Saturday, July 09, 2005

Among the Italians

So, the vacation recap: It all went very smoothly, starting with a drive down that was startlingly unimpeded by traffic. Darren and I kept exchanging glances, not daring to mention out loud the bizarre lack of cars on the road. (People heading in the opposite direction weren't as lucky -- the tolls in Maine and New Hampshire were backed up about a mile.)

We were there, along with my sister, her fiancee and Lucy the pony dog, for five days, which was just about right. Plenty of time to relax and catch up, but not so much time as to drive each other crazy. I only saw my grandmother once, for several hours at a barbecue at her house, but she seems to be okay. She wasn't very talkative, and she actually let us cook and clean up afterwards (a very rare occasion), and she seemed a bit weak. But she's two weeks away from turning 85 and she's got a bum valve in her heart, so I suppose that's all to be expected. My grandfather seemed thin and concerned, which is also to be expected. We'll see them again late next month, when there is a joint birthday party planned (he's turning 90 this year).

Food highlights: Greasy thin-crust pizza at the beach. Yum. Sushi... including my first taste of actual raw fish (and, to my amazement, I liked it. That spicy tuna is something else). My great-aunt Mimi's homemade pizza, which disappeared in a flash from the big Fourth of July picnic. And my mom's peach pie (though, secretly, I think mine is better).

Seeing the extended family at the Fourth of July picnic was a treat, as usual. My grandfather is one of several siblings; his father emigrated from Italy in 1894 as a 10-year-old kid. My grandfather is the only one of his siblings who didn't marry an Italian, and none of his kids (my dad and his brothers) married Italians, either. What's more, my grandparents and their kids didn't stay in north Jersey, while most of the rest of the extended family did.

As a result, my relatives are very Italian, with north Jersey accents, some gold chains, some big hair (although the altitude has come down in recent years) and some pretty stereotypical behavior. (The racism, for example... A lot of Jersey Italians have really horrific attitudes about people of African-American descent. I don't know a lot about the origins of this particular prejudice, but I'm sure at least part of it stems from the immigrant's desire to see himself as superior to another group.)

Some of this is objectionable and irritating... and some of it is hilarious. One of my dad's cousins could walk onto the set of The Sopranos without a moment's preparation; he seems to enjoy hamming up his guido act. At our wedding, for example, he rolled up to Darren and smoothly slid him the envelope (containing our card and a check); he warned that "you'd bettah take good care of her" and slapped Darren on the back rather vigorously. He's given us repeated warnings that if he ever finds out we were in his neighborhood and didn't stop to see him, we'll be in big trouble.

And then there is the hugging and the kissing. In my dad's family, when you arrive and when you leave, you hug and kiss everyone. Even if you're going to see them the next day (at which point you will repeat it all anyway). My native Mainer husband was a little taken aback at this in the beginning, but after nearly six years of marriage, he smooches the great aunts with the best of 'em.

My mom, who grew up outside Washington, D.C. in a pretty stoic Irish-German upper-middle class family, has always been put out that my sister and I identify more with the Italian side of the family. But it was impossible not to -- the Italian relatives are so vibrant and outspoken, and their food is so good, not to mention the fact that we simply spent a lot more time with them growing up. In the pictures of my generation -- all the second cousins -- there are rows of kids with olive skin and dark brown hair... and then there's fair, blonde little me: the mitigan (the phonetic Italian pronunciation of American). If Darren and I have kids, they'll be almost entirely mitigan, but I swear they'll grow up with the occasional Sunday gravy and reverence for olive oil. And they'll learn to kiss hello and goodbye.