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On Being Italian

OK. Not all Italians are easily excitable, dramatic, exaggerate and gesture enthusiastically but it is not uncommon and I’m afraid to say I got the gene! I do not speak for all Italians. I speak for me and those I know.  I can also tell you honestly that the times I’ve visited Italy it was heartening  and satisfying to see all the characteristics mentioned above, playing out in lively scenes that are deemed “too much” or too dramatic here.

Outsiders can mistakenly think Italians are upset, angry or yelling but we are just showing interest in a somewhat loud way. Every man who joined our family asked the same question, “what’s wrong?” What do you mean one of us would say quizzically. “Why are you all talking and yelling at the same time?”  Yelling!?! We aren’t yelling, we would say, looking at time as if they were crazy.  My interpretation is that we care about whatever it is that has caught our attention.  I would think people would appreciate this fact! I am always suspicious of people who don’t show any emotion…what are they hiding?  What are they not saying? Eh, must be the Sicilian in me.  I just don’t understand this I’m-too-cool-to-release-an-emotion, thing.  We all have them people, let them out!

Drama. One person’s drama is another persons way of life.  When an Italian says things like: You’re killing me here, Madonna Mia! (as in virgin mother not the stroppy singer), Va fancula (don’t use this one), A Fa Napoli (go to hell or get the hell outta here), I can’t take it!  (In Brooklyn “I caaaan’t”)….It’s language meant to express the feeling they are having. They don’t necessarily mean what they say. It is the same reason I exaggerate.  If I say it’s 100 degrees in here. I don’t really think it’s 100 degrees but that’s what it feels like.  When there were two dogs in the house I would say things like , oh God, I can’t walk with 27 dogs in my way!  Again, capturing the feeeling, nothing more nothing less.  I crack up when someone tries to explain the realities to me. “Dana it’s only 72 degrees in here.”  You’re killing me!

A typical conversation between my husband and myself:

Me: “When are you going to mow the lawn?”

Him: “Later”

Me: “But it’s 7:00pm now”

Him: “I know”

Me: “So you’re going to mow the lawn at 12 o’clock at night?

Again, simply underscoring the late hour. The come back is always an explanation of the actual time and how he didn’t say he would mow the lawn at 12 o’ clock. Sighhhh…message lost.

When I’m upset or excited about something, it will be expressed in hand gestures or my speech or both. One way or another it is coming out! It doesn’t matter what the reality is. So one will hear: I’ve had 100 calls today at work (20), I had to pay like $1,000 to get the car fixed ($350), There were 57 people ahead of me in the supermarket line….you get the picture.  And, when I hear something upsetting for myself or someone else, I’ll gasp or say WHAT?!!!  I think being Italian and apatheic is impossible!  Contrast this with my husband, a Brit, who would respond to the same information with “riiight” as he calmly took in the information.
I could write a post on the phrase Oh My God alone. It is used liberally and in many different situations. It is not reserved for a calamity.   There is “Oh my God!” meaning, I don’t believe it, I’m shocked or got bad news. Then there is oh-my-God which means, he or she is an idiot or something is ridiculous.  Let’s not forget  OhmyGod! which means I forgot something or someone or something is in danger and action needs to be taken. And lastly, Oh my Gaaaawd which is said as a cry (not a whine) which means I’m being stressed to the max . Usually because someone is doing my head in and/or annoying me. When this is used the receiver of the phrase will have a short amount of time to correct their offending behavior because the sender is about to blow up!  Each version is said with its own inflection and different words are stressed.  Of course Italians don’t own these three words and other nationalities have their own versions.

When I lived in England, exclamations were frowned upon. Though Brits do know how to curse and do so very well I might add, Brits do not appear to be comfortable with general outbursts as a rule, rather it seems to be a source of pride that one can keep it together in any situation. Keep Calm Carry On was a war slogan meant to remind people that they were not to freak out once bombs started dropping remember!  I once called (called mind you. I didn’t shout or scream) to my husband who was further down the supermarket aisle than I was and everyone turned around. His face went pale and I thought he was going to pass out. He looked at me as if I’d jumped into the refrigerated section and was throwing thing around like an ape.  I’m not uncouth and am appreciative of manners and etiquette.  I was innocently holding  a package of fresh mozzarella but when I saw that it had come from Italy, I had to share it and thought he’d be as happy as I was.

Ever see someone you hadn’t seen in a long time? Do you quietly approach them or call to them in whispering tones? Or do you act Italian and squeal “oh my God! I can’t believe it! Hiiiii!  How are youuuu??? Complete with delight and lots of hugs and kisses? Again, demonstrating care and interest!

I don’t know if it’s an Italian thing or a New York thing but when I get angry, I curse.  I don’t know many New Yorkers who have a problem with this. Cursing is not seen as coarse or crude, rather it is a creative way of expressing one’s self.  Cursing and degree of anger are positively correlated.  Spouses take heed!  Again, it was nice to hear people exclaiming, cursing, and generally expressing themselves in Italy without it being seen as a character flaw!

Italians talk. They talk with their mouths, their hands, their facial muscles, their shoulders, their whole bodies really.  You will always know what we think, how we feel and where you stand.  If we love you, you will be showered with affection and if we are angry you will know it, the offending situation will be addressed and it will be done with.  We are an expressive people and don’t usually hold things in.  What’s the point of having emotions and feelings if you can’t express them?  Viva Italiano!

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The Middle of Nowhere

Country Road

Country Road (Photo credit: freefotouk)

When I’d drive from New York to Florida or back, I’d often stop somewhere in the middle, the middle of nowhere that is. As far as I was concerned, there was New York, there was Florida. That made up the east coast.  Then there was California on the west coast.  I made weekend trips into Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and down to Washington but that was pretty much it-my America was made up of bookends really.  My road companions agreed and if I got a call from someone checking on my status and they asked where I was, I never offered the name of the town or the handful of historical sites that I had passed. My answer was always the same. I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Usually the caller would understand and express concern and offer the same advice. “If you get pulled over, don’t argue with the police there. Just say yes sir, no matter what. And get the hell out!”

Anyone who has made this trip knows about the signs for South of the Border. Pedro bombards you with billboards that start about 100 miles before you get to it and by the time you do get there, your expectations arThe Strip  - South of the Bordere through the roof.  Wow, what is this South of the Border place? What’s going on? What a let down! It is a little place off  the I-95 highway that is terrifyingly plastic with a mish mosh of plaster sculptures that don’t make sense. They have souvenir and firework shops.  I never made the Mexican connection with this remote area of South Carolina but after all the signs one must at least stop in to check it out, especially when road weary.  I remember getting out of the car and into an eerie stillness that was disturbing on many levels, especially when fake Mexicans and apes were staring me down.  I wanted to scream and get back in the car.  Apparently SOB has a website now, very high-tech, and they explain that they have several restaurants and motels. An added bonus is that they can host conferences and weddings. No thanks. If I want a Mexican wedding I’ll go to Cabo thank you very much.

Back to the point at hand, again, here is this Mexican hot spot, in the middle of nowhere with hardly a soul in sight. The other main attraction on this route is Cracker Barrel. When you are tired and cranky and hungry, this place is an oasis.  Home cooked food, homemade desserts and a shop with interesting things to buy-from old-fashioned candy to picture frames, seasonal items and Christmas decorations. I love it.

Kids looking through bins of Webkinz at a Crac...

Cracker Barrel in Pueblo, Colorado, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have since moved to the South and after leaving a Cracker Barrel one day and driving from one country town to another, it hit me. I have moved to the middle of nowhere! Oh my God, I’m one of them!  One of these people who seemed like aliens to me before.  People who didn’t live near the ocean, museums, ports or places where they make books. You know, civilization of any kind.  Then horror of horrors I realized that any of the patrons at Cracker Barrel, who had done the same as I had years ago and exited the highway while en route to more exciting places, thought I was one of them too!  Aw bless, she doesn’t know what a Broadway show is or what the Hudson looks like, poor thing!

They do have Barnes and Noble, oh I made sure of that before I came.  And, as long as there is a Barnes and Noble in the vicinity, I can handle just about anything else. When the Bible Belt goes to church, I pop in to a quiet B&N and sip on a Chai Latte while flipping through books and magazines at my leisure.  When the whole of the South is watching college football, I can meander through empty aisles at my favorite shops or enjoy not waiting at favorite restaurants.  They also have Publix grocery stores here and anyone from Florida knows that once you’ve been in one Publix, you’ve been in all Publix (Publixes?) and it feels like home. Ok the pizza and bagels are crap but it is nice to drive with little to no traffic and to have open skies and green vistas.   We even get Broadway shows. The road company but still Broadway.  It’s not the same, no one could mistake a little country town for New York City, but it’s quiet for the most part.  I have more than a postage stamp sized garden and I see birds that aren’t pigeons.  We have outdoor symphonies and poetry night at the coffee place-come on! Would I move somewhere where there are Neanderthals? Many barbecue year round and take trips to the beaches and lakes in the summer.  Even Starbucks and Trader Joes have found us.

Yes I do miss the mom and pop shops of New York and finding one of a kind items. Though what one loses in the unique and new one gains in not being in the rat race and not feeling the pressure to be ahead of everyone else; on the train, with fashion, news and art (Oh! You didn’t know they were showing Elizabethan toothbrushes at the Met? All my friends have seen it. You must go. You didn’t see Rent? That is a travesty, how could you not have seen Rent? You don’t live on the Upper West Side? That’s where all the good restaurants are now. Any one who says it isn’t is just lying to you. You haven’t been to Cannes?). Blah blah blah.  People are neurotic because the city never sleeps. New Yorkers are bombarded 24/7. What am I missing? What’s going on? What happened, I have to know!!!  The worst thing in New York is not being in the know. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are rich or poor. If you know something before everyone else, you have cachet. But it’s so exhausting!

New York will always be my city and I love it like a family member but the middle of nowhere gives me a break from all that and lets me be me. Don’t mind me as I wander aimlessly for a while in the here and now, in the I’m OK, you’re OK. You get back on the highway and catch up with your friends. I’m going to have my little cotton socks blessed while I sip on some sweet tea. Y’all come back now, ya hear?

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