew back to Italy a couple of weeks later. We held our breath as the stony-faced passport controller intently surveyed her brand new passport, only to be asked to hold her up so he could get a closer look at the little “principessa”, then waved on with the sort of smile probably only reserved for his own children. Italians may joke that “la festa รจ finita” (the party’s over) when you have children, but they certainly don’t live like they mean it.

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