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.

Italian Nirvana

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?