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Love, Italian Style
Part 1: Does Your Love Life Make You More Italian?
This is the introduction to a series of stories called "Love, Italian Style." Occasionally, as part of this column, I will write articles to help you understand how Italian beliefs about dating, marriage and sex influence your life - even if you live abroad and even as Italian attitudes about love evolve. At the end of this article, you can find out how you can help with the research.
On the last day of my Italian vacation in April, I was having lunch with Zia Naninella and her family when my cousin Gigino rushed in and shouted, "You're going to miss the boat, Francè, andiamo!" We had just found out that I needed to take the next boat off the island of Ischia, so I could get back to Naples in time to make my connecting flight.
But I was supposed to have one more night and, maybe, just maybe, a beautiful Italian ragazzo would plant a sweet kiss on me. Maybe? Now, I'd never know. Instead of the lovely smack of smooching lips, I was replaying the phrase - "Youuuuuu arrrreeeee goiiiiiiiiinnnnggg tooo miiiiiiiiiissssss the booooaaaattt" - as I said my hurried good-byes and waved to Ischia one last time. I did not miss the boat - not literally anyway.
From the time I was 17 years old or so, my relatives who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, have been telling me, "You missa da boat if you no find-a man domani. You only bella short-a time-a!" But there was a man - heck, there were a few of them - in Italy, and I watched every ship sail on by. Every time I failed to hop aboard one of those boats, my relatives - in the United States and Italy - added an extra row of Rosary beads to their daily prayers.
By now, everyone - and their mamma - is aware of the fact that fewer Italians are marrying and making bambinos. For goodness sake, even the Pope begged the "mammoni" to cut the apron strings and breed to save Italians from extinction. Ever since the news broke, my relatives - in the United States and Italy - have been using this information as ammunition in their campaign to get me married. "Do it for your people," they say. That brings me to the question: Am I an Italian or an American? Every first-generation child confronts this issue over and over again. Perhaps, you can relate.
The answer is simple. It all depends on whom you ask. Italians living in Italy will tell you that I'm an American girl, which automatically makes me a novelty to Italian men. But ask one of the American boys from my past about me, and one of the first things they'll say is that I'm Italian. In fact, my love life - or lack of one - might be the key to getting a more definitive answer - and the same could be true for you.
During my freshman year of college, I met a young, disciplined, responsible, perfect-for-me man. For years, I knew passion, and I could hardly breathe until I received an email, a phone call, a hello from him. He consumed me. If only he knew we were in love!
I couldn't tell him because he used to say that I had "shiksa written across my forehead." Loyal to his people, he had strict rules about not dating girls who were anything but Jewish. He also had a thing for blondes. My chestnut hair and eyes, baby-making hips and peasant legs always give away my Neapolitan roots, and I was completely out of luck with Mr. Right. I decided we were better off as B.F.F., which any 12-year-old girl could tell you means "best friends forever." For the first time, I realized I couldn't be anything but completely Italian and Catholic. He taught me that.
There was another, who showed interest in being more than just friends and had no religious affiliation. We went on dates to the movies, the zoo, for coffee. Without being prompted, he read books about Italy as a way of getting to know me better. He wrote a poem that named me the Beatrice to his Dante.
I was such a commitment-phobe back then that I threw up the whole night after reading the darn thing. As I hugged the toilet bowl for the seventh time, I decided I had to end things, so I emailed him. I was such a brat! He was probably the only guy who was ever truly interested. And the first thing he noticed about me was my Italian heritage, a part of me that I had taken for granted as though it was equivalent to my hair color or nose or the beauty mark on my cheek. It was just like any other trait - or was it?
It was the spring of my discontent, as I inched toward graduation. That's when a younger guy who worked with me at the college newspaper confessed his love. I had never given him a second thought, but he told me that he adored me from afar for almost two years. I was touched, and he said all the things that a young woman wishes to hear about herself. He was part-Italian and quite interested in my family history and traditions. We went for a walk, so I could let him down easy.
Somehow we ended up holding hands and heading back to my apartment. We watched videos of my last trip to Italy - he asked to see them - and talked and talked. He stroked my hair and made figure eights with his finger in the palm of my hand. We never kissed. We never slept. The sun rose, I made him breakfast and we hugged good-bye. Two days later, I found out he had been having an affair with another co-worker at the newspaper, and we barely spoke after that. I was not heartbroken because I was hardly smitten. Still, I felt stupid for believing him. But to this day, I remember how good it felt to hold a man's hand, how good it felt to be appreciated as an Italian woman - even if for but a moment.
When Americans look at me - my name, the food I eat, my close attachment to my extended family, the funny language we speak at home - they call me Italian. Because I live here in the United States among Americans most of the time, that's exactly what I am: an Italian. In Italy, I become something else entirely. I'm on a tight rope and, at any moment, I can land either on the American or Italian side. I can live with that. How about you?
How You Can Help with "Love, Italian Style": Are you an Italian living in Italy? Do you know an Italian living in Italy or one who only recently moved away? I am looking for Italians in Italy to answer questions about the dating and mating rituals of today's Italians. Everything would be done via email and can be written in either English or Italian. Please contact me if you are interested in serving on such a panel. Write me here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 2: Old-Fashioned Romance Lives in Italy
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