I FELL IN LOVE WITH Italy the minute I spotted that peach-colored swing coat in Florence more than twenty years ago. Though it was ruinously expensive, I had to possess it. Being nineteen at the time certainly helped me decide. I handed over my MasterCard, put on the coat, and pranced out onto the beckoning cobblestone streets of Florence. This coat was indeed so lovely that it caught not only my eye, but the eye of Canada Customs as well. Hence, the coat’s price tag became even more preposterous.
Nonetheless, from that moment on, I was enchanted with a country that could produce such an exquisite item. Thus began my long-standing love affair with Italy.
My next inevitable step was to marry an Italian, for Italians, too, possessed an enchanting air. They were dark, handsome, and stylish beyond any North American’s dreams.This goal has now been achieved, for my husband is Italian. Prior to having met me, he was adamantly Canadian, but I saw this as a mere technicality. It took some doing and a few thousand dollars, but now he is Italian.
In search of a better life, his parents, Giorgio and Maria, had moved from Italy to Toronto in 1966. David—the middle child of five children—was born in 1969. While growing up, David did not always acknowledge his roots—although with a cacophony of cock-a-doodle-doos erupting from his garage every morning, his ethnicity was hard to hide.
When his parents replaced the quaint gingerbread trim and the delicate spindles of their once Victorian home with expansive brick arches and a sheet metal railing on the front porch, it left no doubt as to the cultural background of the new homeowners. Yet there were other reasons for David’s claiming to be Canadian.
For one, Caesar, their eccentric Italian neighbor, could single-handedly make Mussolini denounce being Italian. Using a roller, he painted his old Chevy bright yellow, not stopping at the tires but rolling right across half of them. One day, a calf was seen exiting his Chevy. It then lived in Caesar’s basement until it was fattened up and ready to be served as “the guest of honor” at a large family gathering.
As a child, David definitely could not deny being Italian. When he was in first grade, his father received a windfall of white sacks, each depicting a potato man dressed in overalls, hands akimbo, and a straw dangling from its mouth. So, while other children had fancy lunchboxes filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, David carried a Mr. Potato sack, emanating odors of sausage, cod fried in batter, homemade capicollo, and strong sheep’s cheese. Worse still, the supply of bags was never ending, as was the trauma, because the humble potato man accompanied David to school each day right up to the seventh grade.
Above all, David was still haunted by frightening images of his hockey sticks being sawed off by his father and then jammed into the ground to serve as tomato stakes.
David did not want to end up like Frank, who, despite his Mafioso hit man appearance, broke down bawling during his wedding speech when he told his mother how much he would miss her—all the while knowing that he and his new bride would be moving into his parents’ basement. Hence, fearing this same fate, at the young age of twenty-four, David proudly announced to his parents that he had bought a house.
They were impressed. “A rental property is a great idea!”
David paused, then mustered up the courage to say, “Well, actually I thought I’d move into the house.”
In shock, his sweet Italian mother was reduced to tears. Her sorrow was unrelenting for the next few days, as she wondered what she had done wrong.
As a result of these childhood influences, images of Rome and its splendor went unappreciated in David’s eyes. Yet just as the brick arches of his Victorian house screamed Italian, so did David’s face. He could have been a model in a “Made in Italy” commercial, but he vehemently maintained that he was Canadian.
“Where are you from?” people would ask.
“Canada,” he always replied.
“Really? You look so Italian.”
“No. I was born and raised in Canada.”
After prolonged interrogation, he would finally admit in a defeated undertone that his parents were Italian.
This self-effacing attitude was about to change. I had captured my pureblooded Italian prince, and I had a plan: to show him the beauty his ancestors had created, and surely, presto, he would lay claim to being Italian.
So it was. In 2001, we visited Italy. David’s memories of lions guarding gates on suburban lawns began to fade, replaced by visions of Donatello’s Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence. David recalled the brick arches his father had built onto their Victorian home, and he now saw their resemblance to the Coliseum’s mighty masonry. David swiftly became Italian. That was the magic of Italy. The broken hockey sticks, he would just have to get over.
Since I was now married to an Italian, a world of doors could open for us.
Years went by, however, and my impractical pleas to move to Italy fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, David’s parents were longing for their homeland. So, in 2003, Giorgio and Maria bought an old schoolhouse in Italy and restored it. For the next seven years, they lived in Canada from November through April and spent May to October in Italy. Three years ago, they began living in Italy year round.
Then one day in 2006, while working at the brokerage firm, I receive notice that due to restructuring, I am about to be laid off. After my initial feelings of shock and disappointment, I realize this might be my ticket out.
Still, it’s not that simple. I have to fight hard against my North American mentality, urging me to find another job and feverishly save for a retirement that may never come. My years of seeing retirement charts at work have unwittingly taken their toll.
As I pick up coffee at the drive thru and inevitably spill it on my blouse while speeding away, I envision myself with David, passing a leisurely afternoon in a caffè. Italy is calling me.
Life in Italy, amongst her husband's family, inspired Ivanka to write A Zany Slice of Italy which became an Amazon bestseller. Available at Amazon.com
Ivanka and David continue to make Tuscany their home. Family, along with quirky situations in everyday life, continue to provide ample inspiration to write.