When I was 20, I was convinced I would become a well-known television correspondent in Asia. I started out well, spending a year covering political upheavals in the Philippines, and then I won a scholarship to get a Masters Degree in South East Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York. The first day, the very first day there, I met my future husband: an Italian.
If, as I gazed into his blue eyes, an angel had whispered in my ear, “You will become an Italian mamma, a pasta chef, broth maker and tomato expert,” maybe I would have escaped. But there was no angel, and three years later I found myself married, living in an apartment with a tiny kitchen, in Rome.
My husband was in the small living room watching TV and I, fearless TV journalist that I was, who had spent time with Communist rebels in the remote mountains of the Philippines, was attempting to make spaghetti with tomato sauce.
I grabbed a handful of spaghetti, broke it in two, and threw it in the boiling water. “What was that noise?” my husband asked from the other room.
“Oh, nothing,” I said, “I was just breaking the spaghetti so it would fit in the pot.”
My husband came flying into the kitchen, “WHAT??? YOU BROKE THE SPAGHETTI?? NO, NO, NO, NO, YOU NEVER, NEVER, NEVER BREAK SPAGHETTI!”
“I prefer the Communist rebels,” I thought.
My husband started taking me to dinner parties to meet all his friends. With my limited Italian, I tried to make conversation. Like a good American, I always began, “So, what do you do?” After one such evening, my husband told me, “You should not ask people what work they do. It is considered rude in Italy.”
“So what should I talk about? No one ever asks me what I do!” I whined. “Amore, in Italy you can always talk about food.”
Gosh, I thought. I would rather be under fire in the streets of Manila during a coup d’état then spend the rest of my life talking about pasta and tomatoes. But my husband was right. All Italians can spend hours and hours talking about food, but it has to be Italian food.
I finally managed to replace the Philippine crisis with Vatican and Italian politics and, with an enormous effort; I began to chat about tomatoes and pasta.
Then I had my first, of three, children. My mother-in-law taught me how to make brodo vegetale (vegetable broth). Every day I had to boil, for one hour, a carrot, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, green beans, and a potato. Then I served the broth with a tiny pasta for babies, a few drops of olive oil, and freshly grated Parmigiano (parmesan cheese) sprinkled on top. It became a nightmare for me.
Finally, one day I found myself in the office of our pediatrician, the charming Dr. Francesco Guidotti. He gave me a long and complicated menu for my son. I decided it was time to fight back. “Dr. Guidotti, I hate making the brodo vegetale. It is ruining my life. Haven’t you ever heard of those little jars of baby food that you can buy at the supermarket? Please, tell me that it won’t hurt my son if I give him that stuff.” Dr. Guidotti sighed and looked at me very seriously. “What are tomatoes like in your country?” he asked. “OK,” I answered meekly. “No, they are not OK — they are red, round, perfect and without any taste at all. Certainly you cannot compare them to our delicious Italian tomatoes.”
“I understand,” I answered, “but if I want my son to become a discerning eater, to understand the difference between what is good and bad food, why should I give him a brownish-green mixed vegetable mush for every meal for his first 18 months?” “Listen,” he said smiling, “you Americans can do so many things better than the Italians, but at least grant to me that Italian food is the best in the world. You must not argue with me over food.” I finally understood: it was a lost battle.
I never really expected to marry an Italian. When I met my husband at Columbia University, he was a tall, blond, blue-eyed Italian beginning a PhD in economics. We were invited to a cocktail party for all the students receiving a Zuckerman Fellowship. He did his best to charm me at the cocktail party, but I did not make much of it.
The next day I was running late for registration at Columbia’s International Affairs building. I raced across campus and was about to head up the steep flight of stairs, when out came Gustavo. “Oh, Treeeeesha,” he declared. (Italians have a hard time with the ‘i’ in Trisha and it always sounds like I am being called a ‘tree’).
And, with that, he swooped down the stairs, grabbed my hand, and kissed it. That was it. He got me. I was fainting with delight and thoroughly charmed. I don’t think I have ever seen Gustavo kiss anyone’s hand ever again.
In the days and weeks that followed, we engaged in over-the-top flirtation, not really taking it seriously, but enjoying the game. The crescendo came mid-fall at a formal dance organized by Columbia Law School at Low Memorial Library. Gustavo, knowing full well that I was smitten at that point, made a huge effort to ask all my friends to dance while I stood by, for what seemed like hours. I was fuming.
Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I charged onto the dance floor and grabbed him by the arm as he was dancing, dragged him outside behind one of the columns and, on that brisk, starlit New York night, promptly slapped him three times across the face. Whack, whack, whack. I figured that was what Sophia Loren would do, and surely most Italian women would behave that way. It worked. After that, he was all mine. Needless to say, I have never met an Italian woman who smacks men across the face.
It is not worth the strain of going into the details of arranging a marriage between a Catholic man from Rome and a Protestant woman from Boston. I found myself a few weeks before the wedding at a shower thrown for me by friends. They cheerfully gave me cookbooks and slinky nighties with the repeated refrain: ‘Italian men like their women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen’.
A few days before our marriage, I sat before an Irish Catholic priest who was waxing eloquent about the mysteries of Catholicism. My husband claims that, before I left his office, I signed a piece of paper promising to raise my children Catholic. I have no memory of such a signature, but anything was possible in those dazed final weeks.
Our wedding day should have been a glorious New England fall day. No such luck. It poured. Buckets and barrels and truckloads of water came pelting down from the heavens. It took three people with umbrellas over me to get my poofy white dress and me into the church. At the reception, every single Italian told me of a famous Italian expression: ‘Sposa bagnata, sposa fortunata.’ ‘A wet bride is a lucky bride.’ Apparently for Italians, a rainy wedding day brings good luck.
My husband’s Aunt Gabriella came to Boston for the wedding and laughingly taught me another Italian expression: ‘Moglie e buoi dal paese tuoi.’ It means ‘Wives and cows from your own country.’ I did not quite understand it at the time, but it began to make sense to me later.
At the time of my wedding, I had little knowledge about anything Italian. I had passed through briefly on vacation, stopping only in Florence and Venice, during a junior semester abroad in France. I did not speak the language and knew little of Italian culture and history. I had spent my years after graduating from college pursuing my journalistic ambitions. In addition to my stimulating year spent in the Philippines, I had worked at ABC News in New York for a year and at CNN in Washington for two years. Both jobs were relatively boring desk jobs that nonetheless kept me informed on world events and introduced me to the world of television news, with its immediacy and power, which gave me a passion for it.
I also worked at the NBC affiliate in Boston during the 1988 presidential campaign, when then- Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis ran for President, where I developed my passion for American politics. Finally, I spent a lovely summer as a local television reporter in Portland, Maine, covering lobstermen and local fairs. There I learned to appear on camera and experienced the joys of being in the field.
But none of that was sufficient training for full immersion in Italian culture and Vatican coverage. I did not know how to make brodo vegetale and was not sure if a Cardinal was ‘Your Eminence’ or ‘Your Excellence’. I did not know a Canaletto from a Caravaggio, or penne from Rigatoni, but I was soon to learn.