Penguin Dress Code

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My great-uncle E. Hideousheart was the brother of my grandfather, who died very young in the early 50s, therefore I’ve never met him. For this reason, and because he brought up my dad when his mother had moved north to work as a cleaning lady for a rich family of Jew furriers, he represented the closest thing to a grandfather figure I could think of.

His second wife was a real Tuscany woman. A bit grim, frank and touchy. I admired her strength and independence.

I’ve been  a story about when this little woman approached some bricklayers who were working at a building on a boulevard in the center of Florence and asked them how much the house was being sold, and started negotiating the price. It eventually became their house they lived in for many decades, until they died.

She even disinherited her stepson, like Sting.

Tuscans make great comedians, but don’t dare teasing them, or trying to be funny. They have no sense of humour when the joke comes from someone else. Their attitude was already renown in 1765 when Tobias Smollett wrote this in its epistolary account of his Grand Tour:

There is a considerable number of fashionable people at Florence, and many of them in good circumstances. They affect a gaiety in their dress, equipage, and conversation; but stand very much on their punctilio with strangers; and will not, without great reluctance, admit into their assemblies any lady of another country, whose noblesse is not ascertained by a title. – Travels Through France and Italy, Tobias Smollett (1765)

My great-uncle and great-aunt used to spend their holidays in a town here on the coast, and we would visit and spend an afternoon with them. During one of these visits, they offer to buy me something: I was free to choose any toy I’d like. So we went shopping on the promenade and after much looking, I went for a cops and robbers set. There were a pistol and handcuffs and stuff like that. I can’t remember who said what, whether it was my father, my relatives or the shop assistant: anyway, it was pointed out to me it was a boy’s toy. “And so what?”, I asked. “I don’t like dolls”.

I think they would have bought it to me I had insisted. However, to avoid further discussion I settled for something non-committal: a structure where three-wheeled penguins went up an escalator and then rolled down on a slide. The penguins were a trio, so I said the red one was the mother, the blue one the father, and the black one, being black a gender neutral color, the son. My great-aunt suggested that the blue one was more likely to be a lady because she wore a nice blue evening dress. The black one was the guy in a suit, and the child was the one wearing red – it is appropriate for kids to wear a bright colour. She was a seamstress, so I had to assume she knew better.

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An up-to-date version of my penguin toy. Character colors have stayed the same.

Just to make things clear: I’ve never had any issues about my sexual identity. I find the thought of intimacy with another woman revolting. I was a tomboy, that’s all. I wanted to play boys’ games because they were more active, less boring, and because I was already smart enough to get the idea behind those games which merely consisted in mocking the adults. They put dolls in our tiny hands, so that we could learn how to do what was expected from us and forget those stupid dreams of pursuing a career. Then they would obsessively ask, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” just to test if the brainwashing had worked. It’s no surprise that I couldn’t reply to this question even on the eve of my enrolment at University.

Of course, I knew that at a more or less unconscious or half-conscious level. But I can distinctly remember watching another girl wiping the bottom of her baby doll in the kindergarten, and having a flash of a tedious future of a grown-up me feeding a baby who ate, peed, ate, peed in a loop the entire day for the rest of my life.

There is a never-ending debate if homosexuality is inborn or caused by external influence. I have an anecdote that is for me the evidence that children have their own taste and personality, they’re not blank canvas waiting to be morphed solely through imprinting.

When we moved to this town I went to a new crèche. As I walked inside, I saw a plump girl setting the table of a play kitchen. I unwillingly began staring at her. She became aware of me, and asked: “What are you looking at?”. I looked at the fake dish in her chubby hand and clarified I didn’t want to play. Was I playing cool because they were excluding me, the outsider? Did I convince myself that I wasn’t interested in it? I don’t think so. I was hurt at that moment, but at the same time I really didn’t want to join.

That girl became one of my best friends at nursery school, and I don’t recall playing kitchen even once through all my kindergarten years. I really didn’t like girly games, and if I only have happy memories of the kindergarten, maybe it’s also because I was spared the toy kitchen and didn’t have to spend  my first preschool day sipping from an empty cup like a dim-wit.

We played other games suggested by me, mostly roleplaying where we would impersonate male characters. Again: no gender identity issue. It was not my fault that eighties TV always put a man at the center of action and never have an interesting female protagonist. Japanese animes on the other end had female heroines, but they were all stolidly enduring bullyism and/or volley balls in their face, icons of the submissive woman who is willing to sacrifice in silence.

Today, I enjoy cooking and doing other womanly activities, like taking care of the house or shopping for shoes; even knitting. It just didn’t make sense to me to do them at that age. Why waste time in dull, repetitive work when you can still play creative games? I was supposed to do them for the years to come anyway!

My great-aunt used to say from time to time that she would leave all her jewels to me. When she died, I got nothing. I don’t care about her gold but why did she do it? Maybe at the last moment she decided they would be wasted on a tomboy like me? I remembered her with affection. It took me years to realize why my father never mentioned their name again after the two funerals. Now I see why they kept offering me to stay with them and go to the University of Florence. It was a trap, a subtle blackmailing: she would have given me her gold, on condition that I’d take care of them in their old age.

However, I have a picture of myself at the high school ball wearing a red gown. The girl beside me has a blue dress. We’re both undoubtably straight. And we don’t look anything like penguins.

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