There is much about me that is odd. And much of this oddness can be explained by knowing that I am an Australian-born-and-bred-Italian.
It has taken me some time to understand this, possibly because I spent the first 30 years of my life trying to deny my ‘Italian-ness’, or at least minimise it. Take one look at me, remember that my name is Renza and see me around a plate of spaghetti and you will understand how futile this was.
I am so Italian that there is espresso running through my veins. I talk with my hands and get ridiculously passionate when talking about food. My dream car is a vintage FIAT 500 and I own a Vespa. The ‘Italian-ness’ is somewhat overwhelming.
Italians have a weird way of dealing with physical illness. Actually, before this descends into some sort of cultural stereotyping, I should say the Italians I’ve been around have a weird way of dealing with physical illness.
Often, it is worn as a badge of honour. A conversation between two of ‘my people’ may sound like this:
‘Oh, you have a cold? I have pneumonia.’
‘Oh, you have pneumonia? I have pleurisy and bacterial pneumonia.’
‘Oh, you have pleurisy and bacterial pneumonia? I have Ebola. I am practically dead. Get me a hearse.’
You get the picture.
I grew up spending a lot of time with my extended family. My cousins were like close friends. I saw my grandparents pretty much every single week and aunts and uncles were a very present part of my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was incredibly lucky to have been exposed to this. I took it for granted – actually, I thought that everyone had this sort of connection with their extended familia.
No one in my family has really had any significant health conditions. Well, my mother has lived with lupus for a long time, but her approach to having a chronic health condition is the same as mine – acknowledge it’s a shit and get on with life. She’s been a spectacular role model, really. But apart from mum and me, the rest of us are relatively unscathed by nasty health conditions.
My grandparents who always seemed old to me – even though they would have been quite young when I was little – were pretty healthy. It really wasn’t until they were elderly – and getting towards the end of their lives – that they were unwell.
But despite this, there was always talk about being sick, because they traded in the currency of illness. They constantly spoke about how unwell people were, and the closer the person to them, the higher the value. They could – and would – trade on close family members being sick. So when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I became a pretty valuable commodity!
‘Oh, your niece has asthma. That’s terrible. My grand-daughter has diabetes – the one where she has to stick needles into her skin. I win. Pass me the grappa.’
I have always been uncomfortable with using illness as a way to get one up on someone, or to use it as an excuse. Equally, I hated the constant talk of people being unwell or in hospital. One night, not long after I was diagnosed, I was at my grandparents’ sitting around a table laden with food, having our weekly family dinner. We were good naturedly laughing at each other and commenting on how much one of my cousins eats. And poking fun of my aunt’s driving abilities. And my sister and I were yelling at anyone making sexists comments.
Typically, the talk eventually turned to a distant cousin/the butcher/next door neighbour/family member in the old country who was unwell.
I’d had enough. I put down my cutlery.
‘I’ve had enough!’ I said (probably waving my hands around). ‘Until I hear of someone actually being close to death – as in actually dead, as announced by a qualified medical practitioner – enough of the sick talk. Enough! I have type 1 diabetes – I win! No one gets to be sicker than me unless they are actually a corpse. Got it?’
I suspect someone translated for my grandmother. Everyone else just looked at me like I was mad.
I reached over and grabbed another cotoletta and kept eating. The subject was changed. We went back to gently joking and laughing at each other – most likely, my sister, cousins and I were making fun of my dad for being short.
The sick talk was a lot less after that. I won. And yet, somehow, I really, really didn’t.