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Learning the Domestic Arts, Italian Style

By Madeline Strong Diehl / October 8, 1993

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.

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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.

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.