June 18: “The Italian System” by Francesca Marciano

Hey, there, Story366! Writing at you at the heels of a dramatic Cub victory and a good night for me in terms of beer sales, all for a rare Saturday night game at Wrigley (they get to have one once a year, per Wrigleyville neighborhood rules). I’m pumped.

I’m pumped about being in Chicago for a lot of reasons, seeing family, seeing the Cubs, hanging out in the city, doing all the cool Chicago stuff, and of course, the food. As I write this, I’m taking down a gyros dinner from Johnny K’s Patio, a near-legendary take-out joint near my mom’s house, but have also already had good hot dogs and pizza, things they just don’t have in Missouri. We’ll eat and eat well while we’re here, including something we look forward to every year: Pierogi Fest.

Held in Whiting, just over the border in Indiana along Lake Michigan, Pierogi Fest is a pretty typical city street fest, a weekend of beer tents and food tents and games and music. Only at Pierogi Fest, the food tents mostly feauture Pierogi from a dozen or more local and national vendors and the music is usually Polka music. We  go every year, and this year it’s at the end of July, so our calendars are marked.

Pierogi Fest makes me think of today’s story, “The Italian System” by Francesa Marciano, from her collection The Other Language out from Vintage. In this story, the unnamed narrator, an Italian immigrant, ventures to be a writer, but through a series of circumstances, instead starts writing a nonfiction book called The Italian System. The Italian System, according to the protagonist, and her book-in-progress, basically defines Italians and Italian Americans in the most basic of terms. What was the germ of this project? At some point, this writer has the realization that Italians, despite some not-so-friendly facts—Fascism, corrupt government, Mafia stereotypes (many of which are true), etc.—Italians are looked at as generally friendly and gracious people, full of warmth, pleasantness, and good food. Why is that? she wonders, and decides to pursue the issue in a series of topical chapters, each outlining a different aspect of Italian-American culture.

The story from there on out is divided into regular narration—the story of the protagonist living her life while writing The Italian System—and passages from the book. There are sections on everything from ice cream to clothing to clothes driers, mostly pointing out how complicated things are for Americans and how simple, even more wholesome, things are when done by Italians. Ice cream in Italy, for example, can be found at quaint little shops, one or two flavors at a time, basic flavors like chocolate or lemon or strawberry, while Americans have chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate toffee mint peanut butter, that kind of thing, as many ingredients as they can fit in. Clothes driers don’t exist in Italy, according to that chapter, as Italians put everything on a line, even underpants, while Americans insists on ruining their fibers by torturing their clothes in those ovens. That’s the gist of The Italian System, and as a result, the gist of “The Italian System,” Marciano’s story, a tale about identity and identity crisis as much as anything. In America, this protagonist is trying to define herself, and through this book project, she’s found her muse.

The story ends in Rome, our protagonist home visiting her mom, lucrative advance in hand for her project, what seems to us—on purpose—like a list of generalities, the “Italians do things this way, while Americans do things that way!” But it’s the type of book that gets a big contract (or at least that’s the supposition here, a poke at the type of fluff that sells). The ending really is satisfying, and of course, I won’t reveal it here. If you read this story and you’re wondering how these generalities are reckoned, they are. Marciano does a nice job of bringing her character, and this book project, together, making it work. I liked this story a lot, enjoyed Marciano’s prose and characterization. I’d not read her before, so this piece was a nice introduction.

So how does all this remind me of Pierogi Fest? I think it’s the generalities of a culture, a heritage. I’m Polish American and damn proud, but it’s weird how my ties to Poland are so antiquated, holdover traditions from grandparents and great grandparents, pre-World War II-type stuff like pierogi. Once at a Cubs game, about five years ago, I met a bunch of guys from the Polish national soccer team and told them about Pierogi Fest, that I was going that night, more or less implying something to the tune of “Hey, you should check that out!” They looked at me like I’d just insulted their mothers. Sure, I’m Polish American, but I don’t speak the language (despite three semesters of it in college), only know about food, and couldn’t name their president for the life of me. Telling these Polish guys—famous athletes to boot—to go to Pierogi Fest would be like seeing the Italian team and talking about how great the pizza is in Chicago. Or seeing Marciano and doing the same. It’s not even really insulting, just silly and embarrassing to me. Those are the kind of generalities that Marciano’s protagonist is exploring in her project, and it make me think of that moment with the soccer players. She’s a great character (and I’m just an idiot).

I’d like to investigate more of The Other Language now that I’m home and the post is done, as all I had the time to read was this one story. I like what I’ve gotten to so far, and I’m glad to have Francesca Marciano in my consciousness.