Th Undershirt Police

Stephanie Tarnowski
December 29, 2005

When I first moved to Italy I didn’t give much thought to the fact of undershirts.  Sure, I thought it was funny that my then boyfriend and now husband called them FROO-EETS (short of course for Fruit of the Loom pronounced in a spectacularly Italian way).  Or that my now father-in-law had summer undershirts made of cotton, sleeveless undershirts made of wool for the mid season, and cotton on the inside/wool on the outside, heavy undershirts, for those very cold days.  All of which, needing to be lovingly washed by hand, to insure against any washing machine crisis.

 

For me the undershirt odyssey  started the day my son was born.  The bustling nurses in the maternity ward were hunting.  They were hunting for undershirts. 

 

“Where are the undershirts?” they asked in disbelief rifling through the bag of clothing I had brought to swaddle my infant..  This was July, in the middle of the worst heat wave to have struck Italy in the last 100 years.

 

“Hughhmmph?” I answered in a groggy state. 

 

“The undershirts. These pyjamas cannot be worn without an undershirt,” they said.

 

“I don’t think I have any,”  I replied.

 

“Well,” they said, “tell your husband that when he comes back he is to bring undershirts with him!”

 

Fine, OK, whatever; just let me sleep! My son was in an incubator where the temperature hovered somewhere around that of a Tahitian beach in summer and they were asking for undershirts?  Little did I know that the quest for the undershirt would follow me for years to come.

 

When I went to pick up my son from the first day of nursery school I was quite taken aback by the tongue-lashing I was to receive from the ominous Maestra Marisa.  She quickly identified and extricated me from the crowd of mothers (could it be because I was the tallest mommy in the group or did the blond hair give it away?) and waggled her finger at me threateningly, summoning me to her side. 

 

Signora!” she barked at me, “your son is dressed inappropriately today and I expect you to make amends by tomorrow!”

 

“Gee,” I said. “I know he’s not wearing a smock but the choice was so vast that I wanted to ask you exactly what type of’’

 

“That’s not the problem!” she barked again. “The problem is the undershirt!”

 

“The undershirt?” I answered, not sure if I had heard correctly.

 

“That is correct, Madam. Your son is not wearing an undershirt.”

 

Now, I don’t know about you but when it is 70° outside, beautiful and sunny, I tend not to dress in layers.  An undershirt is a piece of clothing I reserve for chilly days in February.  Little did I know that the undercover undershirt police lurk about, waiting to bust you if you are not wearing this all-purpose piece of clothing.   You are supposed to start out as soon as you leave your mother’s womb wearing a magliettina della salute or a little health undershirt.  Better if it’s red silk.  That way it does double duty by warding off the evil eye, too. 

 

Last week I picked up my son from second grade.  When the children filed out he was first in line, holding the teachers hand.  A treatment generally reserved for those who have been disruptive at school and need a “speaking to” with both mother and teacher. “Signora,” the teacher singsonged with an evil glimmer in her eye, “your son is not wearing an undershirt today!  At least have the decency to put on his sweatshirt before he leaves the premises or I will not be responsible should anything happen to him. Good day!” And with that, she left. Leaving me to think that the battle is far from over. 

 

My mother used to tell me that you never want to wear underwear that are dirty or have holes, because you never know when you might be rushed to a hospital, and have to face the embarrassment of these being seen by the doctors saving your life!  Similarly in Italy, not wearing  an undershirt, an infraction akin to that of not wearing a seatbelt, is a cause for serious concern.  So be warned, the next time you are dressing yourself or another, ask yourself how you will fare under the scrutiny of the Undershirt Police who are on patrol at all times and all places.  Goodness knows, you don’t want to face the consequences of failing the inspection.

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