Last week, Italy’s version of Wikipedia cloaked itself in advance of wiretapping laws they say may force them to delete the site entirely.
If you’re like me, you immediately wondered whether Italians keep their “good” computers covered in clear plastic slipcovers and use the crappy old ones down in the basement instead.
Whenever I make fun of Italians on my blog, the reaction is uncharacteristically voluminous, if split 50/50. Half say, “OMG, did you grow up in my neighborhood?” and half say, “Your hatred of Italians is the one thing I don’t get about you.”
The answer is in the question. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, the Brooklyn of Canada. And familiarity breeds contempt like a puppy mill.
Hamilton wasn’t a melting pot so much as a giant vat of ribollita. It didn’t help that the city has been a Mafia hub since Prohibition. We mangiacakes whispered the names “Rocco Perri” and “Johnny Papalia” with terror and admiration.
But nobody thought every Italian was mobbed up. We figured if they were, they’d have enough money that they wouldn’t have to grow their own grapes and tomatoes or eat pigeons they strangled on the back stoop.
A recent issue of Maclean’s explains the plastic slipcovers and other Italian immigrant quirks. (I’m surprised they waded into this “racist” topic. This same publication racked up a reported $2 million in legal fees after they pointed out that Muslim women have lots of babies, then had to apologize for noticing that, hey, Canadian universities sure have lots of Asians these days.)
It turns out many “Italian” traditions are most confusing of all to “real” Italians, who visit Canada to attend freakishly tasteless weddings and meet relatives who might as well be cargo cultists or Yaohnanen tribesmen.
The poor immigrants’ almost religious respect for material property, coupled with their burning desire to impress one another, led to the creation of a set of domestic traditions that have little to do with what happens in the motherland. In a race to keep up with the Joneses, Italian-Canadian families would order expensive furniture from Italy—often baroque pieces of thick fruitwood or mahogany emulating those found in Italy’s antique, aristocratic residences—but would refrain from using them.
For those of us who can’t escape once the wedding’s over, all that “Italian heritage” stuff takes its toll: the obscene Romulus and Remus statuaries; the “douchebag yellow” Camaros; the chocolate sandwiches; the brainless Liberal Party loyalty; the spooky black-clad widows with the posture of jumbo shrimp; and the earsplitting horn-honking and traitorous foreign-flag-waving during World Cups. Like the swallows of Capistrano with hair, Hamilton’s young males heralded spring’s arrival by taking to the streets shirtless on the first nice day of the year, dragging their Rottweilers and pit bulls along on ropes and chains and boasting to each other, “My dog’s half wolf, you know.”
At my Catholic high school, I took to screaming, “Speak English, you’re in Canada now!” at the hirsute, dimwitted, disco-loving “ginas” blabbering about how they couldn’t help Mamma make the spaghetti sauce that week because they had their periods and it would give the family the evil eye.
Back when my mother went to that same all-girls school, a strict “no jewelry” policy was enforced; after the student body turned overwhelmingly Italian (and heavily laden with 18K gold crucifixes and cornicelle from “the old country”), that rule was thrown out the window—just like they tossed the teacher out the window at the boys’ school across the street.
That was the rumor anyhow, and I believed it. There were no female teachers on staff; they would have been simply ignored (or worse). The snickering, swaggering “ginos” didn’t have to wear uniforms—another rule that had become unenforceable. On the rare occasions I was obliged to venture into the boys’ school, I felt like Dian Fossey.
It isn’t true that Eskimos have a hundred names for snow, but Italians have almost as many for “slut.” However, unlike the Irish, who call you a skank if you do sleep with them, Italians call you “puta” when you won’t. Long before movies such as Raging Bull cemented the image of the dumb dago in the aptly named wife-beater shirt yelling, “You call those carrots?!,” my mother enforced only one dating rule:
I don’t care if you bring home a black guy. And I don’t care if you bring home a Chinaman. But don’t you ever bring home a wop.
Not that they would have been interested in me, except to help them with their homework.
But after I moved to Toronto about 25 years ago, I came to miss the little greaseballs. Surrounded by pale, spindly, bicycle-riding, socialist metrosexual hipsters who’d never held a hammer or gotten into a fistfight, I secretly started renting Moonstruck (written by an Irishman, by the way) in heavy rotation. Although The Sopranos and Jersey Shore remain unwatchable, I find listening to Adam Carolla talking about sheetrock oddly soothing. I’ve acquired an appreciation for their all-encompassing bigotry, even though it’s a weird trait in a tribe that still can’t decide if they’re white.
Last year a friend bought his first house in one of Toronto’s few remaining “Virgin Mary in the front yard” Italian neighborhoods. As he sat exhausted on his front porch the day he moved in, his new next-door neighbor—a little Sicilian whose colossal satellite dishes threatened to block out the sun, or perhaps somehow discover a new one—shuffled over and offered him a tiny white cup of espresso.
In broken English, he asked my friend what he did for a living.
“When I told him I was a journalist, his face lit up. Then my wife found out he’d thought I’d said ‘janitor’ and was really impressed.”
My friend wanted help with his first garden, so he kept his mouth shut.
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