There are a lot of reasons people study abroad in Italy, but the biggest one is for the food. People assume (pretty much rightly so) that if they opt to live with a family, a plump, loving Italian mamma will serve them up five-course meals of homemade, homegrown, home-crafted Italian comfort food and provide them with an unlimited supply to delicious house wines. Or was it just me. No! It was practically printed in the study abroad pamphlet.
My Italian mamma, Caterina, was the size of a mouse and kind of looked like one, and lived with her boyfriend in an apartment on Via Masaccio. She was a self-proclaimed fascist who hardly spoke a word of English, other than, oddly enough, “bomb all the Iraqi babies!”, which she said with vigor. When I misspoke Italian, she smacked me on my wrists. She never slept and had cigarettes for dinner instead of food. I think Caterina requested hosting two vegetarian students because she thought vegetarians ate less, so she was probably surprised to get Desira and me, who are big eaters with a crippling weakness for lots of wine.
The first day in Florence I spent the whole day wondering what kind of glorious meal we would eat together at our first family dinner. Dinner ended up being: a small pot of over-cooked pasta with about a tablespoon of spaghetti sauce. She stirred the sauce in with the same hand she held her cigarette. We scarfed down our tiny pasta portions and hungrily looked at her, wondering what cigarette ash-flavored course was next. Cos’altro vuoi? She asked, squinting her eyes and jerking her nose up at us like she was informing us she was about to slit our throats. What else do you want? Intimidated, and noticing there wasn’t any food left in the apartment, we just went to bed.
The first weekend there, the students were encouraged to stay in Florence and spend some quality time getting to know their new families. Desira went to a concert in Bologna, but I’m a rule follower so I stayed home. My friends’ families took them to the beach or had family come in from out of town. They went shopping or sight seeing or took the bus up to the country side in Fiesole. Caterina sunned in the back yard smoking and reading trashy magazines. (Which, actually in Italy means “normal” magazines.) We sat together the whole day, except for the times I escaped to the kitchen in search of wine. All I found was bottles of Yellowtail Shiraz, which seemed offensive to me but I drank it anyway. I drank a lot of it, actually, since there wasn’t a lot of food in the house. (It’s lucky I didn’t become an alcoholic living there.) We didn’t talk much that “get to know you” day, but I went to bed realizing I had actually learned quite a bit about her.
As the weeks went on, the menu varied slightly. She noticed how starving we were so started buying frozen garden burger patties. After our pasta dish, she would fry one and serve it to us on a blank white plate. Cos’altro vuoi? She’d ask gruffly. I never thought she was asking in earnest. My reaction was always, “nothing just please don’t kill me.” Once, Caterina somehow observed that Desira enjoyed yogurt of all things, and bought a 50 pack which replaced the veggie burgers as our second course until we finished every disgusting, watery, oddly-flavored yogurt cup. Yogurt, you see, is the only kind of food Italians have not mastered. They’re not a people of breakfast foods and I don’t think they understand it, which makes sense to me because it is horrible.
Caterina was being paid to house and feed us, but she was not feeding us, so we started to suspect she was just pocketing the extra money. I had even started losing weight, something I hadn’t anticipated. So we had a small intervention with her, explaining if she didn’t want to shop and cook, then we would do it for her. We would do the shopping and cooking. Do you remember that plump Italian mamma I talked about before? She never would have let us do this. She never would have allowed us to pick out the tomatoes, man the risotto, or even be in the kitchen. But Caterina didn’t give a fuck and handed over the money. From then on we shopped, and man did we cook, making up for all the calories we had missed out on before. We cooked elaborate, un-Italian breakfasts like eggs and oatmeal, came home for long, drawn-out lunches of pasta and cheese courses. For dinner, we loaded homemade pizzas with Italian cheeses and vegetables, fried vegetarian croque monsieur sandwiches, baked pesto-y, cheesy egg souffles and heavy lasagnes, and cooked globs of polenta and beans and huge pots of ribollita. Once I got my hands on some salsa and made huevos rancheros. Caterina stuck up her nose, revolted at the idea of salsa, cheddar cheese and eggs. She didn’t eat that dinner, either. Just sat back, rolling her eyes, dragging on her cigarette.
You probably hate her right now. But don’t worry—I didn’t. Once we got the food thing figured out, we realized Caterina was loveable, we loved her. And she loved us too, in her weird, fascist, abusive, fucked up way. She let me (encouraged me to) bring boys over, let us have parties, drank with us, and her mother washed our underwear and cleaned our rooms. She softened up to me, tucking me in at night and making my stuffed animal speak to me in Italian. She threw Desira an elaborate birthday party for all her friends, where she ordered her boyfriend to travel by train to another city to get the best pizza in Tuscany. She’d hide under the dining room table and try to scare the shit out of me before dinner, she’d listen to me go on for hours about my day in my faulty Italian, and she danced in her living room to all her favorite Bruce Springsteen albums. (She still smacked me around when my Italian homework wasn’t perfect, but because she was masochistic, I took it as a compliment.) When we said goodbye at the end of the semester, she hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, in English, “Blondie, you are my proud”, and I cried, and she cried, and it was a huge mess and I thought, how did I end up loving this horrible woman? She’s not an abusive bitch, after all! She just needs us. So I kept in touch with her.
A few years later I moved to Rome and visited her in Florence a few times. She even let me sleep in my old bed. The first time, she served dinner, and nothing had changed. A little pasta stirred with her cigarette-cradling hands, an economic use of sauce, and a fried garden burger patty. The second time I visited, when Caterina asked what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to sit on her terrace and smoke. “You smoke now?” She asked. I didn’t, but I knew it was what she was most comfortable doing. So instead of eating we smoked and talked about how much better I was than the current students living with her. They popped in for a moment, and I wanted to take them aside and ask if she was feeding them, if they liked her or hated her or if she hit them. I wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live with Caterina, because even though she didn’t show her love with food, like other Italian mammas, she still showed her love. With ashes, angry rants, and light abuse and starvation.