I am a picture of happy domesticity in my kitchen, chopping mushrooms and crushing cloves of garlic. The evening is warm and the open windows bring the sounds of the street inside. My husband, James, is working at the computer in another room and our son Nicolas is asleep in his bedroom after a busy afternoon in the park. Our apartment is in Rome, on the slope of a hill with a view of the Castelli Romani ahead, a grove of palms and orange trees to the right, and domes and rooftops to the left. The bell in the monastery of San Anselmo calls the monks to vespers at quarter past seven each night; tonight it’s my signal to remove the garlic from the oil in the pan and add the pancetta. I take a bottle of prosecco out of the fridge and pour a glass to drink while I cook.
If anyone were watching they would see a woman who has everything. I am loved by the man I love most in the world, we have an adorable toddler, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and I shop in picturesque markets for fresh local produce where I banter in Italian with the vendors. I am cooking, which is one of my favorite things to do, and drinking a glass of fruity, bubbly wine while I’m at it.
It would appear as if I am actually living my own dream. When I was studying English literature at university I spent half my time reading and the rest of my time trying on the biographies of my favourite writers. I could so easily imagine myself in the Paris of Mavis Gallant and the London and Florence of Henry James. There was little to no evidence of children in the lives of the expat writers I admired, and so I didn’t have to work them into my future either. Later, when I studied journalism it was Martha Gellhorn, Janet Flannery and Jane Kramer, three women who wrote (and in Kramer’s case, still do write) lucid yet literary prose from Europe. It was always Europe that held my imagination and seemed to be the place where my future must unfold.
Now, here I am in Italy, and it is a romantic picture and a romantic life. It is, it is, and yet I have become a little irritable lately. I am living the future I once dared to hope for, except that in my dreams it was my work, and not my husband’s job, that brought me to Europe. In my dreams I was a well-paid journalist, happy and well-rounded with a busy life and a family. I never for a moment imagined that it was the family that would take over my life.
I grew up in the age of working mothers and equality of the sexes. I never looked for a man to save me. But, in spite of having been an independent, single woman, and in spite of having married a man who only ever dated strong, career-oriented women, I have somehow become a housewife and mother.
The deep boom of San Anselmo’s bell softens to a resonant echo and slowly fades as the pancetta starts to curl at the edges. I add some chopped tomatoes to the pan. It was James who first made a version of this pasta sauce in Toronto eight years ago, shortly after we moved in together. He was a documentary filmmaker and I was a features writer at a national newspaper. We were busy and full of stories to tell each other at the end of every day, over a glass of wine and a plate of something delicious cooked by whoever made it home first from work.
We kept separate bank accounts in those days but we shared our living expenses. We both loved to cook and we split the cleaning duties down the middle. Our work involved travel and we would return gratefully to each other from our separate adventures in Beijing and Berlin, in Copenhagen and Seattle. We even took a three-month writing trip together to Spain where we set up our desks in Madrid and worked side by side on our separate stories.
It was shortly after that summer in Spain when James was offered a job with a United Nations agency based in Rome. It started slowly with a contract here and another there, but after a few months he was asked to come in full time to make films about issues that affect the lives of people in rural areas of Africa and South America. I was visiting him in Rome when the offer came through. We took a walk during the lunch hour and bought toasted tomato, mozzarella, and basil panini. We sat on a bench overlooking Circo Massimo where the ancient Romans once raced their chariots and we talked.
“So much will change,” he said. He seemed excited and also a little worried. “We don’t know exactly what we’re getting into.”
We watched the joggers kicking up dust on the ancient racetrack, and the pigeons moving in on the office workers eating their lunches on the slope of the hill. It was early March, but James removed his jacket and sat in his shirtsleeves and we both wordlessly noted the warmth of the spring air, so unlike the half frozen slush of springtime Toronto.
“The new job will begin in July. We should get married before we leave home,” said James, just like that. “And if we’re ever going to have a kid, we have to get started on it now.” His words were too rushed and worried to be romantic, but he was talking about a lifelong commitment, becoming parents together and having a shared adventure in a foreign country. He accepted the job and we returned to Toronto to settle our affairs.
We had a beautiful Sunday morning wedding in May with our friends and family. I quit my job in June. In July, we packed up our belongings and our two cats and off we went.
Neither of us had ever wanted a traditional relationship where the man goes to work and the wife stays home, but in Rome it started to happen. We moved into a temporary apartment and started to search for something more suitable. But since James had to go to work every day, I did all the legwork. The fresh produce markets were only open in the mornings, so I did the shopping. James would often come home late from work and I was already home even when I was working, so it made sense for me to do all the cooking. It made me feel a little more useful, since I was no longer bringing in half the money. I learned to pay attention to seasonal produce and started to ask advice on how to prepare the unfamiliar greens — beate, agretti, puntarelle — I saw heaped up at the markets.
I was disciplined and I used whatever time was leftover from my house hunting and housekeeping duties to work on articles about Italian politics, culture, social issues, and whatever else seemed interesting. I traveled to Germany and Albania for stories. James was shooting in Peru, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Mozambique. It was in many ways as exciting as ever and perhaps even more so because home base was now an exotic location. But while James was being paid a decent and regular salary for his work, I was paid freelance fees that were set in the 1970s. Worse, I was earning devalued Canadian dollars while I was living on inflated Euros. It came down to money, really. Before Nicolas was even born, it was money that tipped the balance of our relationship.
Despite the decline of my bank account, life was very good. We took driving trips through Umbria and Tuscany where we ate wild boar and black truffles. We spent weekends on the island of Ponza, eating salads and fresh fish. We studied the language and history of Italy. We made friends and created a life for ourselves. My income as a freelancer was sporadic. When I had some money I was content and when I didn’t, I felt like the lesser partner in the relationship, no matter how hard I worked.
In the spring, I became pregnant. I thought having a child might change my perspective and make me see money as ours rather than mine or his. I continued to work through my pregnancy, though I slowed down as I grew huge and uncomfortable and increasingly more impatient with the lousy pay. I tried to write a novel at that time. I fleshed out my characters and spent hours each day writing slowly and carefully, polishing and shaping my beautiful story until it seemed, for a moment, to be perfect. Perfect until the doubts crept in and it seemed ridiculous and I erased and started again to shape and to polish. I seemed eternally to be writing the same chapter and it occurred to me one day that this was far too much like Prometheus and his liver, which got me to thinking about what to make for dinner. I closed the computer and went to the market where the woman at the cheese counter told me how to make a simple but sublime sauce for polenta by cooking tomatoes slowly with sweet Gorgonzola.
And then Nicolas — or Nico as he soon became known — was born. For a few months I stopped worrying about my work and my money and even myself and concentrated only on him and his needs. James and I were both touched by his vulnerability. We had thought about sending him to the daycare at James’s office so I could continue to work, but it seemed a shame to send such a tiny baby away when it wasn’t really necessary. I didn’t have a job and no one was demanding that I return to work. So, instead, I resumed my shopping, cooking, and laundry duties and we hired someone else to clean. Any thoughts of finishing my novel while the baby slept seeped away in the dark as I sat up nursing him four or five times a night.
When Nico was almost three months old, the Pope died and every journalist in Europe was on the story. My old newspaper called and asked me to write something. I was completely overwhelmed by the demands of an infant, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing a chance to file a story. James and Nico came with me to St. Peter’s Square and I nursed my baby under the Colonnade between interviews. I managed to write three colorful features in as many days. It was exhausting and exhilarating, but not nearly as thrilling as sticking my bankcard into an ATM machine a month later and seeing Euro notes come gliding out. I bought a veal roast — the butcher wrapped it in paper on which he had scrawled instructions for roasting it with honey and herbs — and a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. For dessert we shared a bowl of perfect, ripe cherries, the first of the season.
It occurred to me even then when Nico was so small and so incredibly demanding that I was having the adventure I had always wanted. And now when I get cranky and irritable about my inability to juggle a child and a career, I try to stop and realize that I am navigating a new language and culture. I’m raising a child in a place that is completely foreign to me, and this is both a challenge and a source of tremendous excitement and interest to one who has always romanticized the foreign, the exotic, the European. The problem right now is only that I have so little time to write it all down. And, I’m afraid, the money I could earn from my efforts wouldn’t even be enough to buy a white truffle to shave over our fettuccine.
As Nico grows, I know he will need me less and less. Already, we have a babysitter for a few hours a week so I can work a little. It’s a nice arrangement, but paying her only adds to my anxiety because, as a part-time, freelance journalist, there are months when I make more money than she costs us, and months when I do not.
My pasta sauce has to simmer awhile to absorb the soaking liquid from the dried porcini mushrooms I have added, and so I make a salad of curly endive and radicchio with slivered pears, toasted pine nuts, and shaved Parmesan. I sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt over top, drizzle on olive oil, and add three drops of balsamic vinegar, and then take it to James with a glass of wine so he can eat it while he works. Then I return to the kitchen to start the pasta water boiling.
My thoughts drift to Nico, while I wait for the water to heat. I remember the way he stood at the top of the slide that afternoon pretending that he would go down and then stepping back, forwards then back again, enjoying the potential thrill and the tease. I am glad to have been there to see it, to watch him experiment with danger and independence, and to be there to catch him as he came shooting down the slide. I take a sip of prosecco and feel my irritation dissipate with the bubbles. At this moment I am glad to be here at the kitchen counter preparing our dinner. But I want the rest of the romantic dream, too. I want the work that I love and the money to go with it. I want my kid to grow up seeing his parents as equal partners in a relationship. I can’t resolve this problem, at least not yet. My current circumstances are unique and rewarding, and I know I contribute something to my son’s and my husband’s lives other than money. Yet I yearn like a nineteenth century heroine for my own livelihood.
It’s 8 o’clock and the bells from Santa Maria in Trastevere chime out the time, reminding me to drain the pasta. It’s the Madonna who nudges me back to work, she whose image confronts and rebukes my imperfection as a mother, all over this city. But tonight it makes me smile to think that the most famous woman through the ages is the mother of a son.
I toss the pasta in the pan with the sauce and I imagine that if anyone were watching me they would see a woman who has everything. She is loved by the man she loves and they have a sweet little boy. They live in Italy where they have learned to become parents and have experienced the sacrifices involved. And if anyone were to ask if we are happy, I might pause for a moment — I might even qualify my answer by saying that it is not perfect and there is yet more I would like to do with my own life — but I would have to say that it is like a dream, and yes, we are.