December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Valves and pullovers

By |2018-03-21T18:46:30+01:00October 27th, 2011|"Notebook"|
Once-fashionable OshKosh B'Gosh children's overalls.

ntil a friend’s recent comment, I had almost forgotten that the standard airline baggage allowance was once two (large) suitcases. My friend and I laughed as we reminisced about the crazy things that people asked us to bring, or that we couldn’t seem to live without — on either shore.

Later as I reflected, it struck me that the things I carried had deeper messages. Call them pieces of cultural baggage if you will.

Some of the cargo reflected stages of life. When my children were young, our eastbound suitcases were filled with OshKosh B’Gosh children’s overalls. Expensive and fashionable in Milan, I’d scoop them up in Penney’s and K-Mart for a song. I was suddenly the bella figura giver of “extravagant” baby presents.

Before OshKosh came Timberlands. In the 1980s and 1990s, their moccasins were a must-have for status-conscious Italians, whether snooty intellectuals or paninari. Long-forgotten now, the paninari were teenagers who hung around a Milan sandwich shop (Il Panino). Later, they moved to Burghy, the shameless copy of McDonald’s that was Italy’s first fast-food chain. They were harbingers of the new Italy. Suddenly wealthier than their UK counterparts and liberated from the spent politics of left-wing terrorism and anti-Amerikanism, a new Italian generation got drunk on designer labels, ostentatious consumerism, private TV, and eventually Silvio Berlusconi.

And I contributed with a few suitcases full of shoes…

Then came the technology gap. In 1989, I smuggled a Mac into Rome, past the Guardia di Finanza’s German shepherds who hadn’t been trained to sniff out microchips. For Italians, my Mac was a cube of domestic sci-fi. It filled them with envy and awe. Highbrow, Olivetti-loving, Luddite snobs were always quick to pooh-pooh crass American trickery. (They still do. Corriere della Sera‘s treatment of Steve Jobs’ death quoted authors Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jay McInerney denouncing “slavery to Apple gadgetry.”) But there I was, a mere housewife dominating a computer.

The techno-gap also went the other way. Italy was way ahead of the U.S. with mobile phones. Now the Americans pooh-poohed. They said America was too vast for coverage and their fixed network was so good, who needed flashy status symbols? And text messaging? What’s that for?

Cookware was bidirectional. From an Italian market stand, I purchased handsome pans, including a restaurant-sized pasta boiler I can still barely lift. I couldn’t have found or afforded them in the United States. From America, I ferried Pyrex measuring cups, muffin tins and a Griswold, cast-iron Dutch oven. I never use the latter without remembering where and when I bought it — in Rochester, Minnesota, seeking distraction while my father suffered in the Mayo clinic, never to recover.

The pan purchase was actually a second thought. Unprepared for the Minnesota cold, the trip’s real purpose was to buy a coat. I got a Carhartt barn jacket, which appalled my husband when I wore it on Milan’s elegant streets. But then George W. Bush appeared in its twin on a Time Magazine cover. Soon my suitcase was full of Carhartt clothing for my children’s friends — the new Timberlands for Milano bene youth.

Clothes copied cookware. Anything elegant or stylish went West. Practical went East. Before fleece was available in Italy, trendy Italians craved “pile” from rustic Vermont. During that phase, just about every Patagonia pullover seen in Cortina had spent time in my suitcase.

More life changes: Grandmother’s set of silver (for 12) set off all the alarms checking in for a flight to Italy. Carrying it on meant unwrapping every single knife, even if they couldn’t cut much more than butter. When I furnished an American home, my bag from Italy was filled with faucets, light fixtures and even Italian toilet valves. Like the pans, the quality-price ratio for fixtures favored Italy. The toilets did not fit into even my capacious bags (bags which, minus the extra string, looked like discards from immigrating Third World families.) Instead, the toilets went airfreight. When I retrieved them from customs in Boston, the agent looked at me funny: “We’ve got these here too, ma’am.”

Food copied clothes that copied cookware. Pecans, Vermont cheddar and good herbal teas went East. Parmesan cheese, panettone and torrone went West.

Some things only go one way. Books and music go East. And the mythical Spontex — a cross between a sponge and dishcloth available at the Esselunga supermarket — is in any suitcase going West. I don’t know how Americans live without it.

Actually, I didn’t really notice when airlines reduced the baggage allowance. Probably because my need for bags is less necessary now. Children have grown. Globalization has arrived. Markets move faster. There’s Amazon. Patagonia’s styles for the Italian market are better than American ones. Today’s paninari wear Abercrombie & Fitch and buy it in the A&F Milan megastore.

Probably just as well. Age excludes heavy suitcases and brings new kinds of excess baggage. Pazienza.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."