For Goethe Italy was the idyllic land of golden oranges. For Bertrand Russell its beauty could lift any depression. Franz Liszt and Henry James couldn’t stay away, Axel Munthe came and never left, Queen Christina abdicated the Swedish throne to live out her life in Rome. When D.H. Lawrence was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover he had not English gamekeepers but Tuscan peasants in front of his eyes. My husband Alvin Curran started to dream of Italy watching Neorealist movies in high school. And if you’re travelling around the peninsula these days you may trip over George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Sting, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Francis Ford Coppola, or Madonna near their Italian homes.
Nothing about my childhood in the projects could have made a gypsy see the Bel Paese in her crystal ball. Its only presence in my young universe was in the form of “Italian ice,” a kind of lemony mush sold from a pushcart in soft pleated paper cups that we would squeeze into our mouths like toothpaste from tubes. The closest my mother came to Italian cooking was SpaghettiOs.
As a kid I didn’t know any Italians as such, though they probably lurked among the tribe of Catholics who showed up one day in second grade, after their First Communion, wearing petticoats under party dresses and flaunting stacks of playing cards that bore Madonnas and sparkling hearts in place of pips.
The Catholic I remember best was a fellow-tomboy who had red hair and must have been Irish. She not only believed in God but had met him when she went to Heaven to visit her little brother who had died: it was a big room lined on both sides by beds. I wonder, is that what planted the idea in my head that American doctors think they're All Mighty?
After we moved out to the suburbs I went to high school with plenty of Italian-Americans, whose home turf mostly lay on the far side of the Long Island Railroad tracks. I was scared of some of the guys, the kind we called hoods, and baffled by some of the girls. They dressed like tramps, but when we changed for gym in the locker room modestly shielded their bras with towels.
If Italy had ever had a chance to be my teenage fantasyland, it received its final blow one Friday when Madame Gustin, my beloved French teacher, lent me a small-size LP of songs by Georges Brassens. The track I was supposed to listen to was a setting of François Villon’s famous poem about the snows of yesteryear (listen). But in a weekend of playing the record over and over I managed to figure out that the other songs described earthier subjects such as young couples making out on park benches (listen) and a girl nursing a kitten at her breast (listen). Overnight I was a budding Francophile, dreaming of idle afternoons swigging coups de rouge to a soundtrack of risqué songs.
Italy remained beneath my radar all through college and beyond. Nothing about it attracted me, from the spaghetti-and-meatballs cuisine that at the time passed for Italian to the painting galleries of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where I could appreciate neither the Tuscan Primitives (too stiff) nor the Roman School (way over the top).
But then one day it was February 1970 and I was happily living out my French dreams in the sidewalk cafés of Aix-En-Provence, when news arrived that my friend Ursula Oppens was going to play a big piano concert at Milan. Reluctantly, out of loyalty, I made a hop across the Italian border to hear her play, meaning to visit the Brera then scoot back to my stoner pals in Aix.
Instead I was an instant convert. I. In France I had to keep on my toes – a cultural ignoramus by definition, chastised for every grammatical error, attacked for the war in Vietnam as though I hadn’t always been on the other side of the barricades. Across the Alps in Italy, within two days I had discovered another and gentler universe, where people never uttered a word of reproof. They relished every word you tried out in their language. They listened. They accepted you for who you were, even if it was obvious how much better off they thought you’d be if you caught onto their food, their wine, their ways of dressing and singing and putting on makeup. France was history, Italy my new stomping ground as long as I was in Europe. Though it would take eight years before I managed to move there permanently, I was hooked.