I distinctly remember when it first happened: We were sitting at the playground watching my then-toddler running around in a T-shirt and shorts on a beautiful May day with a delightful breeze. “You know, he really should be wearing a jacket or a sweatshirt with this kind of wind,” the Italian mom next to me proclaimed authoritatively, taking a last deep inhale of her cigarette before stubbing it out right by the park bench. I looked at her incredulously as the other local moms nodded in agreement, most of them mid-smokes. By the time I composed myself I noticed that Jacopo was happily putting old butts in his mouth.
The scene exemplified one of the cultural differences between what most of my New York friends would find dangerous, myself included — and what my Italian counterparts merely scoff at. With even a light breeze, the Italians worry that a massive cold could strike their bambini down for days. But the hazards of second-hand cigarette smoke seem irrelevant when they proudly push their newborns down the main drag of town puffing away (smoking during pregnancy is not unusual). Meanwhile, even the threat of a medium-level thunderstorm during school pickup invokes the behavior of an emergency evacuation: Charges are put into enough rain gear to ready them for a ten-mile walk through a hurricane, parents sprint at top speed back to their idling cars (parked illegally with the hazards on), put their children in the front seat (without buckling the seat belts), and speed away above the town’s speed limit. And don’t even get me started on car seats: Double- and triple-check that your rental car actually does come with one, as despite online requests, many Italian companies consider car seats a luxury, not a necessity.
This kind of thing is widespread: Following even the briefest swim in the sea or pool, a wet bathing suit is taken off as soon as junior reaches his towel and replaced by a dry number, but in the course of making sure his butt is dry he might be handed a bottle of Coca-Cola to keep him happy. And even on the warmest days of the summer, most children are bundled up in enough layers to weather a cool fall day in the 50s, but they seem to have more colds than most of the offspring of my New York friends who have a more laissez-faire approach to wardrobe. One day when I returned home from the beach on a scorching August afternoon my 6-month old was wearing a T-shirt, a diaper, and no shoes. “Ma e’ quasi nudo! [He is almost naked!]” my neighbor admonished, as she rushed toward us with a blanket in her arms. Another note: When you check into hotels, pretend that you won’t use the air-conditioning. Italians consider piped-in cold air more or less the root of all evil, especially in the case of children, and we are actually ashamed to admit we have a unit in Jacopo’s room.
Diet here is another disparity. On the one hand, when my son started preschool a year ago, we received pages of menus detailing what the kids would eat during the year, divided into seasonal menus, each with a long list of ingredients and provenance. The olive oil was from a farm right outside of our little Tuscan town, the cheese from sheep we passed daily, the tomatoes from a grandpa’s garden right at the city walls. Frankly, the sustainable approach brought me close to tears, so in line was it with my Michael Pollan–style attitude that I could feel really good about what Jacopo would be digesting.
But at birthday parties here, my husband and I giggle at what the Carroll Garden and Upper East Side parents would say about the offerings during the festivities. Forget gluten-free baked goods, nut-free offerings, or homemade smoothies. Nutella-filled white-bread sandwiches, bowls of Pringles and nuts, Duncan Hines–type cakes topped with artificial frosting, free-flowing Coca-Cola and Fanta all dominate the spread. “Ma perche’ sono cosi’ agitate? [But why are they so hyper?]” my mom friends ask, genuinely perplexed. This same quote comes up in the evening when kids will often have a gelato around 10 p.m. and whizz around the piazza at high speeds until they fall over in floods of tears. “Ma perche’ sono cosi’ agitate?” The link between sugar and additives and hyperactivity hasn’t made it across the Atlantic yet. At the same time, I have completely failed at keeping Jacopo on an Anglo Saxon–like schedule. But part of the great joy of being here, especially in the summer, is having your child run riotously with other Italian kids at all hours of the night while you sip on a glass of vino.
Of course, the love of children here makes Italy pretty much a paradise for kids. My son gets treated like a little prince, and when I walk down the street, most adults, many of whom I don’t even know, seem to be old friends with him. “Ciao, Jacopo!” they say as his chubby cheeks are stroked. Our local café’s bartenders let him come behind the bar and ignore the tourists’ desperate requests for a beer in order to listen to his long-winded stories about school and soccer games. At one of our favorite trattorias, the owner interrupts taking orders to take him, in his arms, into the kitchen, where his wife, mother, and mother-in-law stop cooking to kiss and hug him as though it’s a long overdue reunion, even though our meals are a weekly event. And old geezers who have no patience for us bend down to ask him how he is with a huge smile, one that is no longer cracked often. (Speaking of which, I love the tradition here where the youngest kids visit the town’s oldest and housebound residents to exchange Christmas gifts.)
And it’s not just because Jacopo has grown up here. As many visitors can attest, newborns and kids in general are catnip to the population, even to adults and macho Italian men, turning them into cooing, smiling baby-lovers. In fact, when we started going back to bigger international cities, Jacopo was actually visibly bemused that he wasn’t treated like a visiting celebrity. And also I miss the vibe here when I go away. Despite the cultural differences (each side deciding to ignore each other’s “crazy” behavior), I feel like he is indeed being brought up by the whole village and I love that grandparents are still the primary caregivers in the families in our town and it is unusual to have a babysitter. As I write this, I can see him playing soccer with a friend and one of the town’s twentysomethings taking a break from aperitivo to become a kid again himself.