Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ethnoanalysis- Do Barese Women Rule With an Iron Fist?

One of my very good friends went to medical school at the University of Bologna. He had to study Italian to matriculate, and became quite fluent in that language. He became engaged, and eventually married, the sister of another American studying there, who was of Italian descent.

One day Brian came to our house and started dishing with my grandmother, who grew up in Torino. Naturally, my grandmother loved conversing in her native tongue. When she asked where his fiancee's family was from, he replied "Bari", a city on the southeastern side of the Italian peninsula. My grandmother exclaimed: "Barese women! - They rule with an iron fist!"

Native Italian she might have been, but my grandmother was so American in this response. You see, she slotted poor Martha into a construct, the same way that our contemporary Anglos pigeonhole ethnicities into broader constructs like "Hispanic" and "Asian" and "Slavic". Naturally, the regional stereotypes of my grandmother's youth would not fit the reality of a third generation American decades removed from her parents' point of origin in the Old Country.

Likewise, the convenient categories adopted by the media whenever the subject of ethnicity comes up do not conform to the complex, ever-evolving reality. Always consider this whenever an ethnic angle surfaces in the press.

Oh, I almost forgot. Brian and Martha have been married just about 30 years now. I have not seen any evidence of an iron fist. But an iron nudge- maybe!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Debate 08- Why not a Roman Holiday?

As we head into the presidential campaign of 2008, the political classes will start their ritualistic dance as they negotiate the details of venue and format. Could I suggest Rome? There is a very intriguing device there called the Bocca Della Verita (Mouth of Truth). Most probably a drain cover surviving from ancient times, legend has it that you can test someone's truthfulness by having him (or her!) insert a hand into the mouth of the figure. Liars get a well-deserved nip! Think what THAT could do to foster full disclosure in our political process. (Of course, legend also has it that the reputation of La Bocca della Verita was enhanced over time by its caretakers, who were known to place a scorpion inside the mouth to, er, help things along.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Bottle of Red, A Bottle of White- The Italian Restaurant

"A Bottle of Red, A Bottle of White,
Whatever Mood You'r In Tonight!"
- Billy Joel

Let's face it. Your average Calvinist (and Calvinism exerts a very powerful attraction on American culture) is simply appalled at the Italian restaurant, especially the local kind with a neighborhood ambiance and a regular clientele. It may be just a pizza joint, or offer a full array of pasta, seafood and meat dishes. And if it's really on top of things, it will offer good coffee, espresso, cappucino, tiramasu, cannoli and cheesecake at the end of an enjoyable lunch or dinner.

The Italian restaurant offers enjoyment as its portal to subversion of the dominant Anglo culture. Besides the cuisine itself - tasty, comforting, predictable, modest- there is the joy of lingering over conversation. Conversation where one listens to one's family and friends, not participating in an exercise in food snobbery. You eat, you drink, you listen, you talk, you observe. The Italian restaurant is an uncongenial environment for that most Anglo of pastimes - the disguised lecture for the disguised Calvinist - ever worried that someone, somewhere may be deprived of their enlightened opinions. Now the Italian restaurant is not immune to the entry of blowhards. But is hard to declaim in the WASP style in this setting. Wise, skeptical eyes will puncture one's pretensions over the wine bottles even if their owners don't say much. The speaker will get the message soon enough. Unless it's a family or friend type of blowhard, in which case the speaker is part of the evening's entertainment!

If you need relief from the screeching and opinionated talking heads, let alone virtuous and hectoring politicians, make a date at the trattoria of your choice, and get going. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way Back From The Forum

Years ago I accompanied my friend Joe on a grocery shopping expedition, as his wife needed a few items. It seemed like a good opportunity to pick up a few things for myself, so I headed to the produce area. On the way back Joe, a teasing descendant of Eire through and through, began to rib me about how I was examining the produce to see if the quality was right. "Typical Italian - squeeze the tomatoes!" I can't remember my riposte, maybe it was the old standby about why it's hard to remember being invited out to an Irish restaurant.

But of course he was right. Being raised Italian, it IS normal to check, and check aggressively. And so the seed was sown.

Ethnicity matters. The culture, traditions and experiences of a group will carry over into so many areas. These things will color how one sees reality.

Divine Providence has made many cultures, each with its own virtues and failings. In America today the establishment pushes a cult of aggressive abstract multiculturalism that is wrapped up in the cold intellectual structures of Anglo-Saxon legalism. Hidden under the slick ice, however, it often tolerates and even encourages ethnic stereotyping and rabble-rousing.

Perhaps Italian-American culture, with its earthiness, physicality and skepticism, was heaven-made to puncture the illusions of this balloon. I'll try to do my part, anyway!

And by the way, to properly check a tomato, grasp it firmly but DON'T squeeze, rotate it to check for firmness and to make sure it has no punctures or blemishes. If this is too much trouble, that's OK, but this is a signal that you could be Irish. Save me a beer!