Bologna porticoes and the women’s marches

I took the picture last Thursday in Bologna before the women’s marches. There’s something so calming about Bologna. It manages to be lively and vibrant without feeling chaotic. It’s also one of Italy’s oldest university cities (yet feels more like a big town), is home to so much cultural and political activity. I sat in a bar in via Zamboni’s university area, amidst students on laptops and various flashbacks to my own student days in 1990s Manchester.

On Sunday in Milan there were women younger than this who got up and shared their stories, the stories we can all imagine. On Saturday I went to Rome and heard other stories from other women, Asia Argento, and women who’ve worked all their lives for women’s rights, women who’ve lived a lifetime and share experiences of that lifetime. I got the lowdown on menopause. I need other women to tell me how they did it, to give me the nitty gritty this-is-how-it-is-sweetheart because at the end of the day we’re living in women’s bodies. I might find the social definition of woman extremely problematic but the truth is I’m still a woman with periods and a body that’s been through childbirth and hormones that are rapidly turning me into this middle aged woman and I never knew until it’s happening now just quite how liberating that could be. So I listened to it all, met new faces and saw old ones and was so glad to see them.

Of course some of us will never be involved in politics. We’re far too busy drowning in the myth of having it all, the one where we’re supposed to have perfect families and brilliant careers and sex at least three times a week with our partners when actually most of the time we’d rather sleep. We’re the daughters of the witches, or rather the semi-witches who were still working out how to do it all themselves and mixed messages became rooted in our conscience. Our politics become the everyday, our lives, our work, the way we educate our children. The voice in my head tells me stop being sentimental. It’s not sentimentalism, it’s our own form of politics. Where women don’t feel they’re heard, they’ll find a way. Where women feel their children are being educated by other people’s values, where they see a society moving in a certain direction, where they feel they’ve been stripped of the age-old communities that fed them and nourished them, they’ll still find a way.

Like a friend said to me on Sunday, it’s sisterhood. And it’s very real. Not that men aren’t invited, but really, there are some pretty good reasons why sometimes we need this private party. To quote Gloria Steinem, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Really piss you off.

It’s a me too that feels permanently fused with a fuck you, even though you have this voice that tells you there’s always another side to any story, and maybe I’m playing the victim. That’s where the social conditioning kicks in. Keep quiet, don’t complain, think how lucky you are, be grateful, the slightly more sophisticated version that they’ll throw at you where you’re supposed to float off into some calm state and forget about all this – permanently, and shut up while you’re at it. I have no intention whatsoever of shutting up. Besides, I’ve realised it’s good for my kids. It causes them to ask questions, difficult ones. Oh, you don’t like that idea? But aren’t you the ones who are always telling me to do what’s good for my kids?

The Bologna porticoes say it all. You walk through one, and then you walk through another. What matters is that you keep walking. And sometimes you will only keep walking if there are other women walking with you. The crucial part is that there are women walking with you. It’s where me becomes we, and that is always the difference.

Arancini di riso alla milanese or Milanese style rice balls

Saturday 25th November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I want to share a recipe for arancini di riso, or little oranges of rice as they’re known, a popular dish from the south of Italy.

The reason I want to share them is because I ate them once, cooked by a woman in a women’s refuge. She’d made them that night, and now every time I make mine, I think of her. There are just some people and situations that you know you’ll always remember.

I don’t profess to make the best arancini, nor could it really be considered an authentic recipe. But that’s what I love about home cooking. It’s where you can get creative in the kitchen, and besides, most of the best home cooks I know cook with what they have to hand. They wouldn’t dream of going out to get something that they didn’t have. They’d just substitute it with something else. So rather than arancini, my fried rice balls are more a northern Italian riso al salto, or fried risotto. Whereas the original ones have ragù inside or mozzarella and prosciutto, are a Sicilian speciality and are in the shape of a ball or a cone.

So how do I make mine? Whenever I make risotto giallo or risotto alla milanese as it’s generally known, I make extra. The same if I’m making risotto alla salsiccia (risotto with Italian sausage.) Then I put it in the fridge overnight, take it out the next day and add some chopped up mozzarella, maybe some ham or whatever cheese I have in the fridge. Mix it all in with the leftover risotto and shape the mixture into small balls. If you want to use ragù you can.

Then make two halves of a rice ball with a dip in the middle of each, kind of like you were making Scotch eggs, presuming you’ve ever made Scotch eggs. Put a couple of spoonfuls of ragù in the middle of one and then close by putting the other half on top. Roll the balls lightly in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs. Then deep fry in vegetable oil.

The other day I read a Gloria Steinem quote that I’d read before and then forgotten about. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Then, if you’re lucky, you pick yourself up and take action the way you can.

 

 

Penitent processions and the women’s social club

“Mummy, can we follow the procession?” my younger son asks me.

We’re walking down the street of a seaside town in southern Spain. It’s Easter Sunday, Christ has risen and the black mourning robes of the Good Friday penitents have given way to red. There are women with high mantillas and children in their Sunday best. Bedspreads and eiderdowns are hung from balconies and windows and streets adorned with flowers and rosemary to perfume the air. Yet rosemary will always be for remembrance, although today I’m not quite sure what it is I’m remembering.

We proceed slowly along the cobbled streets to the intermittent outbursts of the town’s brass bands. There’s a sense of belonging that binds and draws this town together in the sun-baked south of Andalucia.

Several weeks later and we’re sitting in the park on the hill where my kids go play. We’re all here today, children, mothers, grandmothers and a handful of older women whose grandchildren have grown or didn’t arrive.

We talk about the usual: so-and-so is pregnant, another has given birth and we’re sorry another has died. Now it’s about religion, brought on by talk of the village priests, for nowhere is religion more alive than in the towns and the villages of the countryside.

On the women speak. I’m in a place without time, of communal washing troughs of times past and smallholdings with their dark kitchens and dark secrets where an elderly woman stirs a pot of polenta and another nurses a child. It’s still the women who are holding the family together, the mother-grandmothers who bring up their children and then bring up a second generation because it’s the only way they make it work in a country that’s generally failing its women.

The children continue to play opposite the dead that lie in the tombs of the cemetery across the road. One day all this too will be lost memory, yet in the meantime we’re in the years of the women’s social club and besides, it’s such a sunny day.

Photo: the old communal washing trough, Naviglio Grande, Milan

Leftover risotto and the women’s refuge

Arancini di riso are literally small oranges of rice or leftover risotto, deep-fried and delicious. My kids love them, so whenever I make risotto I generally make extra for arancini the day after.

My recipe was given to me by a woman I met in a women’s refuge. I was there at the refuge with my eight year old son and he loved the arancini. We were invited to their party and he wanted to come with me. I wanted him to come with me. I want him to grow up and remember that party. I want him to grow up and remember the arancini and the woman who prepared them that evening and above all remember why she was there. You can generally explain most things to kids if you use the right language. Where you say you can’t, it’s often merely an excuse. Yet there is still a certain element of stigma that surrounds women’s refuges, as if the women were in some way at fault, that’s all part of the stigma still associated with domestic violence.

Next Wednesday 8th March women will strike in forty countries all over the world. They’ll strike as part of the Ni una menos movement. It was the slogan launched by a group of journalists when women took to the streets in Argentina in 2015 and has now become a movement. It comes from a text “Ni una di mujer menos, ni una muerta mas” (not one woman less, not one death more) by Susana Chevez, the Mexican poet and activist who was killed in 2011 for having denounced gender crimes and violence against Mexican women. The Women’s marches are joining the strike and planning their A Day without a Woman. It’s an international women’s movement and it’s happening now. The movement is growing every day. In Italy, strikes will take place in many cities and towns from north to south.

There are many forms of violence. It doesn’t have to be physical or even explicit. Violence against women in Italy was identified by the UN 2012 report as cultural and therefore structural. It’s rooted within society. Femmicide takes seed where women are treated as second class citizens, where women are objectified, where there is a belief that a man is superior to a woman.

We all hear stories of women in abusive relationships, both physical and psychological women in non-abusive relationships who stay in loveless marriages for want of any way out. If a woman is dependent economically, it makes it very difficult for her to leave. How many women stay in abusive marriages because they know that if they do at least they’re assuring food and clothes and a roof over their heads for their children? And where the state is not doing enough to provide the right working conditions in which women can work, it is locking the key in the door.

This week the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Italy failed to protect a mother and her son from domestic violence. The authorities failed to respond to complaints by the woman and the result was murder of the son and attempted murder of the mother. They were accused of underestimating the violence and thus effectively endorsing it. It’s a landmark case.

Children are still studying from textbooks where daddy goes off to work and mummy makes cakes and they all go off to grandma’s on Sundays. The stereotypes are alive and kicking in the elementary classrooms of 2017. In Lombardy the recent gender theory proposals to help change gender stereotypes in schools were not just refused, they set up a helpline for people to report any examples of gender theory within schools. Yet research proves that violence against women takes root in environments where women are not treated equally to men.

You speak to other women and the story is often the same. It begins with a personal awareness, and this then translates into action.

Car

I needed a new car. My old one had reached the stage that if I drove it any longer it would die. Literally. And probably somewhere very inconvenient with the kids in the back.

So off I went. It’s amazing when you do something like buy a new car how all your fears that stereotypes are still alive and well are once again confirmed.

“I think I have just the thing for you, Signora,” the guy in the Toyata showroom said to me. “Here we are,” as he proudly opened the boot in a rather da-daaa kind of way. “Look at this for a boot. You can get all your shopping in here.”

I’d hit the moment where I could either stand there and just smile nonetheless, or open my mouth. I chose the latter.

“Excuse me, but I don’t think you understand,” I began. “I’m only here buying a car like this because I have two kids and all the crap that goes with carrying two kids around. If it were up to me and me alone, I wouldn’t even be here in the first place. I’d be off buying an Abarth.”

Needless to say, I didn’t buy the car.

After there was the brash young guy. “Ring your husband Signora,” he told me, as he laid back in his swivel chair, “and get him to buy you this one.”

Then there was the guy with the Fiat 500L. Never buy a car from a man who tries to sell you a 500L. A Panda 4×4 has a purpose. It will get you up any mountain where you want to go. A Fiat Abarth is the ultimate joy, providing you don’t fall for a second-hand one that’s been thrashed by some young kid. But a Fiat 500L? No. Not for me, thanks.

It all reminded me of the time I went to buy a TV with my husband and kids. There we were standing in the showroom with another brash young guy that was showing us all that was on offer.

“And then we have this, signora,” and he looked at me as if he were showing me the crown jewels. “This would be perfect. You could do the ironing in front of this.”

Another of those moments, of which my husband was also aware. He looked at me with his “oh here we go” expression.

“I think you’ve got the wrong woman,” I hissed. “I DON’T iron. Come on boys. We’re going.”

It’s all part of the world of subtle sexism, although in this case not very subtle at all. Buy a car, buy a TV, and you’ve got woman written all over you especially if you’re over 30, and people or rather men just presume they can assume. Only I don’t sit and take it any more. I have no intentions of sitting and taking it any more.

And every time it happens it makes me more even more resolved how to bring up my boys. So one day they will grow up into men that will break the mould. It’s the responsibility of being the mother of boys, especially in a country as patriarchal as the one in which I live. And the examples are everywhere. Boys do boys’ things and girls do girls’ things, and it starts from when they are young. You try to break through the stereotypes but you’re working against the majority.

I bought my car in the end. I went to this garage with a nice enough guy who let me test-drive it in our local hills. We went off one sunny morning. In fact he let me drive several of his cars which is always a bonus. I like driving other people’s cars, especially when they’re faster than mine.

“You can drive,” he told me. “You know how to use first gear while you’re driving.”

The implication could have easily been for a woman, and it probably was although he had the courtesy not to say it.

So I gave him the benefit of the doubt yet it still hung in the air.

It always hangs in the air.