“A Serb makes a good wife: she can pull the cart out of mud.”
That old Serbian proverb, its genius author has no name. It’s like the earthy quip from a hospital that I once heard in real life; after her severe car crash, the emergency doctor told her worried husband: Don’t you worry man, those Herzegovinian vipers are hard to kill!
I’m personally half Serb and half Herzegovinian, so I take these attitudes to my heart, half proud and half offended. But my American friend said: what about the Serbian and Herzegovinian husbands? Are they pleased about their mud-carting vipers? Is that the kind of proper home-girl that a local guy just has to have?
Good questions! If enough years go by, a man gets used to the woman of the house, muddy viper or not. But what about the opinions of the rest of the world?
Our world is a big place, so maybe a Serbian Herzegovinian woman is considered just one regional sub-class of East European womanhood. I might be called Balkan, from that mountain region of many fractured grooves, or a historical, fossilized ex-Yugoslav. I was never “Warsaw Pact,” although that arrangement meant “Eastern Europe” in the eyes of the Cold War West. I’m from a shatter-belt, a corner cushion among conflicting empires, a little regional federation that has vanished like the Austro-Hungarians and often resembled the modern European Union. It broke up in blood, but that’s been the fate of most European alliances, eastern or western, northern or southern.
These days, though, in the fractious nation of Italy, a minor scandal has broken out. A female TV talk-show host on the RAI national network suddenly recommended, more or less out of nowhere, that Italian men ought to marry “Eastern European women.” She offered six good reasons, or rather six sexist stereotyped points, about how these foreign easterners made much better wives than Italian women.
They may be foreign, yes, but they stay in the kitchen and cook. They’re women who clean the house. They forgive adultery. They become mothers but don’t get fat. They always dress decently. They don’t whine, nag and complain. And they obey a husband’s commands. These six female virtues make them great wives.
To tell the truth, I’ve been hearing these myths and traditions for decades now. I grew up in Italy and can pass for Italian, although when Italians hear that my name is Tesanovic, they often assume that I must be a Slav off the factory-line or collective farm. I was offended by that, but more as an East European than as a woman.
It’s annoying to hear that we non-Unionized Europeans are supposed to be poor, desperate and therefore obediently at the feet of the West. After all, aren’t Italians aware that this same stupidity, ignorance and machoism is also applied to Italian emigrants? If anybody’s women have the reputation of scheming gold-diggers, it’s those seductive, Machiavellian Italian women, and not us meek and lowly Balkan creatures, so blandly pretty and matrimonially faithful. We’re wholesome. We’re naively honest. We’re tiresome and boring, we’re no trouble at all!
However, the traditional Eastern European concept of us kerchief-headed creatures has clearly changed a lot since Yugoslavia split up, the Soviet Union fell and the EU fortress hastily erected its own walls in response. New prejudices always arise with new walls. Nowadays, instead of being a communal peasantry, we’re becoming world-class sultanas and empresses. Slovenian model Melania Knauss Trump is the First Lady of the USA!
Most of the current American President’s harem women have a Balkan air about them, even American-born Ivanka, the daughter / heiress who seems to be managing the Washington palace while the current wife keeps her head down in her gilded skyscraper in New York. We’re witnessing a modern psychological drama that closely resembles the intrigues of Hurrem, the abducted Ukrainian concubine, who became the Ottoman Empress of Suleyman the Great. Why her, why Eastern European Hurrem? Because Hurrem was a viper, and she could pull that muddy cart, and also because Suleyman the so-called Great didn’t have any other real friends.
Melanija Knauss is an ex-Yugoslav, just like me. She and I both sang patriotic hymns to Tito in our primary schools, with red kerchiefs around our necks. Nowadays those Communist adornments are more ragged and forlorn than Janis Joplin’s dirty red bandanna: freedom is just another word for losing your entire nation. We thought Marshall Tito was our family more than our leader. The school song was: Comrade Tito, we vow we will not go astray. Now far-straying Melania is decked out in Ottoman jewels as an offshored one-percenter bride of a mogul. Still, this is modernity, so, presumably, that fate had to happen to somebody.
Hell has no fury like someone’s national womanhood scorned, so TV mayhem broke out over this Italian RAI TV talk show. The commentator got promptly fired from the focussed social-media rage of vengeful Italian netizens, and even her boss was purged and her show was cancelled. Italian women certainly don’t care for invidious comparisons. But there’s nothing new about people making them.
Back in Italy in the 1970s, it was the Swedish girls who were cast as the ideal exotic brides. These Swedes were blonde and not dark, tall and statuesque and Nordic, un-Catholic and sexually emancipated, ready to hop fully-clothed right into the Trevi Fountain, dolce-vita style. But Italy survived that female threat somehow.
Now the entire RAI programme has been blown off the air scorched-earth style, as if Italian bachelors were in desperately short supply and all the girls have to scrabble. Why are Italian women protesting about an Italian female talk-show? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the women directly confronted their men?
And for that matter, why aren’t the Italian men complaining about their possible prospect of having to court and marry Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and whomever?
Plus — what about the grievances of us East European women who happen to be in Italy? To think that we never complain and lament is absurd — we’ve got enough daily grievances to fill the Roman Colosseum. We’re the women of a soulful people with vast intellectual conceptual fields of grief, sorrow and historical disappointment, and the near-infinite spectrum of the sorrows of a Russian woman is, in fact, shockingly different from the handwringing of any Polish one. Right now the Ukrainian women are bitterly upset about Russia. What if you’re an Eastern European woman from one of those small and awful “frozen conflict” zones, where your ethnicity doesn’t even have any proper nation for foreigners to get stereotypical about?
But, well, who cares about all that mess? RAI certainly doesn't. The network has only one concept for all of us splintered ethnics, mostly because their TV programs are never about the many sorrows of women of the world, they’re mostly about young, prancing, pretty Italian women who are half nude and seem available. Berlusconi used to be the master-of-ceremonies for that kind of regional showgirl parade, but it goes on with him or without him.
Italian TV culture ranks with the most blissfully vulgar TV in the world, because it really knows what sells on a glass screen. RAI is second to none in kitsch, misogyny and casually racist sexism, but those values go unchallenged because Italian national TV is a closed moral universe. It’s by no means all about us East European women in Italy, we’re merely the occasional collateral damage off their NATO airwaves.
Besides, there remains the primal source of the real anxiety in this little scandal, which is that foreign people really, truly are alluring. They’re hot. Nobody mentioned this prospect: but what about the Italian woman in bed with the Eastern European guy? How scary could that be, really? What if this intimate encounter with the Other turns out to be incredibly fun?
You never know what the night may bring to a woman, as my Mom used to say. But you see, I really can pull a cart out of mud, I am a Serbian woman all right, for better or worse. Plus I am a feminist pacifist who is always, Always Disobedient!
(Image: Cautious Matryoshka, Bradley Davis, CC-BY-ND)