When Life Gives You Lemons . . . January 2024 All Things Italy

January 13, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Potted lemon trees in Tuscany’s June sunshine. The trees had been inside a protective limonaia in January.

Dear Friends: 

As the winter’s first snow spits and sizzles outside my window, I’m grateful to be sitting inside. At my desk and keyboard, I can turn slightly to glance out, look straight ahead at magically appearing words on my screen, or I can look inward—to my imagination, memories, and reflections. It seems that each winter I spend more and more time with the latter—living inwardly. Amazing how those memories can warm up the mind and soul! This image of lemon trees, taken on a June trip to Tuscany, certainly helps.  

All Things Italy began with such memories, some of you subscribers may recall, in January three years ago. I had been blogging a bit for a few years, but by the winter of 2021, I had an ah-ha moment. My Fulbright teaching in Sicily had shaped a decade of my research, writing, and daily life here in the US. Hard to believe—that teaching appointment began fifteen years ago this week! I decided then to zoom in on my experiences on the peninsula, delving into Italy past and present. 

I share this brief origin story now because many of you are newer subscribers. I’m especially grateful to all of you who have signed on during the past year—so much so that I sent off a copy of Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks to one of you, randomly selected on New Year’s Day. (You know who you are!)

As I reflected last week what to include in this month’s newsletter, I opted to set aside New Year’s resolutions or sharing another list of “best” or “favorites.” Frankly, I’m freakin’ tired of seeing all those and thousands of other suggestions for how to get organized for the year. You? It’s not that I’m an unbeliever. It’s that the articles have almost smothered me. I’ve been gasping for a breath of fresh air as I scroll, even as I sift mentally through plans for the year.  

I chose instead to provide a little more background about myself and my interests, in hopes of also soliciting more input from you. I’d like to know more about who you are, where your interests lie, and so forth. Again, many thanks to new subscribers who have sent me some info. I’d love to receive more from others of you. Meanwhile, here goes with more about me and Italy’s influence. 

The copy of Engaging Italy I sent out to a randomly selected new subscriber.

Let’s start with a bit more about the book I sent out just after New Year’s Day. Those who have a copy (or have read about Engaging Italy) know that the book is an academic one. With footnotes, it’s chock full of details about 19th US women who ended up in Italy. These women were not tourists but residents. My work on the book filled much of the decade following the Fulbright in Sicily in 2009.

And as I was cleaning my office in early December, shredding old receipts and travel documents, I realized just how many trips I have made across the Atlantic since the Fulbright experience—almost every year since then, and twice in some years. I took those trips while juggling family responsibilities and a career as a professor. You might think I had been trying to escape married life in the Missouri Ozarks! More on “Great Escapes” and me below. 

None of the women in Engaging Italy was young when she crossed the Atlantic. No study away students here! Would these women have been called oldsters? or middle-aged? Perhaps, if those words had been used in the 1860s. Forty-ish or beyond, these women found what I call their “later vocations.” Each dug deep inside themselves, as they came face-to-face with challenges of living in another culture. As they determined how best to live outside the US, they didn’t just survive—they thrived. 

And, before you ask, I’ll answer, yes. Almost all writing is driven by questions that concern or interest the author (in this case, moi).     

Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster, who had been teaching private music lessons in New Jersey and finishing up two novels, went to Rome in 1868, determined to be a successful journalist. Her Great Escape was largely to assert her independence from a controlling brother.

New Yorker Emily Bliss Gould arrived in Italy in 1860 with her husband, a former naval physician, for reasons of her health. She wanted to escape the climate of the northeastern US. (There’s another motivation as well, as I reveal in the book—but no spoilers here!) By 1867, she had thrown herself into fundraising on behalf of education for impoverished children.

In 1861 translator and poet Caroline Crane Marsh, married to the US Minister Plenipotentiary to Italy, went abroad with plans to fulfill her role as a diplomatic wife. She and her husband hoped they would escape some of the financial and political challenges of life in the States as the Civil War approached. She continued her literary work, often assisting her husband with his writing. But Marsh also later joined Gould in philanthropic ventures with education. 

These women, now forgotten like so many other nineteenth-century figures, speak to the ways in which many of us dream about living elsewhere—especially at mid-life. But as Engaging Italy explains, when each woman arrived abroad, she faced harsh realities. Italy was not all sunshine and wine. Just as rooftops and antennas scarred my view of snow-covered Mt. Etna in 2009, the scenes sometimes fell short of what the women expected. Their utopian visions became rather dystopian. How, then, did each of these women find way to a rewarding later vocation? The book tells that tale.  

This view of Sicily’s Mt. Etna in early January, from my apartment terrace in Catania, surprised me. The 1960s apartments and roof antennas were unexpected, for sure. My place was in an 18th-century palazzo in dire need of restoration (similar to the one in the lower-left corner, if you want to zoom in).

As for me, I applied for the Fulbright at mid-career, ready for new challenges and a new locale. I would be teaching familiar material (American literature) but in a new environment. The Sicilian experience opened a new research area for me—I became fascinated by literature about Italy, written by US citizens who lived abroad. My family lived with me for the Fulbright, so I also was concerned about how marriage and offspring figured into these tales. After those months abroad, studying the writings of expats became my obsession. The seeds for Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks were sown.  

Brewster’s, Crane’s, and Marsh’s experiences of adjusting to realities of life abroad and my own are not isolated ones, of course. In fact, in Engaging Italy I point to numerous others, what some might call those of “the usual suspects”: Margaret Fuller, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, for example. As they faced Italy’s beauty as well as its sour lemons, how did they make the proverbial lemonade? or, as podcaster Nancy Steele asks, when she discusses retiring to Italy, limoncello

Simeti’s Sicilian Answer 

As I recently recalled my January days in Sicily—a challenging transition to rainy days in a damp, chilly apartment without the heat of a US home—I came across some notes from one of my favorite memoirs by an expat writer. Mary Taylor Simeti’s words also speak to these challenges of finding new vocations while living abroad. 

My copy of Simeti’s book, which I purchased after first reading a library copy. I wanted her words and memories near at hand.

Simeti’s memoir On Persephone’s Island (1986) was published almost twenty-five years after the author, a US citizen, married a Sicilian. She had met her husband while working on the island in a post-college graduation year. She was quite young. But Simeti wrote the memoir with the perspective of age. Her stated purpose, she explains, was “only to entertain those who know nothing of Sicily and to make their visit . . . more rewarding.” And yet, she does much more than that in her lyrical sentences and poetic descriptions. (Simeti’s style reminds me of M.F. K. Fisher’s). She provides raw kernels of wisdom about herself living in a new culture, a young woman educated with privilege in the US, awakening to gender and cultural realities in Sicily in the early ‘60s.  

Simeti explains her attempts to find her callings, distinct perhaps from what her family expected of her, in what was a tumultuous era back in the US:    

“In Sicily I sought the space in which to sort out my own expectations from all the others, and I found myself with almost more space than I could couple with: alone for most of the day with nothing to do, no place to go, no relevant qualifications, I was unable to lay my hands on any of the famous ‘inner resources’ that I had been led to believe would take the drudgery and the boredom out of housewifery, and I was terrified of being forced to admit there might be even a shred of truth in the dire prophecies my mother had made about married life in Sicily.  

I sat in my in-laws’ house, cold and bored and childishly resentful of the moth-eaten dreariness of my surroundings, of the uncomfortable chairs and inadequate lighting, of the atmosphere heavy with age, ill heath, and mourning . . . . The disparity between their lives, which had begun at the end of the nineteenth century in the same small Sicilian town where they were now drawing slowly and painfully to a close, and my youth in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century America, was enormous: I was an enigma to my in-laws, and . . . my in-laws were a threat to me. Building a bridge of kindness and comprehension was slow and difficult work.”  

As the memoir testifies, Simeti successfully built that bridge, taking on new cultural understanding and habits, while not shedding completely her learned American behaviors.

As Simeti so honestly expressed, the Sicilian family situation she entered was far from the glam tourist life of White Lotus. It’s easy to explain away the differences with the passage of time. That was then, this is now.  But some aspects of expat life have not changed.

Particularly striking, though, when I compared her situation with my own and to the 19th-century women I have studied, was how Simeti successfully survived and thrived. The daily practices which helped her were not much different from what some others have done. She threw herself into the literary as well as into the domestic. She learned of local food and traditions. She read local history and classical literature of Greek and Roman culture. And she wrote. Her journaling (which made its way into the memoir) and her study of language and literature fed her—perhaps more than the local food and wine did.

(You can read a post with more on Simeti’s content here.)

*****

Ask anyone who has spent more than a month in Italy, or who has ventured beyond the gentrified tourist towns and historic centers where everyone speaks English, the peninsula throbs with a pulse that differs from that of the US. The environment is not all cinematic beauty.  

And yet, there are those who love it.  

I fell in love with Italy not in 2009 but twenty-five years before, when I arrived as a college student. Since then I have often thought that the love would dissolve. Instead, like that of a long marriage, it just seems to keep changing its shape.    

Although I started this newsletter in 2021 as the book Engaging Italy was moving toward publication, the monthly issues have emerged also from experiences long before then or the Fulbright year—experiences in the 1980s. It was then that I first began to see the differences between Italian tourism and family life, between people north of Rome and those from further south. Those experiences reside deep in my memory. As I watch videos, read about, and travel on the peninsula today, they resurface, influencing what I write here.  

This has been a rather long and rambling origin story of All Things Italy. If you’ve read this far, I hope it has given you more insights into the newsletter. As I expressed early on, however, I’d love to have to suggestions from you about your interests. Travel? Food? History? Literature?

My interests are wide-ranging as well. As for specialties, though, I have to point to literature, to women’s issues, and to history of religious and communal life.  

However, as promised last month, I point below to online publications on topics lovers of All Things Italy might find of interest.   

Some suggestions for Italy lovers:

Food

If you’re a foodie, you probably already know about Elizabeth Minchelli’s newsletter, If you don’t, you should: Elizabeth’s Newsletter from Italy

Fiction & Film

If you’re interested in historical fiction, you might want to follow Art Historian Laura Morelli, who intertwines her love of art with her creative imagination (disclaimer: I have not yet read her fiction, so I’d love your feedback, should you read some.) I love reading her short posts. This morning she announced an online workshop from Ravenna, about making mosaics.

Alas, I’ve watched no Italian video this month. Stay tuned, or send me your suggestions!

Travel & Living Abroad

If you’re considering life abroad, you might look or listen here: 

Smart Move Italy and their wonderful newsletter Italy per Te (or A New Life in Italy)

Affordable Italy: Living la Dolce Vita on a Bootstring — a podcast which also has a Facebook group. I referred above to the host Nancy Steele.

Some of you have responded in the past to my posts about group trips, expressing your interests in a future one. In May I’m co-leading with author Anne Boyd Rioux a trip focused on 19th-century author Constance Fenimore Woolson. Although this trip is currently full, we’d be happy to put your name on a waiting list or to talk with you about creating a new small group trip.   

Finally, I’ll sign off until next month.

A Febbraio (“see you” in February),

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Etta Madden