When I was first shown the collection of buildings my father-in-law owns in Molinella, a small town in northern Italy, I immediately began calculating how much longer he might live. The
buildings are not luxurious. Two of the three are what the family call “factories,” but they’re really just large, rectangular brick and concrete shells on the outskirts of town used by various small manufacturing companies. The interiors resemble nothing so much as enormous garages. One of the factories has a couple of modest apartments attached. Inside one of those apartments is where my wife did most of her growing up.
The third building is in town and it has two floors. Downstairs is another garage and a finished rental space that currently houses a local community center. Upstairs is another apartment, and that’s where my wife lived – with her parents and her grandmother – until she was nine. It’s also the house where her father was born. Shortly after her grandmother’s death, Elisa’s parents left the factory apartment and moved back into town. People don’t move very much or very far in Italy. In my father-in-law’s case they don’t move very much or very far, then as soon as possible they move right back where they started.
Since my father-in-law was only sixty-five at the time of my first visit, and since his own mother had died at ninety-two, things weren’t looking immediately promising in terms of my wife’s inheritance. Being almost forty-four myself, I realized I might not come into co-possession of the estate until I was nearly seventy-five. A depressing thought. But I wasn’t sad or frustrated. I simply started to think about leaving my wife for someone else. Which, in case you’re even more damaged than I am and need it explained, is much worse.
But that line of thinking is incongruous with my emotional attachment to the people involved. I love my wife madly and deeply, with gusto and delight. Aside from some purely instinctual animalistic urges that arise now and then, I am free from conflict in my devotion to her and my commitment to our union. I’ve never been able to say anything so decisive about anyone before.
I also love her parents. Ivonne and Umberto are the kindest, most generous, most enjoyable non-English speaking couple I’ve ever known. They’re among the most enjoyable creatures I’ve known capable of any kind of speech.
One of the great pleasures of my life with Elisa is getting to know her family, as well as getting to know her home country and culture – though I have found some Italian customs baffling. The cultural habits that foreign travel has made me question the most, though, are those based here in the good old U.S.A.
All through my youth, and even through early adulthood, I lived under the false impression shared by many Americans: that the United States of America is the best at everything, and has the best, most advanced versions of everything. I’ve got news for you: It’s not true.
For instance, if you think the U.S. leads the world in cleanliness or availability of abundant produce, you haven’t visited an Italian grocery store. My wife has said many times upon merely eyeing an American food shop, “An Italian would never buy food from those people. In Italy, those people would be out of business.” That was her response to a pretty decent place. I’ve also seen the look on her parents’ faces as they gazed into a New York delicatessen, horrified by the grime on the cracked linoleum floor. The processed, prepackaged food products and the yellowing, crusted “fresh” ones were secondary insults.
But even before I’d had a chance to experience the lifestyles of my wife’s Italian compatriots, or to see their reactions to our cities, I learned about their collective fascination with us. The first evening I spent in the presence of Elisa’s parents was on a trip we took for Christmas, only two months after we’d begun dating. In spite of her Catholic background and upbringing, in spite of her parents’ life-long indoctrination to ancient small-town customs and habits, and in spite of our unmarried status, there was none of the drama that had accompanied my visits to the ancestral homes of previous girlfriends. Those earlier trips had all been surrounded by seemingly endless negotiations over who’d sleep where. Delicate, roundabout discussions had to be held about how established a relationship needed to be before her parents, or even the girlfriend herself, felt comfortable enough for us to close the door to a room and share a bed.
Neither Elisa nor her parents indulged in such postures. Her parents are working class-Catholics living in a tiny medieval town in Northern Italy. But they possess a respect for their only daughter that lifts their sophistication beyond that of many cosmopolitan Americans. When I met Ivonne and Umberto, Elisa’s childhood room had been made up for the two of us like a kiddie-porn honeymoon suite. Two single beds had been pushed together and made up as one. The wall above the headboards was covered with framed photos of Elisa at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years of age. Across the room were posters of Peter Sellers and Jerry Lewis that had hung there since she’d put them up when she was a teenager. Though many now think I’ve ended up with a woman as beautiful as my wife because I work in film and television, the truth is that Elisa thinks Jerry Lewis, circa 1965, is the sexiest man she’s ever seen.
“He was gorgeous,” she says.
In her childhood bedroom I looked at the poster of the Jewish clown grinning like an idiot. It’s an odd fetish she’s got, I thought. But I’m happy to reap the benefits.
Later, while making love in the room she’d slept in since she was a little girl, I told Elisa how nice it was of her parents to allow me to defile her in her childhood bed.
“What does this word mean?” Elisa asked. “I do not know this word: ‘defile’.”
“It means, ‘to make dirty,’” I told her.
Relieved of the need to focus our energies on the avoidance of sex between adult children, there was time for talk about other things. This talk consisted mostly of a lengthy list of questions from Elisa’s father, mother, and brother, her mother’s brother, his wife, and their three adult daughters, her parent’s friends and their offspring, and just about every other Italian I met – all translated by Elisa – about every detail of life in the United States.
Only later would I learn the focus of the greatest amount of Italian inquiry into American life. In spite of differences in diet, health care, and diverging forms of government and jurisprudence, my wife’s family and friends’ deepest curiosity has to do with how Americans keep their butts clean. In the literal, as opposed to the figurative, sense.
Not that I have tremendous faith in my countrymen’s hygienic fastidiousness, but I hadn’t realized there was an issue, or how the issue had declared itself internationally. It turns out the intrigue isn’t based on actual encounters, but on their awareness of the absence of that ubiquitous Italian household appliance: the bidet.
I’d always thought it was the French who most adored bidets. To judge by my wife’s family and their friends, the Italians are generally not enamored of their froggy neighbors. But it turns out the bidet is an essential item in every respectable Italian household. The question on a lot of Italians’ minds is how can Americans consider themselves respectable – or merely clean – without washing their asses thoroughly after each and every bowel movement?
“How do you do it here?” my wife asked early on in our relationship. “Does everyone take a shower every time they go to the bathroom?”
I know they don’t, but I didn’t see how I could admit it. I felt myself a member of a stinking, feces-ridden people.
I’m not sure I can come up with an explanation. I’ve tried. I’ve offered arguments. Firstly, that our toilet paper is better than theirs. It’s softer and more absorbent. Or– and this I was reluctant to ask, since it’s so graphic and potentially disgusting – it really depends, doesn’t it, on the specific nature of each particular bowel movement? But no matter what I say, or no matter what I think but don’t say, in the final analysis there’s no question at all. No matter what the explanation or rationalization, no matter what my country’s reputation for gleaming indoor plumbing and access to hot water and scented soaps, she’s right. Washing is cleaner than not washing. You can talk about how Europeans don’t shower as often as we do, and they don’t. You can talk about their use of deodorant being more parsimonious than ours, and it is. But no matter where the line is drawn, or where your particular sympathies line up, one fact is crystal clear and hard as the hardest stone. Their asses are cleaner than ours. It’s as simple as that.
I was talking this over on the phone recently with my parents (who’d removed a bidet from their new house in order to enlarge the shower) and got some confirmation.
“Washing five times a day is cleaner than washing once” my father said. This is the same father who drinks a fiber-fortified cocktail each day to help with the regularity he claims to rarely enjoy. Judging from his “five times a day” comment, perhaps his aspirations for evacuations are unrealistically high.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he went on. “I don’t like the bidet. It tickles.”
“No, no, no. You use your hand,” instructed my wife, who’d been listening in on an extension.
“You don’t let the water hit you. You take the water in your hand, and then you wash.”
Silence on the line.
I thought, “Their asses might be cleaner, but their hands sure can’t be.” Then I decided to offer a joke.
“The real Italian way to do it is the most effective,” I said. “You clean and moisturize together by using a slice of prosciutto.”
Everyone laughed. But my wife’s eyes grew wide, and she said, “That’s not a bad idea!”
Weeks later, Elisa and I were watching an episode of a television show. The scene featured one rendition of a classic American TV joke capitalizing on the sound of a toilet flushing. Immediately after, the husband appears and says goodnight to his wife.
“You see,” Elisa said. “That man is going to bed and he didn’t wash his ass.”
Shame on him. Shame on us all.
It’s not only television characters that have disgusted my wife. Elisa related an instance that had horrified her on a business trip during which she’d been forced to share a queen-size hotel bed with a colleague.
“She used the bathroom before coming to bed,” Elisa told me. “You could tell. I don’t want to be disgusting, but you know…with sounds and the smell. And she didn’t take a shower. She just came out, and got into bed next to me.”
Elisa shuddered at the memory.
“I don’t understand how you can do that. Maybe if you’re in the woods. If we were in a tent, okay. But…”
When forced to, my industrious wife has even learned to take matters into her own hands. Prior to her confrontation with American realities Elisa studied for a year in London. There she’d been forced to improvise in another supposedly advanced but unwashed country.
“We didn’t have any bidets in the dormitories there, either,” Elisa said. “So I would wash my a** in the sink.”
Those nasty English get what they deserve.
Cultural divergences abound. Elisa, and every Italian I’ve ever spoken with, is horrified by the way American politicians speak about God, and plead with him to bless our nation.
“God bless the United States of America,” comes out of our television set whenever a President speaks, and Elisa’s head snaps back, as if she’s been struck.
“What did he say?” she asks. “If the Prime Minister of Italy said anything like that, he’d be laughed off the stage. You talk about God and you’d never get elected to anything. You talk about what you’re going to do about taxes, and then you shut up.”
God bless the Republic of Italy.
It’s not the differences in our backgrounds that most fascinate me. It’s the inconsistencies and the seeming contradictions. The distances between reputations and realities. Somewhat later in our relationship I was startled by a comment Elisa made at a high-end Italian design store in Manhattan. We were admiring various items, from cocktail mixing sets, to serving bowls, to lamps and furniture. When we came upon the ironing boards Elisa’s eyes grew wide and sparkled in way I’d thought only I was capable of causing. She admired the heavy duty, beautifully designed contraptions and said, “If you ever want to buy me something, you could buy me this.”
I was taken aback. I grew up with a mother who’d gone back to college and gotten a master’s degree in the late 1960’s, before the “women’s movement” had made such endeavors mainstream. Back when the local bank manager wouldn’t allow her to open an account without her husband’s signature and permission. In my household there was a lot of talk about how “disgraceful,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful” it was to give a woman a gift whose purpose was to perform household chores. An iron? Ironing board? Vacuum cleaner? You’d be killed. Worse than killed; you’d live in torment the rest of your days.
The woman who’d already agreed to be my wife was saying she’d like an ironing board for her birthday. Not just any ironing board. A three hundred and fifty dollar one. An ironing board that resembled scaffolding for a major construction site. Elisa is not a homemaker with no life outside of pleasing her husband through housework. She’s a medical researcher who goes to a laboratory every day to investigate how the parathyroid hormone affects the nuclei of osteoblast cells. She’s not an American cliché. She is, though, an Italian cliché. (Not the nuclei of osteoblast cells part. That’s not a cliché of any kind.) She’s an Italian cliché in that she will not leave the house with un-ironed clothes. It’s not done. You don’t have anyone over to dinner without an ironed tablecloth. You don’t even go to bed without ironed sheets. Consider all the differences between us: nationality, language, religion, culture, upbringing. It’s the enthusiasm for ironing that sets us apart. That, and my dirty a**.
My wife claims she loves to iron, though I suspect it’s the result she loves, not the activity. But I did not give her the ironing board for her birthday. Even if Elisa would be perfectly pleased with the gift, I’ll never give it out of fear of what my mother might do to me.
The only circumstance that could alter my position would be if, by some miracle, Elisa and I could afford a house of our own. I don’t mean to plead poverty; there are plenty of places in the world where we could afford to have a home of grand proportions. They just don’t happen to be in an area where I can be employed on a network television show or where Elisa can work on a Fourier transform infrared imaging spectrometer. So we’re stuck.
But if there were to be a house somewhere in our future, I’d give Elisa the gift she craves. The one that might make her feel at home in this strange and anything-but-superior land. It wouldn’t be the house itself. But, buried in one of its smaller rooms, wrapped in colorful paper and decorated with ribbons, would be her first American bidet. Better yet, dueling “his and hers” models. Better still, one in every bathroom of the house, in case her mother or father come to visit. Maybe we’d put one on the front porch, to make sure no one enters without being fresh as a daisy. Forget wiping your feet, wash your ass before you come in!
There we’d be, the most sanitized, well-ironed family on the block.
Now if only we could get those delis and grocery stores to clean themselves up. Or even a fraction of the population to stop, clear their heads of the propaganda they’ve been force-fed since birth, to resist the urge to berate others while aggrandizing themselves, and to sit down and carefully, tenderly, with or without a washcloth or pre-moistened baby wipe (or even any prosciutto), make sure their own asses are as clean as they think they are, or as clean as they might be.