When I was 21 I studied abroad in Rome for three months as part of my university’s Italian language studies program. Because I was studying Italian language and culture, I was assigned to live with a host family (instead of in campus housing), which in my case meant a cantankerous little old lady named Paola who spoke almost no English… which would have been fine (I was there to learn Italian, after all!), except that Paola thought she was SUPER FANTASTIC at speaking English, which usually meant that all of our conversations ended in her screaming at me (in Italian) that I didn’t understand anything.
But Paola is a story for another time. This is about my fat.
When I first arrived at Termini train station, I met up with the rest of my cohort and, one-by-one, we were picked up by our families. When Paola laid eyes on me, she smiled big (or was it a grimace? I can hardly remember) and said “Ciao Margitte! Come stai?” (hello, how are you?) and then immediately said about five other things that were well above my Italian 101 knowledge. She helped me cram my (laughably oversized) bags into her teensy car, and we zipped off to her apartment in San Giovanni. After a traumatizing experience with her elevator (it wouldn’t fit the two of us with my luggage), she showed me to my room and I took a nap.
I awoke three hours later to the smell of delicious Italian cooking. Paola excitedly ushered me into her itsy-bitsy kitchen and sat me on a rickety chair in front of my dinner.
Which consisted of three plates of food.
THREE plates of food.
Now I had learned that it was customary in Italy to eat a lot of food at dinner, but Paola herself only had one plate. Not wanting to be rude, I smiled, said “Grazie,” and proceeded to try and eat as much of the food as possible. At a plate and a half in, I just couldn’t eat anymore. “Mi dispiace, ma non ho fame.” My Italian was pretty shaky, but I basically said that I was sorry but I wasn’t hungry.
“Mangia!” (eat!), she insisted. But I couldn’t, and Paola was shocked.
“Ma… come mai sei cosi grassata*?”
“Grassata” was not yet in my vocabulary, so I couldn’t answer. She just kept asking, over and over, “but how come you are so….?”, growing increasingly aggravated with my puzzled looks.
Then came the hand motions. “GRASSATA!!!” She exclaimed, making a curvy shape with her hands while giving herself a double-chin and sucking in air to make her face look bloated. She then grabbed her chunk of her belly. “Grassata!”
I finally realized what she was asking, but went to get my dictionary just in case I was imagining things. Horrified, I found out that I was right—she really had decided that asking me why I was fat was an appropriate topic of conversation (*the actual Italian word for fat is “grassa”… “grassata” literally means “greased” but is often used to describe fat people, from what I understand). I shrugged and said “Non lo so” (I don’t know) and tried to leave it at that.
Over the next few days, Paola badgered me about why I was so fat, growing more and more frustrated when she realized I didn’t eat a whole lot and that I was fairly active.
One night during that first week, I had a friend (who just so happened to be vacationing in Rome at the time) over for dinner. This time, Paola decided to ask Lauren why I was so fat. Was I lying about my eating habits? Did I really exercise? Lauren and I were, I think, equally horrified at this line of questioning. Then Lauren had the bright idea to take out the dictionary and look for the word “thyroid”.
“Tiroide!” I exclaimed, pointing to it in the dictionary.
Amazingly and suddenly, Paola was satisfied. All was right in the world, because it finally made sense to her WHY my fat body was so fat—because I had a bad thyroid. (In later years I would come to find out that I did not actually have said problem with my thyroid, but that is also another story.)