Married to an Italian

The first fight: stepping lightly into Italy’s “inside” world

Fred Birkhimer
October 20, 2005

When my Italian then-girlfriend, now-wife, and I moved in together, our First Big Fight wasn’t about money—we didn’t have enough to fi ght about. It wasn’t about any of the sources of confl ict you might guess would plague a cross-cultural relationship (nosey in-laws, insensitive friends) or, for that matter, any relationship (washing the dishes, putting the cap back on the toothpaste). Surprisingly, it wasn’t even about the well-known Italian tradition of insane jealousy (that would cause the Second Big Fight).

 

The First Big Fight was about slippers.

 

Italians, it turns out, have very precise ideas about the domestic sphere. All the chaos and disorganisation plainly visible here every minute of the day—when you shop, work, drive, take the bus, or even just get a coffee—is strangely absent when you come home at night after a hard day at work. When you shut the door behind you, you are subject to an iron-clad series of rules, regulations, and laws that are as merciless in their conception as they are draconian in their implementation. Exceptions will not be made; prisoners will not be taken. One such law concerns inside clothes and outside clothes. Italians, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the chaos that surrounds them, are obsessive about compartmentalising.

 

Slippers are the most essential item of inside clothes and, as such, form a mutually exclusive set with the outside world. That is to say, not only can you put slippers on when you get home, but you must. Don’t think twice. The opposite is true as well: when you leave the house, putting on your shoes must be the very last thing you do.

 

I should mention that similarly rigid rules apply to the seasons. In the world of fashion and clothing you’d expect this here; consider the favourite Italian pastime, “changing the closet,” a phrase I’ve learned to dread even more than “let’s go to Ikea.” It means spending an entire day—in the company of your mother-in-law (we’ll talk about Italian mothers-in-law another day), since such delicate affairs are best decided in the family council—deciding which clothes you can safely put away for the winter/summer, only to endure the opposite process the following spring/ fall. Why does it hurt the Italian sensibility to have both long- and short-sleeved shirts sharing the same closet, when they are perfectly content to walk around in wool scarves and micro-fi bre parkas suitable for arctic excursions in late September, practically the minute they get back from a month at the beach?

 

But, let’s get back to the slippers.

 

The problem was, I didn’t even have slippers. (In my defence, I should mention that moving to another continent while staying within airline baggage weight limits is a bit tricky, especially if 35 of your 40 kilos are books and CDs; even had I been an assiduous slipper-wearer in the States, I confess they might not have made the cut.) From the horrified gaze of my then-girlfriend,

though, I could see that this was not a good excuse. Not owning slippers is simply inconceivable for the average Italian, and so I unwittingly became a member of a club I guarantee you don’t want to be a member of: those who live like students. Italians, it turns out, occasionally compensate for the chaos that they cleverly disguise as “daily life” with somewhat extreme categorisations. This one involves being a bit too bohemian in lifestyle.

 

Let the record show that I had lived in Florida for five years when in graduate school, so I was no stranger to flip-fl ops. Unfortunately, slippers and flip-fl ops for Italians are distant relatives, barely on speaking terms; the former are dignifi ed inside clothes, while the latter are scruffy outside clothes and as such are appropriate only for the beach. My new Italian family gleefully illustrated this point for me when my flip-flops left footprints all over the freshly mopped floors, something that suitably domesticated slippers would never have done. (Triple parking and tax evasion? No problem. Leaving footprints on freshly mopped floors?! Now that is what they call a problem.) So, when you contemplate a life-changing decision like moving in with an Italian, along with patience, a sense of humour, and a patriotic vein you never would have suspected you possessed, be sure to pack a pair of slippers. And make sure they’re appropriate for the season.

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