Dealing with an adolescent is a Herculean task for any mother, in any country. Adolescents have a way of getting under their mother’s skin, being rude, obnoxious and irritating, and challenging their parents’ authority at every turn.
Nico, my first child, rose to the occasion, making sure I had full-immersion training in dealing with all possible adolescent eventualities. He did not do anything beyond the normal, but he loved to provoke. I learned, though, that he cared about one thing that is typically Italian, the bella figura, roughly translated ‘making a good impression’. He could do what he wanted, but his mamma was not allowed to make a brutta figura, translated as the opposite, ‘making a bad impression’. This is how I learned that lesson.
We have two doors to our apartment building, a main front door, where there are the mailboxes and the portiere (door-woman), and the back door which opens up on the second floor and from which one can look down the stairwell to the basement floor. We went through a period where, every time Nico and I entered the building together through the back door, Nico paused on the stairs, looked around to see if there was anyone there, and then spit down the stairwell. This drove me insane. I couldn’t stand it. I found it disgusting and disrespectful to everyone in the building. But the more I scolded and criticized, the more eagerly he did it.
Dressed in my nice work clothing, I swooshed into the building ahead of Nico and, as he described it later, I “hucked a huge loogie” down the stairwell. Then I took off at a run up the stairs, partly because I was mortified at my own behavior, partly because I was laughing and I didn’t want Nico to see me. I could hear him behind me. “MAMMA! What are you doing? Are you nuts? MAMMAAAAA!” He pounded up the stairs behind me. “MAMMA, that is sooooo gross!! How could you do that???” By the time he caught up to me at our front door, I was doubled over laughing. He was right — it really was gross. Nico has never spit down the stairwell again. Nor have I.
For teaching purposes, I made my brutta figura with my son, but with my husband I finally managed to learn how to make a bella figura. One spring, Gustavo organized a big conference of economists in Rome. To kick it off, there was a formal dinner at a rooftop restaurant at a five-star hotel on Rome’s posh Via Veneto. The dinner was for 15 important economists from around the world and Gustavo asked me if I could come and help him make a bella figura.
The dinner began at 8:30 pm, but my son Nico had water polo until 7:45, so Gustavo said he would go ahead to greet the guests as they arrived, and I would take a taxi later to join him. Before he left, he told me, “Please, just for tonight, it is really important, dress elegantly and can you make an effort to be charming, intelligent and non-controversial.” He then added, “you’ve met many of these economists before, if you forget who they are, just pretend you know them.”
I flew home from water polo practice with Nico, my Fiat Punto swerving in and around cars on Rome’s tangenziale, threw on the most elegant thing I had, and called a cab.
My taxi arrived at the hotel precisely at 8:30. I quickly paid the driver and suddenly the door was whipped open by a man (I would guess around 65 years old) who helped me out of the taxi and gave me an affectionate kiss on either cheek saying “Cara (Dear), here you are, you’ve finally arrived.” He smelled powerfully of after-shave and had dyed black hair. He led me by the arm to the door of the hotel and said, “Wait here, Dear, while I pay the taxi.” I called after him, saying that I had paid, but he was already at the door of the taxi. As I stood there at the hotel entrance, I racked my brain trying to think who he was, and where we had met, and what sort of economist he might be. I remembered my role for the evening was to be ‘charming, intelligent, and non-controversial’.
I thought perhaps this man had a Spanish accent, but I was not sure. He came back from the taxi with a terribly disappointed look on his face, took both my hands in his and said, “But, dear, why did you pay the taxi? Our agreement was that I would pay the taxi.” I was perplexed. Agreement? But then I thought maybe Gustavo had sent him down to greet me and pay my taxi. He then put his arm around me pulled me close to him and said, “Let’s go, dear.”
At that moment I started to have a doubt. He was too touchy-feely. I turned to him and said, “The conference dinner, right?” Then he was the one to look perplexed. I repeated, “You are from the economic conference, aren’t you?” He took my hands in his and slightly more aggressively repeated, “Let’s go, dear”.
At that point I extracted my hands and said, “I think you have the wrong person. I am going to the economists’ conference dinner.” He looked deflated as I fled toward the elevator. Up on the roof terrace the conference guests were having a pre-dinner pro secco. As I mingled with the guests, I saw my ‘Spanish friend’ emerge on to the terrace with the woman he had clearly been waiting for. She was probably around 30, beautiful, and was pretty clearly a high-class escort. She was dressed elegantly, but her skirt was perhaps a tad too short and her heels a tad too high. If her heels had not been so high, we probably would have been about the same height. We also had long brown hair in common. The similarities ended there. I am quite convinced that he had chosen her off some website, spoken to her on the phone, established the rules (‘arrive at 8:30, I will meet you at the taxi and pay for it’). When I arrived with similar height and hair color at the same time, he just got mixed up, and so did I.
At the rooftop restaurant, we had a long table for our group of 15 and the ‘Spanish’ man and his ‘escort’ were seated for a romantic dinner for two at a table nearby. In between my charming, non-controversial conversations with the economists, I could not help sneaking glances at the Spaniard and his escort as the evening progressed, wondering how much that woman was earning for her evening. My male colleagues said the next day that it could have been as much as 1000 Euro a night. Boy, that sure beats the AP salary!
Despite the close call at the beginning, I did not make a fool of myself at the conference dinner. I was gracious and non-controversial throughout the evening, altogether I made zero money but I did make a bella figura.