The Berlusconi effect and Italian Women. Ladies, get your act together.

Before we get into this post, let me state a few ground rules. I am not a feminist. I grew up in a home with a father who worked and a mother who stayed at home early in my childhood. All the traditional fixings of an Italian father, and an American mother. But that all changed when my father decided to go into business himself. He looked to his wife, his partner, as his right hand person to make their business successful. And it was. Together my Italian father and American mother made an amazing family, a thriving business, and a happy fruitful life. That was the “traditional” Italian non-feminist upbringing I had growing up. My father cooked, and taught my mother how. They worked together to build a life, raise a family, and make decisions. But apparently this experience is in stark contrast to the typical experience young women in Italy have today. I understood this as part of what is “traditional” within the old country and things evolving slowly. But it became much more clear to me, after hearing a troubling story on the radio this weekend.

Throughout my life, I’ve been surrounded by successful women who have juggled both their families and a career. My mother is an incredibly smart businesswoman who was a trendsetter and newsmaker as a small business owner. My Aunt was one of the first women on the west coast to own a restaurant chain. My Grandmother was one of the most respected women in her community, honored for her service to the Catholic community as well as her service to the clergy who served that faith. Being a woman in my experience has never been a deterrent, but instead a badge of honor. I continue to realize that honor as recently as last week when Rational, the company I founded, made the list of top 50 woman owned businesses in Washington State.

But back to the radio show. As I listened to the interview, with three Italian/American women who are struggling to establish businesses in Italy, I was shocked at what I was hearing. A few astonishing facts that blew me away:

1. Only 10% of the Italian population graduates from college. And of this very small percent, women are a fraction.
2. Women are asked to submit their picture and “Personalità” profile with their college application to ensure their “bella presenza” or beautiful presence.
3. The top TV shows in Italy today are beauty pageant focused reality shows developed to showcase only the physically beautiful girls. Mothers across the country are on a mission to have their daughters “featured” on these shows.
4. If daughters want to go to college or work, it is seen as a failure and black mark on a father’s life to have not provided a situation for his daughter to not to have to go to school or work.
5. The merits of a woman’s contribution to her family, her society, is still seen in terms of what she contributes to her household and her husband rather than what she contributes to society overall.
6. Italy ranks 74th, below Malta and Greece, on gender equality, dragged down by its low score for women’s economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report.
7. Roughly one in three mothers in Italy leave work to look after their families, according to a study by statistics office ISTAT. The maternal employment rate falls as children get older, while in other European countries mothers’ working rates recover as children grow up. Traditional views about the division of domestic duties all contribute to the trend.

Protest, Berlusconi, Italian Women

In February of 2011, Italian women took to the streets in protest of the Prime Minister

Italy, at least in my opinion, is one of the most advanced and progressive countries in the world. How is it that this country that I love so much is so far behind modern society where women’s basic contribution and rights are concerned? Many are calling it the Berlusconi effect. His influence was definitely a cultural barrier and deterrent to women’s progress between 1994 and 2011, the years he was in office. With allegations including sexual scandal, manipulation of the media, mafia ties, offensive jokes and comments about women and religion, he was hardly a leader working towards equality on any front.

Italian women have all the gifts, the passion, the smarts to really make a difference in their own society and the world. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I will spend much more time researching, studying, and learning more about who is trying to change this trend. There are some brave women trying to influence the culture in the direction of supporting women as equal partners. And with Berlusconi now out, and Letta now in, perhaps new leadership will bring change. The world will be a better place when we can achieve this equality. The gap is closing in countries like the Unites States, but apparently is wide and far in the sweet spot in my heart, Italy. There is a lot, for me personally, to consider. Particularly as I watch, nurture and encourage my own daughter as she begins to make decisions about high school, college and choices that will chart her life course. Thankfully she lives within an environment and a country where she will be able to make those decisions based on the merit of her efforts rather than how she looks, or her gender.

This week’s obsession, Sicily

In my family, Sicily has always been one of those romantic places I never knew much about. Sure I’ve always wanted to visit, but with so many other wonderful places within the main “boot” I’ve just never thought about prioritizing a visit “way” down there. That is until this week. It seems, only through coincidence, that several friends have recently visited and have come home raving about unmatched beauty, the best food they have ever eaten and people that are warmer than the average Italian native. With all the recent discussion surrounding the topic, Sicily was definitely worth researching.

Sicily

So I began with my most reliable source, Uncle Joey. Over lunch I brought up the topic and his eyes immediately lit up with a sparkle I had not seen in awhile. “Oh honey, it’s the MOST wonderful place I’ve EVER been to!” I was surprised by this immediate enthusiasm. Uncle Joey has been to a lot of places. His heartfelt reflection alone seemed worthy of a trip. He went onto describe what was, at least in his memory, the best trip he had ever taken. The views were so picturesque, and water a color so blue, it was almost magical. He described the freshest fish and meat he had ever eaten, normally accompanied with an innately Sicilian dish called caponata. I had heard of this dish, but had never made it. We discussed the ingredients, what he remembered about the flavor, and I was sent off from our lunch with a task. Make the caponata. If not to try something new, to perhaps bring back the flavor of Sicily that he so enjoyed.

Sicilian Caponata

After researching several recipes, and an intense debate about with raisins or without, eggplant with skins or without, we settled on what seemed to be the closest match to what he remembered. No raisins, and half of the eggplant would remain with skins. We went about chopping eggplant, olives, capers, and carefully salting the eggplant to remove all extra water. We sautéed layer upon layer until all ingredients happily settled into a low simmer. It’s a simple process that takes only a bit of patience. The finished product is one of the most versatile jars of yumminess that I have ever tasted. It’s delicious on crackers, with meat, on a salad or as a pasta sauce. While I’m sure this version is not nearly as delicious as what Uncle Joey had in Sicily, it sure was fun making it and dreaming, if even for a bit, that we might venture there some day soon.

Sicilian Eggplant Caponata

The finished product

This Labor Day we made jam. Darn good jam.

This Labor Day weekend was full of all things expected. Last minute school supply shopping, exchanging one size of jeans for another, buying the right “breakfast” groceries to ensure the kidlets get off to their first day of school with at least something of substance in their bellies. But it was also full of a few indulgent moments. Dinner at Spinasse. Lunch with Uncle Joey. And a fien-fien dinner consisting of potato chips, dip and two margaritas. Another more productive moment included a brief stop at the Ballard Farmer’s Market where we picked up a few flats of the most beautiful berries that we had seen all year. Blackberry and raspberry – big juicy organic pints of yumminess.

Ballard Market Berries

So we decided to make jam. Simple, right? Our moms made jam every summer. We grew up with pantries filled with jam, pickles, carrots, applesauce and the most adorable stacked canned peaches known to man. For the menial task of making jam, our mothers even went out and picked the darn berries themselves. Big buckets full of raspberries, blackberries, even huckleberries. They were hardcore, no doubt about it. Here we were grabbing a few flats at the Market for our jam making adventure. Happily paying the farmers for “picking” our bounty of berries, we went about our task. How hard could it be?

First there was the selecting of the right jars. Do we go the classic (boring) Mason jar route? Or the new stylish Weck jars route with their pretty contrasting color seals and stainless clips? We are designers after all. Presentation is everything. After one trip to Crate and Barrel and one to Metropolitan Market, we selected Weck. Sure they were a little more complicated, but they just look better. And they were different than the classic Mason jars our mothers had used. So they had to be innately better. Right? Jars chosen as a nod to our savvier selves, we were onto the next step.

Next was the selection of the recipe. For the love. There are a lot of simple jam recipe’s out there. From Cooks, to Martha, to Epicurious, to FoodNetwork, to Ball, to the NYTimes. We finally settled on a combination of recipes, making our own along the way. We did appreciate the canning lady’s photo essay. She had lovely pictures, and step-by-step instructions on what seemed to be a very simple process. Plus, she used our Weck jars so that was a good sign.

Finally, there was the making of the jam. The careful measuring of the berries, sugar and lemon. The boiling of the berries, the jars, the lids. The boiling of what seemed like everything. There was careful cooking of the berry concoction to the perfect temperature of 220 degrees. And tasting along the way to make sure we had the right balance of sweetness. Transferring the filled jars to a boiling water bath for sealing was precarious at best. Here is where those Mason jars would have actually been easier. But in the end, we ended up with this most delicious, beautifully packaged jam that I have ever seen. Jam that would make our mothers – dare I say it – proud!

jam

Our efforts created just a few jars. Four each of raspberry and blackberry. Quality not quantity is true in all things in life, including jam.

Raising kids the Italian way. Good, bad, indifferent? You be the judge.

I’ve been a mom for far longer than I care to admit. My three children have given me more joy than I can express, so much so that it often brings me to tears if I really begin to think about it. But even with all this joy, raising kids is hard. There is so much that can go wrong! I constantly have to remind myself to trust my instincts and to do as I was taught. I had pretty darn good parents and I was a darn good kid. Something worked out there.

For better or for worse. I recently read an article about raising kids in France. It was fascinating to me as the approach was completely different in how I was brought up. This got me thinking about the topic, and made me try to understand how my own upbringing has influenced, is influencing, how I am raising my kids today.

I like to term my upbringing as “classic Italian.” Big family, all about family, and more family. Did I mention family? Children were of utmost importance in the Petosa clan. We held a special place in everybody’s eyes. Our family made us feel important. Loved. And maybe a little spoiled. Actually, a lot spoiled. Not misbehaved, or ungrateful by any means, but spoiled by every means.

My parents did things for me that I am to this day – forever grateful for. Trip to New York to dance for the summer? No problem. $60 pointe shoes every other week? Sure thing. A car to drive when you turn 16? Well of course! Private horse-riding lessons and with your own horse in the backyard? You got it. Private school. Special meals. The pair of shoes in that magazine that you just had to have. The list goes on and on. My parents were not wealthy. Yet somehow, they managed. They sacrificed. They put my needs, my desires, and my wishes first. This extended way beyond material things. But you get the gist.

In Italian households, mine included, parents make profound sacrifices to do everything and anything to make sure their children are happy, successful, fulfilled. So what is the harm in that? Don’t all parents? Maybe. But in some families <insert French case study here> the same focus does not seem as extreme.

I’m still learning  (even 24 years into this parenting thing) that there is a careful balance between prioritizing your children and not letting them overtake and run your life. The two can and do coexist. But one slip in this special dance and you’ll find yourself spending $350 on shoes your kid does not need. You Italian parents out there will know exactly what I’m talking about. You French parents, not so much.

I need to do better at not spoiling my kids. At making sure they are grateful for all they do have, thankful for the lives and the love they receive, and that they know that they are and will always be my #1 priority, but that my needs are important too. Italian families have a way of making you feel like you are the most important person in the world. I want my kids to feel like that. But my hope is that with that gift comes an appreciation, love, respect and the ability to make others in their lives feel the same.  For me, that’s the Italian way. Or maybe it’s just my way.