“You want an example of domestic violence? When my wife waits until the game is on to vacuum.” An acquaintance of mine here in Siena posted this on Facebook recently, and while I know comedy often touches on pain, in addition to making light of a very serious problem, there was something maddeningly myopic, provincial and Italian about a woman finding this funny. The women here really do do the vacuuming and the rest of the housework, as well as, more often than not, the cooking. They take pride in, even safeguard, their roles as exemplary homemakers and enjoy the idea that their husbands or male partners would be helpless without them. Nor do they complain about feeling overburdened, except in the most teasing way.
The male point-of-view is even more anachronistic. This past August, a friend of mine who is divorced was thinking of taking his daughter to visit some friends–a husband and wife with two children–at their beach house. “But then I realized it wouldn’t be fair,” he told me. “Simona would have to cook and clean for all of us.” The consideration he wanted to show his friends just did not include, in his realm of the possible, the option of his pitching in with the cooking and cleaning.
I don’t know what the Italian word for sexism is—sessismo?—which says something about how often it’s come up in my fifteen years in Italy. My daughter was two-and-a-half when we moved here from Germany. In her playgroup in Munich, the girls and boys had the same bowl-cut hair and wore the same Osh-Kosh overalls in blue or red or green. At her new, Italian playgroup, the little girls were all dressed in pink: sparkly Winx tee-shirts and glittery pink and white sneakers, their long hair hanging down their backs. When she moved on to school, the girls wore white smocks and the boys black. All the boys played soccer, whereas girls could choose ballet, tennis or horseback riding. (One year we parents all received a letter from the city of Siena explaining how girls, too, could enjoy team sports and announcing a trial day of soccer for any girl frequenting one of the five elementary schools in town. Three girls showed up.)
To be honest, my daughter blossomed because or in spite of this narrow definition of girlishness. She loved to play “cooking,” chopping up vegetables and moss and bark on the steps of the garden and mixing them into minestra for her stuffed animals. She assembled a collection of make-up my mother-in-law had discarded and tried it on anyone who would sit still. And dress-up, in skirts and gowns and especially my high-heels was a regular pastime. But I drew the line at buying her the plastic irons, ironing boards and battery-powered mini-vacuums my friends’ daughters all had.
Women here, as much as men, it seems to me, are helping preserve the traditional Italian gender roles. What are the consequences for women? On the one hand, my women friends who wanted careers have them, and I have worked successfully for a number of Italian companies. That said, the list of encounters I’ve had that most Amercians would consider sexual harassment is pages long, from the famous professor of ophthamology’s hand sliding up my thigh while he was examining my eyes to the banker playing footsie during a business lunch whom I was told to ignore. (“He’s loaning us money—let the guy have his fun!”) It’s so common in fact, that, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve gotten good at extricating myself quickly and moving on.
My neighbor, who is Austrian and came here as a teenager over twenty years ago says it’s getting better—the men are more sensitive, the women more assertive, at least north of Rome. My recent call to the carabinieri got me thinking, though: either she’s a very tolerant person or it must have been really bad twenty years ago.
The day before twenty-four kids were due to come over for my daughter’s birthday garden party, I looked out the window and saw a black and white snake at least a yard long slithering along where the barn wall meets the ground. Since vipers abound in the Tuscan countryside, I called the carabinieri to ask for the number of the Corpo Forrestale, a kind of ranger service, to get help figuring out if the snake was poisonous or not.
“What happened Signora?” the officer asked, so I told him about the snake.
“A snake, Signora, you say?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Longer than your arm, Signora?”
“Yes, it was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen,” I told him.
“I see, Signora, I see,” he said, and paused. And then, “Is your name, by any chance, Eve?”