How Italians Raise their Kids: An Italian Education by Tim Parks

16 February 2017


I’ve been spending more time in Utrecht recently. Last time I was at the station, I was lured into the glass-fronted ‘Boekspot’ in the Hoog Catharijne mall. The boekspot is a free library swap-shop where visitors are welcome to pick up a book and leave behind ones they’ve finished. I found myself face to face with a book I’d intended to read years ago and had never got around to – An Italian Education by Tim Parks. It hopped into my bag.

While you might think Pamela Druckerman and Amy Chua invented the foreign-parenting memoir, you’d be wrong. Parks got there earlier, in 1996 to be exact. An Italian Education describes the way Italian families live and how they bring up their children, from the perspective of an English translator-writer married to a local and raising three kids. I found it interesting, enlightening and constantly entertaining. I’m also rather glad I read it after Rina and I had written our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. It sets the bar high, certainly in literary terms.  

Early in the book, Parks broaches an issue I struggled with myself when attempting to describe Dutch character: ‘I have always been suspicious of travel writing, of attempts to establish that elusive element which might or might not be national character, to say in sweeping and general terms, this place is like this, that place is like that.’  And yet he comes to realize that places are different: ‘Once one has discounted individual traits, class attitudes, generation gaps, and of course the myriad manifestations of different personalities, still a substrate of national character does exist. The French are French somehow, the German are predictably German, the Italians, as I was slowly discovering, indisputably Italian.’ Parks decides to describe only what he knows intimately, his surroundings and his own experiences.


So how do the Italians bring up their children? Well, with ‘immense caution, inhibition and a suffocating awareness of everything, but everything, that can go wrong.’ Woe betide they catch a chill after a dip in the sea. Although protected and confined, children can be spoiled rotten and bribed without guilt. Babies are public property – everyone fusses over them. And nobody minds their own business in an Italian family with everyone arguing around a noisy dinner table. Naturally, Italians are food-obsessed: ‘spoon-feeding their children years after the English have stopped, just to make sure they have enough of everything. It’s almost the only issue over which they seem willing to stoop to physical coercion.’

A few more choice details: there is no word for ‘bedtime’ in Italian since children don’t have them. Parks bucks the trend by sending his to bed by 7pm, British style. Houses are to be kept pristine so playing is discouraged. Play in itself is tricky too. There aren’t many playgrounds and parks (or at least not in Park’s region) and schools don’t have playing fields. If kids want to play football, they have to join a local club. Dads are not considered trustworthy enough to look after children. There’s even a lullaby in which children sing their fathers to sleep rather than the other way round. Suffering from a desperate lack of sleep at the time of writing, the author describes this all with utter hilarity.

Italy’s cult of la mamma is probably its most famous parenting cliché. ‘But beyond diet and swaddling and coddling and funding, Mamma has something else to offer: a suffused eroticism.’ Parks mentions a grown man who still shares a bed with his! The obsession with mammas means that dads don’t need to feel guilty about time spent away from the home. Childcare is not their responsibility. ‘The whole mythology of Italian bourgeois life,’ the writer describes, ‘is the small-time artisan slaving (but creatively, in his own workshop) for the sake of his wife and children.’ Gender conditioning is rife. Little girls must stay safely in the shallows while boys are allowed to dive from the rocks. There is more, much more, in this book but I’m not going to summarize it all.

The funniest thing is his conclusion: children in Italy never grow up and become independent. Their parents continue to support them long after they have reached adulthood, subsidizing their rent and even looking after their children, so that now the situation has become absurd. ‘One only fears that if they (my generation) have to look after their grandchildren, they won’t be equipped for it, having had so little experience.’ And the book ends with an encore of the joke – no better place to grow up than Italy? No, no better place NOT to grow up.italian-parenting-3

When in Rome

28 November 2013

November for a lot of Americans is the time to reflect on life’s blessings and to take a moment together on the fourth Thursday of the month with friends and family to give thanks. As an American expat living in the Netherlands, I’ve had to readjust my expectations of this beloved, controversial holiday.

Nonetheless, November will always hold a significant moment in our life for a very personal reason. It marks the anniversary date of a very special, once-in-a-lifetime moment where my Dutch husband swept me off my feet. When I first came to the Netherlands,  my husband’s friends were quick to joke that I fell in love with the wrong Dutch guy. For one, he is short (5’10”) in comparison to the stereotypical gigantic Dutch bloke. He has black wavy hair, olive skin tone and dark brown eyes. He also doesn’t abide by the rules of going Dutch – the Dutch etiquette of paying for your own dinner when you go out on date. But they were all utterly wrong – I fell in love with just the right Dutch guy for me.

Rome epics 1photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Four Novembers ago, my ultra-romantic then fiancée decided to plan a romantic surprise for me. This was before the current trend of surprise, epic flash mob proposals going viral on the internet these days. He planned a surprise engagement session in Rome with San Francisco-based photographer Jennifer Skog and stylist Maria Chang.

From what I recall, one November morning, my fiancée told me to pack my bags and told me that he was going to take me away for a romantic getaway. I distinctly remember being excited – after all, I would find any excuse to get away from the depressing cold Dutch winter and I loved exploring more of Europe. En route to the airport, he handed me a present letting me know where we were headed – Lonely Planet’s Rome. He wanted to take me on my very own Roman Holiday. Waiting for us at the airport in Rome was a formal limousine driver holding a sign with my husband’s last name on it. He drove us straight to a hotel literally at the steps of the Pantheon.

Rome epic 2

photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

The following evening, after a beautiful day roaming around the Vatican, he told me that we had a very special dinner date. I casually ignored his subtle hints and simply looked forward to the fancy dinner ahead. It was there at the restaurant that he revealed his secret with a his classic mischievous boyish grin, saying only that he flew in two people just for me. I was breathless, thinking that he had flown in my untraveled parents and had expected them to find the restaurant alone.

A couple of moments later, in walked Jennifer and Maria. It was the biggest surprise of my life (pre-baby) and I just couldn’t believe it. Even Jennifer and Maria were perplexed that my fiancée was able to pull it off without me knowing, or having any suspicion at all with what was going on behind the scenes. He literally flew them from San Francisco to Rome to make me feel like a princess for the day. And of course, they also brought along a special outfit for me just for the photoshoot.

(For a glimpse of that magical moment, you can watch the video below.)

ROME COUTURE SHOOT | Rina & Bram from Maria Chang on Vimeo.

What Jennifer Skog and Maria Chang didn’t know when they met me that beautiful November evening was that I was really not at a good place in my life. I was utterly in love with the man of my dreams, but I was drowning in culture shock and suffering from lapses of regret, disillusionment, and anger. I was thrown into the deep end, the kind where I had to be around alleen maar nette mensen. If I were to be completely honest, I was probably also suffering from depression. I was, after all, doing what most self-absorbed twenty something women tended to do – have a delusional myopic, narcissistic perspective rather seeing the bigger picture. For someone too caught up in her own insecurities about living in the Netherlands, it wasn’t too hard to plan something right underneath her nose and catch her in utter surprise.

It takes a lot of bravado to choose love, to follow someone across the world and to take a blind leap of faith that this was the man that God had in mind for you. The rest of the world, especially the status conscious world where I came from, isn’t too forgiving to those who chose a different life. I grew up believing wholeheartedly that I wasn’t a princess and I only had my brains and sheer grit to earn myself a better life. Life, as I was somehow deluded into believing, was supposed to be a straight trajectory to a certain standard of success, where the idea of self-worth was inextricably linked to visible accomplishments.

Rome epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

But…meeting my husband profoundly changed me and I hungered for more than wandering around life wearing paychecks like necklaces and bracelets. I longed to live a more authentic, genuine life with someone who took my breath away and inspires me to be a better person. Wanting and actually being are two different mindsets and it took me a lot longer to fully transition to a liberating paradigm shift of a more authentic self.

We still look fondly at that special November day in Rome. What made it also magical was Jennifer and Maria were just as excited as we were. These talented ladies also share a spark that my husband has – the kind that’s passionate, crazy about life and who wear their hearts on their sleeves. What makes them amazing (aside from  talent and creativity) and stand-out from the crowd is their openness, their unabashed honesty and their willingness to simply love. Their hearts were into making that day special for us and they unknowingly helped me find my inner confidence. While it did take four years for me to finally express my sincerest gratitude to Maria and Jen, I hope that they’re reading this and know how much these two ladies mean to me. If you’re a bride-to-be looking for a photographer and stylist, I would recommend these two in a heartbeat. And yes, they’re worth every penny being flown anywhere you happen to be getting married or proposed to.

Epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Life is messy and filled with lots of ups, downs and curve-balls.  Somewhere along the way, I really did loose my voice. Or more accurately, I stopped giving myself permission to use my voice. My husband taught me how to really live life, of not being afraid to embrace all of it – the sorrows, disappointments, heartaches, laughter, joy and the love.

Happily ever after consists of the mundane, daily grind of real daily life. It’s about finding a partner in your life that calls you gorgeous even though you feel like a hot mess.  It’s about being able to sleep in almost every morning while he happily spends time with his son, the sacred hour(s) when it’s just him and his boy. It’s about saying yes to his wildly ambitious dreams of success and having the courage to take a backseat to a career to take care of the family. It’s about embracing life in Dutch suburbia, of not letting the social isolation wear me down and accepting that right now, at this moment, this is the place where we need to be. It’s about finding the joy in what ever life has set out for us and finding fulfillment of motherhood and being an entrepreneur’s wife.


rome engagement shoot

photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

And sometimes in life, there’s a time when a special someone takes you on a Roman holiday and takes your breath away.

p.s. If you’re interested in seeing more photos from our Rome engagement shoot, you can view them on Jennifer Skog’s website.


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Best European Country to Vacation with Baby – Italy

5 September 2013


Question: What is the best European country to vacation with a baby?




 Answer: Italy!

If you’re a family with a baby, toddler or young kids flirting with the idea of doing a bit of vacationing, please seriously consider taking a trip to Italy.

Many of us expats have our Mediterranean favorites. Mine has long been Italy the first time I laid my eyes on her six years ago. Italy has ingeniously mastered the art of living la dolce vita, embracing beauty through everyday life, art, culture, music and food. Best of all, Italians are ABSOLUTELY CRAZY about BABIES.

IMG_1576_Snapseed(Bram Junior making friends in Milan)

For our first real vacation as a family there was no question where we would go – Cinque Terre, Liguria. Being new parents, we wanted to have an amazing vacation that was the least stressful as possible, that would leave us feeling rejuvenated and able to really embrace la vita e bella. Why not then head over to a place we knew that would be baby friendly, have amazing food, breathtakingly unforgettable sights, and irresistible charm?


Where To Stay: Hotel Villa Steno 




There’s a reason why Hotel Villa Steno is the number one hotel in Cinque Terre according to TripAdvisor.

It’s because Hotel Villa Steno is simply the best.

Hotel Villa Steno is run by husband and wife team Mateo and Carla who are possibly the most dedicated hotel owners that we’ve ever come across. They are unbelievably accommodating to families, especially those with babies and very young children (they’re parents themselves!). They’ve mastered the art of customer service and hospitality from every detail imaginable:  impeccable cleanliness, promptness, affordability, approachability, warmness..the list goes on and on.

I’m a firm believer that where you stay during your holiday can really make a difference on your lasting impressions of the place, long after you’ve gone home and the euphoria of the most recent vacation has long settled into a more distant place in your everyday reality. Staying at Hotel Villa Steno can make a world of a difference, almost guaranteeing you a fabulous vacation with your baby.

Insider tip 1 : Hotel Villa Steno is one of the very few hotels in the Cinque Terre region that actually has its very own parking lot. Every single travel guide will attest to how parking is a precious commodity in the five villages. Contact them ahead of time to guarantee a spot!

Insider tip 2: Die-hard enthusiasts of Cinque Terre often lament about the commercialization of Monterosso al Mare (where Hotel Villa Steno is located), a village that according to their criticism has strayed away from the authentic village experience. I would actually beg to differ. Lying in the heart of Monterroso al Mare is a community of villagers who love, care and support one another. It’s a place where you will see Nona’s (grandmothers) take their grandchildren to the local playground, the locals attend mass, and everyone knows each other. If you’re traveling with a baby, or young children, it is also the most convenient village to stay in because of it’s readily accessible beaches, plethora of eating options, grocery stores, local


Where to Eat: Trattoria dal Billy Manarola


Billy’s is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the world. It is a restaurant after a true foodie’s heart. If you are a lover of seafood and/or would love to appreciate fresh homemade pasta, you definitely cannot miss out on Billy’s. It’s authentic Ligurian cuisine and the seafood is caught fresh each day from the local fishermen.


Where To People Watch (and Enjoy A Glass of Wine) : Enoteca da Eliseo


IMG_4159_Snapseed(Bram Junior with Mary, co-owner of Enoteca da Eliseo)


The perfect place to go during that special hour right before dinner and after heading back from a long day of hiking, sightseeing and living life to the fullest under the Ligurian sun is none other than Enoteca da Eliseo. Obviously it’s not the place to linger with a baby, but there’s something absolutely enjoyable about drinking local wine, chatting with the locals and having a nibble before heading off to dinner (or going back to the place after dinner). If you aren’t on parental duty, you should definitely go!


Best time to visit:  Every single local in Cinque Terre we asked gave the resounding answer “May” as their absolute favorite time of the year. It coincides with their lemon festival (Sagra dei Limoni) and there are tons of wild flowers everywhere. The beginning of September came a close second.

Unfortunately, the weather gods were not so kind to us during our last visit in May. It was the worst May that any of the locals could ever recall. To be fair, it was a very craptastic Spring 2013 all throughout Europe with snow even making a guest appearance in May in the Netherlands. Perhaps global warming is upon us after all.

Personally, I would actually still give May another chance especially if I was traveling with a baby or very young kids. The hiking trails and villages were littered in flowers and there was a soft, warm breeze. I also love eating outside and would want to avoid those nasty wasps interfering with my much sought after Ligurian delicacies and possibly my baby. Wasps are the most prevalent in September, coinciding right in time with the harvesting of the grapes.


How To Get There: Flight and Train

The most convenient way to get to Cinque Terre (from Amsterdam) is to hop on a flight from Amsterdam Schipol Airport to Pisa. We would fly into Milan to visit our son’s godparents and then take a three hour train ride from there.


Insider’s tip: Book first class train tickets. The price of a first class, round-trip train ticket is actually quite affordable. Babies are free!

(Bram Junior with the random Train Conductor who absolutely adored him)


The train conductor loved Bram Jr. so much that he actually went back twice just to spend some time with him. We were left open-mouthed when upon seeing our baby he literally couldn’t help himself and beg to hold our bundle of joy. The second time around he brought along a female colleague beaming with pride as if Bram Jr. was one of his own. What parents wouldn’t be flattered?


All of these people that we met during our trip were essentially strangers. They opened up their hearts to us the moment they saw our baby. And that’s what makes Italy, the best European country to vacation with a baby – a place that genuinely embraces family.