Food and fevers are at the top of any good Italian mamma’s to-do list, but clothing is not far behind. Italian mammas are obsessive about how their children dress and Italian children are often perfectly dressed. First, they have to have a canottiera, undershirt. They actually call it the ‘maglia della salute’, the health shirt. It keeps them warm, even on steaming hot Rome summer days, and helps them keep from getting fevers, they believe. If a mamma dares to skip the canottiera she will send shock waves through all friends, aunts and mothers-in-law, not to mention husbands.
On top of the canottiera go all sorts of difficult-to-care-for clothing. My first child was a boy –I was appalled when all our Italian friends started giving me frilly-collared button-down blouses and little wool sweaters as gifts. So much for machine washable. My third child was born in June when Rome is brutally hot. In a few weeks she was covered with an ugly heat rash. Much to the dismay of all, I let her spend her days in her diapers. A month later we left for vacation in the US. I dressed my two daughters in pretty pink Italian hand-wash sweaters for the flight. When we arrived Caterina had tomato sauce all over her sweater, Chiara and managed to spit-up all over hers. “Did you ever think of cotton, machine-washable sweat-shirts?” my father asked.
Just around the corner from our apartment in the Parioli neighborhood of Rome is a tiny clothing store for children called “Mini Divi”. How is that name best translated? ‘Mini Divas’? or ‘Little Stars’? I am not sure, but in Italian it perfectly sums up how Italians view their children. The store is filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful clothing in mini sizes — lovely delicate wool sweaters for newborns, little linen dresses with embroidered tops for toddlers. I realized that I was becoming a real Italian mamma when I caught myself looking through the clothes with a friend and saying in a saccharin voice, “Oh isn’t this one an amore?”, “Oh look how bellino this dress is.” Any normal American mother would walk in that shop, glance around and walk right back out. If she decided to stay she might ask, “Is there anything here that can be put in the washing machine?” And the clerk would answer, “No, Signora, everything must be washed by hand.”
When Nico began school, we were very excited about the first birthday party. Aware that Italians dress children elegantly, I dressed Nico in a nice pair of corduroys, a button-down Oxford shirt, and (God forbid!) sneakers. I went with what I had on — jeans and comfortable shoes. We arrived at the party and almost every little boy was in little gray wool shorts with thin white bobby socks, girlish-looking buckle-up shoes, and a white blouse with a frilly collar, with a little wool sweater on top. Bleck! Nico did not care and neither did I.
I did care about the mothers though. Each one was more elegant than the next. I saw one mamma come in with two children dressed in matching frilly collars and buckle shoes. Their tall, thin elegant mamma had a beautiful, gray cashmere sweater-suit with a long top and short skirt. Her long, thin legs were covered with sheer gray stockings, and she wore perfectly matching gray high-heeled shoes. I stared at her enviously. Ah, to have long thin legs and spend the day in sheer gray stockings and a mini-skirt. I would not even be able to get out of my house with the children without getting a long run in those stockings. Slowly, I worked my way over to the corner where the baby-sitters had gathered and found a chair with them. I sat there contemplating the stunningly dressed Italian Mammas. I found myself hoping that the little boy with the gray-suited mamma would drink a ton of punch, loads of popcorn, and piles of chocolate cake. I was secretly hoping he would upchuck in the car on the ride home all over his little frilly shirt, and wool shorts, but I was especially hoping he would get that cashmere suit and sheer stockings of his Mamma.
In Rome laundry is a nightmare. Italians do not believe in or use dryers. They believe that clothing must dry in the sun and be ironed. They think a dryer would ruin clothing. I have looked into the matter and there are two problems with getting a dryer.
First of all, most of the Roman apartments are not equipped with enough power to handle a dryer. Even now I cannot use my dishwasher and the oven at the same time without blowing out the power in the apartment, and all the kitchen appliances have to be turned off if we want to use the hairdryer. So if I managed to get a decent dryer I would have to turn off all lights, stereos, computers, dishwasher and any other appliances just to run it. Second, they do not sell American-style dryers in Italy. The only kind of dryer I have seen is a German brand that does not blow air into the clothing, it basically cooks the clothes. The machine slowly heats up and gets hotter and hotter while rapidly spinning the clothing. No air goes in or out. When the machine is finished the clothing comes out warm, but damp and wrinkled. So, the dryer is excluded.
The washing machines are almost as annoying. Italian washing machines are about the size of a coffee can. One puts three items of clothing, or one bed sheet, inside and it is full. Then you turn it on and it fills up with boiling hot water. Then for three hours the coffee can spins this way and that way until the clothes are boiled clean.
With little children anywhere, one spends a huge amount of time doing laundry. In Italy, laundry is mamma’s worst enemy. Niccolo, for the first five months of his life sucked milk like a starving barracuda and then spent three hours spitting it up all over himself, his parents and the house. Needless to say, pretty quickly I got sick of the wool sweaters. One day in frustration, I put a little yellow wool sweater with a small satin ‘choo choo’ train embroidered on the front into the washing machine after Nico had spit up all over it. It came out about the right size for a GI-Joe. The other wool sweaters ended up with yellow stains all over them because I could never be bothered to clean them properly. Several years later I gave them all away to a cleaning lady from Santo Domingo. Probably all the GI-Joes in Santo Domingo are now wearing Nico’s mini-sweaters.
One day a good Italian friend of mine, whose adorable child is always impeccably dressed, recounted to me with horror how she caught her new live-in babysitter throwing a load of laundry in the wash mixing her sons clothes in with the baby-sitters. “I was so angry I could not see straight,” she said, “Can you believe she did not understand that all his clothes must be washed by hand?”
I tend to dress my children in cotton, durable, machine washable clothing that can be snapped, zipped or otherwise changed in a hurry. For years my friend Jessica was in a constant battle with her husband over the clothing issue. He did not do the laundry, but he wanted the wool sweaters and frilly socks. She wanted the washable sweatshirts. Finally they negotiated a deal. She dressed the kids during the week; then on weekends, for the visits to her in-laws, he would dress them. She told me the children would emerge from the bedroom puffed up like peacocks in fancy frilly shirts and buckle-up shoes, ready for their weekend.
My husband, Gustavo, is more worried about the children keeping warm. I grew up in Boston where the winters are long and cold, so Rome weather seems mild to me and I don’t worry too much about my kids’ clothing. Gustavo wants them wearing cannottiere, hats, scarves, and gloves most of the year – but, most of all, slippers. When Gustavo comes home from work, he opens to the door and yells out one word “PANTOFOLE!!!” (which means bedroom slippers in Italian) and my three children, usually running around barefoot, go scurrying off looking for their bedroom slippers, like cockroaches caught in the kitchen when the light is turned on.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.