Nessuno è nato imparato… Nobody is born taught.” This was the constant refrain of my mother-in-law when I met her last year. I have no idea why this became her chosen maxim when in my company. I surmise it was largely because I was a dumb American who bought Illy coffee instead of Kimbo (no self respecting Agerolese ever drinks Illy), failed to prepare a proper plate of pasta and generally lacked a certain Neapolitan saper fare – knowhow on all counts

My ignorance and American provenance aside, our ‘mother-daughter’ relationship was quite harmoniously uncomplicated in those early days. She lectured me on everything from the virtues of growing long womanly hair to the importance of boiling water before washing dishes. These lectures were conducted exclusively in loud, rapid-fire Neapolitan dialect and always concluded with her resounding declaration, “è così ou no… am I right or am I right?” Out of both incomprehension and fear, I agreed with absolutely everything she said, an arrangement that suited us both just fine.

As a special treat to me, my suocera paraded me to countless church festivals last summer and introduced me to all and sundry as her ‘American friend,’ generally neglecting to mention my relationship with her son or ignoring his presence entirely. This was a source of both amusement and consternation to local townspeople who likely wondered why a young American woman with little grasp of the local dialect was squiring an 88 year-old Neapolitan lady around town.

Now I will say that even if it were not for my relationship with her son, I derive endless amounts of enjoyment from my mother-in-law’s company. Before meeting Giuseppe, and thusly his mother, I always thought that if I could choose my own mother-in-law, I might choose the saucy Dianna Vreeland or perhaps Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who seems to enjoy a good glass of wine. Both are fine ladies to be sure, but they ain’t got nothing on my suocera.

Signora Giovanna Iovieno is 88 years old. She does what she wants, when she wants.  There is no negotiating with her because she is smarter than you and she will win, and possibly make you cry in the process. Her incredible mental faculty is only matched by her unparalleled resourcefulness. In the last year I have been the fortunate, if unwitting recipient of her daily teachings, and in honor of Italy’s Festa della Donna, I share my top five lessons with you:

  1. Think twice before ever throwing anything away. Countless seemingly useless objects can be brought back to life with a little chutzpah and creativity. When you see a pile of broken umbrellas, Signora Giovanna sees a potential line of fashionable skirts and bespoke canes. Put your thinking caps on.
  2. Drink at least one liter of water a day. This water should be room temperature and is best served from a recycled plastic Coca Cola bottle that lives under the sink. Swig from that bottle all day long, and at the end of the day it should be empty. If not, get drinking, and don’t forget to go to the bathroom before you go to bed.
  3. Mold is not a surefire signal that food has gone bad. Sniff potentially offending food.  If unconvinced, ignore what grade school teachers said about not employing the ‘taste test’ to scientific discoveries of unknown provenance, and eat a bit of said food. If you are still unconvinced food is good, feed to your pig or your dog or your compost heap.
  4. Sing loudly and daily. Singing is also a particularly useful strategy if you would like to ignore certain family members, such as your son who has the temerity to suggest you throw out a treasured collection of plastic bags and pizza boxes. This singing strategy produces most desirable results when employed in three tiers to signal your general level of frustration. For Tier 3, sing something like Renato Carsone’s Tu Vuò Fa’ l’americano to indicate mild frustration. For more egregious affronts, escalate to singing Tier 2 and choose a song with a good raucous crescendo such as ‘O Surdato Nnamurato. When you get to the “oje vita, oje vita mia” part sing with real verve. This will help get your anger out and alert your audience to your mounting anger. Tier 1 is best used sparingly and in moments of blind, white rage. And there can only be one song for that……..O Sole Mio! Sing that song loudly and on repeat for as long as it takes while aimlessly wandering around the house. Your audience will be putty in your hands in no time.
  5. Nessuno è nato imparato. Learn as much as you can every day.  Be curious and always ask questions.

Everyday I learn something new from Giovanna Iovienno.  And what better teacher than a proud Neapolitan woman, è così ou no?