From “Nonno” to the present day, Italian-Canadians have been an integral part of our nation’s heritage, more specifically Montreal’s culture.
by Katrina Tortorici
Me, I realize most people are beginning to weary of the Italian stereotype thing. You could say it has been overdone, but you can’t say it has always been done properly. Hence, the Italian community’s reaction towards Radio Canada’s incredibly original stereotypical jokes on New Year’s Eve: Sleeked haired Italians sporting fancy business suits and threatening attitudes? That sure as hell has never been done before. My intention, however, is not to point out the stereotypical qualities about Italians, but to instead disclose the facts – truth versus fiction, if you will. The majority of Italian – Canadians are fairly easy to spot, especially in a city surrounded by about a dozen other ethnic groups. The reason has little to do with their inevitable good-looks, but rather more to do with their tough character, old traditions, and charm (stop me when I begin to get too biased).
But before we get into too much detail about our modern day Italian – Canadians, a little history doesn’t hurt; this way, we can get to the bottom of why Italians are as fantastic as they are today. According to Nonno and Nonna, many Italians from “il paese” (translation: the country) immigrated to Canada after WWII, when things back in “il paese” started to get ugly. We were the land of opportunity (unlike now when most of us want to get the hell out of here). This act of bravery proves that Italians have guts; with the little to no money that they had, they moved across the world to take care of themselves and their family. This ties in with the fact that they are rough, tough, and awfully scary.
But how could they not be, after getting married as a teenager, raising and supporting a minimum of five children, and doing manual labor, whether it was working in construction, nurturing for the sheep and chickens in their yard, or toiling in the hot sun all day to grow the world’s perfect garden.
“My Nonna is the toughest person alive. When she was cooking my cousins lunch one time, she flipped over the frittata (translation: omelet) and splashed all of the boiling oil on her arm, and even though she burned her arm so bad that she still has the scars, she just got mad at my cousins for taking their time to come to the table because the food would get cold.” Andrew Tognarini, a fourth semester Commerce student, said.
Conclusion: Do not mess with an Italian Nonna…because she will not hesitate to whip out her “paletta” (translation: wooden spoon) and give you “una mazziata” (translation: a beating). And that is not an exaggerated truth. Italians are not one to hide their anger or waste time pretending to be polite when in fact, they hate every fiber of your being. They’ll convey their hatred or aggravation through a few well chosen words, such as “disgraziato!”, “putana!”, “schifosa!” “affanculo!”, and one of my personal favourites, “testa di merda!” (try to figure those ones out) or a simple glare would suffice (Italians will recognize this glare, as it has the power to actually make someone cry, and, if mastered, may even make someone shit their pants).
Not only are Italians brave, but they are resourceful. Not once has my family had to hire a stranger for home renovations. Why would we when our cousin, Tony, could take care of the tiling, Zio Nick can cover the paint job, and Zio Calogero (translation: Uncle Charlie), even though he’s 72, can fix the “geeprock” (actual word: gypsum board)? Their payment includes a shot of grappa before getting to work, pasta con succo for Sunday lunch served with homemade wine, an espresso in the afternoon, with a little bit of Sambuca, and a tray of lemon, almond or Nutella cookies to bring home after such an excruciatingly long day of hard labour.
Nowadays, our generation is much more educated and cultured. We were not chased by our parents with wooden spoons, nor been threatened by daddy’s leather belt. And contrary to popular belief, no, we do not randomly add the word “but” at the end of every sentence, we do not always “close” the lights instead of “shut” them, and we’re not all directly related to the mafia (I’m Sicilian, so I cannot speak for myself…). No – we’ve evolved into impeccably brought up young people.
For instance, we use the Italian language in our every day life, even while we’re speaking English: “But what are you… ‘stronza’ (stupid)?” We even carry on our conversations in Italian just to get a little more practice: “Ma, che cazzo stai dicendo?” (translation: what the hell are you talking about?”. We even help our parents “broom” the floor and “scotolare” (shake) the carpets outside to remove the dust.
It doesn’t end there. We were also brought up to always help clear the table after eating, especially when we’re guests in someone’s home because the last thing we want to do is “brutta figura” (look bad). “Brutta figura” is the worst sin you can commit in an Italian family – you must never make your family look bad. When hosting a dinner, we absolutely must have at least five courses, because heaven forbid we should starve our guests. And even though we know that fruit should be eaten as a snack on an empty stomach, we still plant a tray of melon, grapes (yellow and purple), cantaloupe and pineapple in front of our guests, just because we know it’ll look bad if we don’t. We also never fail to miss an appearance at the “salon” (actual word: funeral parlor). At such an event, we dig up our best suits and dark dresses that were worn on recent past occasions (baptisms, communions, confirmations, wedding showers…).
Yes, these are all traditions and habits that have gone down many, many generations and finally reached us, a generation that has grown accustomed to this lifestyle, embraced it, and even developed new ways of thinking, living, and speaking. For instance, we respect our elders and follow our traditions, and all the while have “all kinds” of fun with our friends, are “all worried” about not having studied for a midterm, skip class to play Brisk, “get smashed” on weekends, and believe anything remotely cool is “too sick!”. “And we have an amazing style!” Robert Battista, a fourth semester Law, Society and Justice student said.
Yes, Robert, that is indeed a way of spotting an Italian, especially if it’s followed by over-enunciated syllables and loud, not-so-subtle voices. Such modern-day Italian-Canadians can be found in St. Leonard, R.D.P., Laval, and Montreal North. Any other place off the island (with the exception of Laval) inhabits Italians that barely speak the language, have never stepped foot in Inter Marché, are afraid of wearing joggers to school, and have never heard of the word, “minchia”. What a shame.
But most of our teenage Italians can be found right here at Dawson, in the Italian cafeteria. Karina Gangi, a third semester Photography student, spends more time there than in class. “Because it’s like home. We’re all a family and have our roles to play. Every day is like Christmas in the caf,” she said with a smile. “And I love hanging out there because it allows me to practice playing Brisk so I can finally beat my Nonno at it!”
Being Italian means so much more than anyone realizes. Tognarini agrees: “The culture and traditions, for the remainder of the time they have left, anyway, is what makes me proud to be Italian,” he said.