A pleasant phone call.
A friend called me two days ago to tell me that she’s pregnant. What a wonderful of piece of news it was, and so for the next half an hour we talked about nothing else but babies and swelling stomachs. There was something ritualistic – ancient is the word that comes to mind – about that conversation: there’s the thrilled first-timer and the self-proclaimed veteran, and the veteran showers suggestions and warnings on the first-timer.
It must be like men and wars. (OK, most men I know have never been even close to a battlefield. But still.)
I kept thinking about pregnancies even after we had hung up. Because suddenly it hit me that I knew a truth about giving births in Italy, a truth so universal and absolute that I had to include it in my Diary of Everything.
I had understood it during my own pregnancy, when I’d been hospitalised a month before my son was born. Much of that period is just never-ending fog for me (days filled with reading paperbacks and thesauruses and staring at the hospital room ceiling), but there’s one night that shines bright in my mind.
It was the end of September, and it seemed like the entire womenfolk of Florence were giving birth that night. The maternity ward was overcrowded, midwives were rushing back and forth, and somewhere a woman in labour was shouting, giving the building an eerie touch of Abu Ghraib. Our room was silent, and messy dinner trays were glowing bluish-silvery in the hospital night-time lightning. The woman in the next bed was a foreigner, just like me. She looked listless and thin, like a cadaver flattened by a steam roller.
One of the midwives rushed in, her face tensed, tired. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but we’ve got to bring another mother here. She’ll be going to labour in a few hours, but right now she’s got nowhere else to stay.’
With all my remaining energy I raised my upper body to see who was coming. I felt excitement building up in my bones, the way it does every time you’re dealing with one of life’s Big Truths.
This was it, I thought. I was finally going to encounter an Italian woman the way she really was. Without masks, as it were. Without make-up, manicure, mannerisms. For you can’t afford any of those if you’re just about to go into labour.
So excited was I that I sat up. I felt her coming, with every inch of my body.
And there she came, an almond-eyed gazelle with a cascade of dark hair, tripping across the room. Everything in her was stylish and harmonious – dammit, even her stomach was stylish and harmonious, just like it was something she had bought at the local beauty parlour.
But the worst of all was that she was dressed in just the kind of birthing dress you should wear when big day finally arrives. Milky white, knee-length, buttons in front. I had seen similar ones at Prenatal, but hadn’t bought any because my British pregnancy guide had very sensibly advised giving birth in something old and worn out, “like a T-shirt you used when you painted the walls last time”.
I sank back into my bed, stunned. In a second of ruthless reality it entered my head that I was in the middle of the worst kind of wardrobe crisis.
I had nothing to wear.
So I learned a bitter truth that night. You see, often foreign women ask me if it’s really true that Italian women always look so goddam groomed. A little like French women who never get fat.
To which I answer, yes. Sadly, it is all true.
And most importantly, Italian women don’t give birth in old T-shirts.