Amore é gioia, amore é gelosia, amore é soffrire, amore é tenerezza, amore é calore. Amore sei tu! Is it any wonder that Italians always make the top-10 list whenever women are asked to rate the world’s best lovers? We are truly fortunate, then, in having the displaced author Estelle Jobson as today’s guest blogger. As you will see, this South African likens falling in love with an Italian man to feasting on a succulent artichoke — a rather curious analogy, to be sure, until one remembers that artichokes are cultivated in the Mediterranean. It is also a rather mysterious vegetable. How exactly do you eat it? As Jobson shows, it’s a matter of peeling off the outer petals, one at a time… We are also fortunate in that Signora Stella is giving away an autographed copy of the book she wrote on her Roman love story! Grazie mille, Signora! (Details below.)
— ML Awanohara
The first call to write about Italy came when I was ten. With a smudgy HB pencil, I outlined an epic in my lockable, pink diary. It was to be about an extended Italo-American family who would make it big selling tyres. The main character, Pia, was to be my age, torn (theatrically) between her Italian roots and her American life. There would be family dramas (dramatic!), cascades of curls (curly!), Virgin Maries (statues and exclamations), and a stout grandma overseeing boiling pots of pasta. The novel would be shot through with shouting, gesticulating, and emotional-blackmail-meets-amore.
This literary project was soon shelved on the grounds of inadequate content knowledge: I knew nothing of the tyre business and had exhausted my repertoire on Italians. So the plot was filed amongst my many “books to write one day”.
Loving the individual
What I did finish writing, in my thirties, is Finding Rome on the Map of Love, in which travel narrative meets love story. It is an autobiographical account of moving to Rome with an Italian man. It is about love radiating out from the heart of my Italo-South African couple, to love for a family, language, people, culture, and country. Just like the concentric rings within an artichoke. This happens in all relationships, however it is much more pronounced when the language, culture, and people are not those you grew up with. The rings within the artichoke make it very difficult to know which characteristic belongs to whom. Is it your beloved who is prone to interrupting others mid-speech? A family trait? Or that of the whole nation?
Just as Italians are sometimes drawn to the prudish, earnest, and ploddish Protestant way, so are we Anglo-Saxons drawn to their swaggering, flamboyant charm — and sometimes alarmingly cavalier approach to work. It threatens us to the core, yet opposites attract. And how! A part of us secretly longs to become the other. But since we can’t quite pull it off, the next best is to have them close to our hearts. Or better still, right in the bed. We say “Be mine.”
So the beloved in question — termed “the Meterosexual” for his dapper grooming — was in varied and bewitching ways the very opposite of what I grew up with. Unlike the wooden, roughly-hewn South African man, an Italian one may adore you, quite tangibly and vocally (poetically even), from head to toe. Because in his culture, your coiffure and your shoes are crucial. Core-shakingly so. The Meterosexual debated how I should do my hair for a job interview (“Hup? Down? No, hup. More professional!”) and set me straight on shoes that were an insult to an outfit. Certain footwear was actually banned from leaving the cupboard!
For a woman to have her appearance critiqued by a man, even an exquisitely stylish one, demands a certain thickness of skin.
But being South African, I had it.
Loving the family and culture
The next ring of artichoke love is that for your sweetheart’s family and culture. First I had la mamma pressing a hairdryer upon me lest I got a cervicale (the special Italian, wet-hair induced crick in the neck).
And soon thereafter, I was up against what felt like an entire nation (in this case, 60 million citizens) all clucking, fussing, and advising on health, the risk of catching a cold, and what food may be consumed at specific times of day, linked to its digestibility. This counsel was dispatched entirely unsolicited, but with tenderness.
Which is almost the same as love, isn’t it?
Italians regarded me, being Anglo-Saxon, as afflicted with a lumpishly undiscerning cultural palate. I was urged by strangers to read Dante Alighieri, listen to Vivaldi, and, above all, focus on what went into my mouth. The Meterosexual brought home gifts of emerald olive oil, popping with vitality, and parcels of pastries wrapped in a bow, popping with calories. His mother served me the Tuscan carciofini fritti (deep-fried artichokes). And his countryfolk served me regional cuisine, ubiquitous coffees, plus the unloseable gift: an ability to discern the superiority of mozzarella di bufala (female buffalo) over mucca (cow).
Loving a language
Further spirals of love lay in the process of gaining Italian language skills. Italian has delightful suffixes, to make words bigger, smaller, cosier, cuter, or nastier and uglier versions of themselves. This, to an English-speaker, is like playing Lego® with language.
With my ability to converse came a gradual adaptation to local ways. Although, truth be told, it’s easier to learn a foreign language than, for example, to wend your way successfully through the Italian national health system or to fathom the quasi-pagan fetishizing of the modern Catholic saint.
Loving the modus operandi
Living in Rome, I learned to ride a scooter in the city’s hair-raising traffic. This turned out to be a superbly transferable skill, relevant to many other Italian things, such as being honest. Telling the truth, the Italian way, is a flexible, savvy and self-preserving art. People lie with flair. In fact, it isn’t really lying at all, they explain. It’s being diplomatic, being furbo (smart). Banging your head against all this with rigid Protestant morals will only make your cranium ring. The Italians have taught me that blurting out the truth willy-nilly is ill-advised. It is gauche, hurts other people’s feelings, and counter-productive.
Now I know: one good lie deserves another.
Becoming the other
So it is that you start off in love with a foreign person and you end up assimilating their culture. Over time, some of the once-exotic features become yours and you may even lose bits of your cultural DNA, for lack of use (e.g., wearing ugly shoes). When I find myself using an Italian gesture or expression, because nothing else will do, I know I am no longer mimicking.
This is a moment of profound integration: deeper than love, more metaphysical than the first sip of the first cappuccino of the day. It will always be yours. It’s like becoming your own artichoke.
* * *
Readers, I have a confession to make. I’ve always found the artichoke a bit intimidating. I’m not sure I’m any less intimidated after hearing what Estelle has to say — but thanks to her, I’m can now appreciate its succulent taste and tender heart. And I know I prefer it steamy!
I can imagine her dashing Roman metrosexual calling her not just Stella but mia stella polare — his polar star! (And how can I get me a pair of those cool red shoes?)
What about you? Are you eager to hear more about Estelle’s love adventure with an Italian, and with Italy itself?
Listen to what readers of her book had to say:
Liesl Jobson (Estelle’s sister, still in South Africa and also a writer — one who wins awards for her short stories!):
Finding Rome on the Map of Love is an utterly enchanting and fabulously funny journey outwardly, into the city of Rome, but inwardly, Estelle bravely squares up her options in love and life. Her sharp eye investigates the real and the imagined and her inimitable voice always rings true. … [W]hile the focus is Rome, it is as much about being a stranger in a foreign country and the resourcefulness that is required to learn a language, understand the customs and become familiar with the ways of any new place.
You will adore this book; Estelle and her quirks will delight you, you’ll fall passionately in lust with the Eternal City and its people and be sad when it’s over. … Estelle’s writing skills will astonish you and you will ask, “Where has this writer been and why have I not heard of her?”
When I started reading Estelle Jobson’s observations on Italian culture, I felt I had run into an old friend on a common wavelength. Yes, me too!
Estelle Jobson is a very talented writer with a wonderful ear for the nuance and absurdity of language, and for the cross-culturally bizarre. … The book also boasts an extensive glossary that is bound to satisfy even the most pedantic of linguists.
And let’s not forget the back-cover blurb:
Estelle has an admirable career in publishing and a hectic, yet rich life. When her Italian diplomat boyfriend gets posted to Rome, she throws it all up to accompany him. There, she reinvents herself as Signora Stella, a casalinga (housewife) on the city’s highest hill, Monte Mario. Starting in autumn, she muses on life amongst the Italians and cycles through the seasons and sentiments of the Italian psyche. Signora Stella commences and ends at the same place: Follie, the local hairdresser run by Salvatore, a gay Neapolitan. This book captures a year’s worth of quirky, humorous, vivid observations about life amongst the Italians.
Can’t wait to read it? Jobson has published an excerpt on Italian Intrigues, the blog kept by one of our recent Random Nomads, Patricia Winton.
And now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPY!!! Simply leave a comment in answer to the question:
**What has been your most entertaining experience with a cross-cultural relationship?**
Extra points for likening it to a vegetable; double the points if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!!!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on March 2, 2013.
NOTE: If you’re not the lucky winner but would still like a print copy, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Estelle Jobson has over a dozen years’ experience in book publishing and a Masters in Publishing from New York University which she attended on a Fulbright. She speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries; three years in Rome. She now lives in Geneva. To find out more about the book and follow its promotion, like the Finding Rome FB page. You can also follow Jobson on Twitter and read her occasional blog posts — for instance, this one on adopting Italian nationality, which she wrote for Novel Adventurers.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we announce the films that have qualified for this year’s Displaced Oscars!
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Images: All photos supplied by Estelle Jobson.