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
Going to Ikea and the Neapolitan way to ‘sdrammatizzare’

Going to Ikea and the Neapolitan way to ‘sdrammatizzare’

Me and D found long-term housing and recently moved to a lovely little yellow house in Forio on the other side of the island. Before we moved, we went to Ikea to pick up a few things to set up the kitchen and while I was excited to go on the mainland for a day trip, D was in a bad mood.  He was nervous about driving since our 12-year old Fiat Punto was acting like a dick, the starter wasn’t firing the engine every time you turn the key. You have to do it a few times before it starts. It isn’t a big deal if you’re in a parking lot, but if you’re in a queue to get on and off the ferry it can be nerve-wracking. Also I think the car senses D’s mood because the more nervous he gets the more it acts up. You have to be pretty zen around the car, basically you have to not give a shit about cars beeping all around you waiting for you to get out of the way.

Continue reading “Going to Ikea and the Neapolitan way to ‘sdrammatizzare’”

Our 12-year old moody Fiat Punto that has made 5 trips to Venice so far.

The day of our Ikea trip, D wasn’t feeling very zen around the car and I was trying to keep the mood light. We weren’t off to a good start (pun intended) because every time we had to turn off the car (at the ticket office, at the port, in the queue), it took forever to get it to start again and cars beeped and sped around us, giving us stare downs as they passed. D was doing breathing exercises to keep himself from losing his shit and I ate snacks trying not to get bummed out by the car.

Finally we got on the ferry, but the big showdown was having to drive off the ferry an hour later when we arrived at Pozzuoli. Of course the car wouldn’t start and we were left sputtering on the boat while all the other cars zoomed off. D was sweating bullets and wanted to scream, but instead he shouted to some ferry workers who were hanging out by the opening and waved them down for help.

The guys from the ferry pushed our car right to where that Fiat Panda is

They came running over and D goes, ‘I need to push the car off the ferry’ and they immediately got into position. I sat in the passenger seat and looked at them in the rear view mirror and I saw them smiling, like this was something interesting for them. As the car started to gain speed from four guys pushing it, D jumped in the driver seat to steer the car.

‘Put it in third!,’ one of the guys shouted and they all laughed, their laughter echoing across the walls of the empty belly of the ferry. It sounded like a school cafeteria and everyone was excited to have a break.

I realised a bit of magic was happening. The Neapolitan art of ‘sdrammitazzare’, the art of taking the drama out of something, downplaying the bad vibes and turning it into a party. The guys pushing our car were having fun! They pushed the car off the ferry ramp and wheeled it to the side of the road. And then instead of walking away, they all crowded around the car, fighting with each other to take turns turning on the car and discussing what was really wrong. They wanted to know where we were going, what we were going to buy, what we did for work and where we lived on the island.

‘O, so we’re neighbours,’ one of the guys said. ‘We’ll see each other again!’

And another asked me, ‘But do you trust this guy to take you where you need to go?’

‘I have no choice.’ I said and that was so funny and we all laughed.

And then D shouted to everyone to be quiet and he turned the key half way. You could hear the subtle buzzing of the mechanism firing some gasoline into the engine. He turned the key and the car roared alive. We all shouted and clapped and the guys shook our hands and we thanked them a million times and they waved us goodbye and wished us a fun trip to Ikea.

And our mood was changed, and just like that life was different, clearing away the anxiety and self-questioning and we were happy puttering our way to Ikea.

It’s a great word. Sdrammatizzare. Downplay the negativity and take the situation lightly. Neapolitans, who are also masters at pouring drama into the most mundane everyday occurrences (just try having a conversation on a Monday about what to make for Sunday lunch next week), are known for this. Like ants attacking a breadcrumb, they’ll surround someone who is sad or in a bad mood and try to show them that they’re not in as bad of a place as they really are. And yeah, they can also take the act of sdrammatizzazione too far when they ignore societal or political problems, but it works well for a lot of things during everyday life.

La Pulcinella

This Neapolitan lesson of sdrammatizzazione has been incredibly helpful during these first few months of moving back to Italy. Sure there’s a lot to complain about and it’s easy to think that every difficulty that we come across is a sign that we can’t achieve what we really want. I can hear those voices from family members that told me that Italy was an impossible place to live in, that my parents sacrificed everything to give me a better life and now I want to turn my back on them and go live in Italy. But there is this new voice that comes, a Neapolitan voice that says, ‘Hey, look at you! You have a job and a place to live and so what if there’s the unknown in front of you. You have new friends and neighbours and people that care about you here and want to see you stay. So here, sit down. You hungry? Here’s a plate of cheese, bread, and my mother’s canned vegetables.’

“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