Alright, friends, it's time for a little personal story. When I was super young, we moved in with my grandparents; before that, my grandparents watched me while my parents were at work. They picked me up from school, or waited for me at the bus stop - and even before I was old enough to do the whole school thing, they'd take me shopping and put up with baby me and my tantrums. So I really did grow up with my grandparents.
My grandparents are, of course, Italians who immigrated to Montreal in the 1960s from Sicily. By the time I came around, they'd already been Montrealers for a few decades, but - like the vast majority of Italian immigrants in Montreal that I've met - they never lost their sense of tradition, or of "Italianness".
This sense of Italian tradition was super present as I was growing up. I think that growing up with the omnipresence of your grandparents in general is a very different experience; throwing in the fact that they were Italian immigrants to the mix made it even more interesting. Not bad interesting, mind you. If anything, growing up with my nonni made for a really unique, awesome experience.
It's an experience that not too many people get to live, I realize. Whenever I tell people that I've lived with my grandparents for pretty much my whole life, I get a couple of different questions - but mainly, people are super curious what it was like being essentially raised under the influence of "straight off the boat" Italians.
At the risk of spoiling it for you guys, it was pretty great. But I know that doesn't exactly answer all of your questions; so, taking a bit of inspiration from my colleague's own story, I decided to lay out what it was like to grow up in a traditional Italian household. Read on for What It's Like To Grow Up In Montreal With "Straight Off The Boat" Italians.
1. There's food literally everywhere.
I'm not even exaggerating. True, food is a pretty important staple no matter where you come from - but for some reason, everything in a traditional Italian house revolves around food. No joke, 80% of my childhood memories involve food somehow.
I remember venturing downstairs and finding my grandparents grinding sausage meat to make fresh salsiccia. I remember waking up from a nap to find my parents making fresh gnocchi; my zias coming over to make homemade arancini; going to L'Inter Marché St. Michel as a child and lowkey ordering myself some cold cuts; watching my nonno cook up a storm for dinner pretty much every single night.
Also, I remember attempting to open tubs of Becel in the hopes of getting margarine, only to get roasted peppers or grilled melanzana (eggplants). But I think this type of deception transcends cultures and generations.
2. Your lunch was always a little different.
Oh, the guy next to me got Lunchables? Cool. I'll just be here chilling with my salami panino, stick of finnochio (fennel), seven tangerines, and little glass bottle of pear nectar.
This was my struggle every time my nonna packed my lunch. As a kid who just wanted Dunkaroos, no lie, I did not appreciate it. As an adult? Yeah. My nonna packed me some pretty boss lunches, even if I couldn't construct them myself/unfurl them in a wave of fruity goodness. BRB, going to ask her to whip me up a mortadella panino right now.
3. The great language barrier.
My grandparents can speak English and French like nobody's business. But when I was little, I grew up to them speaking to me in Italian (and a little Sicilian), so that by the time I was old enough to go to school, I was fluent in English and Italian.
I eventually learned French, too, but it was a bit of a culture shock to realize that not everyone spoke Italian, and not everyone understood me when I couldn't think of a word in English and had to say it in Italian, instead. Today, my English is a lot better. I still live with my grandparents, so I still speak Italian daily, and I'm super proud that I was immersed in the language from a young age. Also, I still get a little confused when I say something in Italian and no one understands me. #MeStruggles.
4. Family. Family everywhere.
My whole life is coming home from school/work, smelling espresso, and knowing instantly that family is over. For some reason, Italian nonni receive guests like nobody's business.
When you don't live with your grandparents, you're the visitor. When you do live with them? You're the host. Which means you get to see the nitty-gritty; the behind the scenes; the post-visit. You get to scrub the grounds out of the old school espresso pot. You get to tie the ribbon back around that box of freezer cookies. You get to rearrange the yummy, slightly greasy red pizza so that it fits back into the fridge.
But it's cool, though. I personally love seeing my family, even if they're technically just there to see how my nonna's doing.
5. Money is made to be saved.
Growing up, I always learned that splurging is okay every once in a while, but you should be saving up basically all your money for a rainy day. I always thought this was kind of an outdated way of thinking - you have your money now, might as well spend it on things that make you happy, right?
But then I started earning my own money, and what do you know? This is literally ingrained in my DNA. I can't not worry about my friends who spend all of their paycheque and put nothing aside for emergencies. I don't understand them. If I don't put away at least, like, 70% of my money for some future disaster, I seriously feel really anxious. What's it like to be so financially free, friends? I'll probably never know.
6. RAI is on full blast, always.
RAI is one of the more popular channels from Italy that reaches Montreal, and pretty much every oldschool Italian family catches it. I grew up watching classic Italian soap operas with my grandparents, even though I'm pretty sure I was not their target demographic. Fine, Pokemon was cool and all, but "Esmerelda" every day after dinner? Yeah, that was the best.
Sidenote: Holla at me if you remember "Esmerelda", "C'e Posta Per Te," or "Tempesta D'Amore." (And also if you still sing the 5-3-5-3 song to this day, but that might just be me.)
7. And so is CFMB.
AKA, Montreal's Italian radio station. Some of my friends woke up to the sound of French or English radio stations blaring through their speakers, but not me. When I was a kid, CFMB was constantly on in my house and in my Nonno's car, blasting news from the Montreal Italian community.
I mean, sure, it would have been pretty chill to listen to, like, Shakria on my way to school. But those random Italian songs were way better, anyway.
8. Your best friends become part of the family.
Anecdote time: last year, one of my BFFs called my house, which is weird, because we have cellphones now and we don't need the archaic technology that is a house line. I was confused as to why she called, until she told me to pass the phone to my nonna. Yup. It was my grandmother's birthday, and my BFF had called not to speak to me, but rather to the birthday girl.
When you live with your grandparents, it's natural that your friends see them a lot. When your grandparents are Italian, though? Your friends become family. Instantly. Pointe finale. Growing up, my grandparents were always first to cook extra for them or drive them around wherever they needed to go. Even to this day, if my grandparents don't hear about one of my friends, they instantly start worrying and asking me a billion questions about them.
9. You can navigate your neighbourhood like a boss.
Since I lived with my nonno and nonna, I would tag along with them wherever they'd go. My neighbourhood was Ahuntsic/St. Michel, so I remember frequent trips to L'Inter Marche St. Michel to buy grocieries; to La Baia dei Formaggi to buy speciality cheeses; to Montebello Bakery to buy panini and pizza; and to Standa, to buy pretty much everything.
Today, it's really cool to think that I know exactly where to go to get all of these awesome things. Seriously; you ever need to buy an old school espresso pot, hit me up. I know exactly which direction to point you in.
10. You end up learning a lot more than you think.
Even though my upbringing was different than most of the people I meet, I'm super grateful for it. Growing up with my "straight off the boat" grandparents has taught me a lot of things about life that I don't think I would have known otherwise.
Also, any conversation with them can turn into a history lesson at the drop of a hat. For a history buff like myself, it's really awesome to hear all of these stories, straight from the people who lived them.