Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

Ciao amici!  This is my first collaborative post with the C.O.S.I. (Crazy Observations by Stranieri (Foreigners) in Italy) blogger roundtable team.  A fun, talented group of expats taking on Italy one day at a time. We all post once a month on a common theme with different points of view. You can connect to the other members’ fantastic blogs here.  Also, if you would like to share your own experience in Italy about our monthly subject (this time it’s regional foods with a Thanksgiving spin), just use the hashtag #COSI when posting.

For as long as I can remember, in my house Thanksgiving had another name: “La Festa della Gallina” (The Feast of the Chicken).  This term was coined by my immigrant grandfather, Papa Guy.  Every year we would joke about it and ask him to explain the significance of Thanksgiving; he would just shrug his shoulders and ask to pass the stuffing.  It was a holiday all about food – an exorbitant amount of food – and that was good enough for him.

The Italians don’t have much of a clue about how or why this unique holiday is celebrated (then again, neither do some Americans) – but they are quite intrigued by it (Ma quanto pesa ‘sta tacchino?! How much does this turkey weigh?!).  The only saving grace is the fact it’s essentially all about food, as most of their holidays are, which they can certainly relate to and appreciate.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as an expat, as with many other things, has been an adventure and an evolution.  I like to think I’ve mastered it over the course of passing six of them in a country where it doesn’t exist.  But it hasn’t been easy.

My first year here, I’m pretty sure I had either inadvertently forgotten about it, or ignored it all together for the sake of assimilation.  The second year, my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) knew I really missed being at home that day.  I called him from work, glued to my computer screen watching the live streaming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ridden with nostalgia, tears rolling down my cheeks.  So he very sweetly surprised me with an evening out at the Hard Rock Café Rome, where they have a special menu every year.

The third year, I was motivated to see if I could remotely pull off a mini-Thanksgiving for two.  I quickly realized though, since Italians don’t eat a lot of turkey in general, at a last-minute glance the bird was no where to be found.  So, I asked myself: what looks like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, enough to pass off as a turkey?  The biggest chicken I could find, that’s what!  And it was then, during that first attempt at a Thanksgiving re-creation abroad, that I finally understood and celebrated the true meaning of Papa Guy’s “Festa della Gallina.”  I whipped up some mashed potatoes and peas and called it a day.  Gimmi was mildly impressed.

By the fourth year, I finally got my act together and was ready to attempt a true reproduction.  I successfully formed a troupe of brave Italians to share my table with whom, incidentally, were way more excited about it all than they should have been.  Hey, it’s not every day un’americana invites you to Thanksgiving dinner.  But little did I know the search for proper ingredients would be una vera rogna (a royal pain in the…), and they would cost a small fortune when I finally tracked them down.

One of my most enthusiastic friends directed me to her favorite macellaio in Parioli (a wealthy area of Rome).  Never had I seen a more glamorous meat market; it looked like a film set of handsome actors making jokes and suave glances between their choice cuts.  They could get us a turkey, but it would take a month and cost €75.  “Were they going to have to go on a group hunting trip to the Tuscan countryside and shoot it themselves?”  I wondered.  The famous specialty foods chain in Rome, Castroni,  turned out to be the best resource for all the rest of the accompanying delicacies – but at what cost?  A can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly was €8?!  Porca troia!  I’d have to sacrifice next month’s rent to put this meal on.  But I was committed; there was no turning back on Operation: Italian Thanksgiving.  And it was a grand success.

Last year,our group reunited again and had a fantastic time cooking and enjoying together.  I had created a new tradition in my new home, and it felt great.  Oh, but I did wise up and ordered the turkey from my local butcher.  He only wanted €30.  Had a great laugh when I went to pick it up though.  The conversation went something like this:

Macellaio: That’ll be 60 euro.
Me: Seems like a lot – the guy I ordered from said it would be around 30…
Macellaio: 30 euro, for a 35-pound turkey?
Me: 35 pounds?? I asked for a 10 to 12-pound turkey!
Macellaio: Ooooh, wait a second – you ordered the female turkey… You must be the other American (good to know there were only two of us in town, and she had the bigger oven).

Pulling off a stellar Thanksgiving in Italy means adapting to what’s available and unifying it with as much tradition as possible.  Trust me, your average peas are much better with a little pancetta added in for good measure anyway.  Italy makes everything taste better, so of course, Thanksgiving does, too.

Happy Feast of the Chicken to all!

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Count the Putans

It’s summer in Rome – and in this city, when the temperatures rise, the clothes come off.  Which reminds me, time to play one of my favorite seasonal games: Count the Putans.

15 Reasons to Love Italy

Although it’s easy to occasionally dwell on the numerous, painfully evident things that are wrong with this country – as referenced in my recent post, 10 Things I Hate About Italy – my love for this eclectic, eccentric land is immeasurable.  It’s important to be objective, because when you really love someone or something, you learn to appreciate (and accept) both the good and the bad, pregi e difetti.  Thankfully, in my case, for every negative aspect of life in Italy, there are at least two positives – otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to personally justify staying here.

So, what exactly is so great about this country?  Where do I begin…

1. No one does atmosphere like Italy.  Everyone knows life is best lived in the company of fantastic people, surroundings, and food/wine.  So it’s safe to say Italy is essentially a triple threat in life.  Although residents may occasionally be disheartened and disillusioned by all the political and economic problems, all it takes is a relaxing passeggiata through the centro storico (historic center) to make it all better.  The sound of church bells ringing in the distance, impromptu concerts from street musicians, the amazing scent of fresh food – heck, even the smell of cigarette smoke swirling through the piazza – it all contributes to a one of a kind atmosphere that is entirely Italian, and so incredibly lovely.  After a while, you become entrenched in it, absorbed by it – and you realize you are no longer part of the atmosphere, it is part of you.

2. Quality of life is an uncompromisable priority.  It’s not that Italians aren’t capable of being as ambitious as Americans – they just don’t want to be.  It has nothing to do with ability, but rather a true desire to make room for and savor pleasurable experiences at all costs.  That may explain why this country tends to suffer and struggle to keep up with a globalized world that always demands more and more free time.  The Italian infrastructure is designed to guarantee the simplest, most enjoyable things (like vacations) are built right into the calendar.  Even on a daily basis, the day is broken down into time for coffee, time for a leisurely lunch, time for a stroll and a snack, then time for another coffee.   It may be cliché, but the idea really is to work to live, not live to work.  One could argue that’s also because job availability is scarce and opportunity for higher pay and job advancement not as great – but there’s a more deeply-rooted cultural belief that many Mediterranean countries share which, in my opinion, stems from the overwhelming amount of surrounding beauty urging everyone to get out and enjoy it as much as possible.

3. In Italian, Disney characters Huey, Dewey, and Louie are called, “Qui, ” “Quo,” and “Qua”:

disney

Cracks me up every time. ©Disney

 4. Italians are refreshingly (and sometimes, brutally) honest.  They will say what they feel and give sincere feedback, and expect the same in return.  Something I’ve found hilarious for years now: on one game show, when the host introduces the contestants, he always asks the relative or friend in the audience to share the person’s best and worst attributes.  I always get a kick out of it because the relative will respond with something to the effect of, “He’s really generous, and a great tennis player – but he’s terrible with directions and doesn’t know when to shut up.”  The contestant’s reaction is usually just a little shrug, as if to be in humble agreement.  People here generally seem more aware of their faults, and less likely to be offended by a truthful statement.  Case in point: some Italians (especially Southerners) are so quick to mention when you’ve gained weight, it’ll be the first thing out of their mouths when they see you.  I never knew how permolosa (touchy) I was until it happened to me.  This kind of candor can be especially jarring to an American, who is used to keeping her lips tightly sealed for fear of offending someone by the mere mention of an overtly obvious fact.  But apparently to them it’s just an innocent conversation starter, as if to say it looks as if you’ve been living the good life.  Plus, what are you, blind?  You own a mirror, so you’re clearly already aware of what I’m saying to you.  So, you’ve gained a few pounds, big deal.  This took a while to get used to, but once you do, you start to resent anyone who tries to prenderti per il culo or venderti fumo (take you for a fool/blow smoke).

5. Verbal communication is an art, and Italians are its masters.  Oral examinations are part of their regular curriculum from elementary school on, partially to eliminate the risk of cheating on exams, but also to reinforce confidence and teach kids to be effective orators.  Get into a discussion with any Italian, even a conventionally uneducated one, and you’ll be surprised at how effortlessly (and verbosely) they will lay it all out for you.  Body language is also an essential part of this communication.  This marvelously unique Italian method of gesturing is passionate, colorful, expressive, in your face – and most of all, it makes speaking the language so much fun.  Also, it doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation, as any successful communication should do.  And many (like those pictured below) prove everyday that it’s entirely possible to drive a motorino while gesticulating wildly with your hands.

talk_hands_scooter

Whatever he’s saying clearly can’t wait until he gets off the scooter. ©Reidsguides.com

6. Old school courtesy and respect are still alive and well.  Although I consider myself a well-mannered person, when I first moved here I almost felt like I was getting a refresher course in Manners 101. It made me realize how much our culture in the US has forgotten some simple gestures of courtesy, like greeting everyone who’s already present whenever you enter or exit a place, looking people in the eye with sincerity when you speak to them, etc.  If you don’t behave this way in Italy, you’re easily labeled un caffone (rude/slob), and rightfully so.  Fortunately, here you’re often reminded that basic social decorum is a beautiful thing, and thankfully, can still a priority in society today.  Speaking of which…

7. This country doesn’t have a habit of breeding natural born killers.  This is a critical point I discussed in a post after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and shouldn’t be underestimated.  On a personal level, this means once my son starts school I’ll have one less major thing to worry about – also definitely not to be underestimated.  Naturally, kids around the world will always go through their stages of being smart-mouthed, annoying, and rebellious – but the kind of horror stories you’ll hear from any American teacher about the complete disregard for basic human decency happening daily in some schools today is simply not tolerated here, and on a cultural level, seems to never be attempted in the first place.

8. Free healthcare, folks.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it may not be perfect, but at least it exists as an alternative to insurance.  Complain all you want about the public sector and its bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, dizzyingly long waits, and surly staff – but regardless, the option is available to everyone, and many times, it’s more than decent (especially the quality of physicians).  Also, prescription drugs are sold at literally a fraction of the cost of those in the US.  By the way, as I also previously wrote about while pregnant, the maternity benefits are pretty stellar, too.

9. Exposure to the occasional PG-rated, passive-aggressive, mafia-style intimidation tactic: Case in point, photo below – a gesture regularly used to let you know someone didn’t like the way you parked.

car.jpg

And if they bend your side mirror, you’re really in trouble.

10. All rules have exceptions, and everything is up for discussion.   Italian society and people are very flexible, meaning that everything is up for discussion, all the time.  The final answer may be no, but it’s never really no.  From an American point of view, this could be seen as a negative, since in the US strict rule following isn’t only encouraged, it’s mandated.  But making friendly banter, asking for and reciprocating favors, schmoozing, negotiating – it’s all part of the Italian’s DNA.  They thrive on that interaction and confrontation; it’s when they’re at their best.  And from perks to preferential treatment, charisma and having a way with people is strongly rewarded here, even when it’s undeserved (how do you think Berlusconi has managed to stick around this long?).

11. Holidays are about food, not gifts.  It goes without saying that Italians are obsessed with food, but what’s great is there’s a specific food to accompany every minor and major holiday in the calendar year.  Not only that, each region has its own version of said delicacy.  Celebrations are centered around the traditional food, and less about decorations or bombarding children with countless gifts they won’t care about ten minutes later.  All that extra stuff is cute and nice, but… dov’è il cibo (where’s the food)?

12. The language allows for some of the most colorful cursing on the planet.  Aside from being insulting, curse words and ways to tell someone off in Italy are not only endless, they’re quite complex and fancifully creative.  In true Italian style, some of the best involve lengthy constructions (almost always blasphemous ones), where you can pick and choose to damn the animal, saint, etc. of choice.  There’s the classic “Porca miseria” (miserable pig), or the damning of inanimate objects, such as, “Mannaggia ai sandali di Cristo” (Damn Jesus’ sandals).  Then, there are others built around an entire imaginary scenario, with a surprisingly concise delivery: for example in Rome, with just two words, you can hope someone’s dead ancestors rot in hell (“Mortacci Tua!”), and countrywide, with one simple gesture, you can really piss someone off by insinuating they’re a cornuto (a jackass who doesn’t know he’s being cheated on by his significant other).  And then, there’s the most widely used of all – the equivalent of our “F-off”: when you’re absolutely disgusted with someone, only in Italy can you send them off to quel paese, or literally “that country” – the more tame version of the magical destination better known as “Fanculo.

Has anyone really ever made it there?

Has anyone actually ever made it there?

13. Healthy living and weight management is a no-brainer.  Keeping yourself in shape isn’t about a trendy, fad diet.  When it comes to nutrition, Italians have it all figured out, and they have for centuries.  Obesity isn’t a problem in this country because of a few simple rules they consider to be second-nature: eat a balanced diet, cook with fresh ingredients, keep recipes simple, control portions, and avoid your car as much as possible.  That’s it.

14. People are generally smart and very furbo (clever).  You have to step up your game when you live in Italy; one of the worst things you can do is be fesso (naive fool).  When everyone is clever, they all think they’re more clever than everyone else – so everyone is always trying to out-do everyone else’s cleverness.  But hey, that’s Italy – and a characteristic that could be considered both the root of all its problems and catalyst of its successes.  This dynamic makes for a society full of interesting interactions between citizens who are all pretty quick to the switch, and able to run rings around Americans when it comes to street smarts. That’s why in Naples, stealing a wallet from an unwitting tourist is the equivalent of taking candy from a baby.  I bet they almost feel guilty doing it, like it’s not a fair fight.

15. Lastly, some of the people I love most in this world were born and bred here. Even if none of the above were true, that would certainly be enough for me.

 

A Holy Hell

Yesterday, the Catholic Church celebrated the sainthood of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Was I in Piazza San Pietro?  Absolutely not; I wouldn’t consider dragging my 15-month-old son into a crowd that size – and even without him, I wouldn’t have attempted it.  In my opinion, there’s nothing “holy” about being squashed between 800,000 tired, hungry pilgrims.  That scenario actually sounds more like a “holy hell,” if I’ve ever heard of one – that is, unless your idea of a religious experience is an exercise in masochism.

I also wasn’t as inclined to participate since, in my mind, it would be hard to top the experience I had in 2005 during Pope John Paul II’s last days.  I was living right down the street from the Vatican and was there in the piazza through it all: the days leading to his passing, attending his funeral, seeing the billowing white smoke and running to witness the announcement of Ratzinger as his successor.  That was an incredible time of intense beauty and emotion, as true pilgrims began to pour into the city in droves, inspired solely by a need to be close to a person in his last moments whom they held so dear.  Everyone – even the most fervent of unbelievers – can identify with that feeling.  There was no buildup to a big event, no flags or jumbotrons – just quiet song and prayer by candlelight.  No sensationalism, just a simple outpouring of love.  Those were sensations I’ll never forget.

Regardless, SL&N did have representatives in the field on Sunday who confirmed all suspicions: apparently people had to arrive at 4am just to be able to have a chance to get a standing position in the piazza, which means they stood for six hours waiting for the mass to begin (or froze their bums on the cold, bumpy San Pietrini).  The press is reporting that throughout the duration of the event, emergency services had to intervene something like one-hundred twenty times.  And as in any crowd of that size, at a certain point people started pushing, shoving, and arguing, which is a bit disheartening considering the setting.  A friend told me she was actually forced to yell at a group of nuns who would not stop pushing from behind, causing her mother to lose her balance and fall.  And, of course, when it was all over the entire neighborhood of Prati looked like a bomb had dropped.

Also as expected, the opportunists had quite a field day.  Vendors capitalized on the occasion by selling €15 cans of Coke, and when it started to drizzle, €20 umbrellas.  Not like you could blame them – after all, they weren’t the ones being declared saints, right?

Undoubtedly, the images of people singing and rejoicing in the streets were touching, and a comforting reminder that there are many people in this world still moved and inspired by the examples of humanity’s most devout leaders.  The intentions of so many were certainly good – but as often happens in this world, good intentions are infiltrated and scarred by greed, negligence, anger, weakness…  In other words, by human nature.

Everything would just be so much easier if we were all saints.  Oh, the irony.

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The aftermath of sainthood.
© Roma fa schifo

10 Things I Hate About Italy

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Italy. But admiration alone doesn’t guarantee life as an expat will be an endless smorgasbord of pleasure and delight (well, literally it might, but not figuratively).  Oh no, you’ve gotta earn every drop of that mouth-watering gastronomic goodness; you pay for it with your blood, sweat, and tears, amico mio.  No matter how well I’ve assimilated to life here , there are certainly still times I view this country from a foreigner’s perspective – and if I concentrate on it too long, I realize there are a whole lot of things that can really girarmi i coglioni.

I’m typically someone who refrains from making conclusive statements before evaluating all sides of a situation (unlike those ignoramuses I detest who come back from a brief vacation abroad and are suddenly cultural experts on a place, making sweeping observations and statements like, “In Italy, everyone…”).  Generalizations are exactly that – but I’ll allow myself to indulge for a moment.  After five years here I think I’ve earned the right to make a few generic, open-ended, (dare I say) judgmental statements.

Hate is a strong word – but hey, life can’t always be a love fest, no matter where you are.  So, here they are, 10 things I hate about Italy:

1. Daily driving, which is absolute anarchy (in Rome, at least).  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if  traffic laws were virtually non-existent, and those which did exist were barely enforced.  Wait a sec, you don’t have to imagine it – just come to Rome.  The concept of getting pulled over essentially doesn’t exist here because of a lack of police presence on the streets, which makes the roadways a complete free-for-all.  You are literally at the mercy of your fellow motorists, which is not at all a good thing, since most of them are either in a hurry, in a tizzy, or just straight up stronzi (jerks, to put it lightly).

2. The post office. I’m pretty sure it was the tenth circle of hell in Dante ‘s “Inferno” – and if he didn’t include it, he should have.  I detest the place so much in fact that I haven’t physically mailed anything in at least four years.  People take a half-day off from work to accomplish something at the Italian post office.  In true useless bureaucratic style, a simple task is made difficult.  It’s probable you’ll leave with an acute hypertension problem.  Thank God I happen to live here in the age of online purchases and gifts sent directly through Amazon, otherwise I’d be a wreck.

3. Those stupid, tiny napkins at every bar that don’t absorb anything.  They seem to be coated in plastic, which makes no sense.  It’s like they’re having an existential crisis: if a napkin doesn’t properly absorb liquid, then what purpose does it exactly have?

4. The privately-owned shops and boutiques.  Ever suffered an anxiety attack while shoe shopping?  You will if you dare to enter one of these stress centers.  From the moment you open the door, the sales woman pounces and tension grows.  She immediately either: a.) wants to know exactly what you’re looking for; b.) insists on showing you things you’re entirely uninterested in; or c.) stalks you around the store in silence, just close enough to freak you out.  If you do show slight interest in something by merely grazing it with your hand, she feels the immediate need to inform you the item also comes in blah-blah colors and blah-blah sizes, and follows up with a brisk, “Can I wrap it up for you?”  Ten minutes in, and you’re ready to throw money at her and beg for mercy as you run for the door.

5. General obsession with health issues.  Everyone is always ready to self-diagnose or diagnose your symptoms (and most Italians are annoyingly proficient in anatomy).  Only in this country could you hear someone say in normal conversation, “Mi fa male il fegato” (my liver hurts).  In the States, most people couldn’t even begin to tell you where their liver is, let alone whether it hurts; we tend to lump our entire torso and its contents into the all-encompassing “stomachache.”  Then, there are the all-too-frequent discussions about digestion.  TMI, italiani! (not that TMI exists here).  Even young people habitually say things normally reserved for 80-year-old women, like: ”Mi piacciono i pepperoni, ma non li posso proprio mangiare – non li digerisco” (I like peppers, but I just can’t eat them – I can’t digest them).  I always thought it was just my immigrant grandmother who was freakishly in tune with her body (she would complain of  joint pain when it was about to rain), then I found out the whole damn country is one big pseudo-clinic of hypochondriacs.

6. Total wimpiness when it comes to the weather.  As soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees in the fall, everyone begins to fret about the cambio di stagione they have to do at home (switching of summer/winter clothes), and they start dressing as if they lived in the Arctic Circle.  Please, people, I grew up in Ohio – your light rain and chilly temps are our Spring Break.  Then there’s the simultaneous widespread fear of the menacing colpo d’aria (cold blast of air), which, if caught without a scarf, can send you al letto (to bed) for days.  And the worst part?  I have also succumbed to this fainthearted fate, and never ever forget my scarf.  Disastro!

7. Complete lack of political correctness.  I once saw a job announcement posted in a store window advertising a position for girls with a “bella presenza, età massima di 28,” (good-looking, maximum age of 28). Seriously, they can actually get away with that?  Yes, for some reason they can – and it’s ridiculous and infuriating.

8. You always have to worry about having change on you everywhere you go.  Whenever you buy anything, every cashier, merchant, and place of business asks if you have exact change.  For example, if your bill comes to €15.62, they ask if you have thirty-eight cents.  Seriously, who has thirty-eight cents on them, all the time?  I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about having it.  But yet I have to; it’s another thought I’m forced to squeeze into my limited brain space before going anywhere.  Otherwise, I will undoubtedly be haunted by the panicked, “Do I have any coins?” thought whenever I’m lucky enough to actually find a parking spot, or need a tip for the nice Indian guy who pumps my gas after hours.

9. The fact that the employment situation is so dire that people actually have to invent jobs that don’t exist.  No job to be found?  No problem!  Just park yourself at the nearest traffic light, parking lot, or gas station and become an honorary employee.  No, I don’t need a lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, or yet another pack of cheap tissues, grazie.  It’s a sad reflection on the state of the Italian economy when you feel obligated to pay someone for a service you really didn’t need or ask for in the first place.

10. Overly predictable people, and an awkwardly regimented society in general.  In Italy, there aren’t many people with complex identities: you are what you eat, wear, and do. Usually, what you see is what you get, without many surprises or exceptions to the rule.  From the perspective of an American used to a diverse society, that’s a strange concept.  It’s almost too easy to pinpoint a person’s social status, political beliefs, or even profession by appearance alone.  Also, much of the overall structure of society is based on the Italian eating schedule (which incidentally I’ve fully adopted, since I think it’s one of the few structural things they get right).  But I must admit it’s strange that in a country of more than 60 million people, you can actually plan your day around this schedule to avoid traffic.  For example, grocery shopping on a Sunday is a nightmare just around noon, but you can bet it’ll be a breeze from 1-3pm when everyone (and I mean everyone) is at home eating lunch. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.

That makes ten, but I think I feel a series coming on…

Check out the opposing viewpoint written on a happier day: 15 Reasons to Love Italy

“La Grande Bellezza”: Beauty Worthy of An Oscar

Italy has once again earned its place on the cinematic map with a recent win for Best Foreign Film. Without having even seen “La Grande Bellezza,” I was just happy to hear that Italy had finally contributed something to the cinematic stratosphere that didn’t involve the usual tired storylines of sordid love affairs coupled with cheesy, heart-shaped graphics on billboards. It’s been a while since Italian cinema has been worthy of the honor.

Last night, one of the public television channels aired “La Grande Bellezza” so all of Italy could come to know the film that brought home the Oscar this year. I couldn’t wait to see it, especially since my new adventures in motherhood have prohibited me from sitting through any type of programming for longer than twenty minutes. Consequently, it’s been more than a year since I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot in a cinema – and for someone who considers herself a film enthusiast, that’s quite a punishment. So I got giddy when I saw the 9:30pm time slot on my DVR: just in time to send Luca off to dreamland and have a little serious movie time.

Maybe I’m just in dire need of cinematic sustenance, or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve barely held an adult conversation that doesn’t involve bowel movement color and frequency in more than a year – but this film completely overtook me, as any great one should. It struck me almost immediately, like those certain people you meet and instantly click with. This film and I understood each other on many levels.

Judging from the dismal reviews I had come across on the internet and radio here in Italy, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. But when I heard it described as “Felliniesque,” that turned me on – I’ve appreciated the genre since my “Post-War Italian Cinema” course in college where we dissected the masterpieces of the likes of De Sica, Pasolini, and of course, Fellini.

Incidentally, to be referenced as “Felliniesque” is a double-edged sword: it can prove as off-putting to non-enthusiasts and sets too high of a standard for cult followers. From the first scene though, it’s clear “La Grande Bellezza” is an homage to the Fellini era. There are certainly those moments of pure randomness and chaos characteristic of the style, typically involving affluent characters who wander their world in a desperate insanity, searching to fill a void in their lives they can’t explain. Jovial nightlife scenes and lavish extravagance often mask their deep angst and emotional despair. But this film wins by achieving a contemporary twist and sociological depth which manifests its own identity in the persona of Jep, played by the phenomenal Toni Servillo.

Many Italians apparently had a hard time following the plot or finding any meaning in it at all (many Italians also love any excuse to crap all over their own country, but that’s another story). To anyone looking for a clear answer as to what this film is about, my most obvious personal observation would be: it’s the story of a man who has spent the past forty years making Rome his playground. He’s placed all of his energy and priorities on becoming part of the upper echelon of society, only to arrive at his sixty-fifth birthday forced to come to terms with the fact he’s wasted much of his life in a superficial, hypocritical circle of high-society people and their frivolous version of a city he once hoped to dominate.

Americans can’t resist a good film with suave Italian accents and sweeping views of Rome; that might be what sealed the deal with the Academy. But I would also hope they appreciated the irony and depth in all that exquisite beauty. That immaculate Roman scenery, in my opinion, was meant to directly reflect the outwardly perfect, impeccable appearance the Roman upper-class struggles to project. In truth, what lies beneath is another story, both in the people and their city. The protagonist spends a lot of time walking through this scenery, and I understood that to be a completely intentional way of juxtaposing the striking exterior beauty of the city with the ugly interior reality of its society’s aristocrats.

I also don’t find it a coincidence that the director chose not to depict the grungy state of the city itself: the Rome of today – not the tourist center, but the one real people live and work in every day – is littered with trash-filled streets, poop on the sidewalks, and triple-parked cars. Only those who live in or are intimate with Rome could recognize this inherent irony. That’s why I really loved this film: Sorrentino managed to present it in a way that it would be embraced instantly for the stereotypically intense beauty of Rome, while at the same time producing one of the greatest critiques of this city today, from the point of view of those who live it.

It was a perfect portrait of what it means to be a true Roman, who struggles with both the love and admiration for his city, as well as the frustration and utter disgust for the life it can enable. The excess and exaggeration of the Dolce Vita era is alive and well even today in the Italian capital – and its participants are just as out of touch with the real world as ever. The clean and exaggeratedly pristine scenography couples with the ideal many in that particular social circle try to portray, only to fall short and lose touch with reality altogether.

No doubt though, the reason I enjoyed this film so much is not only because I live in Rome, but because in my years working in this great city, I’ve been exposed to people similar to the characters in this film. So I can appreciate this film’s point of view and its sophisticated depiction of the soul of a complicated city and its varied inhabitants.

By all means, watch this film for its stunning imagery – just remember to look deeper to reveal the Rome buried beneath all the beauty.  And as far as viewing this or any “Felliniesque” film goes, remember: Give it a chance. Don’t try to follow or understand a direct plot line. Approach it with a light heart and a keen sense of irony. And most of all, sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

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Reflecting on Five Years in Rome

“Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in…”  

Mamma mia, I’ve been living in Italy for five years now.  That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

Along with the start of a new year, I suppose it’s as good an opportunity as any to pause and reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

A lot has happened in five years: I moved across the world, changed jobs/apartments/cars more than once, gained friends, got married, bought a home, lost friends, perfected my Italian, became a dual citizen, totally assimilated into another culture, made at least a dozen trips over the ocean, and – oh, yeah – had a baby.  Phew!  It’s almost dizzying when I break it down into a list like that.  It’s pretty amazing what you can do in five years.

I made my move to Rome in late fall of 2008, fresh from three and a half years of a blissful, care-free existence of beach volleyball, industry parties, and lychee martinis in Los Angeles.  For in the great battle of long distance relationships, I ultimately “lost” and accepted the role of the person who would make the move to allow the relationship to continue to exist and ultimately flourish.

Carrie Bradshaw had New York City; I have Rome.  Although I’ll never underestimate the power of Los Angeles, Rome has been my life-changing city.  As trite as it may sound, I do believe in the concept of falling in love with a place.  That head over heels, knock you on your ass feeling is the only thing that could actually push a person beyond a pipe dream and into a move as bold as mine.  I had made the decision to move for purely personal reasons, but in truth had fallen in love with Rome long before falling in love with my husband.  So the change intrigued and excited me, regardless of my relationship.

However, unlike my first experience with Rome as an inexperienced undergrad, this time there was a lot more already on the table after those amazing years in LA: a great start to an exciting career; a circle of bright, dynamic friends I adored; and a life I had built on my own that I was very proud of.  My standards and expectations for a new beginning in Rome were about, oh, the size of the Hollywood sign.

That first year is a bit of a blur of a lot of work, gelato, and an endless amount of calls to the Italian consulate.  I had spent my last year in LA networking with anyone and everyone who had any business in Rome, and I had some great job leads – but they all said the same thing: “We can’t hire you until you have a work permit and/or citizenship.”  ”My dual citizenship will be coming through any day now,” I’d say confidently, since I already knew I was eligible through my blood line.

It was all just a matter of paperwork being processed, which I had already gathered and delivered almost a year before moving (I’ll save the details of what a rottura di palle that was).  I was sure the bureaucratic bull was over, but I was wrong.  In reality, my dual citizenship wouldn’t be official until almost two long years later, just a couple months before I was to be married and receive it by legal right anyway.  Talk about a calcio in culo (kick in the ass).

Anyway, because of all the effort I put into networking, I did manage to hook myself up with a pretty fantastic freelance gig, and walked into a job a week after I arrived in Rome.  I became Associate Producer of two international film festivals, one on the island of Capri and the other back in Los Angeles.  It was a dream job: I dined with Heather Grahm, had drinks with Baz Luhrman, and hung out with Samuel L. Jackson and his family [sidenote: when he unexpectedly called my cell phone the first time asking who would pick him up at the port in Capri I almost peed my pants, seriously.  The last thing you ever expect to hear when you answer your phone is:  ”Andrea?  Hi, this is Samuel L. Jackson…”].

Too bad the whole shebang was headed by a coked-up crazy man who slowly stressed me into oblivion.  I lasted for two festivals, then had to get out.  By the end of it all, the stress of the job and the move had aggravated an underlying thyroid problem which developed into a full-fledged disease, sending my TSH levels through the roof.  It took many sleepless nights and a dizzy spell before I finally took a blood test and realized what the problem was.  Thankfully, I then found a much more relaxed freelance opportunity with a private luxury events company before the stars aligned and I joined the multi-national media company I now call home.  Once I finally got my career back on track, Rome and I began to get along much better.

On a trip to the States a family friend once told me: “You can live in the most beautiful place in the world, but it’s not worth much if you can’t share it with your loved ones.”  As I nodded my head and said, “You’re right,” I realized that as much as that statement may have been true, part of me disagreed wholeheartedly.

I’ve been blessed to have directly shared this experience numerous times with my parents and visiting family members and friends.  We’ve had repeated vacations and adventures in countless beautiful places many only get to see once in their lives, if lucky.  And I’ve treasured each and every one of those times, since I know all too well they don’t last forever.  People pack their bags and leave, and I stay.  Or I pack my bags and leave, and they stay.  It never gets any easier when we have to say goodbye.

Even when my family hasn’t been physically present, I feel I’ve shared this experience in my heart and mind with them all the time.  All the beauty reminds me of them.  They are a part of me, and have therefore also been present for every amazing sight, sound, and taste.

But most importantly, I’ve shared this experience with myself, which may be the most important thing a person can do.  Nothing will teach you more about the world and about yourself than travel.  Years ago I listened to the little voice in my head telling me to go beyond my comfort zone, and it has made all the difference.  I’ve found that once you listen to that voice, it gets louder, and eventually it’s all you hear.

Of course, a decision of this magnitude has had its drawbacks.  Living abroad can be lonely, polarizing, even depressing, at times.  It’s about living two parallel lives, and juggling them can be exhausting.  Striving to simultaneously enjoy your own reality while being present in another can sometimes feel like an endless whirlwind of translations, time zones, and choppy video calls.  Plus, Italy is really, really freaking far from home.  And the older I get and the more children and stuff I eventually accumulate, the harder the trip becomes.  Rather than a jet-setting adventure, it’s now a process.  And there’s nothing sexy about a process.

All the while in this adventure though, there has been one constant: the joy in finally being together with the man I love, which has managed to balance out all the hardships and has gotten me through it all.

Although it already feels like a lifetime ago, that chance meeting on a train in 2004 began to take on its own life once I made my move to Rome.  I love a good story, and ours has all the makings of a great one: drama, adventure, irrational romantic escapades – the stuff Hollywood writers sweat to dream up.

It may sound like some kind of scripted fairytale, but the reality of that particular day was just a random encounter with a kind (and very handsome) stranger on a train.  Fairytale?  Pssh.  Who needed it?  What I was searching for at the time was clarity, and I had left for Europe with what seemed to be my last chance to find it.  The last thing I needed was some Italian fling that would leave me even more confused.  I was twenty-three years old and wanted to feel certain about something – and I got exactly what I wished for.

Since we met, indecision and indifference have been inexistent.  I knew within the first couple of months: it was him, it is him, it will always be him.  It was the kind of love I had always hoped for, and miraculously, it came when I was convinced I may never find it – a perfect combination of luck, destiny, and an open heart.  That random encounter wasn’t about a romanticized, exotic love story; it was merely an appointment with destiny.  It was one day that would set the wheels of a lengthy process of change in motion, and be the catalyst for a new future that awaited long in the distance.

Do I wish my husband would have been the one to move to Los Angeles back in 2008? Sometimes, yes.  But it makes no sense to look back, especially since this is the city that brought me my life’s greatest gifts: my husband, my son, and a chance to grow and mature as a person in a way I never imagined.  Rome is as much a part of me as I am of it.  The challenge of the whole experience has changed me.  It’s molded me.  It has made me who I am, and I embrace that.

It all reminds me of a recent article about marriage circulating the internet lately, essentially communicating the notion that people don’t actually get married for themselves, but rather for the person they love; the idea that marriage is a selfless act, since you do it more for your spouse than for yourself.

What if the key to true happiness is occasionally sacrificing our own desires for the will of those we love – in both large and small ways – whether life-changing, or habitually insignificant?

In many ways, I feel my decision to move here was a major sacrifice I made for the person I loved.  But, in five years, it has evolved into much more: a new life and a new existence, both literally and figuratively.

Brings to mind one of my favorite old Jimmy Durante songs:

It’s so important to make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

Make just one heart to heart you, you sing to.

One smile that cheers you,

One face that lights when it nears you,

One girl you’re – you’re everything to.

Fame, if you win it,

Comes and goes in a minute.

Where’s the real stuff in life, to cling to?

Love is the answer.

Someone to love is the answer.

Once you’ve found her,

Build your world around her.

Make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

And you will be happy too.

Indeed, I am.