My Mother, un’Americana a Roma

Things are not improving at the rate we were hoping, and I feel a deep need to connect with my “affetti”, my affections, as we say “loved ones” in Italian, so I came to visit my mother in Sicily. We started talking about our family stories, about the combination of Italian and American that makes us who we are. My friend Betsy, an American who, like my mom, came to Italy as a young woman for love, had asked me to interview her about her first years in Italy, and so my mom and I wrote our conversations down and would like to share them with you. Grazie dear Betsy, it was a wonderful experience for us, and it allowed us and my brother Giorgio, who participated from New York, to feel closer in these hard times.

My mother Margaret is a New Yorker of German descent. She met my Italian father Giuseppe in college and they were married in 1957. She studied English in college like me and worked at the New York Times. My parents moved to Rome in 1961. When my father retired in the late 1990s, my parents moved to Sicily, Giorgio moved to New York, and I started working as a tour guide. My dad passed away two years ago and now the three of us do our best to stay close. When I think of what it must have meant for my mother to move to Rome 60 years ago, I have to remind myself that in those days there was no internet, no cheap phone plans, no reasonable flight fares, no large communities of foreign students. Moving to the other side of the world back then seems infinitely harder than it would be today, even if living away from one’s affetti is always difficult.

If our personal experiences strike a chord in you, please write to me with your comments and your own stories and perhaps we can discuss it in a future post: francescainroma@gmail.com

Una Conversazione con mia Mamma – A Conversation with my Mom

Francesca: Mom, as we all know, there is a persistent mythological aura around moving to Italy. I like to think that there is some substance to that, but I also imagine it must have been quite difficult in reality. What obstacles did you encounter on first arriving?

Margaret: My first problem in coming to live in Italy was my total ignorance of the language. Never loquacious, I was inhibited by fear of appearing ridiculous. Unwittingly, I had fallen into the “Bella Figura” syndrome, an Italian obsession with making a good impression. I needn’t have worried because Italians are kind and indulgent with those who make an effort to tackle the language. However, to this day, I am constantly reminded of my accent. Sometimes I think that even if I were to express myself in “terza rima” verse like Dante, I still would never hear the end of it: “Signora, ma lei non e’ italiana, da dove viene?”- “Ms, you are not Italian, are you? Where are you from?”

I spent the first month at Rome’s only English bookshop, The Lion Bookshop, run by two Englishwomen, where I acquired an enormous number of detective novels in an attempt to evade the issue. I finally broke down and made an effort to read and translate the captions of photographs in illustrated Italian magazines and gradually newspaper and magazine articles. Being visually minded, I couldn’t learn much by listening, although television was a help. Living in Italy was not as easy as I had hoped. Clearly, I needed a mediator.

Fortunately, I came across the American Women’s Club in Rome, an association beyond praise. As a New Yorker with a snooty attitude towards those from west of the Hudson River, I met women from all over the U.S. and other countries whom I learned to appreciate for their outgoing friendliness, desire to learn and to contribute to their host country with community service projects. At our monthly luncheons I made friends with these delightful women and I hope I became a better American as a result.

It wasn’t always easy to participate in Italian charities, but there were other possibilities, other foreign residents. For example, we contacted a refugee home where women from Eastern Europe who had lost everything through war and revolution were marooned, and, although well-cared for, they craved social contact. Through visits, strangers in a strange land were able to reach out to one another with words of comfort and encouragement.

Through the Club, Italian women gave cooking lessons in their kitchens. In the early 1960s, supermarkets were far on the horizon in Italy, and American staples hard to come by, so it was urgent to learn to deal with unrecognizable cuts of meat at the local butcher’s and cook in the Italian way. We did try to celebrate Thanksgiving in Rome but it required advanced planning and creativity. We were eventually able to get turkeys, but cranberry sauce proved an insoluble problem for many years. Excessively sweet currant jelly was no substitute for the tart cranberry sauce I made from scratch with my grandmother in New York.

Francesca: I still remember our first taste of the real thing and smile every time I see jars of cranberry sauce in specialty grocery stores here today!

What was it like to raise children in a foreign country and what did it mean to transmit your cultural identity to them?

Margaret: My ups and downs in adjusting to life in Rome were relatively unimportant because as an adult I could muddle through somehow. But was this a way to bring up children? When Giorgio came along in 1968 and you, Francesca, two years later, I had to do some serious thinking. One problem was language: should I try to speak to you in Italian so that you would be like other children or give you a head start in English? An American friend told me that my level of Italian was not going to be of much use to you and, more fundamentally, it is vital for a mother to create a strong bond with her children through speaking her native language to them. She convinced me and we started our wonderful English language adventure which is still under way. The next step was nursery school. When I heard of an international school conducted in English, I jumped at the chance and continued with a similar elementary school where Italian was also taught. Those were halcyon days, free of academic stress.

The stress was in the outside world. The 1970s were a time of troubles for Italy as domestic terrorism dominated the scene with a long series of attacks, culminating with the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro, secretary of the Christian Democrat Party and leading political figure. The discovery of a terrorist base in a building only a few doors away from the school, brought home to us the realization that there was no safe haven and that all of us were vulnerable. My Giorgio lived through those days with an extraordinarily intense feeling of participation which has never left him. A heavy burden for a ten-year old.

After elementary school, we had to decide whether to continue in the Anglo-Saxon system or opt for an Italian school. This was the occasion for anguished soul-searching which was resolved for me with the advice of another friend, an Italian this time, who urged me not to raise my children to be foreigners in their own country. She said that it was essential for Italian children living in Italy to have the experience of Italian schooling and Italian classmates, important in later life. It should be noted here that many Italians prefer living in the same place all their lives and working in a “posto fisso”, a permanent job that enables them to remain close to their families and friends of a lifetime. This aspiration has been largely jeopardized by the precarious condition of contemporary life.

The transition from the easy-going Anglo-Saxon system to the rigid Italian one was tough and caused my children considerable suffering. They came from a school that stressed the development of a child’s intellectual faculties and capacity to respond to environmental stimuli and entered one that emphasized mastery of the academic program and memorization. Both systems have much to recommend them and I hope that my children have benefited from a combination of both.  What do you think, Francesca?

Francesca: I completely agree and think it was worth all the trauma. Giorgio and I are both grateful to you.

Margaret: The importance of knowing English really well was not so evident at that time but the fact that my kids had a solid foundation in a language that cannot be learned from textbooks alone but must be lived with, has opened up a whole world of experience and even a livelihood. I feel you have capitalized on your proficiency in English, Franz, whereas Giorgio, who lives in New York, has stressed his Italian side.

Francesca: That is true, grazie mamma! I also love that you taught us colloquialisms from your time in the States. I will never give up expressions such as nincompoop, mad as a hornet, slow as molasses, lounge lizard, the cat’s pyjamas, etc.! You used to wake us up by whistling Reveille and singing Zippity Doo Dah to cheer us up (we hated it but that did not deter you from trying to start our day with enthusiasm!), April Showers with a comic voice when we waited for the school bus in the rain, and also read Italian children’s classics to us at bedtime with your delightful American accent we still love to imitate when we joke with you.  

I don’t feel this interview would be complete without mentioning Italian food, what did you think when you first came here?

Margaret: Your dad and I greatly enjoyed eating in restaurants where genuine, fresh ingredients could be taken for granted.  The friendly atmosphere with the servers and owners coming to chat at the end of a meal, made dining out seem like an invitation to a private home. True, there was a certain monotony since foreign cuisine had not yet arrived, but the variety of regional cooking somewhat made up for it. A landmark in those days, was Cesarina’s Bolognese restaurant that no longer exists. Cesarina herself ran it like a barracks, with single-minded dedication and served indescribably delicious meals of an unusual standard and uniform quality. There were no off-days at Cesarina’s!

Francesca: We continued this tradition as a family on weekends and special occasions. We are often asked if we are related to Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. Alas, we are not but my dad, Giuseppe, known to one and all as Pippo, never entirely let go of his dreams of becoming an opera singer. Giorgio and I have very vivid memories of Sunday dinners at favorite restaurants where we were doted on as bambini – little kids. We were especially fond of the guitar players who came by the table. In those days they were marvelous elderly Romans and Neapolitans with an incredible command of classic Italian melodies. My dad would stand up, one arm outstretched in front of him and the other with his hand over his heart and burst into song. Giorgio and I wanted to slide undetected under the table when he held the last note of O Sole Mio until his face turned crimson, but then the whole restaurant would cheer and applaud, and we felt a little burst of love and pride.

Margaret: Today, chefs festooned with stars turn out often improbable concoctions with an almost religious solemnity. Somehow the pleasure of enjoying good food in more spontaneous, informal conviviality seems harder to come by.

Francesca: That may be true, mom, but you often told me about how formal the Italians could be at the dinner table and how a few things were entirely new to you and seemed slightly absurd.

Margaret: Yes, sometimes there were pitfalls for the unwary foreigner; restaurants often served bowls of fresh fruit for dessert. Something told me to avoid the banana, and a good thing I did because the person who chose it proceeded to cut off both ends with a knife and fork and, with surgical precision, remove the peel. There was also a special ritual for cooked prunes. The prune was anchored onto the fruit plate with a fork and the stone deftly extracted with a dessert spoon. I side-stepped the whole fruit issue by ordering a sweet. I was not so lucky when I ordered spaghetti with highly prized vongole veraci, delicious clams with two projections, like antennae, which I thought were inedible and cut off with a knife and fork while the incredulous servers were doubled over with laughter.

Francesca: I feel for the sake of fairness that I should also mention that dad walked into the first McDonald’s to open in Rome in the 1980s with his wonderful memories of diners in New York, and asked for “a cheese burger, medium rare”, so it works both ways! The banana and clam episodes are among our favorite family stories and helped Giorgio and me imagine you as a young American in Rome before we came along. You have also helped me understand and empathize with foreign travelers as they experience Italian art in person for the first time, and this has been fundamental in my guide work.

Margaret: One of the great joys of those first times in Rome was seeing in reality the monuments and works of art I had seen previously in slide-lectures at college. The American Women’s Club’s tour guide was an elderly Roman lady whose earlier life had been shattered under Fascism, but who still stood firm in her pride in her heritage and conviction that through attentive viewing and contemplation, the works of Italian civilization could belong to us as well and give us strength. 

Francesca: I find this so moving and a wonderful example of the vibrancy with which Italians experience life.

Margaret: In the 1950s, the sociologist David Riesman, co-author of The Lonely Crowd, commented on the fact that Europeans have a more intense and vivid response to life. I have witnessed this in the Italians. The present moment, the intersection of time and eternity, with its potential for the whole range of experience, not only joy but also sorrow and grief, are not denied, and accepted as part of the human condition with natural spontaneity. This attitude seems to me to be the product of an ancient civilization which oscillated from the unmatched splendor of ancient times to subsequent decline, brilliant rebirth during the Renaissance, swept away by foreign armies, centuries-long occupation and impoverishment, to hard-won independence in the 19th century.  Throughout their varied history the Italians have had to develop a capacity to find ingenious solutions in adverse circumstances; this has equipped them to deal with the present crisis as well. Furthermore, their strong sense of community and care for its more fragile members, has become an interesting part of the story of my life in Italy. I now look forward to yet another Renaissance for Italy and the rest of the world.

Francesca: I agree with you! I realize how fortunate I am to be able to experience my mixed heritage from the inside and the outside and how important that is in my life and my work. Grazie mamma for being such an invaluable influence, for taking me to museums as a child, encouraging me to read good books, and for giving Giorgio and me the gift of your cultural identity, your language and your fascination with the world around us, past and  present.  

Next time, a bit of Escapism with Roman Art!