#8220;Tell me about your life,” “I envy you,” or “How romantic,” people often say when they learn I live in Italy. Tell about my life? There is no romance in it. The enviable parts — economic stability, good health, lovely children — have nothing to do with Italy. Our old cleaning lady said it best: “Life is just so daily.” It’s daily wherever you are — even with better coffee and food, nicer clothes and all the subjunctive verb forms you could ever want.
So what do you tell these people, since they don’t want the truth? Do you pull a Dr. Seuss “And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” where a horse and cart get blown up until they are a parade with elephants? It won’t work. You can’t make an overweight 50-year-old boy with a rusty Volvo station wagon and a chronic complainer who eats and cooks exclusively in bianco — invalid food — into a handsome lover in a Ferrari or an amply-bosomed nonna who turns out magical tortellini.
That doesn’t mean my life has nothing to offer. It just isn’t romance or glamour. But these day maybe something more useful is in order anyway. So with that, here are some tips, taken from my daily life, to help you face the current economic and environmental crises all’italiana:
— I ride a bicycle everywhere. In addition to being good for my budget and the environment, it is good for my figure. If I can’t go by bike, I take public transport. So do my children. No comfy mom-chauffeured SUVs. I select after-school activities by the ATM map. If it’s not on a handy bus line, you don’t do it. I’ll probably have to pay for therapy later on. It’s part of parenting; bring it on.
— I do not own a drier. My roving drying rack is a homey Neapolitan touch that, with ceramic radiator vases, doubles as a humidifier.
— Like most Italians, I buy fewer, more expensive clothes, which I use a long time. Even without an amortization schedule I can figure that one 10-year-old really expensive skirt (which still gets compliments) was a good budgetary and environmental decision. My frugality doesn’t help Third World garment workers, but you can’t solve everything.
While fewer clothes might mean more frequent wear and more and cleaning, ergo greater expenditure and environmental damage, there is an Italian solution: Clean less and by hand. Brush clothes, particularly wool ones, which removes loose dirt before it sinks in and attracts moths. My mother in law can’t make tortellini, but at least she taught me this.
— My mother in law also introduced me to the maglietta della salute. One cotton-lined wool number + cashmere sweater = lower thermostat + heating bill.
All right, there is some “Tuscan sun” color here; the local street market. I am sure its carbon footprint is smaller than a supermarket’s. I reuse the paper vegetable bags. If I buy too much for the bike or old-lady shopping cart, the vegetable guy delivers it on his sturdy, black delivery bike or motorino. It’s even a bit romantic; the vegetable guy is a shameless flirt …
— I have, by American standards, a small refrigerator. I grocery shop daily. This may not be time efficient, but my family’s schedule is volatile. If I planned meals and shopped weekly, like a serious madre di famiglia, we’d throw out a lot of food.
— I repair and recycle things: appliances, suitcases, shoes and furniture. My mother taught me how to darn socks. If yours didn’t, make that nonna who lived through the War happy and have her teach you. Support your local merceria: Buy a darning egg and cotton.
It’s not all my merit, and I’m not alone. Italy makes some things easy.Expensive gasoline and electricity invite greener alternatives. Pre-car cities help too, as do mercerie and appliance repairmen.
Some Italian habits would have kept us out of our current mess anyway. If Americans had done as Italians (or the parents of Italians) and bought homes with cash, there might not have been a subprime crisis. The same for consumer debt. Did you ever notice how few credit-card slots Italian wallets have? (Instead, there’s the neighborhood strozzino — loan shark.)
Despite my good work, I have never had the courage to take a carbon footprint test, perhaps because I fear that my twice-annual plane trips to the U.S. cancel out all the virtues listed above. Between that and the lack of romance, maybe I should never have left home.