Learning the Domestic Arts, Italian Style

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WHEN I was growing up, I never had any inclination to learn housewifery from my mother, a traditional American housewife of Italian descent. Among my generation of girls, it just wasn't cool to show any interest in such things. On my block, we all wanted to be lawyers, doctors, writers, dancers, and business executives. To end up ``just a housewife'' would have meant total defeat.

Years later, when my husband was sent to work at an astrophysics laboratory in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about 60 miles north and east of Rome, I had a chance to experience a part of Italy that few American tourists ever glimpse. During my year and a half there, I learned that, while the subtle arts of housewifery have largely gone out of vogue in the United States, they are still taken very seriously in this rugged part of the world.

Every morning the sheets of the Italian housewives were out on the lines by 8 a.m., fluttering in the breeze like great shackled white birds. They waved to me like banners proclaiming my neighbors' industriousness. Counting backward through the three cycles of Italian washing machines, I calculated that these women must have been up and at it by 5 a.m. I was lucky if my sheets got out by noon, and that often included an hour during which I forgot to turn the knob to the next cycle, leaving my sheets in the washer. Sometimes days passed before I remembered them.

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In Italy, a housewife's art is a very public performance, for housewifery is still considered a serious profession - a calling. Few of the women in my posh suburb of Torrione worked outside of the home, though they did dress in three-piece suits to go shopping at Galucci's, the neighborhood supermarket. Women from the most isolated mountain villages dressed in their finest fur coats to take the bus in to L'Aquila, the provincial capital where we lived, to shop at the Piazza Duomo, the morning outdoor market. I sometimes dressed in jogging suits or shorts, and I am sure that I was the talk of the neighborhood.

I was the lazy American whose sheets were never out until long after noon, and who sometimes forgot them and left them there all through the night, to flutter like restless ghosts under the moon, proclaiming a housewife's shame for all to see. This was not merely my own little private paranoid fantasy; I know because the Italian housewives told me so, in so many wordless recriminations.

During my first weeks in L'Aquila, I despaired of ever meeting anyone because my Italian was so bad, and because I could never get my laundry out early enough. Hanging the morning's laundry was an important social occasion, and I watched from my window as the women chatted and laughed. I always jumped at the gunshot reports that sounded when they shook out the wrinkles, and I watched in amazement as they hung a whole load of laundry in the time it took me to brush my teeth.

One day the wind and my laundry conspired to bring me a friend when, unknown to me, a pair of my underwear blew down and landed squarely on the balcony of a kindly woman named Franca, two floors below. I couldn't yet understand the stream of explanations Franca gave when I answered her knock, but I recognized the underwear, and I invited Franca in for tea.

Once inside our apartment, Franca could hardly contain her curiosity, and I did not miss her appraising glances. I could see her trained eye noting the huge clumps of cat hair under everything; the dust in the crevices of the furniture where it's hard to get to; and especially the dust where it's not hard to reach. Her face registered something less than admiration - even horror.

Nevertheless, Franca and I began having tea together regularly, and my Italian improved tremendously with our chats. Not surprisingly, though, our friendship thrived best out-of-doors, and she took me on many hikes in the mountains and foothills surrounding L'Aquila, where devotional statues of the Virgin Mary could be found on the most isolated slopes, hours from the nearest house or farm. These statues were almost always graced by fresh-cut flowers, and I wonder to this day who was scaling those peaks to put them there. We passed remote villages where entire rows of houses were carved right out of the rock, and the women still did their laundry by pounding it in the fast-running mountain streams.

One day, after my Italian had improved, and Franca and I had become close, I tried to apologize to her for the state of my apartment. I told her that I was a freelance writer, and I would never get anything written if I worried too much about the house. ``Maddalena,'' she said with a gracious smile. ``It is only possible in life to be very good at one thing. I am sure you are very good at writing.''

That was my first introduction to the peculiar Italian brand of diplomacy that flatters as it stings. Franca's comment did not miss its mark, and I aspired to new heights of housewifery for her subsequent visits. But, no matter how I tried, I had to admit to myself that I was not good at it, and I simply didn't want to be.

Franca didn't altogether despair of my potential as a housewife, and she ultimately worked on my weakest area. After cleverly plying me with delectable Abbruzzese snacks and sweets, she taught me to cook, and I learned that a delicious meal could be made from the simplest ingredients. Instead of making some fancy, complicated sauce, Franca showed me that all I needed was some garlic and good olive oil for sauteing vegetables, and some pasta to put them on.

I learned that quality comes not so much from the cooking itself, but from fresh ingredients. I began to share her enthusiasm for finding the freshest tomatoes, the firmest crusted bread at the bakery, the sharpest peccorino cheese at the bakery. As the weeks turned into months, I developed a new respect for the domestic arts, and I began to feel that there was a certain nobility in them.

As for my laundry, I never really got the hang of it. But, inept as I was, I came to love the smell and feel of wet, clean sheets as I took them out of the washer, and the challenge of hanging as many as I could in the smallest space on the line. I was amazed to see that my neighbors continued to hang their laundry in the dead of winter, and the eerie shapes of stiffened shirtsleeves greeted me every morning.

When the year rolled around to spring again, I remember the thundering sound of the thaw, when the nearby mountains dissolved in a torrent of rivulets that I could hear from two miles away. Nowhere does the sun shine more brightly than Italy, and every day it transformed the countryside into a Van Gogh painting, roiling and swirling with energy and light.

My husband and I had the opportunity to visit many of Italy's more fancy cities, and we walked the storied streets of Florence and Venice. But I was always happy to get back to our rugged home-away-from-home. Those mornings hanging laundry with only my thoughts and the mountains for company are unaccountably some of my happiest memories of Italy.

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