The story is real, but the names are fictionalized, for the sake of the mom's expecting belly.
It's Thursday night on San Francisco's Mission Street, near the corner with 24th. The neighborhood is lively as usual. Melissa, pregnant, is standing on the sidewalk with her husband. They are waiting for their good friend Tom to join them.
The party is in front of Mr. Pollo restaurant (by the way, in case you don't know it, it's really worth a try. Just three tables, completely informal, but every little bite is gorgeous. And Chris, one of the two owners, will spend some time talking to you, telling his stories and explaining his perfect dishes).
Finally Tom comes, a bit late. They haven't seen each other for a while. As soon as he gets close to Melissa he bends slightly, his hand reaches for the belly and says: "Hi, my little belly!"
The touch is extremely polite. Tom is gay: there shouldn't be any secret drives involved. Nevertheless: "Oh, I'm sorry," he hurries to concede, "I didn't want to be inappropriate."
"Inappropriate" is pretty common here, and pregnancy inappropriateness is frequently debated in American media (check a 2008 Fashion&Style column of the New York Times). But this concept somehow puzzles the laid-back Italian mind. Why should this innocent gesture violate an impassable boundary? Aren't people all brothers (haha)? Or is it something that comes down to sex?
In Italy you hardly hear of syndromes like haphephobia, "the fear of being touched," as defined by English dictionaries. Accordingly, a comparative Google search of touch my belly and the Italian version toccare la pancia, gives curious results--though expected. While the English version is full of "Don't touch my belly!" and "Hands off my belly," the Italian search has only a few similar pages, but soon the subject turns to: "My husband doesn't want to touch my belly," or: "I'm trying to involve my partner by having him to touch my belly."
At the Department of Italian Studies of U.C. Berkeley, they have some opinions about this inter-cultural difference in social touching. A Ph.D. candidate, Rebecca R. Falkoff brought up her experience with an Italian colleague: "I love it when Italian women hold my hand when I'm talking to them. An Italian Ph.D. student in the department does that. It's so sweet. It can also be awkward, though, because I don't know how the hand-holding ends, or how much grip to put into it... It has all the complexity of a handshake, but it doesn't end!"
Another Ph.D. there, Chris Atwood, thinks that "while Italians are less huggers than Americans, they surely are more kissers than we are." And a third one, an American with Italian roots, didn't hesitate to declare: "I find social touching simply disgusting."
This maybe confirms a more rooted formality in American social interactions. But at a recent reception of the same U.C. Berkeley Italian Department, a pregnant woman sitting on a chair was greeted by a simple acquaintance who did no less than kneel and kiss her on the belly.
Sure enough, that was more of an Italian-style touch (of an American belly).
But don't take it as a good example. You might get yourself in trouble.