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Diary of an Italian Housewife

August 05, 1993|MAUREEN SAJBEL

ROME — The modern Roman housewife has to maneuver around a lot of relics, culturally speaking.

Like the age-old but still-observed practice of husbands coming home every day for two-hour lunches.

Or the fact that many kids don't leave the nest until they marry, which now might be later into their 20s.

Or that most families like to eat in rather than out, but don't like leftovers, so the mama of the casa has to fight the traffic-clogged streets of Rome to get fresh ingredients and cook every day.

Add to all that the fact that the modern conveniences of the late 20th Century haven't caught on here. Microwave ovens and packaged foods are scarce. And carry-out pizza isn't popular because the Romans' beloved crispy crust gets soggy in transit.

The Roman woman is at a crossroads of sorts. Not only is she trying to follow these traditions, she's probably also working outside the house.

In tradition-minded families, a mother coming home from a hard day at the office and proclaiming "I won't cook" would be received about as well as the Pope announcing he's changing religions. Cooking is one of the highest bits of collateral a woman brings with her to the marriage, and it is considered essential to a happy home life. One hopes Betty Friedan is not listening.

This juggling act may make the dolce vita a little less sweet. But you won't hear any complaints from Nesa Testa, a 55-year-old Roman housewife, because she believes the table is what keeps the family together.

"We never eat alone. There is a saying: 'Who eats alone, dies alone,' " says Testa. "Americans eat when they are hungry. We eat when we are together."

Nesa lives with her husband Sandro, a shipping executive, and two daughters, Stefania, 22, an art history student, and Guendalina, 29, a legal/financial consultant. They have a large apartment overlooking the archeological area of Appia Antica, a bit south of the Colosseum.

Testa works seasonally as a fashion buyer and design consultant, which makes her a trend setter in her age group--the last generation of women to stay home.

With her short blonde hair haplessly clipped into a barrette without benefit of a mirror, and mop-like Dolly, a Yorkshire terrier, nipping at her heels, Testa whirls with energy through her daily tasks.

She's made a few concessions, such as shopping every other day rather than every day, as was her habit before entering the work force. Out of necessity, she grudgingly uses her small refrigerator, which, despite being a fraction of the size of the standard American model, is still half empty. She believes the refrigerated air changes the taste of foods and prefers to store produce in bins on the small balcony off her kitchen.

Testa recalls going to visit a friend, Los Angeles restaurateur Maureen Murphy, and marveling at Murphy's large, jammed refrigerator. "I told her to throw everything out. She asked what she should put in there and I said 'shoes.' "

Though Testa's advice is impractical, Murphy didn't consider it far-fetched. "I'd love to try to do things her way, and I think if I lived in Italy I could," Murphy says. "Here I can't, because there isn't fresh food around the corner."

And, Murphy adds, Testa should be considered a rarity rather than the rule. "She's an incredible woman with incredible energy," Murphy says. "She was probably born that way."

Still, there are many like Testa. For Roman women like her who work full-time, the refrigerator is a necessary evil, making lunch for themselves is out of the question, and shopping is not done at the big markets, which are open only from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but in small neighborhood shops that keep later hours. These women might also make some concessions, such as buying frozen fish instead of fresh.

Roman men of Testa's generation don't set foot in the kitchen, but the next generation of men are slowly learning that they can't get away with hiding behind tradition. Out of necessity, many young husbands have learned how to prepare simple dishes while their wives work late at the office.

On busy workdays, Testa will make time to get in an hour of shopping. She occasionally gets up at 6 a.m. to make a quick soup that she'll serve later for lunch.

A run to get groceries with her is a lesson in endurance. Driving over to the large Garbatella market, which has no parking lot, she searches for a place on the jammed street. " Non fa niente ," she says, which is the Italian equivalent of "no problem." She makes her own spot by parking her tiny Fiat on the curb, partially blocking a crosswalk. (She gets no ticket and isn't towed.)

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