I remember the first time my (then-future) husband led me down a tight staircase into a tiny underground bakery near St. Peter’s. It was there I tasted the most fantastic cornetto (the quintessential Italian pastry) ever. I could hardly believe my mouth. Who knew this apparent hole in the wall could produce the king of all cornetti? It wouldn’t be the last time appearances would deceive me in Italy – and little did I know how many more occasions of total culinary shock and amazement were to follow.
Friends and family who see this blog will probably say, “Wow, she’s seriously been in Italy too long; all she can think about is food.” To which I will respond, “You’re right – how could I not?” The culture I now find myself living, working, socializing, and dreaming in is completely out of its mind fixated with food. What it took me a while to realize is this: Italians aren’t so concerned with food as sustenance, but rather with the entire lifestyle it represents – one that is unique, and nothing less than bewitching for everyone who experiences it. It’s pure intoxication for the senses, every last one of them.
I’ve been trying to discipline myself to document my experience here for a long time, but haven’t been inspired to do so until recently. It’s been hard to find the words to properly describe the experience of these last couple years of transition. When I thought about starting a blog, for some reason the title, “Sex, Lies, & Nutella” popped into my mind, and I liked it. Not only is it amusing, but actually sums up some main themes of what life in Italy means to me:
“Sex,” because it’s literally everywhere: from the moms who bust out the breasts in the middle of the mall, to the prostitutes working rush hour – in Italy, sex is a fact of life you can’t forget about, even if you try. The human body in general is seen as normal and natural; it’s rarely, if ever, referred to with shame or embarrassment. After all, this is Europe, not some red state. Feeling comfortable with the naked body simply comes with the territory, and that’s not a bad thing. Only problem is this intense “appreciation” is often exaggerated and almost totally one-sided. Watch any evening variety show for five minutes, and the degraded role of women in general is painfully clear. Sexism still runs rampant, and it’s evident the effects of the feminist movement are yet to be felt in their entirety.
The “Lies” part is a little harsh, since it would be wrong to say everything I thought I knew about Italy is a lie. The vision I had while growing up is quite different from the reality, but this inconsistency can be better described as the normal evolution of a culture. For years, my immigrant grandparents were the only point of reference I had when it came to knowing anything about Italy. Their memories and experiences shaped my perception of this country and affinity for its culture. The truth is though, most Italian-Americans are stuck in the past, and those memories have very little to do with the reality of modern Italian society today. This has been a consistent smack in the face during my time here, and has also made for some interesting introspection.
And now, for the best part: “Nutella,” which is certainly the most significant portion of the title. Not only because it is, in fact, the hazelnut cream of the gods – but more importantly, because of what it represents almost four years into my residency in Italy.
To me, Nutella is the X-factor – that something special that makes people literally fall in love with this enchanting corner of the world, and leaves them wanting more and more.
In my business, this is the kind of brand loyalty we would kill for. At its core, Nutella is an iconic brand built on the basic human sense of taste. Its principle is clear: people appreciate things of good taste, and the easiest product to sell is one of true quality. We, for example, can promote a television show to high heaven, but if it’s terrible people will eventually tune out, plain and simple.
Unlike many TV shows (but much like Nutella), Italy delivers on all its promises. That’s why the world flocks to this country: all the wonderful things said about it turn out to be true, and then some. You don’t have to work in marketing to know this place is arguably even easier to sell than sex. Italy, just like Nutella, sells itself; all it needs is its own fantastic qualities to survive.
However, although its merits may seem endless, this country is far from flawless. Similar to Nutella, Italy should be indulged in with discipline and moderation, or it can be overwhelming. After all, you wouldn’t eat the entire jar at once. It could practically kill you.
People always tell me how lucky I am to be here, and on many levels, they’re right. I’m fortunate to live this incredible place every day, and for that I’m very blessed. It’s been an amazing time of personal and professional growth. Many people though, tend to think of Italy as some kind of paradise where the wine flows like water (true) and life is always picture perfect (not true).
In reality, my transition here was quite challenging and is occasionally still a struggle. Daily life isn’t always like some clichéd scene from “Under the Tuscan Sun” (although we do have a fantastic view of a vineyard from our balcony, but I digress). As a residing citizen, Italy can be an extremely challenging place to live, and its frustrations can be endless. The excessive bureaucracy, laughable politics, and general disorganization can at times be maddening – especially for an ultra-organized American. These are aspects everyone on “vacation high” never gets the chance to notice (rightfully so – lucky them).
Not to mention the occasional nostalgia that creeps in at the oddest moments, provoking a sense of detachment that makes you miss your country, culture, and simply speaking your own language. At its most severe, it can literally mess with your head and make you yearn for things you’d otherwise totally avoid in your home country – like WalMart, or a heart-to-heart with a member of the Tea Party, for example.
Then, without a doubt, there’s the worst pain of all: missing out on time with family and friends. In fact, I’m convinced my three-year-old niece thinks I live in the Skype browser somewhere on the internet. In my early transitional days, this brought me to the brink of anxiety and depression – sensations I wasn’t at all used to feeling. For a while, I was desperately trying to locate the life I had created in America in a place where it just didn’t exist, and the more I stressed about it, the worse it was.
When I finally learned to grasp the reality of the present and accept that there was a new life waiting for me to create, things started to fall into place. I overcame the initial shock of having thrown my life as I knew it into a blender, and crossed the threshold from bitterness to hope. Instead of seeing everything as a negative obstacle, I started to imagine and welcome the possibilities. I reminded myself that not only was I extremely blessed to be able to be with the love of my life (who I randomly met on a train), but also that having the chance to live abroad is a once in a lifetime, soul-enriching experience.
Sometimes when life throws you a surprise, rather than fighting it, it’s best to embrace it and live it to the fullest. After years of meticulously planning my every move, I’ve learned it’s the unexpected things can have the biggest impact on your life, if you’re open to accepting them. This experience has taught me the true value of patience, persistence, and determination – but it’s also taught me to relax and let go of the need to control everything. Because the truth is, no matter where you are, the world always looks better through the eyes of a calm spirit.
And so, life and love have brought me here to the land of my ancestors, where my grandparents were married and my mother took her first steps; the place I heard story after story about as a child, and grew to be a part of in my heart before I had ever arrived. I thought I knew something about this way of life, but I had really only scratched the surface. Now, it’s all being revealed to me and I’ve been taking it in slowly, savoring each taste. I don’t know how long it will last, but this unique experience is meant to be cherished, appreciated, and most of all, shared.
Maybe it was destiny that I ended up here. Or, maybe the secret is in the Nutella… After all, at this point Nutella is no longer just Nutella. Nutella has become a sort of personal Italian Nirvana.
Nutella is taste, beauty, and inspiration. Nutella is an art form. It’s about life, and it is bellissima.
Nutella is my reality – and I’m going to scoop out all I can while the jar is still open. Would you like a taste?
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