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Italy: A Squeaky Clean Country

The Italian obsession for cleanliness as seen by foreigners

With its sheer number and variety of cleaning products, Italy looks to my American eyes, like one of the countries most preoccupied with domestic cleanliness. But aside from the vast offering of brands and specialty products their names are what's truly funny

I have never been a particularly enthusiastic housekeeper. I remember being in my 20’s, when an annual salary of $25,000 was extravagantly liberating and a friend of mine declared that at 25K she could now afford a housekeeper and hired one on the spot. I followed suit and can’t remember when I last touched a vacuum cleaner. Having had a full time job since my early 20’s, it’s always seemed to me that life is too short for housecleaning. I also have an aversion to any tool on the end of a long handle. That rules out brooms, vacuums, shovels, dusters, hoes and scythes. I will however, dig for hours in the garden with a trowel, periodically scrub vigorously with a sponge or rag, and use a dustpan and brush to clean up a broken glass. But I digress…

Women in Italy are fastidiously neat and keep their houses spotless. It’s part of the whole bella figura thing and it’s enviable. Even my working-mother Italian friends who live in the country have pristine houses where are no visible signs of dust, mud clots, or streaky windows. We once dropped in on my gorgeous friend Rosalba, who owns a hand-painted ceramics shop in a nearby village and has a lively 6-year old. She was in the middle of her Sunday housekeeping and seemed mortified that we’d caught her in the midst of such a “mess,” though the house looked perfect and she of course, broom in hand, looked like a million bucks in tight jeans, leather sandals, flawless makeup and her mane of raven hair cascading down her back.

The enthusiastic names of Italian cleaning products (and their surreal translations) would lead women to believe that scrubbing and polishing everything in sight to within an inch of its life can be immensely satisfying and fun. For this reason, I love browsing the aisles of Italian supermarkets just to check out engaging products and get some new ideas on vanquishing stubborn stains. There are even several chain stores devoted solely to cleaning products. Aqua Sapone (Water and Soap) has a jaunty jingle I often hear on the radio and again in the store itself, advertising the day’s specials. A vast store called Tigota with a huge parking lot recently opened near our house. From its name we had no idea what it might be selling– Korean food? Garden supplies? Toys? Pets? No, cleaning products, both personal and for the home, garden, car, stable, etc. in an expansive, pristine store with music playing and colorful displays.

The names of Italian cleaning products seem to fall into three categories. Many products have wholesome, companionable names and could be your best friends, ever ready to go out and party as soon as the work is done– Ava, Dasty, Svelto, Dolly, Foxy, Fairy, Lucy, Nelsen, Mr. Muscle and Mr. Magic (I Piccolo Magie**Grande Soluzioni!– a little magic**big solutions!). And I really look forward to hanging out with Cuki (pronounced Kooky) freezer bags, and delving into a mystery game with Superclue soap, while enjoying the Sole (sun–dish detergent) by Rio Casamia (the river at my house– laundry soap). But the person I really want to know is Diavolina. Translates as Little She-Devil, Diavolina is a block of solid gasoline– you can break off a hunk and use it to start fires in the stufa or camino. But just look at her on the logo– how much fun would it be trotting over rooftops with her in those little pointy shoes and hat, with a ladder and a fuse on her back! Go, Diavolina!!

Some imply better living through science– Dexal Crema Igienizzante, Dixan Multi-Color, Viakal, Pril. And if you insist your home bathroom be as clean as a hospital operating room, there’s a spray you can buy at Tigota called “Disinfettante presidio medico chirurgico”– medical surgical defense disinfectant.

My favorite category is that which lets us conjure our inner Woman Warrior in the fight against dirt. Our superheroes are SMAC, Bravo, Ace, Cif (pronounced chief), Vim, Bang, Pronto, Vanish, Drago! Smacchiatore Multiuso OX2, merely means multiuse stain remover, but the Italian pronunciation, (SMACK-ee-a-tor-ay) makes that Smack! sound to American ears much more decidedly aggressive and effective. Abbattiodori sounds a bit gentler, but translates as “shoot down odors!”

There are specialized and specific products to conquer the most obscure forms of dirt. You can buy separate products to clean copper, glass, brass, wood, stoves, faucets, toilets, mirrors, grease, plumbing, and of course the obvious ones– dishes, dishwashers and laundry. Italy being the country of precision stonecutters and quarries, there are dozens of products to clean, wax and shine different kinds of pavimenti, or floor tiles: marble, granite, stone, terrazzo, glazed ceramic, unglazed ceramic, brick… But then there are more generalized products that knock out entire classes of dirt in one decisive stroke, like Asciuga Tutto (Dry Everything) papertowels, and Mangia Polvere (Eat Dust) anti-static dust spray.

It’s what’s lost in translation for us stranieri (foreigners) that makes all this so entertaining. Two labor saving devices that weren’t invented in Italy have wonderful, evocative names in Italian. The vacuum cleaner is aspira polvere, or breathe dust. The dishwasher is the lavapiatti, or wash plates. And this I am copying directly from the packaging I’ve saved for years, because you can’t make this up. The label for Vileda rubber gloves claims to be “il guanto piu’amato dagli italiani*” — the glove most beloved of the Italians. Take it from the experts — and have what they’re having.

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