Here are a few of the articles and essays I have written:
What the Italians can teach us about child-rearing
Globe and Mail Update
Published Thursday, Mar. 22, 2012 2:02PM EDT
Raising children in a country like Canada ought to be easy. With so much expert parenting advice, you’d think we’d only need to choose a method and follow the instructions to turn out a highly functioning adult. Of course, we all know the process is far stickier.
Lately, we’ve been getting advice from all over. Amy Chua’s bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother explored the discipline-laced Chinese approach, and Pamela Druckerman investigated the French phenomenon of the well-behaved child in Bringing Up Bebe. In this multinational spirit, I would like to offer another foreign perspective on child rearing: the Italian way.
In Rome, where I’ve lived for the past 10 years and where my seven-year-old son was born, parents are neither tough disciplinarians nor careful monitors of behaviour. And while there is something inherently absurd in offering the land of Silvio Berlusconi, where 80 per cent of men from 18 to 30 live with their parents, as a model of good parenting, there is still an admirable quality to the Italian style.
Walk into any restaurant in Rome, from the ordinary to the elegant, at 10 p.m. and you will find children eating and talking at the table with adults. Sometimes they misbehave and the adults will rein them in with raised voices and cutting hand gestures. Around 11, some of them will be face down in their spaghetti or sprawled over their parents’ laps, sleeping while the adults linger over a bitter digestivo.
Children are a positive and integral part of Italian society, and restaurants are one place where you see this attitude. “Because family matters so much, we don’t have such strict generational walls like you might see in America,” explains Paola Sartorio, a college instructor in Rome and mother of twin five-year-olds. “If you go into a restaurant for lunch you find children, teenagers, adults and grandparents. It’s normal to share all the stages of life with our family and community.”
It’s in public places with friends and family that my own son has learned to eat food in courses, to eat what is served to him, including the anchovies and asparagus, to participate in the conversation, and to be respectful of other people sharing the same space.
Children are not just tolerated in restaurants, they are welcomed with enthusiasm. It’s not unusual to see waiters parading the youngest ones around on their shoulders or to see them cadge a little pizza dough for kids to play with at the table. Recently, I had lunch in a tiny, exclusive restaurant. People without reservations were turned away at the door. But, when a young couple arrived with a six-week-old baby in their arms, the waiter brought them in, asked everyone to shove down a little this way and squish a little that way while he fitted in an extra table. The rest of the patrons, far from being annoyed, were delighted to have a baby in their midst.
Italian children have a place in the culture, and the culture has a role in a child’s socialization. They don’t have to be kept away from adults who might find them noisy or bothersome. At the same time, parents don’t present their children as rarefied creatures worthy of adoration. Other than a booster seat for the little ones, they rarely ask for special consideration. People smile at children on the bus, they talk to them at the fruit market, but when they don’t eat their vegetables in a restaurant, it’s not just their parents who have something to say about it.
It’s all a reflection of a kind of ease that Italian family members seem to feel with each other and with different generations. American anthropologists studying family interactions recently reported that American parents were very child-focused and had idealized notions of “family time.” The American parents adapt to the children instead of teaching the children to fit in. The researchers noted that this idea doesn’t exist in Italian families.
Yet Italian parents are the first to criticize their own methods. The world economic crisis has them worrying that their culture might encourage children to value pleasure over responsibility. They worry that their emphasis on family fosters dependency.
“French children are very well behaved in public,” says Andrea Maroni Ponti, laughing while we watch a group of seven-year-olds gleefully whacking each other with sword balloons at a birthday party. “But, maybe they are a little too strict,” he adds. “Maybe we need to be more strict, maybe we have to make them a little more serious.”
Though the pleasures cultivated by generations of Italians with the arts and with food and camaraderie at the table may not be valued by our current economic system, they are essential to human happiness. Pleasure and beauty are birthrights for Italians, but parents say their children have to learn to appreciate them. In galleries and churches, parents teach children to overcome boredom and to pay attention to the artworks. “This weekend we’re going to see the Sistine Chapel,” says Chiara Monetti, mother of an eight-year-old. “Our daughter is not excited but she’s not negative, she’s interested enough.”
The idea seems always to teach children to enjoy these things for themselves, rather than to gain knowledge that can be used to their advantage. Italians don’t seem to foster competitiveness as other countries do. There are no foreign-language tutors and gourmet cooking classes for toddlers. Maybe all of this competing with each other is counterproductive anyway. A recent article in Psychology Today suggests that trying to give children an advantage over others can leave them unhappily concerned with status, when they really need to learn to get along with others.
Italians throw their children into the mix of daily life in a way that enhances the experience for everyone. They encourage children to understand and appreciate the place of art and culture in a way that gives children a sense of inner happiness. They seem to focus on the pleasure rather than the burden of children in their midst. I think this is healthy for the children and better for society overall. It certainly makes it easier to enjoy being a parent.
Jeannie Marshall is the author of Outside the box: Why our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products, to be released in early April.
Love and Money
July 8, 2007
I am a picture of happy domesticity in my kitchen, chopping mushrooms and crushing cloves of garlic. The evening is warm and the open windows bring the sounds of the street inside. My husband, James, is working at the computer in another room and our son Nicolas is asleep in his bedroom after a busy afternoon in the park. Our apartment is in Rome, on the slope of a hill with a view of the Castelli Romani ahead, a grove of palms and orange trees to the right, and domes and rooftops to the left. The bell in the monastery of San Anselmo calls the monks to vespers at quarter past seven each night; tonight it’s my signal to remove the garlic from the oil in the pan and add the pancetta. I take a bottle of prosecco out of the fridge and pour a glass to drink while I cook.
If anyone were watching they would see a woman who has everything. I am loved by the man I love most in the world, we have an adorable toddler, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and I shop in picturesque markets for fresh local produce where I banter in Italian with the vendors. I am cooking, which is one of my favorite things to do, and drinking a glass of fruity, bubbly wine while I’m at it.
It would appear as if I am actually living my own dream. When I was studying English literature at university I spent half my time reading and the rest of my time trying on the biographies of my favourite writers. I could so easily imagine myself in the Paris of Mavis Gallant and the London and Florence of Henry James. There was little to no evidence of children in the lives of the expat writers I admired, and so I didn’t have to work them into my future either. Later, when I studied journalism it was Martha Gellhorn, Janet Flannery and Jane Kramer, three women who wrote (and in Kramer’s case, still do write) lucid yet literary prose from Europe. It was always Europe that held my imagination and seemed to be the place where my future must unfold.
Now, here I am in Italy, and it is a romantic picture and a romantic life. It is, it is, and yet I have become a little irritable lately. I am living the future I once dared to hope for, except that in my dreams it was my work, and not my husband’s job, that brought me to Europe. In my dreams I was a well-paid journalist, happy and well-rounded with a busy life and a family. I never for a moment imagined that it was the family that would take over my life.
I grew up in the age of working mothers and equality of the sexes. I never looked for a man to save me. But, in spite of having been an independent, single woman, and in spite of having married a man who only ever dated strong, career-oriented women, I have somehow become a housewife and mother.
The deep boom of San Anselmo’s bell softens to a resonant echo and slowly fades as the pancetta starts to curl at the edges. I add some chopped tomatoes to the pan. It was James who first made a version of this pasta sauce in Toronto eight years ago, shortly after we moved in together. He was a documentary filmmaker and I was a features writer at a national newspaper. We were busy and full of stories to tell each other at the end of every day, over a glass of wine and a plate of something delicious cooked by whoever made it home first from work.
We kept separate bank accounts in those days but we shared our living expenses. We both loved to cook and we split the cleaning duties down the middle. Our work involved travel and we would return gratefully to each other from our separate adventures in Beijing and Berlin, in Copenhagen and Seattle. We even took a three-month writing trip together to Spain where we set up our desks in Madrid and worked side by side on our separate stories.
It was shortly after that summer in Spain when James was offered a job with a United Nations agency based in Rome. It started slowly with a contract here and another there, but after a few months he was asked to come in full time to make films about issues that affect the lives of people in rural areas of Africa and South America. I was visiting him in Rome when the offer came through. We took a walk during the lunch hour and bought toasted tomato, mozzarella, and basil panini. We sat on a bench overlooking Circo Massimo where the ancient Romans once raced their chariots and we talked.
“So much will change,” he said. He seemed excited and also a little worried. “We don’t know exactly what we’re getting into.”
We watched the joggers kicking up dust on the ancient racetrack, and the pigeons moving in on the office workers eating their lunches on the slope of the hill. It was early March, but James removed his jacket and sat in his shirtsleeves and we both wordlessly noted the warmth of the spring air, so unlike the half frozen slush of springtime Toronto.
“The new job will begin in July. We should get married before we leave home,” said James, just like that. “And if we’re ever going to have a kid, we have to get started on it now.” His words were too rushed and worried to be romantic, but he was talking about a lifelong commitment, becoming parents together and having a shared adventure in a foreign country. He accepted the job and we returned to Toronto to settle our affairs.
We had a beautiful Sunday morning wedding in May with our friends and family. I quit my job in June. In July, we packed up our belongings and our two cats and off we went.
Neither of us had ever wanted a traditional relationship where the man goes to work and the wife stays home, but in Rome it started to happen. We moved into a temporary apartment and started to search for something more suitable. But since James had to go to work every day, I did all the legwork. The fresh produce markets were only open in the mornings, so I did the shopping. James would often come home late from work and I was already home even when I was working, so it made sense for me to do all the cooking. It made me feel a little more useful, since I was no longer bringing in half the money. I learned to pay attention to seasonal produce and started to ask advice on how to prepare the unfamiliar greens — beate, agretti, puntarelle — I saw heaped up at the markets.
I was disciplined and I used whatever time was leftover from my house hunting and housekeeping duties to work on articles about Italian politics, culture, social issues, and whatever else seemed interesting. I traveled to Germany and Albania for stories. James was shooting in Peru, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Mozambique. It was in many ways as exciting as ever and perhaps even more so because home base was now an exotic location. But while James was being paid a decent and regular salary for his work, I was paid freelance fees that were set in the 1970s. Worse, I was earning devalued Canadian dollars while I was living on inflated Euros. It came down to money, really. Before Nicolas was even born, it was money that tipped the balance of our relationship.
Despite the decline of my bank account, life was very good. We took driving trips through Umbria and Tuscany where we ate wild boar and black truffles. We spent weekends on the island of Ponza, eating salads and fresh fish. We studied the language and history of Italy. We made friends and created a life for ourselves. My income as a freelancer was sporadic. When I had some money I was content and when I didn’t, I felt like the lesser partner in the relationship, no matter how hard I worked.
In the spring, I became pregnant. I thought having a child might change my perspective and make me see money as ours rather than mine or his. I continued to work through my pregnancy, though I slowed down as I grew huge and uncomfortable and increasingly more impatient with the lousy pay. I tried to write a novel at that time. I fleshed out my characters and spent hours each day writing slowly and carefully, polishing and shaping my beautiful story until it seemed, for a moment, to be perfect. Perfect until the doubts crept in and it seemed ridiculous and I erased and started again to shape and to polish. I seemed eternally to be writing the same chapter and it occurred to me one day that this was far too much like Prometheus and his liver, which got me to thinking about what to make for dinner. I closed the computer and went to the market where the woman at the cheese counter told me how to make a simple but sublime sauce for polenta by cooking tomatoes slowly with sweet Gorgonzola.
And then Nicolas — or Nico as he soon became known — was born. For a few months I stopped worrying about my work and my money and even myself and concentrated only on him and his needs. James and I were both touched by his vulnerability. We had thought about sending him to the daycare at James’s office so I could continue to work, but it seemed a shame to send such a tiny baby away when it wasn’t really necessary. I didn’t have a job and no one was demanding that I return to work. So, instead, I resumed my shopping, cooking, and laundry duties and we hired someone else to clean. Any thoughts of finishing my novel while the baby slept seeped away in the dark as I sat up nursing him four or five times a night.
When Nico was almost three months old, the Pope died and every journalist in Europe was on the story. My old newspaper called and asked me to write something. I was completely overwhelmed by the demands of an infant, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing a chance to file a story. James and Nico came with me to St. Peter’s Square and I nursed my baby under the Colonnade between interviews. I managed to write three colorful features in as many days. It was exhausting and exhilarating, but not nearly as thrilling as sticking my bankcard into an ATM machine a month later and seeing Euro notes come gliding out. I bought a veal roast — the butcher wrapped it in paper on which he had scrawled instructions for roasting it with honey and herbs — and a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. For dessert we shared a bowl of perfect, ripe cherries, the first of the season.
It occurred to me even then when Nico was so small and so incredibly demanding that I was having the adventure I had always wanted. And now when I get cranky and irritable about my inability to juggle a child and a career, I try to stop and realize that I am navigating a new language and culture. I’m raising a child in a place that is completely foreign to me, and this is both a challenge and a source of tremendous excitement and interest to one who has always romanticized the foreign, the exotic, the European. The problem right now is only that I have so little time to write it all down. And, I’m afraid, the money I could earn from my efforts wouldn’t even be enough to buy a white truffle to shave over our fettuccine.
As Nico grows, I know he will need me less and less. Already, we have a babysitter for a few hours a week so I can work a little. It’s a nice arrangement, but paying her only adds to my anxiety because, as a part-time, freelance journalist, there are months when I make more money than she costs us, and months when I do not.
My pasta sauce has to simmer awhile to absorb the soaking liquid from the dried porcini mushrooms I have added, and so I make a salad of curly endive and radicchio with slivered pears, toasted pine nuts, and shaved Parmesan. I sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt over top, drizzle on olive oil, and add three drops of balsamic vinegar, and then take it to James with a glass of wine so he can eat it while he works. Then I return to the kitchen to start the pasta water boiling.
My thoughts drift to Nico, while I wait for the water to heat. I remember the way he stood at the top of the slide that afternoon pretending that he would go down and then stepping back, forwards then back again, enjoying the potential thrill and the tease. I am glad to have been there to see it, to watch him experiment with danger and independence, and to be there to catch him as he came shooting down the slide. I take a sip of prosecco and feel my irritation dissipate with the bubbles. At this moment I am glad to be here at the kitchen counter preparing our dinner. But I want the rest of the romantic dream, too. I want the work that I love and the money to go with it. I want my kid to grow up seeing his parents as equal partners in a relationship. I can’t resolve this problem, at least not yet. My current circumstances are unique and rewarding, and I know I contribute something to my son’s and my husband’s lives other than money. Yet I yearn like a nineteenth century heroine for my own livelihood.
It’s 8 o’clock and the bells from Santa Maria in Trastevere chime out the time, reminding me to drain the pasta. It’s the Madonna who nudges me back to work, she whose image confronts and rebukes my imperfection as a mother, all over this city. But tonight it makes me smile to think that the most famous woman through the ages is the mother of a son.
I toss the pasta in the pan with the sauce and I imagine that if anyone were watching me they would see a woman who has everything. She is loved by the man she loves and they have a sweet little boy. They live in Italy where they have learned to become parents and have experienced the sacrifices involved. And if anyone were to ask if we are happy, I might pause for a moment — I might even qualify my answer by saying that it is not perfect and there is yet more I would like to do with my own life — but I would have to say that it is like a dream, and yes, we are.
Advice From My Father
June 13, 2009
I saw my father one morning as I crossed Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. There he was-a skinny old man with a little island of hair on the top of his head and a patch of suntanned skin on either side-sitting at a table under the umbrellas of Caffé di Marzio. He was finishing off a cappuccino and smoking a cigarette; his old man’s body curved in an arc over the table while he read a newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
I was surprised. I would have expected a working man like him to read Il Messaggero or possibly Il Manifesto.
We took a table, my little boy and I, not far from his as the bells in the tower rang ten times. I drank a cappuccino and Nico ate a cornetto while I watched the old man smoke cigarette after cigarette and slowly turn the pages of his newspaper. As much as I felt the urge, I didn’t speak to him. My Italian isn’t that good and I wouldn’t want to make a mistake. What would I say to him anyway, after all this time? “What are you doing here? I thought you were …” But I couldn’t say that, not in any language.
Besides, this isn’t the first time I have seen him in Rome. Sometimes he sits outside the Bar San Calisto in the late afternoon. I’ve seen him there with his friends and I’ve heard him speaking in perfect Italian and also in Roman dialect. I’ve seen him there drinking a clear liquid, which must be grappa, in a clear glass that looks extraordinarily fragile in front of him. He’s a rough-looking man with deep crevices in his face, but he has small and delicate hands. I always thought of him as a beer drinker, though I’ve never seen him drink it.
In Spain he drank wine. I saw him once there, in Madrid, at a sidewalk restaurant. He looked just like one of the two photographs my mother keeps of him. In the picture he wears a dark suit with a white shirt and a narrow tie. His hair was thin even then, but it was short and carefully styled. You can see that he had intense eyes, dancing eyes, blue eyes that lit you up when you looked at him. In Spain he looked at me. His sharp, blue eyes looked right at me and I felt it. I felt his charm, his ability to make a person feel lucky to be there, lucky to know him.
After he left the table, I saw that he had eaten some kind of stewed meat for lunch and had ice cream for dessert. He had ordered a bottle of Rioja, but only drank half of it. I followed him into a market and I watched him buy pears and a piece of queso manchego. He spoke a beautiful, lisping Castilian and he joked with the man who sold the cheese. He turned to me and in Spanish he told me to count my change and they both laughed, so I laughed, too.
I didn’t see him in Berlin. That city is so crowded with ghosts, I don’t know how I would ever spot him.
The first time my mother saw my father he was on her neighbor’s roof. He was running across the peak of a Victorian row house with a hammer hanging from his belt loop. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had blonde hair. And those eyes, she could see from the ground, were the most beautiful shade of blue-more like ice than sea, she once said.
This was in Toronto just after World War II. He already had three children with his first wife, and in 1948 he and my mother had a son. And then another, and then a daughter, and then two more sons barely more than a year apart, and then a stillborn girl that they called Theresa. In 1963 they had me. In 1964 his heart stopped.
My father had a friend who came round our house a few times afterward. My mother says that I crawled up to him and sat in his lap. He was old-looking and wrinkled with skin as tough as worn leather. He had blue eyes and a receding hairline, just like my father’s.
For me, my father has never existed. He is only an echo of memory, more faint even than the memory of the house where we all once lived together. When I was five or six and desperate for something more tangible than a story, I asked my mother if we could dig him up. She told me that all we would find were bones and teeth, maybe hair. I would have liked to see those things, whatever remained of him.
I’ve heard that he could be terrifying and sometimes mean, that he drank too much and scared everyone out of their minds. He wasn’t easy to love, though everyone seemed to love him. He was one of three sons of Scottish immigrants, all hard drinking, brawling men who wanted to move up in the world, but had no idea how. They knew how to pour a drink and how to enjoy it. And they knew how to talk-talk about the future and their plans and the big house and the fine car that would one day be theirs. They were rich in dreams and they knew how to talk about them.
My father was a carpenter. I’d like to say more but that’s the only solid fact I have. Everything else I know about him is someone else’s version of the man.
“You’re the lucky one,” they tell me, my siblings.
They think the quiet and relative stability that ensued after he died was better than the presence of our erratic and charismatic father. They think it all stopped once he was gone. But his influence lingered and is here with me now, present in my restlessness.
Through all the houses and apartments where we lived, through the streets and alleys of little towns, along the shore of the lake, and through the maze of the public housing complex that took us back to the city, stories of my father trailed us and left me feeling that I would one day see him, this person who was present but not here, that he would turn up again. I would wonder sometimes what he would make of me when we met; then I would remember that we’re not going to meet. Still, that feeling would return with every story. Until one day the thud of finality hit me and I realized that I would never see my father.
Yet since then I have seen him, from time to time, in the places where I go, in the cities where I have lived. Sitting near him in the Caffé di Marzio I took a napkin and brushed the pastry crumbs from my son’s lips. Nico laughed. “It tickles,” he said, his blue eyes reflective like ice, his blonde hair so brilliant in the Roman sunshine.
We left the café first. I didn’t even try to catch my father’s eye.
That night, after a late supper with my husband and a glass of wine, I opened my Italian grammar to work on some verbs. I know how the language works and I can follow its rules, but I’m still waiting for it all to make sense. For me, there is only surface in this language. Things can only be exactly what they appear to be. But the wine made me too sleepy to concentrate and soon I went to bed.
I slept well and deeply, but toward morning I dreamed about my father. He looked as he did in the second picture that my mother keeps. In this photograph he is standing in a field wearing baggy pants and a loose shirt and he looks old and worn out. It was taken the year before he died, when he was 46.
In the dream, I saw him standing in the field in dark corduroy pants and a white shirt, only partly buttoned and untucked. There was a stream behind him. He picked up a stick and started to walk along, poking the stick in the stream. I tried to keep up with him but he seemed to want to get away. He shook the stick at me.
“Leave me in peace,” he said. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“But I need to know a few things,” I told him.
He stopped walking, which seemed to suggest that he was at least willing to entertain a question.
I wanted to say, “Stop, please, and look at what I’ve done with my life. Look at it and tell me, what do you think?” But that’s not what I said when I finally spoke.
“Where did you learn to speak Italian?” I asked, at last.
This made him turn towards me. He looked at the ground and gave me a chance to catch up. Then we walked along together while I waited for him to answer.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to say to you,” he said at last, “but you never give me a chance.”
I apologized and urged him to tell me what he wanted to say. But he didn’t speak. I waited. I stayed quiet while we walked along the stream so that he wouldn’t change his mind. Finally, he spoke.
“Don’t look back,” he said.
Only my father could know of my tendency to go over and over and over the past.
“Once it’s gone it’s gone. So don’t lose time. Just look ahead and do something interesting with what’s left of your life.”
He ran through a number of such platitudes that are nonetheless true despite being so worn.
My father stepped right in front of me and looked me in the eye, and then he told me to sort out the Italian subjunctive.
“Just use it,” he said, in a voice that was soft, though not so terribly kind. “You know how, you’re just being shy. You are afraid, but you’ll never be fluent if you don’t practice.”
He looked at me with those sharp, cool eyes.
“Penso che tu stia sognando,” he said with such clarity that his voice still rings painfully in my head: I think you are dreaming.
I nodded. He was right, of course, about everything. But I was grateful for the advice even though there was still so much I wanted to know. When I woke up I was asking another question. The words were there, I had said them aloud. But the room was empty. I was talking to myself.