There is a phenomenon in Italy known as mammoni. If you look it up you’ll find articles written by journalists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, all trying to cleverly explain Italy’s extreme mamma’s boys. While it’s normal for families to be close in Italy-it’s cultural and part of their Catholic religion-Mammoni take it one step further. Some of them choose to live at home until they get married, despite financial independence. Their mother’s cook, clean, and do their laundry for their sons who have little or no responsibilities in the home. Some forgo marriage to stay with mamma, others put it off for as long as they can, and others still get married, move out, but then freely live under their mother’s supervision and guidance. As in, she might still choose his clothes, do his laundry, and spends a lot of time with him, like daily.
On one side, I think it’s beautiful that a son would want to be so close to his mother. Awe. I love the idea of close families. On the other side, no thanks. I love my mom but there’s no way I’d be able to live with her until old age. And, mammoni actually hurt Italy’s economy, it damages marriages, and co-dependance is never healthy, even if it’s your mom.
Francesco isn’t mammoni. Still, sometimes his relationship with his parents can border on stalking and harassment. It seems like his parents “love” him via incessant nagging. Watching some Italian mothers with her children is like watching a hen peck a worm to death. It’s slow and cruel. Eventually, the worm stops wiggling, goes limp and accepts that it’s going to be devoured.
I’ve been dating Francesco for three years now, and though I still have hope, I imagine at some point I’ll throw myself over a balcony in his families presence. Don’t get me wrong, I love them. In fact, I’m often excited to see them when we go to visit. However, the excitement lasts about fifteen minutes before I quickly regret my decision to go, and I spend the rest of the weekend fantasizing about rocking myself in a corner. Why? They’re overly in your business to the point where you can’t actually pee in private. Literally, every time I step into the bathroom I know for sure that any minute my MIL is going to knock on the door to ask some vague or random question that could have definitely waited twenty minutes.
We spent Easter, “Pasqua,” with Francesco’s parents two weeks ago. We arrived late and went straight to bed. In the morning we awoke at seven because Oliver, our poodle, was dropping toys on my head. He does this when he’s had enough of sleeping and wants to explore the world. I’d love to have his kind of enthusiasm. Francesco and I stumbled into la cucina as we always do to make coffee, where in fact I made coffee, and he chose to drink tar out of a thimble. After, cups in hand, we settled down in the living room onto a couch to wake up.
Enter Francesco’s father.
“Bippoty booba mamma mia bibotty bobbity boopa, da boopa” he screamed in Italian. I didn’t understand any of it because I wasn’t mentally awake. I chugged my coffee while F and the pappa argued. When the volume grew louder than a New York nightclub, Oliver ran and hid under the couch. My brain turned back on and I tuned into the heated discussion.
“Italians we a do NOT drink the coffee before we make the shower, and make a the pee! We make wash the face, and make the makeup, and make the dress” Said the pappa.
“Okay, pappa.” Answered F, who then continued drinking his tar thimble, and tried to tune is father out.
“No! No!” The Pappa continued, “It is because you take the American girl for a girl, in America they do like this! In Italia we do not make like this!”
I realized that I was being accused of corrupting Francesco’s propriety, or rather, what his father believed was propriety but hasn’t existed since Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. I wanted to explain to him that outside of his village humans no longer wear ball gowns to have tea in the afternoon.
“Maybe it be a generation thing? Maybe now we are young people and no we make like this, maybe we do different”. I tried to say in Italian.
“NO! NO! Nobody, they do like this! Only you!” he used the plural form of you, meaning “you guys”. I wanted to tell him that we’ve had dozens of Francesco’s friends stay with us, and all of them drank their coffee in the morning before showering, but I thought his head might blow up, so I remained silent (everything you do or say will be used against you in the court of Italian judgement).
The pappa took his seat in front of the television and turned his attention to the soccer match, and we snuck out of the living room to get ready and leave as quickly as possible.
After getting ready we walked towards the front door but was stopped by Francesco’s mother who wanted to know exactly what we would be doing that day. As F informed her she listened and looked him all over.
“The shoes, they are dirty!” She yelled in Francesco’s face. We all looked down at his shoes, gray converse. They were a little dirty because it had been raining for weeks and he’d been wearing them outside, but they were by no means filthy or old. The Pappa heard this and rushed into the kitchen to join in. Both the mamma, and the pappa were screaming simultaneously and gesturing wildly in Francesco’s face about how dirty his shoes were, about how trashy he had become, and about how irresponsible he was. Then the mamma and the pappa turned to me.
“MISTY!” Said the pappa, “LOOK AT THE SHOES THEY ARE DIRTY! HE HAS THE NEED TO BUY THEM TODAY NEW SHOES!”
I looked at Francesco, but he had clearly left his body, and turned back to mimmo, “okay, we will do that”. I had given the wrong response.
“YOU SAY OKAY! YOU ALWAYS SAY OKAY! SHE ALWAYS SAY OKAY!” the pappa yelled to the mamma.
I turned to Francesco and asked in English.
“What the hell do they want me to say?!”
“They want you to scream too. They want you to say that you always tell me that I’m terrible and dirty but I don’t listen, and they want you to start screaming at me with them.”
“Uhm, over shoes? Seriously? No. I’m not giving myself a heart attack over shoes”.
He shrugged and told them we were going to buy new shoes and we left. We walked through the small city going from shoe store to shoe store trying to find something he liked. All the while I kept thinking, “how polite do I need to be at this point?”. We’re getting married, I can’t get away from them. Will I become like Francesco and leave my body when they begin to speak? Will my children do the same? I’ve never been the type to run away, neither inside myself nor any other way, and why should I start now? Suddenly, like the odd-one-out in middle school, I felt bullied.
It started to rain as we walked slowly from store to store silently. The gray skies added to my foul mood, the water dripped down the old walls wetting the love-letter grafitti. In Italy one doesn’t spray paint walls to claim territory, rather profess lust. “Ti amo, amore mio, per tutta la vita,” is written next to an old alley full of trash.
I started mentally going over all of the criticisms that we have received from them in the past few visits: I am too pale, they don’t like how I do my makeup, I wear too much black, they don’t like how I do my hair, our dog is ill-mannered, we are too relaxed, marrying before buying a house will result in our children’s homelessness and thus we know nothing of the world, I’m too thin, my breasts are not big enough, and the list goes on, and on, and on. A tinge of anger hit me as I thought, “who the hell do they think they are!?” Then, a thought occurred to me and I burst out laughing. At first, it was nervous laughter, but then it became maniacal. Suddenly, in the rain, wet and defeated, I remembered that I write, so really they’re just giving me fodder for the rest of my life. Misty-1, Them-200.
We returned back to their apartment to get ready and went off to a nearby city to meet friends for aperitivo-a cocktail and snack before dinner.
At the bar (actually a cafe, but they are called “bar” here) my boyfriends extremely flamboyant, and excited best friend greeted us with the standard kiss on each cheek and then thrust a prosecco in each of our hands. We toasted. We smoked a cigarette. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Next thing I know I’m drunk, surrounded by fifteen Italians outside smoking. I started dancing with my boyfriend’s friend Pietro in the middle of the cafe. This signifies that I’m well on my way to throwing up if I don’t calm down. Just when I started to worry we left for dinner.
At the restaurant we were joined by many random humans I didn’t know. A roman who kept staring at me, a pregnant French girl and her drunk Italian boyfriend, a few Italians, and someone named “I drive” who was way too enthusiastic, and for me that meant “coked up”. The antipasto was ordered, a mix of raw and cooked fish, octopus, oysters, and patè, followed by some form of fish I can’t remember. It was gross and had almonds on it. Whole almonds. I went to the bathroom to fix my makeup, within five minutes my boyfriend came looking for me. He often does this when we go out, panics, and comes into the bathroom to make sure I haven’t been murdered or raped. I assured him I was simply doing my eyeliner, and he left as “I drive” came in. In Italy, it’s very common for men and women to share bathrooms or at least the “common” area where you wash your hands.
“So you want to do some cocain?” he asked.
“No thank you,” I replied.
He pulled out a massive vile of white powder from his front pocket.
I was right, he was coked up. Nobody in their thirties is enthusiastic about life unless there is coke involved, unfortunately. I went back to the table and informed my boyfriend that everyone was cracked out. I don’t mind, I worked in a tranny night club as a bartender in college long enough to be immune to anything and everything, but my boyfriend is more pure, and naive than I am. Everything freaks him out, and he forbid me to talk to captain coke for the rest of the evening. We left the restaurant after everyone took their last liquor shot of grappa or limoncello (always served after coffee), and we took to a piazza to continue drinking.
The piazza was full of young, drunk people as it often is during holidays when all of the youth return to the city. Otherwise, the city reminds me of a prune, all wrinkled, dried up, and void of life. I talked with random friends of Francesco trying to say as little as possible and still appear charming. I have nothing in common with any of this friends and it’s best if I simply do my duty as a Barbie doll, smile, nod, smile, nod, repeat. This way I come off as useless, but at least attractive and it seems to be what they all want from me. When I talk too much I get into trouble here. It’s very different from my life in the U.S. where my bold, forward personality was appreciated, and my sardonic humor was accepted. Here, I’m a freak, and I’ll always be a freak, though I’m pretty so I can get away with simply existing without thought or communication, it’s disgusting really. It’s times like this when I’m surrounded by happy people that I realize how unbelievably alone I am.
The next day at Francesco’s parents we awoke for Easter, told everyone, “auguri” and dashed outside with Oliver to breathe a little before Francesco’s sister arrived. When we left the mamma was in the kitchen banging pots and pans and screaming at the Pappa. Outside was dead, nobody was in the streets and nothing was open. We smoked a cigarette on the dead grass while Oliver peed on every inch of the surface, and trotted along merrily. We watched him lovingly, while we held hands and exhaled in preparation for the hours, and eating to come.
At dinner, we sat at the round table in the dining room while Francesco’s mother stood over us holding a jar of holy water. I was informed earlier that it was not for vampires as I had assumed. She dipped some sort of leaves in it and splashed the water on all of us saying some sort of prayer, then splashed extra on me while she said, “babtismo”, still annoyed apparently that I am not Catholic. We laughed while water dripped down our faces. After, she brought course after course of food: three appetizers, two pasta dishes, three main courses plus sides, followed by three or four different desserts. We ate until we felt sick, as usual for the holidays in Italy. After, I played with Francesco’s niece while he napped before the long trip home. Leila, his four-year-old niece, after seeing her grandmother bless people, was inspired to bless Oliver who couldn’t understand why this tiny human kept throwing water on him and screaming “Santo, sprito…etc.” He hid under the bed. Leila and I drew together, I drew trees and she drew crosses until her parents came in to take her home. I tried to help the mother clean up, but she shooed me away. As I walked out of the kitchen I told her that lunch was wonderful and thanked her for cooking.
“It was not so good,” she said while blushing, “you don’t have to thank me.” I paused at the door realizing that all of her neurosis comes from the need to please, to be perfect, and her awkwardness comes from never believing she can achieve that. At least, in this, we have something in common.
On the four hour drive from Cassino to Florence I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I kept thinking over and over again, “is this going to be my life forever? The superficiality, the bella figura, the need to be nice to people who are in general terrible to me?” Then I remembered again that I write. And I calmly fell asleep on Francesco’s lap while he drove.