Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflections on artichokes

Dear Readers,

One of the things I love about Spring's first tentative footfalls is the advent of the artichoke. The tema, the morelli--lovely, petite, and as tender as young maidens--I'd much rather be presented with a prickly bouquet of these amiable thistles than any vainglorious flower.

A recent lunch with the effervescent and erudite Patricia of Tillie's Tuscan Table began with one of my favorite dishes: a deliciously astringent salad of thinly-sliced raw artichokes, delicate shavings of parmigiano, and scattered tendrils of arugula. Among many things, we talked of what we, as expats, like about living in Italy. Patricia--in her inimitable way--proclaimed, "Italy's the only place that will support my wine habit." There followed an impassioned discussion of the mind-boggling array of cheap, excellent-quality wines that are ours for the taking. Then I looked down at my plate and said, "Artichokes. Like this. That's what I love about Italy."

And, I must say, I love a lunch like that: the artichokes followed by a thick t-bone of wood-charred veal--so juicy I could cry just thinking about it--accompanied by perfect roasted potatoes and a dish of teasingly bitter, velvety spinach. A carafe of honest house red. Simple things, in season--this is the kind of alchemy at which Italy still excels.

To my companion, I added, "I like living in Italy because my kids get to grow up eating like this. That and the fact that they're unlikely to get shot while in their classroom." The cultural hegemony of the Happy Meal and the Glock 9 has yet to encroach upon this sunny peninsula, thank God.

But, I'm torn. Expat life is complicated--at least for me. On the one hand I seem to be ruled by my gluttonous tendencies and my penchant for old buildings, on the other I often experience a longing so intense that it is at times overwhelming. For home soil? All the soothing right angles of America? The deep comfort of English? The allure of other, as yet unexplored, continents? Yes. For sure. But there's something else.

Tim Parks talks of a sort of "structural conflict" inherent in the expats' life. One of its more obvious aspects is living in a foreign language. He says that he arrived in Verona not speaking a word of Italian, and now he lectures in Italian, and lectures on translating from English into Italian (a most difficult kind of translating). "And every moment, every word I speak, I'm on guard against mistakes, I'm listening to correct my accent. It will never be quite right." Even after some thirty-odd years! But I completely understand him--this constant schism in the brain is fatiguing.

Yet he--as do I--loves Italian. "It has become my destiny," he says, "My whole life is tied up with Italy. And I hate it. I hate it for having become my destiny. For taking up so much space."

For taking up so much space. Sometimes I just want to take the world I inhabit for granted. I don't want to have to think about it. I want all that space which Italy occupies in my life to be freed up, to make room for something--anything--else.

But I'd wager I'm kind of spoiled now, even ruined, so to speak. I'm used to the daily challenges, the fish-out-of-water feeling, the fact that I'm always being forced to learn new things and reflect on the culture in which I find myself. I realize that I may very well be addicted to the expat life--if that space were empty, I'd likely grieve the loss. "Would I get better," Parks wonders, "if I went back to the UK and lived a monochrome English life? Or would I just have the same problem the other way round? Yearning for Italy. Most likely the damage, like the benefits, is irreversible now."*

I often think of moving on; I have a restless nature. Who knows what landscapes the future holds, or what my latitude and longitude will be? It's exciting to contemplate. For now, though, the artichokes beckon and I come to the table--hungry and willing to be satisfied.



*Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still


  1. Brilliant, Campobello! What a marvelous juxtaposition of Happy Meals and Glocks. You had me laughing so hard I was snorting at the computer screen.

  2. An incredible post, with issues dear to my heart, especially having an 11 year old son who most of the time, feels Italian, but sometimes yearns for America. Parks defined Italy perfectly for expats (especially for me, where no one speaks English), "it takes up too much space". I have a most complicated relationship with Italy and the "other" Denise that I have become in the Italian language. Sometimes I find it fascinating, and other days I just I just want to be able to "be". But like you and Parks, I am unsure and I'm off to my son to school and ponder this more over and artichoke salad. Thanks for your insights, Campobello!

  3. Dear papaya,

    Thank you for leaving such a sensitive comment and for sharing a bit of your experience, it means a lot to me. You brought up a wonderful point about the "other" you in Italian--I think this is a fascinating by-product of expat life. And one of the most frustrating, odd, exhausting ones, depending on the day! Ahh, to "just be...."

  4. Totally understand your sentiments. When in Italy, always missing the USA, and when in USA, dreaming of Italy. Find it also very funny that so many Italians cannot believe why Americans would want to come here to live and Americans back home get dreamy eyes when you tell them you live in Italy!

  5. Thanks for dropping by, Context--what you said is so very true! *sigh*

  6. Can honestly say I don't think it's ever been said better. You, Tim Parks and MFK Fisher undertones: perfection.

  7. Once again Campobello you sum up the expat experience so beautifully. I tried the move back home, for a full 3 years, and "monochrome" is very much how it felt; more specifically: grey. All that concrete and those wintry skies...(I imagine many others from North America or Northern Europe could relate). I always say that I am forever doomed to having my heart split in two...

  8. Michelle dear, as always, thanks for stopping by the blog. And you said it about your heart being split in two--I've heard so many expats express a similar feeling. And even gelato doesn't help.

  9. Campobello, have followed you the last several years from my perch outside Bologna where I've been hanging for the past 22 years. As far as I'm concerned, your observations outdo those of Tim Parks on his best day. Subtle, sharp, hilarious, yet humble and even indulgent when need be. I envy your clarity of thought even when you're struggling to achieve it. Thank you.

  10. Amy dear--thank you for reading all this time and for making your presence finally known via your comment! Your kind words leave me humbled. And they mean so much to me--especially today when I've only just yesterday quit my (miserable) day job and am trying to gather myself up to pursue other projects (which will hopefully include more writing/freelancing). Your message is most heartening!

  11. Anonymous2:30 PM

    You manage to say exactly what I feel and think but so much better so glad to have discovered your blog. I find Italian tiring, but I love how Parks puts it taking up too much space. I have a love hate relationship with Italy, further complicated by the fact that I grew up here so I was a kiddie expat too as a young child my dad worked for the UN in Rome. Sometimes it's more hate than love, lately anyway. Often Italians don't believe me when I say that I have trouble expressing myself or saying complex things in a thoughtful and nuanced way, they just think I am making it up, but I find it at times mentally straining to have to speak Italian all the time. I go home tired after a day of work. Speaking of home I go home to the US religiousely twice a year, come hell or high water.This is one of the reasons I don't travel much around Italy or Europe going home to the US (I'm from Northern Virginia but Austin is home now) is so expensive that I simply cannot afford to jaunt off to Paris, Rome, Berlin & London or Florence. For me it's always about squirelling away money for my precious trips home. I really appreciate what you said. So true thanks for sharing :) Dea

  12. Dea, thanks for your comment. Living in another language is indeed difficult--seems you can't take anything for granted. I think it's wonderful you get to go back to the States and rejuvenate so often. One of the very very difficult things for me is that--with a family of four--trips Stateside are prohibitively expensive for us on our puny Italian wages. We are lucky if we can go every other year :(

  13. Oh well, that's it then! All those things I was planning to write about the true side to living in Italy, unromantic Tuscany, the nitty gritty of it've already done it! And so much better than I could. I love your blog, wish I'd found it years ago. Totally refreshing, thanks!

    1. Dear Sarah,

      How nice to see your comment pop up in my inbox! Thank you :-) But if you do feel like writing about the nitty gritty, please do so--more of us need to band together to dispel the Under the Tuscan Sun myth and talk about what one can really expect from life in Italy, both good, bad and in-between!


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