Madonna’s Namesake

Madonna was born to offend you, now wish her a Happy 54th Birthday.

Every single Italian I met when I lived in Rome had the same reaction to my last name: “Ciccone, like Madonna!” They know that Ciccone is Madonna’s last name, what they’re not buying, however, is the Madonna part.

“Carla, what is her real first name?” my friend Massimo asked me. “Madonna,” I said. He laughed and shook his hands the way Italians do when they want to say, “mamma mia! Whaddaya talkin’ about?!” without actually saying it.

While they wholly embrace Madonna as her stage name, it’s unthinkable blasphemy that Madonna’s real name is Madonna. In Italy, that name is reserved for the one and only Holy Virgin Mother of God.

“It has to be Maria, Mary, Marie,” said Massimo, and after a trip to the World Wide Web proved him wrong—as she is indeed Madonna Louise Ciccone—he was left shaking his head.

Madonna had offended him. Not with her singing or stage humping or cross burning or boob flashing, but with her name.

Etched on her birth certificate, the seven letters that make up her bold first name contain within them an inherent contradiction. It represents the antithesis of what she is. If faced with the choice of being the Madonna or the whore, Madonna is the whore every time, and proud of it.

I don’t have to tell you about the impact Madonna’s had on music and culture. She ushered in the seminal music video era of the early 80s with so much sass that she transcended the corniness of the decade and transformed a generation of tween and teen girls (and boys) into lace sporting, multiple cross wearing, messy haired, gum chewing, cheeky little queens.

She was a fearless, fun, envelope pushing badass who challenged the norms of her Midwestern, motor city Catholic upbringing with so much gumption that, though many people were put off by her, they still believed her.

I remember my grandfather smiling down at me in the basement of his house in Toronto as he held up a poster of Madonna in 1987. He told me that we had the same last name as her and were from the same part of Italy, and I was in awe of the beautiful blonde woman with the dark eyebrows, red lips and mean face who, thrillingly, could possibly (but probably not) be my fifth cousin.

The video for 1989’s “Like A Prayer” featured a mélange of scandalous taboos at the time: interracial making out in a church, bumping and grinding, also in a church, and cleavage bouncing in front of burning crosses next to… a church! So it was perfect for a bunch of 7-year-old Catholic school girls to imitate at school.

My friends and I did so over recess one day, happily dancing and acting out the words of the song on a grassy hill. Life is a mystery… Watching us from her pious corner was the hawk-eyed relic of our Catholic elementary school, my second grade home room teacher, Mrs. Van Kant. Everyone must stand alone…

Van Kant somehow found out that Madonna the hussy’s last name was also my own, and pulled me aside before class. “You have the same last name as Madonna,” she said, her stale coffee breath assaulting my nose as she hiss-whispered through her teeth. “She is defiling the church. You better pray for her soul.”

Mrs. Van Kant was terrifying. All tightly wound white curls and high-collared, starched blouses, she constantly rapped a long, yellow pencil against the palm of her hand while patrolling our desks. She’d whack kids on the head with it for chewing gum, looking sleepy, or not praying loud enough. Madonna would’ve despised her.

Had I been 12 at the time, I would’ve been like “screw you, you tight ass bitch and hell yes Madonna CICCONE!” but I was not 12. I was 7. I was scared to death of teachers, hell and the devil and wanted nothing more than to be a good Catholic girl. Madonna was really messing with my elementary school God game, so after praying for her, I viewed her with severe side-eyed skepticism and hated her very much for three years. Until, that is, she became Mae Mordabito.

“A League of their Own” was the zenith of Madonna’s film career. The 1992 movie had a talented ensemble cast and was about women stepping in to play big league baseball for the masses while the men were off killing Nazis during World War II. They faced ridicule and sexism, they had to play in skirts, and they kicked ass.

Not unlike Madonna herself, #5 Mae Mordabito was lippy, feisty, and wicked. At one point, she poisons her team’s female chaperon Mrs. Cuthburt so the girls can sneak out to go swing dancing. More than anything, Madonna, and the rest of the Rockford Peaches (Geena Davis, fist pump!) made awkward prepubescent girls like me want to be sporty and play baseball, which I did, for a little while.

My musical tastes have always run more rock ‘n roll gypsy than pop princess, and I’d be the first to agree if you told me that Madonna’s songs, voice, words, face, performances, antics, or life choices have offended you, but love her, hate her, hate to love her, or love to hate her, Madonna has been the pinnacle of female pop stardom for the better part of the past 30 years. She’s sold over 300 million albums, which makes her the world’s top selling female recording artist.

Two years ago, I took an Alitalia flight from Rome to Sicily. I gave them my passport, and upon seeing my name, the attendant looked at me and smiled wide. She then called a coworker and said, in Italian, “I have Madonna’s niece at my desk!” They bumped me to first class and didn’t charge me for my extra heavy bag. I didn’t correct them. Madonna wouldn’t have wanted me to.

She’s been condemned and rewarded in grand fashion throughout her career, and in much more insignificant ways, I too, have been condemned and rewarded for my name-association.

As she turns 54, my wish for Madonna is to keep on living unapologetically, to keep on pushing (which she will, because she’s Madonna).

Fairground stripper, beret wearing rapper, new-age yogi, whatever’s next for Madonna, it’ll be provocative, because Madonna Ciccone was born to be a controversial anomaly fighting against the majority. I haven’t always liked or agreed with her, but I have always admired her.

She might have the name of a saint, but she’s got the balls of a lion.

21st Century Bad Boys (& Girls)

Lets take a minute to talk about bad boys, shall we?

How do you define a bad boy? He might cheat on you, he might make false promises, he might break plans regularly with lame excuses or none at all, he probably dates multiple women at once because he can. He is often scared of relationships and so seeks out meaningless encounters with easy women. He is tall, dark and handsome – or not. He probably smells nice and likes leather -or not. He’s cocky. He’s charming. Or not. He could just be the most unassuming, innocent seeming man out there. Are you picking up on a problem here?

The 1950s image of James Dean straddling a motorcycle, leather jacket unzipped and cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a face that says “I don’t give a damn, but I’m a damn good kisser,” no longer defines the bad boy. Parts of him, sure, but the game has changed since then.

The bad boy has grown up, or, more accurately, mutated into various species of men. This poses a problem because most of the time you can’t even recognise the badness until you get involved with him, and then it’s almost always too late.

Since this is a blog about my life in Italy, I admit that I haven’t done much dating in Rome. I hate dating. I hate it even more in a foreign country where the rules are a little different and I am even more clueless than I am normally.

This isn’t to say that I wont date, I just don’t seek it out.

Anyway, in my own experiences with Italian men, and in hearing the dating stories of my Roman and American friends here, I have to say that the bad boy is very much alive and well in Italy. He smells good, he looks good, his shoes are nicer than yours and he will probably either cheat on you or cheat on his girlfriend with you.

Cheating is common here.

Not that cheating doesn’t happen everywhere, but it seems to be a bit more out in the open, and maybe even a bit more socially accepted, in Rome. When cheaters (and to be fair – they’re not only men) hit on their accomplices here, they often do so by alluding to the fact that they have a girlfriend right away. They try to justify the cheating by being honest about it upfront. It’s an interesting angle.

“Bella, yes I have a girlfriend, but she’s not here. Right now, it’s just you and me”

Can’t blame a guy for trying, right? They do it with such charm and conviction that it’s not as easy as you would think to scoff in their faces and walk away.

The Italian lover with his sexy accent, Roman god-like face and smooth moves is your stereotypical latin bad boy type – but as I said before, they’re not all so obvious. In fact my friend Chris – a smooth talking, guitar playing ladies man in his own right – recently divulged to me that almost every man is “bad” until they meet the girl they’re willing to be good for. And even then, he says, the good usually doesn’t last forever.

Now I’d like to believe that this is bullshit. Call me Disney, but if experience and Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Paulo Coelho novels have taught me anything it’s that love is a world unoccupied by reason or science or bad boy theories. Love just is. It’s a lawless battlefield – and we can’t really place blame when things go wrong in love, because we enter into it knowing that there are no guarantees.

I have been bad in the past. I’ve unintentionally hurt people in love and I don’t feel good about it – but I think most of us have been on both sides of heartbreak.

We couple up, we ride waves together, we fall off, we get back up, we paddle out alone and look for another set to come in. We all try to find that person we can ride with, and even when we find them, part of the thrill is knowing that the wave won’t last forever.

I don’t know why I just used a surfing metaphor there, but it gets the point across.

I started this post wanting to give bad boys a piece of my mind, but I ended up changing my mind along the way. No one’s really bad unless we let them be. We can only control how we react to what happens to us.

Sometimes when I walk around Rome, I could swear that I feel the mighty pulse of the ancient Eternal City protecting and feeding my soul – but I know enough to know that even all the power of Rome can’t protect my heart. Nothing can protect the heart. And when you start trying to protect it, you miss out on life. That’s the beauty and the calamity of love.

Having said that, there are some men and women that are just bad. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of getting involved with more than one of them in my years on the dating market. It’s not fun.

These types should really come with doctor’s warnings à la cigarette packages. “Warning: this man is emotionally unavailable, makes false promises and snores.” “Warning: this girl is manipulative, controlling and yells a lot.” Or something along those lines.

In the end, aren’t bad boys and girls just missing out on love? Maybe we should all feel sorry for them and their unused, little, shriveled up black hearts.

Teen Yoga, Italian Style

“Teach us Yoga, Carrrlaaaa,” yelled Leone, doing his best hands-on-knees Buddha impression.

After being schooled by these kids in an impromptu soccer game the day before, I was determined to redeem some sports-cred by showing them an activity I was actually sort of good at.

“Ommm,” chanted Javier, the best soccer player of the bunch. The 11 kids giggled as they performed imagined yoga moves for each other, which looked like dramatic tai chi.

Since they were all there to learn English at summer camp, and every interaction they had with me was an opportunity to do so, I demonstrated all of the poses we would be doing, while explaining in English. They seemed to follow along quite well.

“Alright follow me. This is a sun salutation,” I said, leading them through it. We end in downward dog.

“Now, lift your right leg to the sky!” I told them. Most of the kids looked great.

“Che cazzo!”(shit) groaned Leone, smirking at me through the curls of brown hair that fell around his eyes. His body struggled to balance the weight of itself on his little arms and leg, as his other leg hovered behind him, shaking.

“Watch your mouth, Leone. Ok, put your right leg down and raise the left one!” I said.

“Noooo,” he said, making his friends giggle.

After a few more sun salutations, a girl named Sara to Leone’s right looked up at me, exasperated.

“Carla, I’m dying. Is this yoga or Chinese torturing?” she said.

“That was good, Sara, but you say Chinese torture, not torturing,” I corrected her. “And no, it’s not torture, it’s yoga and it’s fun. Remember to breathe!”

I demonstrated Warrior One pose to the class. After five breaths, we went into another sun salutation.

“Nooo!” said Sara.

“Just one more and then we will sit down, ” I assured them.

In the middle of her final Cobra, Sara flopped out of the pose and onto her belly. Her friend Linda followed suit, and they exchanged looks of desperation.

“Girls, are you ok?” I asked.

“No, Carla, no!” they groaned.

“Ok, you can go to the pool if you want to,” I said. Yoga strictness isn’t my strong suit, apparently.

“GRAZIE! Thank you!” said Sara, as they gathered their towels and ran towards the pool.

The friends they left behind were looking at me with defeated exhaustion, so I waved my hand at them.

“You can go too, if you want,” I said. They did.

Left in my dwindling poolside yoga class were: Leone, Javier and a sweet girl named Camilla.

The next pose I demonstrated for them was crane pose. As I squatted and slowly leaned forward until my knees were resting on my forearms and the rest of my body was elevated behind me, Leone let out a whimper.

“Don’t worry, you can do this!” I told him. It’s not an overly difficult pose, but it requires concentration, balance and strength.

Camilla gracefully went into crane pose for a few seconds, fell out, and easily got back into it. Javier made a few attempts before getting it, frustrated that Camilla, who he totally had a crush on, was more yogically astute than him. Leone, bless his heart, couldn’t stay in crane pose for more than half a second, but despite his many dramatic falls, he kept trying.

When he finally held the pose, I could hear mutterings of “cazzo,” “che palle,” and “merda” coming from his direction, and I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing.

“This is boat pose!” I said to them, as I got into the seated posture that sees your body form a V position, with legs up and arms parallel to the ground. Getting into this one was easy for them, but remaining there was a different story.

“Good job guys, remember to breath, ok?” I said. The kids were all shaking like leaves and looked like they were about to hit the deck.

As he struggled to maintain his balance in boat pose, which eventually makes your abs burn alla inferno, Leone snuck out a short, nearly breathless: “mortacci tua!” (“death to you!”)

The three kids collapsed to the ground in a fit of hysterical laughter. I couldn’t help but laugh along with them.

“It’s harder than you thought right?” I said to blank stares. “É difficile, no?”

“Si! Yes, yes!!” they exclaimed with the kind of enthusiasm Italians normally reserve for food and soccer. I told them they did great and could join their friends in the pool if they wanted to.

I glanced at the pool a few minutes after our class ended, and saw Camilla and Javier doing tree pose in the shallow end.

“Bravi!!!” I shouted, beaming with pride at my little Italian yogis.

“Look my yoga, Carla,” Leone yelled at me, barreling towards the pool before executing a perfect cannonball.

As water splashed my face, and I shook my head like a teacher should, I couldn’t help but commend him on his impeccable form.

Yoga. Harder than it looks.