Growing up in East Lansdowne, several of my grandfather’s male neighbors (on Melrose Avenue, near the school) were Italians from the old country with very thick accents. They would talk with my grandfather while tending their adjoining gardens in a vacant field behind their houses. The Italian men would frequently lean to the side, hold one nostril closed, and blow a string of snot onto the ground from the other. I was thrilled. I was about 10-years-old and thought this was the best skill I had ever seen, much better than anything in the circus. I tried it myself, but only messed up my face and clothes. What was I doing wrong? I was not part of the conversations, so I never asked. (I remember one neighbor whose speech was full of profanities, turned to me and said, “Close your ears, boy.”)
Recently, I told this story to a Longwood Gardens staff member whose parents were Italian. She was repulsed by the whole idea and assured me her father would never do such a thing.
The gardener in charge of the House has an Italian surname. The next time I see her, I will ask her what she knows about it.
But maybe I don’t have to. Days later, while volunteering at the House at Longwood Gardens, I mentioned the story to a family group of a mother, father, and two pretty, blond teenaged daughters. (I don’t remember, and can’t imagine, how the subject came up.) The mother said they were a farm family, and that was a common custom on a farm. She sometimes did it, herself. The girls chimed in that they often did it while hiking, that it was much preferable to carrying around a germy, damp handkerchief. They would have told me more, but their mother pulled them away. It seemed to be a subject not usually discussed with strangers.
So, it is a rural custom. I would have asked the girls to demonstrate on the flowerbeds, or at least tell me what I was doing wrong, but I now know it is a common practice everywhere and not just a custom of my grandfather’s old Italian neighbors.
If you know more, please tell me. It seems like a handy skill worth learning. (Oops, watch your shoes!)