December 22, 2012

Spitting Image

Cartoon drawn by my 13-year-old nephew Gaetano Minciaroni

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.

Then one day I had an idea, perhaps inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, “Mrs Piggle-Wiggle”. 

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.


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Trisha Thomas

Author: Trisha Thomas

Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.


  1. avatar

    Oh Trisha,

    That is hysterical – the escort part I mean, although the brutta figura with your son is pretty great also! Thanks for starting my day off with a few laughs. Have a wonderful Christmas – I bet Rome is beautiful now.

    • Trisha Thomas

      I am glad you got a laugh Adri. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas….I wish I could swoop down and sit at your table and try some of those yummy things you’ve been cooking up.

  2. avatar
    Stephen Thomas 2012/12/22 at 19:52 Reply

    That is such a hilarious story — I love the way juxtaposed those two anecdotes. Very entertaining!

    • Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Stephen! (He’s my brother, and the one with the real writing talent in the family)

  3. avatar

    Oh Trisha I love this story. I have teenage sons too. My older son Jack (almost 17) has suggested that I shouldn’t use words that belong to his generation – like ‘cray cray’ and ‘twelvie’ as it makes me sound lame. Makes it difficult, though as I am a high school teacher and surrounded by ‘his’ generation every single day. I particularly love the word ‘twelvie’ as older teens in Australia use it to put down pre-teens who act older than they are. Mention to a misbehaving seventh grader that he is behaving like a twelvie and the behaviour stops immediately.

    I’m leaving for my fourth Italian trip on Christmas Day and believe me, the bella figura is very much on my mind. Trying to pack for winter weather when it’s 30 degrees celsius outside (I’m in Australia) is a challenge – but trying to pack elegant, classy clothes when I have a high school teacher’s functional wardrobe is even more of a challenge! Thank goodness for online shopping.

    Buon Natale to you and your family.

    • Trisha Thomas

      Kathy — thank you for your wonderful comment. What a riot!! I have never heard of “twelvie” or “cray cray ” before. What does “cray cray” mean? I think I might start using these words too. As a school teacher you must have an advantage with dealing with your kids at home…you can develop the techniques at work. I find that I can work all day and feel that I am really good at my job and then I go home and the kids are out of control and I think I get paid for doing my job but being a mother is so much harder and no one pays me for it. As far as the bella figura is concerned…prepare yourself, Italians a really into it.

      • avatar

        Trisha ‘cray cray’ is Aussie teen slang for crazy. As in ‘you got D for biology? That’s cray cray’ OR – and this one is true –
        (me) ‘Jack, when I was in Athens I met a family who live near us and they know your football buddy Domenic’
        (Jack) ‘Mum that’s just CRAY CRAY’.

        Yes, being a mum of teens helps enormously in understanding 30 of them in my classroom. I just love my job – and one of the bonuses is I get to teach seniors about Pompeii and Herculaneum. Hence this upcoming visit. I’ll be in Naples for NYE and have heard it’s slightly ‘cray cray’. Can’t wait.

        • Trisha Thomas

          Oh, that is a hilarious expression…I love it. I think I will try it out on my teenagers, although I am sure I wouldn’t get the lilt right.
          I can’t believe you are going to be in Naples on New Year’s Eve. Wear a helmet! Just kidding. But there is a Neapolitan tradition of throwing your old broken junk out the window at the end of the year, dishwashers and stuff like that. It a bit cray cray. But seriously, the fireworks are supposed to be spectacular in Naples. They’re are pretty spectacular in Rome too, but Naples is supposed to be twice as much. The only problem is it is not organized by anyone, it is all individuals who buy fireworks and shoot them off at midnight. So it would be lovely to be on a rooftop–but I would be careful about being with a group of teenagers out in the street. I promise you though that you will have a fabulous time!! And buy yourself a red horn — Neapolitans say it keeps off the evil and brings good luck.

  4. avatar

    Hi Trisha, bit of a late reply to this one but I just got home yesterday.
    Everything you said about Naples on NYE was spot-on. We were out on the street (Lungomare on the bayfront) right underneath everyone and anyone busting out their boxes of fireworks and setting them off. Some of them sounded like bombs. I took a video, showed my son and he was madly jealous. Everything here in Australia is so regulated – fireworks are illegal and banned for individuals to purchase – so to be amongst this was somewhat refreshing – not to mentions seriously cray-cray!

    We went for a walk the next day to the Spanish Quarter – and yes – there were smashed televisions and other junk in the street. We had a great laugh (despite our hangovers).

    And the bella figura! Oh boy was that at work during the evening stroll along the Napoli bayfront! Elegant, refined families, older, younger, babies, dressed in button-down shirts and cute sweaters, teens holding hands with their grandparents – everyone looking like Armani advertisements. It was beautiful! My friend and I were dressed well and blended in – or so I thought – until a local told me it was obvious we were tourists. When I asked why he said we didn’t ‘move’ like Italians. I was incredulous – how does one ‘move’ like an Italian? And when I looked closely at the families walking along the bayfront, I could see he was right. The families all walk elegantly – they ‘glide’ – and when in restaurants, they sit elegantly, eat elegantly and don’t wave their arms around an laugh loudy – like my friend and I did. It was such an interesting thing to observe.

    One thing I must tell you. I was in a bayfront Naples restaurant, enjoying the sun and watching all the beautiful people. A nearby table of three generations caught my eye as they all looked so gorgeous and happy. I caught the eye of who I assume was the grandfather and we smiled. When they got up to leave, he shook my hand and in my hand was a piece of paper. With a phone number on it….. I had been in Naples about three hours and was ‘hit on’ by a gorgeous man in his fiftes. It made my day!

    I can’t wait to go back. I think Italy – and particularly Naples – is getting under my skin.

    • Trisha Thomas

      Oh my God!!!! I love this. It should be a separate post by itself. I can’t believe that guy slid you his number right in front of the whole family!!! But I totally believe it. And yes, I know what you mean about the walk, the glide. Sometimes I get told I walk like an American…when I ask what that means I get, “too athletic, too sporty”. Apparently Italian women walk in a more elegant, sexy way.
      Next time you come to Italy, come visit me in Rome and we will have a good laugh together! Thanks so much for your fascinating and hilarious comment!

  5. avatar

    Oh that is hysterical and something you’d see in a movie. Sorry I’ve been a bit out of the blogosphere getting ready to move and with Sam so sick. Just catching up on all my reading xxx

    • Trisha Thomas

      Great to hear from you Lisa. Don’t worry, I understand what it means to have trouble keeping up with the pace on the blogsphere…I can barely make it to keep up a blog and read others and make comments is a challenge.

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