Featured in the January 2021 Issue of The Open Doors Review and included in the Series: letters from Lockdown. View Magazine Here.
By Rachel Zitin
*Part One of this essay “American… but…” is available at opendoorsreview.com/blog.
There’s a distinct irony that I wrote part one of this story and legitimately never finished it. It’s as if I knew all along that this day would come. Here we are. Four years later and a sense of relief. The biggest relief. We have lived in a world for four years where Donald Trump was the president of the United States. What has happened in that time? Who have we become? More importantly, how do I feel about who I have become? In my first reflection I explained a term that had been applied to me regularly over the past decade of my life. “Rachel is an American, but…”, the ‘but’ has applied to so many aspects of my life. But, she’s more Roman than I am. But, she loves this country more than we do. But, she doesn’t have ‘that’ American attitude. Rachel is American, but… she feels more Italian.
There is a lot to account for writing in this current moment. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. We are more connected than we have ever been and yet there is global disconnect as well. My first inclination was to write this from an intellectual standpoint. A discussion on hope and change and the different attitudes held between my adopted Italians and my native Americans. Rachel is American, but… she has spent quarantine and the entire pandemic here in Italy. Over the past year I have written so much on my observations of these two cultures, where they meet up and where they differ. I could easily write an essay where I intellectualize from my point of view on the Italian customs I’ve adopted and the American ones I’ve left behind. I could talk about all the ways I am still so American and all the ways I’ve become more “italianizzatta” (Italian-ized).
When I think about my beloved adopted country I instantly have a desire to write about culture, beauty, food, wine, art, and la dolce vita. A desire to put my adoration of Italian culture into an essay that reads with the same sweet dreamy imagery as a scene from The Talented Mr. Ripley or the cinematography of La Grande Belezza. I want to write it all, golden hour light dancing around on terracotta colored buildings with patina paint and painted green shutters. The perfume of the jasmine flowers that bloom in the springtime and the thick smell of Rome in the heat of the summer, the sun bouncing off of cobblestones and lightly cooking the entire landscape. I want to write about the sensation of living in a world that is colored like honey. This world is filled with beautiful people, beautiful art and a language that drips off of one’s lips like honey dripping off honeycomb. My love affair with Italy has clearly grown even stronger over the years. My inclination is to write it with as much rawness as I can comfortably muster. Rachel is American but… Rome has become her identity.
Almost exactly a year after the 2016 election, I took one of the most life-changing trips I have ever taken. I had worked especially hard the previous year and in retrospect I was on the brink of total burnout. Through working ridiculously long hours with hardly any days off, I had earned and saved money. That year I visited the Colosseum well over a hundred times. To be fair, I had enjoyed my days with clients from all around the world, truly I had. My job as a tour guide provided me with the opportunity to relish in the city of my dreams. I delighted in explaining, often to Americans, the nuances of the Italians and Italian culture, how they ate, how the grocery shopped, how they congregated in piazzas, how they lived. Through sharing my love of all things Rome, I enhanced and deepened my adoration of my adopted city. But I had burned out, a fact I would only discover in hindsight.
I spent the money I’d saved and I traveled. I traveled to escape myself, to find myself, to escape reality, and to discover it. That trip changed my life. I did my 200 hr yoga teacher training in Bali. I traveled to Cambodia, to India and to Thailand. I met people from all over the world. Often, I found myself torn between how Italian I felt and how American I am. One evening in Indonesia with dear friends from Rome we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We ate pasta with seafood that was actually cooked al dente and creamy imported burrata that tasted like it had been made the day before. The whole meal was perfect and it made me cry. I cried because the food was so good. I cried because my Rome friends were with me. I cried because I was happy and because I was homesick and because the shared experience of eating an Italian meal in this context gave me a deep sense of belonging. Rachel is American but… she ‘gets’ Italian culture, Italian food, the joy of a shared meal and why we spent the extra money on the imported Donnafugata wine from Sicily. Despite all my travels, this culture, these people, this food and these traditions were a part of my essence just as much as everything that had shaped me in my adolescence.
Unsurprisingly, returning to Italy after those adventures felt like home. I returned to my beloved apartment and I settled in. I spent more time immersing myself in Italian culture. If I was falling in love with Italy before, now I was italianizzatta. Italianized. I had committed to being in Italy and I was becoming more Italian in the eyes of the Italians.
And that’s where our story actually begins. What does it mean to become “italianized”? What does my love affair with Italy have to do with all of this? It is the backdrop, the setting, the scene. As Donald Trump botched America, I lived in a fairytale of my own creation. To be cliche, that trip and yoga changed my life. I worked a little less than before. I slowly learned something I am still learning: to do nothing. I did yoga and I danced and I wrote and I dreamed and I socialized and I surrounded myself with people I loved. I ate delicious food and drank delicious wine and experienced life in Italy with the fervor of the Italians. I allowed myself to let go and in doing so I discovered that the Italians had been living like I was all along. I’d been so blinded by my American identity that I hadn’t actually immersed myself fully before.
I discovered how out of touch I was with my surroundings. I finally observed that Italians generally live life in the moment, something I could have explained to a tourist before but never fully understood what it meant. I watched how my adopted culture lives their lives. How they ate with leisure, drank with leisure, spent hours soaking in the company of their neighbors outside in piazzas. I romanticized the lives of these beautiful humans and this beautiful city. I allowed my friends to make fun of my romance with Rome. They’d point out the trash as it piled high in the streets, the chaos of the city, the corruption and the scandals. In a way, I found the flaws as intriguing as the beauty. I spent hours aimlessly wandering around new corners of Rome, soaking in the colors, the buildings, the beauty. I listened to the chit-chat and the ever present clatter of tourists and city life amidst ringing church bells and the hum of traffic. I watched life and people and began to look strangers in the eyes. I’d previously credited my lack of not remembering people’s eye colors to my lack of observing. Turns out I simply wasn’t making eye contact in a meaningful enough way for it to register. Italians are very direct with how they communicate and do not bother with niceties as much as Americans do. I accepted that ‘ma sembri stanca in faccia’ (your face looks tired) was not an insult so much as it was genuine concern. Rachel is American, but you can treat her like one of us.
And just like that, it was March 2020. A global pandemic. Rome went from a teeming metropolis filled with people from all over the world to an empty abandoned city under lockdown in a matter of weeks. I watched in February as concern mounted and tourists left. I was in awe. In March, I sat in my apartment and felt the unity of the Italians in the face of a pandemic. We went into our homes and we stayed connected. Videos of Italy in lockdown made international news. Friends and family from America called me and I recounted with pride the beauty of an abandoned city, the silence on the streets, the sensation of being connected while we were all physically apart. I listened to L’inno Italiano with a sense of pride and my Italian friends teased me that I was becoming a nationalist. What happened next? Rachel is American, but she spent quarantine in Rome. After two months in total lockdown, we emerged. We walked out into the streets in May and I felt sensory overload at the culture and beauty and sunshine and daily life that felt like it was dripping in honey.
The following months felt like being on a movie set. We smiled at each other as we passed by, united in our shared experience of lockdown, united in our fear of the future, united because we were all unsure what the changes were going to mean. Still, the city was emanating beauty. There was a sun-soaked dreaminess and you couldn’t help but soak it all in and stay present. I can’t quite explain how beautiful Italy was. Perhaps that’s for another day, another story. I can say that in the last nine months a lot has changed in the world. I can acknowledge and recognize that there has been suffering, pain, change and excruciating growth. I can also say that my identity has continued to evolve. Perhaps before I was not quite sure if I identified with the culture I lived in or to the culture I came from. This year of living in a Rome without tourists has taught me that I fit into both. So yes, I’m italianizzata. But after the recent US election, I feel a little more proud also saying: why yes, I’m American… but…
Author Bio: Rachel grew up in Asheville, NC and accidentally moved to Rome in 2009. Her adoration for Italian culture grows incrementally with each passing year. She is an avid yogi and yoga instructor. She also works as a tour guide and is passionate about creating and curating retreats and wellness experiences all around Italy. Website: www.rachelzitin.com