Inside Italian houses: from Padre pio to the proper way to hang your bra
You want a house? Texas has houses. We're talking a Tyvek-clad, three-car-garage, big brick energy monster that sits in the middle of a "waterfront" subdivision/mosquito retention pond and comes with a fully sodded lawn and a tree. The tree is about the size of a umbrella and will take the years far better than your house. But you can also get your McMansion at the rock bottom price of $250,000 in a decent school district and with about 3800 square feet. You'll be close to swim team and the mall.
Italy isn't like that.
First of all, houses come in three sizes: apartment-sized, house and castle. Apartment-sized flats for sale in Rome, for instance, start at about 300,000 euros and look like this: 800 square feet, a forest of satellite dishes, maybe a small terrace, and if you're lucky, a temperamental elevator. You try schlepping up five flights of stairs carrying two bags of groceries and a six-pack of water. It'll make you swear off religion.
Elevators in Italy are not the sleek modern kind we're used to seeing in the U.S. First, there's a door problem--as in, if you fail to remember to close the outside doors and the inside doors, the elevator won't work. That means you're walking, pal, hauling your groceries up flights and flights of stairs in flimsy plastic bags. All just part of the adventure!
Roman flats are far from glamorous (most of them) and you pay a lot of money to live there. This is ROME, of course, so you don't care. Fewer steer horns, more linguine. Apartments in Rome are, comparatively speaking, mostly cramped and utilitarian. Many have plain white walls, spiral-shaped low-consumption light bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling, and a single bathroom. Mismatched IKEA furniture or grandma's hand-me-downs? Absolutely. The truth is, credit is scarce, and most people aren't willing to shell out thousands of euros for showroom furniture.
Italians don't care about making a decorating "statement". What they care about is family and functionality. And you can't have a house full of designer furniture and invite family over for protracted Sunday dinners if said family includes adorable munchkins with sticky hands. Family knows all about you, so why try to impress them? Half the time, they're the ones helping you foot the bills anyway, so if you're spending cash on new furniture, you'll have some explaining to do.
Italians spend more money on cleaning products than just about any other country in the European Union. Their houses are usually spotless, especially the kitchen. And here's where it gets really good. Most Italian kitchens are no bigger than a largish American closet. They don't include dishwashers, appliance garages, double ovens or decent steak knives--but your average Italian can cook any American into the next century.
American idea of Italian food: overcooked spaghetti and extra cheese. Italian idea of Italian food: spaghetti cooked to exquisite perfection (called al dente or "to the tooth"), a savory homemade tomato sauce, and cheese, sure, but only as an appetizer. Food is a subject of worship here, which is very humbling because I grew up making dinner by pressing the buttons on a microwave.
Italians love doing laundry. It's like a second religion to them. In all the Italian homes I've been in, I've never seen a dryer. Laundry is air dried, slung on a line that stretches from one window to the next or across the street. I find it charming. My boyfriend finds it annoying. He says it ruins the aesthetic of beautiful old architecture. I'm sure he's right, but I continue to secretly adore the brightly colored T-shirts, sheets, skivvies and bras that wave gently in the breeze. They tell a story about the people who live there. Ergo, the old trope about "airing your dirty laundry", right?
No Italian home would be complete without its patron saint, Padre Pio, who was an old mystic that Pope John Paul II canonized. His claim to fame was the possession of stigmata, or weeping bloody nail-driven holes in his hands. Rumor has it he made free use of carbolic acid to keep the wounds open, but try telling an Italian grandmother that. You will find pictures of Padre Pio staring forlornly at you everywhere--restaurants, train stations, houses, stores. At first, I was a little creeped out by it, but now he's grown on me.
Padre Pio is like a talisman against change. And Italy resists change with an unholy passion.
Lawns in front of Italian homes you will rarely see. Italians do charming stone patios and terracotta pots overflowing with flowers. They do grape arbors and trellises and little cafe tables with folding chairs, even on their minuscule balconies. Italy is the land of abundance--spit anywhere and something will grow. Crumbling stone walls are covered in blood-red roses. Ivy clings to the insides of ravines and to the faces of old buildings. Come May, the air is sweet with the scent of night blooming jasmine. Italy is oleander, roses, grapes, cypress trees, artichokes and olive groves. Its flavorful waters, bottled at their source, taste of all the minerals in the rock.
Twenty or thirty lesser countries were sacrificed to make just one Italy. Work/life balance? They've perfected it. Delicious food? They've mastered it. Their way of life is completely different from what I was raised with in Texas--and I admire them fiercely for it.
In Italy, life is about family. Houses are about family. And family is always there for you.
That's the Italian way.