Our First Year in Italy

Our First Year in Italy

Hello everyone! It’s a year ago today that me and Marituccio said goodbye to London and boarded a plane to Italy with 4 suitcases and a Christmas cactus.

Looking back on this time last year, I remember being so so so scared with this big decision to move to Italy. It was hard for me to figure out whether it was intuition that was trying to stop or just fear of jumping into the unknown. I didn’t have this same kind of terror when I had moved to Mexico City, London and Rome. Maybe because I was older? Maybe because there was nowhere else to go if this didn’t work out? It was so strong that I almost didn’t feel any excitement at all. I was numb. Continue reading “Our First Year in Italy”

Gatwick Airport, 25 November 2017, Moving back to Italy

Honestly, the first 6 months were difficult. Not for any of the usually bureaucratic difficulties of setting into life in Italy nor the  baggage that comes with trying to navigate a new country in a different language. It was more psychological than that.  I thought in the beginning that I was going to be punished for moving to Italy. I could hear all these voices from family members in the past who had always made me feel like I was too dumb or too young or too naive to realise how bad life in Italy really was. These voices of the past were always on my shoulder and I could feel them angry with me for trying to live here. Last Christmas I made Neapolitan rococo, using my Nonna’s recipe, and they came out bad with a terrible bitter taste. I thought I had messed up the recipe and overdid the spices. I felt like Nonna was trying to tell me that she was angry with me, for daring to make her cookies in Ischia, the place where life had been so difficult for her. (Later I found out that the flour I used for the cookies was rancid and had nothing to do with my grandmother being pissed off in the clouds.)

My batch of roccoco that came out disgusting (thanks to that bag of flour)

But once I realised that I was giving weight to voices that didn’t exist anymore and that it was futile to imagine how they would think and what they would say based on faded memories that were at least 20 years old, I felt better. Really, if they were still alive today and lived and had grown as people for another 20 years, they might have thought that I was really brave and awesome for doing this. In any case, I wasn’t living this new life here for them, continuing their own story, this was for me. My life. My story.

Things that I expected to happen that didn’t:

– Extreme culture shock moving from a major metropolis to a tiny island

I thought it would be a lot harder, I thought it would take a long time to get used to the slower pace of life and to not have so many things available to you 24 hours a day as is in a city, to not have so many events to go to, friends to see, places to walk to. I seemed to adjust to this part of life in Italy quite quickly. It’s amazing to be able to go for walks along the beach and into town, to see the sky full of stars, to breath clean air and not deal with the noise and traffic of city life. I also feel less anonymous here, people seem closer to life and more aware of life and death. There are processions and festivals to mark the holidays and saint days, announcements to mark births and funerals and people are always ready to talk to you in the shops and on the streets.

The garden waiting for the dinner party to start
Everything closed during the winter off season with no one in the streets

Hah! It’s true it gets quieter during the off season and quite a few restaurants and hotels close. But there are 70,000 full-time residents on the island and tourists still come here all year round. There are lots of events going on – concerts, book signings, talks, festivals and markets. And the neighbourhoods are lively.

Winter Lemons
– Feeling isolated and claustrophobic from living on an island

When I was preparing for the move, I would get scared thinking about how I was going to be on an island being surrounded by a very powerful sea. Even if you needed a break, you wouldn’t be able to just drive your car for an hour to go someplace new. But Ischia has 6 towns and isn’t as small as it seemed to me before I left. Each town has its own character and you can just go to another town for a walk or an icecream and it feels like a change in scene.

Spiaggia Cava dell’isola, Forio
– It would take a long time to make friends

It always takes a long time to develop friendships, especially when living in a community in a different country, and I was prepared to spend a lot of time alone. But I’ve found that it was pretty easy to become friends with my neighbours and landlords, to be invited to birthday parties and Sunday lunches, to go out after work with Martiuccio’s colleagues and generally be included in people’s lives here. I’ve lived in cities for most of my adult life and got used to being anonymous going about in my everyday life, so here it’s nice to go for a walk and say hello, stop for a coffee, and have a little chat. There’s a nice community of artists and writers on the island and I got to know other bloggers here in particular Isabella Marino of Qui Ischia and Laura Mattera Iacono of Al Tavolo di Amalia that have helped me learn about what life in Ischia is really like.

– It would be difficult for Marituccio to find a job

I kept my London job and work remotely from Italy, but Marituccio, a massage therapist, wanted to find work in a hotel spa. Some people were discouraging and said that finding work would be really hard as there wasn’t a large turnover in staff in the various hotels and that people kept their jobs season after season. But he didn’t let that put him down and he started visiting various hotels, stopping in saying hello and dropping off his CV. We weren’t sure if it was going to work out for this season, but he eventually was hired as a therapist in a hotel in Ischia Porto, it was first for the summer season but he’s now working into the holiday season. Which means we’ll spend our first Christmas in Ischia this year. Yay!

House on via soronzaro, Ischia Ponte

Things that I didn’t expect to happen:

  • Losing the pleasure to cook and eat as I adjusted to this new life
  • How damp things can be in the wintertime like the sheets on your bed
  • How weather can affect the ability to travel, especially if you need to get to the mainland so you can go to the airport.
  • Getting seasick even for a short ride on a small boat
  • How working in English during the day makes it difficult for me to speak with friends in Italian after work, my tongue takes a longer time to warm up and I’m more uncertain when speaking and mispronounce things
  • A whole new cat family showing up at my doorstop all wanting to live with me
My children

Overall, this first year in Italy has been a great surprise and I’m so happy to have moved here. Life is still uncertain and a bit precarious, but also really lovely. This feels like home.

10 Years in Europe. Happy Anniversary to me!

10 Years in Europe. Happy Anniversary to me!

Wow wow wow. Ten years ago today I got on a plane with three suitcases and left my home in New York for London and now I’m here, 6 visas later, living in a little yellow house in Ischia. The plan back then when I first started was to study in London for a year and then move to Rome and see how long I could last there.

Continue reading “10 Years in Europe. Happy Anniversary to me!”

My 29th birthday and saying goodbye to New York and my friends. I was so excited to move to London and be closer to Italy. That’s my friend Phillipe on the left and my cousin Marina, laughing gloriously, on the right.  New York, August 2008.

There were so many moments during those first years in which I felt like my nerves were stretching like piano strings while I flew back and forth between Italy and the UK playing the visa game, keeping up with friendships and trying not to fail and move back to New York. Immigration laws and visa woes drove me crazy and created oceans of anxiety. Also the solitude, isolation and loneliness from living abroad and in new cities. The unrelenting effort to start a new life from scratch in all of these different places. The insecurity of learning and speaking a different language. All the unsuccessful job interviews and having to navigate through low self-esteem.

Sometimes it felt like no one understood what I was trying to do and the things I was doing to make it happen. While people could understand the effort and ambition you need to go after a career, trying to live where you want to live isn’t really recognised as something commendable (just look at all the anti-immigration rhetoric that’s dominating politics). I mean no one was giving me a high-five as I filled out applications and went to visa appointments and immigration offices. Most of the time, I felt like I was a brat for wanting something that I couldn’t have.

Me in class getting ready for a class trip to the Venice Biennale. London, June 2009.

I could have stayed in the US and gotten a career in something and become a professional who wore nice clothes to work and felt like I could take care of myself. Instead I threw myself into uncertainty, cobbling together jobs and studying for two more masters, walking the streets a perpetual over-educated and underemployed non-EU citizen hoping that something would turn out in the end.

Me in my kitchen in Rome wearing an apron from Ischia. Despite the solitude and heartache, I loved loved loved Rome so much. Rome, August 2010
When I moved back to London, I had a bed, Ikea furniture and 11 boxes of stuff that I put on a truck. Everything arrived 3 weeks later. A lot of those things came back with me when we moved back to Italy. Rome, February 2011.

10 years on, I’m still here and it’s turned out pretty good. I’ve slowly learned how to deal with the uncertainty and not treat the set-backs as a reflection on my character. I’m proud that I made it this far. Looking back, I would have done some things differently (like study in Rome instead of London), but then I might not be sitting here today, writing this post from my home on an island in the Mediterranean where I live with Marituccio. I’m stronger than I was 10 years ago, have met amazing people along the way, especially artists and writers, developed strong friendships that can withstand the distance, and created a new way of living in different cities, languages and accents. I’ve had tons of jobs and learned new skills. I’ve worked in art galleries, an auction house, and a bakery. I’ve been a private English tutor, a translator, and freelance writer. I’ve written, performed and published poems and essays. I haven’t made a lot of money or stock-piled a nest egg, but I did manage to fill up the pages in my passport and had new pages put in.

During these years, I’ve seen this tide against migrants and refugees swell across Europe and I’ve been caught in the changes in laws as conservative governments have come into power. And it’s really ironic, that now as an immigrant married to an Italian and having had to go through immigration in Italy, I feel more welcomed and legally accepted than I ever did in the UK (even before Brexit). I’m painfully aware of the disgusting racist rhetoric against immigrants coming from the government and Italians on the street, this perpetual blaming the other, as if kicking out immigrants is going to automatically make life beautiful for those that were born here. The irony, contradictions and awareness of my privilege is something I deal with every day especially when I get into an argument with someone over immigration and I hear them say something offensive about immigrants. ‘But Giovanna, I wasn’t talking about you.’

I sometimes still struggle with the idea that I could have stayed home and I question myself wouldn’t it be easier to move back home and establish a career, buy a house, start a family, save money for retirement? But the longer I’m here, the less I ask myself that. Moving back to Italy is definitely not the way to go for job and life security and who knows what I’ll be able to achieve here, but living in London and going through Brexit taught me that there is no single place or career that will give you security. Something will always happen that will change everything you planned for, so why not just follow your heart and do what you want to do?

My favourite job was at Christie’s in London. This was my last day at work hanging out in the post room with the boys. London, July 2012.
Learning how to make pasta. That’s my mother-in-law in the background. Venice, August 2012
Me and Marituccio happy, tired and drunk on our wedding day in London. August 2013

I don’t know what’s next in store for me and I don’t have that dreamy eyed excitement of starting a life abroad as I did 10 years ago, but I’m still certain that this is where I want to be. I’ve applied for Italian citizenship (which will probably take years to come through, I’m not holding my breath), so one day in the future I won’t be considered an extracomunitaria but an Italian and EU citizen. Something I’ve wanted ever since I was a little kid. When that happens, will that change how I feel about who I am and where I belong?

Doing chores at our first place in Ischia. December 2017.
Speaking at a round table discussion during La Palabra en El Mundo Poetry Festival in Venice. I was terribly unprepared, but I pulled myself together and spoke in Italian about culture and identity. Ca Foscari, Venice, May 2018. (photo by Alexandra Mitakidis)

When I was little, Italy was where I had family that made me feel loved and welcomed and I wanted to be with them and live where they were. Despite being a foreigner, I didn’t feel out of place here. Of course, now that I’m an adult and live here, it’s a bit more complicated, but it still feels like home, even though the longer I live here, home is a harder place to define. But I think the biggest thing is that while for decades, home and Italy felt like a childhood dream, a magical place, now that I’m here, I realise home isn’t a perfect place. But it’s where I want to be and I’m finally allowed to be where I want to be, so  I think that’s good enough.

Ischia and the cats in my life

Ischia and the cats in my life

My life is now full of cats. For the longest time, I had no cats and I wanted a cat so bad. I left New York 10 years ago and all this time I wanted a cat so bad – a cat that could grow in my home, that could keep my company at my desk, that could sit on top of my book while I tried to read, that could sit on my belly, that could sit on my face, that could crawl on top of me to wake me up from my sleep, a cat that was my friend, a cat that understood me but that I couldn’t understand, a cat that could remain wild while living in a house. I moved to Europe 10 years ago and it’s taken 10 years for me to find a home and settle down enough to have a cat.

But I have these cats by accident. It wasn’t by a choice, they just showed up and I let them in.

Continue reading “Ischia and the cats in my life”

As soon as we found long-term housing on the island in the town of Forio and moved into our yellow house, Terri, the landlord’s pregnant cat who lived next door, decided she wanted to move in with us. Perhaps because we fed her fish, perhaps because we let her in the kitchen and sleep on the chair, perhaps because she liked us. The landlords didn’t mind because she was a roaming cat and would go off for days at a time and they were happy that she was safe at our place.

Ischia and the message of cats
Terri turning our place into a home.

So that’s what happened, Terri moved in and had her 5 babies with us. It’s been incredible to watch these fragile tiny beings grow and change and love us as much as we love them.

But sometimes I feel like my heart is going to explode. All of these emotions overwhelm me. The little orange kitty we name Gordito, passed away during his second week of life. Terri went into heat while she was still nursing the kittens and the house was surrounded with tom cats while we locked the wailing Terri inside. The kittens, now that they’re older, leave the garden to explore and I chase after them making them come back into the garden only to have them jump back out. I worry and wonder, there are so many of them.

And then just two weeks ago, another kitten showed up in our garden. A little grey boy so scared, lonely and hungry. And I cried and cried thinking that it was too much, that I needed to send him away, but I couldn’t do it. This poor little kitty needed so much love. So we took him too and named him Sesto, meaning Sixth in Italian, adding him as the sixth cat to our cat family.

But I love them, I love them, I love them. How easily they’ve become part of my life here, helping me ease into life on the island, helping me create a home out of this yellow house. I’m quite anxious now that they’re big enough to leave the garden and start roaming and it’s been hard for me. But I will get used to it because it’s the only way that I can keep 6 cats. These mysterious independent live beings.

Ischia and the message of cats
L-R: Sesto, Rose, Indy, Mucca, Pippo

Like what Doris Lessing says, in ‘The Old Age of El Magnifico’ –  Cat walks across your room, and in that lonely stalk you see leopard or even panther, or it turns its head to acknowledge you and the yellow blaze of those eyes tells you what an exotic visitor you have here, in this household friend, the cat who purrs as you stroke, or rub his chin, or scratch his head.

Sometimes I wonder, how did they know? How did they know to show up at our door. How did Terri know that we were new and lonely and needed some love and would take care of her and her kittens? How did Sesto know how to find us, that there was this garden with this little cat family full of brothers and sisters for him?

I can’t help but believe that these creatures have chosen us and told us that after moving around for so many years, that this is finally home and that we will stay.

Ischia and the message of cats
Me and Pippo
“Don’t Eat the Stale Bread Dry”

“Don’t Eat the Stale Bread Dry”

When I was 19, a few weeks after my Nonna Concetta died, I had a dream about her. Me and my cousins were in a car, cruising around Ischia, one of the islands in the bay of Naples where my grandmother was from. We came across a house on top of a hill. My grandmother was standing in the doorway in her housedress and apron while her sister Zia Carmelina, who had passed away within weeks of my grandmother, was walking up the hill. I leaned out the window, shouting and waving and smiling. “A-Nonnn! A-Nonnnnn!” (which is Neapolitan dialect for La Nonna.)

The car slowed down and she looked at me with a serious face and said to me cryptically in dialect, “Don’t eat the stale bread dry. Make sure it has some juice on it.”

Continue reading ““Don’t Eat the Stale Bread Dry””

I keep going back to this thing that she said. Especially lately since we’re making the slow plans to move back to Italy.

Growing up, in our house it was a sin to throw away bread. Partly for religious reasons since bread was considered Jesus’ body, but also because you don’t throw food away. (When we had a surplus of stale bread that was too much to consume, Mom would get around it by throwing the bread out in the backyard to ‘feed the animals.’)

I think in the dream she was trying to tell me something that she had found out once she made it to the other side of life. “Make sure it has some juice on it.” Don’t just swallow what you think you have to swallow, make sure it tastes good. Don’t turn your back on something that is old and stale, look it in the eye, take some control and make it taste good again. Make it your own.

Do you think she was talking about Italy? Perhaps to her and my mom and her brother and sisters, Italy was old and stale, full of sad memories of the war and poverty. But for me, if I put some juice on it, I can make it my own, make it taste good and make it home again.

 

Nonna Concetta and Zi'Adelina, Napoli, 1983
Nonna Concetta and Zi’Adelina, Napoli, 1983
My Kitty Ishtar and Red Wine Velvet Cake

My Kitty Ishtar and Red Wine Velvet Cake

As I get older, the ties to home fade and today I learned that my kitty Ishtar has passed away. I’m so, so, so sad. She was a skittish cat, but she loved me and felt safe with me. I was the only one who could pick her up. When I arrived home she would show up outside my window and meow to be let in. From that moment until I left to go back, she would stay in my room, purring on my bed, sleeping right in the crook of my arm. My mom would say, ‘As soon as she hears your voice, she comes running to the door.’

It’s hard for me to do much today and it’s hard to write or read, so I made a cake for Ishtar. The most beautiful and spectacular cake I could make to celebrate her life.

And red wine and baking in a warm kitchen on a cold winter day is such a perfect combination that I decided to make a:

Continue reading “My Kitty Ishtar and Red Wine Velvet Cake”

The recipe comes from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perlman. The cookbook calls for a three-layer filled cake and since I don’t have the pans or 20 friends, I divided the measurements by three to make a small cake. But YOU don’t have to do it because the online version on the blog does it for you here. I love Deb Perlman’s recipes and this is such a good blog, full of recipes and stories.

The Smitten Kitchen's Red Wine Chocolate Cake
The Smitten Kitchen’s Red Wine Chocolate Cake

 

I had most of the ingredients, but I needed the wine and had run out of baking soda. (Baking soda is great for cleaning the caulk in the bathroom.) So I went to the Persian bodega around the corner from my place and I found this on the shelf next to a large selection of table salt:

Whaaa?

 

I asked the guy if it was sodium bicarbonate and he looked at the box for a long time and finally said, “It’s food soda.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

The cake was easy to make and I listened to a dramatic reading of the Illiad on Radio 4 and while it was cooling, I got busy making the decorations for the cake.

I only started making cakes a couple of years ago when I met Davide and I’ve never decorated a cake. The great thing about beautiful cakes is that they can’t be precious. It’s funny how you can spend so much time making a cake beautiful when the whole point of the cake is that you eat it. A cake only lasts for a specific amount of time and making one feels like the perfect and most appropriate way to celebrate my loved one, Ishtar.

So this is what I did:

I printed out some pictures of Ishtar and drew some letters on coloured card stock, cut them all out and taped them to toothpicks.

I also got some gorgeous edible gold pearls from the Persians.

 

And finally, voila!

 

So when Davide comes home tonight, he’ll have Red Wine Ishtar Cake waiting for him and we’ll eat it and celebrate Ishtar and remember her.

ishtar