NON-FICTION: Becoming Italian…or Trying To by Kyra Robinov

I was in the kitchen with the five other mothers of the settima classe—the seventh grade. I had been curious to visit an Italian home since our arrival in Rome and here I finally sat, one of le ragazze, the girls. There was nothing particularly exotic about the room: modern counters, appliances, wall phone with an extra-long cord. A window looked onto a back yard where a yapping collie/retriever blend was wrestling with a pink rubber ball. I could have been in Westchester. Ohio. Anywhere in America. Only the clouds of cigarette smoke, the undecipherable staccato banter and the Moka pot on the stove situated us in Italy.

Seated opposite me at the Formica table was Sandra, a formidable blonde with an Hèrmes scarf draped loosely over her persimmon silk blouse. She was sipping an espresso, a lit Marlboro quivering between her elegant fingertips. The conversation zinged over and around me. I’d been here for barely 20 minutes and was already sneaking glances at my watch, wondering how I would make it through the afternoon. What had I signed up for?

We had moved to Rome the month before, the fulfillment of a dream I’d had for years. I was certain that by changing my address, I would become a new person—thinner, happier, sexier. The previous weeks had been filled with fitting in—to school, our apartment and Rome, itself. I hadn’t socialized with many natives, so obsessed was I at unpacking, shopping and learning my way around.

The party that my daughter Larissa had told me about had finally materialized. It was an opportunity for her to get to know her classmates better. She’d been longing to fit in, as had I. How could I say no? Even if the Pigas lived an hour and a half north of Rome. I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to come along, but I wasn’t going to put my twelve-year-old on a train by herself. Most of the other families were scattered about the perimeters of the city. Sandra and her daughter Giovanna did live in il centro, not far from us, but I hadn’t known that, nor had they offered a lift.

Invited or not, I was going. And to make up for my barging in, I brought a shopping bag of samples my husband had accrued—artisanal pasta and a fabulous aged balsamico—as a house gift. Not exactly original fare for an Italian home, but David was in the food business and all the products were hand-made by small family businesses. I hoped the thought would make up for it.

Inès, Giovanni’s mother and also a kindergarten teacher at Larissa’s school, had promised to meet us at the train station and drive us the rest of the way. Larissa wasn’t happy about this. She insisted Maestra Inès was pushing her son on her.

“He’s such a goody-goody,” she told me. “None of the kids like him. He plays the piano and he and his mom are always bragging about that.”

But we needed the ride.

Not only was Giovanni in the car, but Inès’ husband, Giorgio, was driving. “Dove è Michael?” they asked in unison as Larissa and I squeezed in to the back seat. I got in the middle, so Larissa had some distance from her nemesis.

A casa. Con suo padre.I looked at my daughter, hoping I’d explained correctly that her brother was at home with my husband.

A casa?! Why he did not come with you?” Inès asked, switching back and forth between languages.

Non soche…that he was invited,” I reverted to English, relieved that she could understand and speak a little.

Ma si, certo.Inès shook her head. “But of course.”

I shook mine, too; and shrugged. Oh, well, I thought. It would have been nice to have Michael there, but I hadn’t wanted to leave David behind. I felt my tagging along was imposition enough. Besides, Michael’s presence would have dampened Larissa’s enjoyment of her classmates. The boys in her class were in awe of him and the girls flirted at every opportunity, leaving her on the sidelines. Frankly, I, too, would be less self-conscious trying to fit in and speak Italian if my husband and son weren’t around to laugh at my wording and accent.

Forse la prossimaMaybe next time.”

During the forty-five minute ride from the train station, we chatted in broken Ita-glish. I found out that Inès was from Sardinia. I didn’t know it then but Sardinians have a reputation for brashness. Inès certainly fit the stereo-type. I would later learn that the other mothers called her il corporale behind her back. As is usually the case with couples, Giorgio couldn’t have been sweeter.

It didn’t take long to agree with Larissa’s assessment of Giovanni. Ho dovuto mancare la pratica del pianoforte per andare a questa festa.He mimed his fingers dancing over the keys. I nodded, getting that he was missing piano practice to go this party. “Ho un concerto la prossima settimana.

Next week…he has concert,” Inès added from the front seat. Giovanni beamed and nodded.

Too bad he was so full of himself. He was rather cute and much taller than the other two seventh grade boys. I stopped myself mid-thought. Isn’t that exactly what my mother would say?

We drove for miles through pasture land, sheep grazing on both sides of the road and little human habitation. Out of nowhere, we came upon a gate. What was being kept out wasn’t clear. The only living thing were the bovines and no steel arm was going to prevent them from entering. About 400 meters on, I discovered the reason for the security: a housing development. Separated by wooden fences, with arbors in their front yards, the dwellings were built of stucco. Though new, they’d been designed in the style of older structures. No aluminum siding. No ugly swing sets. The security gate ruined the idyllic feel.

As we entered the Piga home, Larissa was immediately enveloped by her classmates. I joined the mothers in the kitchen where they were unwrapping foil-covered casseroles, unlidding cookie tins and concocting salads from ingredients they’d brought with them. It dawned on me that this was supposed to be a pot luck meal. I felt terrible not to have prepared anything. Why hadn’t anyone told me?

I handed our gift to Laura, our hostess. Tall and lanky, she was barefoot and in jeans with a peasant blouse. She thanked me with a kiss on both cheeks and when she fished out the contents, appeared impressed by them. What a relief.

Non lo soI didn’t know…” I smiled sheepishly.

No problema. Grazie.Embarrassing perspiration coated my forehead and upper lip. I wiped it with the back of my hand, hoping no one noticed. Everybody else looked so cool.

I stood there, not knowing what more to say or where to put my hands, my self. When offered an espresso, I accepted, happy to have something to do. Downing it in a swallow, I marveled at how the others nursed their single sips for close to an hour. The women were completely at ease, having known one another since their children were in pre-school. I scrutinized them, a sampler of Italian moms: from petite, polite Daniela with her coffee eyes and long hair to cool-as-a-cucumber Sandra, the blond ice queen. Their English varied from non-existent to sparse and after a few polite sentences thrown in my direction, they reverted to their native tongue. Though I tried to follow along, their conversation was beyond my comprehension.

I looked around the room for someone who looked approachable. My gaze went from woman to woman until it landed on Sylvia, Marco’s mother, a solid woman with a pixie haircut and a winning smile. She seemed the most accessible. Using my best Rosetta Stone, I struggled to ask her how many children she had, if she was originally from Rome and how she liked the children’s school. In return, she inquired how we’d come to live here. Sylvia told me how happy her son was that Larissa had joined the class and I recalled my daughter telling me how much she liked both Marco and Valerio—the two boys besides Giovanni in the class. After ten minutes of this torturous back and forth, Sylvia excused herself to go help Laura. I was thrilled for the break.

There was a vacant seat at the table, across from Sandra. I smiled at her and sat down. She didn’t say a word. I knew her daughter, Giovanna, wasn’t overly friendly to mine, and that she had a crush on Michael. At least according to Larissa’s snapshot description of her.

Sandra, vuole un altro?Laura held up her Moka pot indicating she could make another caffe.

No grazie, non adesso. Not now.

Kyra…?” Laura asked.

Si. Okay. Grazie…” I nodded, not wanting to be impolite, but I was wired enough in this awkward situation and didn’t want to overdo it. It was going to be a long afternoon.

As Daniela emptied her dessert tin onto one of Laura’s platters and Sylvia peeled an orange to add to the fennel and olive salad she was making, I realized I had finished my second espresso without noticing.

I went in search of the bathroom, hoping to find Larissa on the way. Instead, I ran into Michele, Laura’s husband, who was in the living room with Giorgio. The two men smiled and motioned for me to join them. Reclining in chairs bookending the hearth, one in a plaid flannel shirt, the other in heavy boots, they looked like two hunters beside a campfire. We spoke briefly and hesitantly.

“Roma. You like?” Michele leaned forward.

“Yes. Very much. We do.”

Doveyou are from…?

“New York. City.”

“Ah! La New York!” Michele lit up, impressed.

“Is very different.” Giorgio stated.

“Yes. Have you ever been?”

“No, no.” Both men chimed in together, shaking their heads.

“Would you like to?” I shifted my weight from one foot to another, wondering if I should sit on the sofa. I decided to just lean against the doorframe.

“You come for why?” Giorgio and I laughed as our questions overlapped.

“My husband’s business,” I said. “Mio marito…?”

Ah, si. Cosa fa?

I looked at them, stumped. What were they asking now, I wondered.

Il suo lavoro…”

Oh, his work.

“Cibo. Food,” I said. “Cibo naturale.

They nodded.

I was scanning my brain for how to better explain. After an uncomfortable silence, I decided this was a good moment to extricate myself. “Dovè il bano? La toiletta?

The bathroom was down the hall and not upstairs where I could hear the kids laughing. As I made my way, Michela, Laura and Michele’s daughter, ambled down the stairs. She was a tall young clone of her mother.

“How…com’`e Larissa?” I asked.

Molto bene.She smiled at me shyly. At least Larissa was having a good time.

I looked at my watch and realized it was three-thirty. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I knew Italians dined late…but I was hungry. It didn’t appear as if this lunch was going to be lunch after all. When I got back to the kitchen, I whispered to Daniela—whose English had so far impressed me as the best—when she thought we’d be eating.

“At half six, perhaps? Or seven? After our husbands arrive.”

Our husbands? Again, why hadn’t I been told? Or had it slipped by me in the torrent of dialogue I only ever grasped a third of? If I was lucky?

The afternoon stretched into evening. I could feel the tension in my shoulders willing time to fly faster. I wished I could call David to let him know what was going on. Or just to hear a familiar voice—in a familiar language. But my phone had no service and I didn’t want to use the landline as it might have been considered long distance.

“Laura, is there anything I can do?” I offered, wanting to keep myself busy. “To help?” She looked at me, not understanding. Daniela stepped in and suggested I set the table. I grabbed the dishes from her hand and began laying them out, thrilled to have an activity that required little explanation. The children were to eat in the kitchen and the adults in the living room. Couches had been moved back and a long expanse had been set up from a combination of small tables unevenly juxtaposed and covered with a laminated cloth bursting with a sunflower pattern. Giorgio and Michele were unfolding aluminum chairs to supplement the caned ones.

The front door opened and Roberto and Leandro entered, carrying bottles of wine and a brown paper bag from which some ciabatta loaves peeked. After shaking hands with the other men, Roberto ducked into the kitchen to find his wife, Sylvia. Daniela came out to give her husband a kiss. It was boisterously returned. How I missed having David at my side. We could have felt uncomfortable together.

“Leandro Mandola,” he said, offering me his hand.

Piacere. Nice to meet you.”

At only five foot six, Leandro still had a couple of inches on his wife. His personality made him appear even taller. Still, it did’t make me feel any less the giraffe.

Vino?” Michele poured him a glass which he took willingly.

Che giornata! What a day!” Leandro flopped into an armchair. Otto ore con un gruppo di pazzo Americani! A tour guide, he had just spent 8 hours on a bus with a bunch of crazy Americans. A bit embarrassed at my compatriots’ behavior, I could picture it well.

Laura emerged from the kitchen, trailing the aroma of Bolognese sauce. “RagazziChildren…” she yelled up the stairs. “AndiamoLet’s go.” Her words elicited little movement. “Michela!” she raised her voice. “La cena è pronto! Dinner!

A door creaked open and the rumble of a dozen adolescent feet thundered down the stairs, following the scent. Not a glance at us adults congregated in the living room. While Sylvia, Inès and Laura fed the ragazzi, I remained with the others. I peeked at my watch. Six forty-five and we hadn’t even sat down yet.

We were awaiting Sandra’s husband, Domenico who, as it turned out, was driving up from Rome. He, too, could have brought David and Michael with him. I was getting a little annoyed. But unable to express my frustration, I tried to make the smile pasted on my face look authentic.

Laura darted in and out. She reminded me of the cool girls in high school who’d always intimidated me. Smokers, drinkers, and the ones who always had the attention of the cute guys. I envied her casual confidence. The way she laughed with the men, smiling seductively through the curls that half covered her face. She flung herself in her husband’s lap when there was a shortage of chairs, and shared his cigarettes. She’d barely said two words to me all day. I was certain she found me dull.

Finally, Domenico sauntered in, his blazer slung over an arm. The stiff collar and folded back cuffs of a crisp cotton shirt contrasted with the inviting softness of his baby blue cashmere sweater. Thick tortoise shell glasses magnified smallish eyes. Clearly, thought had gone into his grooming.

I didn’t find him attractive. Despite his air of confidence, I sensed a self-consciousness. He greeted his friends and didn’t so much as glance in my direction. Even though of all of them, he was the most fluent in English.

Surprisingly, when we finally sat down, the men congregated at one end, the women at the other. I found myself dead center. I did a lot of passing back and forth and worried I’d spill my glass because I was at the juncture of two tables of uneven height. Not only would it make a mess, think of the unwanted attention it would elicit.

I worried that the trains would stop running by the time we finished eating. Knowing Domenico and Sandra lived in Rome and might be our only hope of a drive back, I tried to engage them. But neither were interested in small talk. He had lunged into a political argument with the men. Smiling, as if understanding, I stared at my plate so as not to have to answer. I didn’t want to get dragged into the conversation which, with the help of a little wine, was racing even more unintelligibly past my ears. Every so often, laughter broke out. I’d chuckle, pretending to get the joke. I felt increasingly uneasy whenever their eyes turned my way, to include me in their chatter.

I chewed slowly. The meal would no doubt be a long one and I needed to keep myself occupied. But it was scrumptious. All home cooked, from the marinated orange olive antipasto through the pastas, sausage, meatballs, vegetables, salad and bread.

Dessert was a juicy, ripe melon, the kind David would have swooned over. How he would have appreciated all the good food. But I tempered my unhappiness at his absence by picturing him trying to fit in with this crowd. His Italian was non-existent and he was hardly outgoing like Leandro and Roberto who didn’t allow a lack of language hold them back. I had wanted a chance to fit in on my own, to become Italian. Now, I wasn’t so certain.

The dishes were cleared and the tables put away. Someone brought out a guitar and Leandro started to strum American rock songs. Perhaps as a paean to me. He sang along as he played and most of the others joined in. I felt doubly uncomfortable because, unlike most Americans my age, I grew up on musical theatre and classical music. My lack of knowledge of contemporary genres was humiliating. Also, I can’t carry a tune. Thankfully, most of his choices were so popular—Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel—that even I knew most of the words and was able to quietly sing along. In between “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Mrs. Robinson,” I inquired about a ride to the station. Everyone kept telling me not to worry and continued the concert. What must David be thinking?

Hearing our songfest, the children abandoned their seclusion and joined us in the living room. Larissa beamed as her friends scrambled to sit next to her. Listening to everyone sing “Scarborough Fair” in heavily accented English, was quite amusing. They couldn’t speak the language, but they knew the lyrics. When they got to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” furiously rolling all the r’s, I just looked from one to the next. For once that day, the smile on my face was real.

It was almost midnight when the party disbanded. The trains had stopped running. Domenico and Sandra, who lived closer to us and with whom we would have been better able to communicate, bundled Giovanna into their car and drove off without offering a lift. Roberto and Sylvia stepped in. Larissa and I were happier driving with them. We couldn’t put much into words, but it was late and we were all tired. Still, I have a hard time being at ease in silence, and every so often I attempted conversation. Every time I opened my mouth, out popped another Grazie.I hoped they truly felt our appreciation.

David and Michael were waiting up and wanted to hear about everything. But it had been a long day and we were drained. I thrilled to be back in my own familiar—if non-Italian—home.

As I dragged myself into the bedroom and quickly washed my face, I had a chance to think about our outing. I understood better than ever what it must be like for Michael and Larissa to be submerged in another language for so many hours each day. I had done that to them. I almost felt guilty, but watching Larissa tonight, interacting so easily, I realized that the awkwardness was all about me. My daughter was doing just fine.

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Kyra Robinov

Version 2

A Manhattan based writer who works in several genres, Kyra’s recent historical novel, RED WINTER, was inspired by the true story of her father. She has written the book and lyrics for a variety of musicals and authored several rhyming children’s books. Currently, Kyra is working on a memoir, THE URGE TO ROME, based on the year she lived with her family in Italy.
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