The Inner Italian Q & A: Maureen Jenkins

One in an occasional series of interviews — with wannabe Italians or expatriate Italians –who try to “live Italian” wherever they are.

Photograph by Peter West Carey

Photograph by Peter West Carey

Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel and food writer and author of UrbanTravelGirl, a blog that encourages African-American women to “live globally through international travel.” She also writes TCW Travel Connection, a blog on all things journey-related for Today’s Chicago Woman magazine. She loves all things Italian, having spent nearly one year living and working in Florence. While Maureen lives in Chicago (for now, at least), she tries to “live la vita bella” by incorporating small aspects of her once-Italian life into her everyday routine.

Q: Living “Italian”…Is it a great way to live or the greatest way to live?

A: I think it’s definitely one of the greatest ways to live. But I think (and please forgive me for cheating on Italy for a moment) that living French and living Spanish and living Greek also are incredible. For me, it’s almost about “living Mediterranean,” that take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle that appreciates the fine things in life, whether it’s food, wine, sensuality, or the scent of the sea. If there is such a thing as a past life, I definitely spent it somewhere in this region of the world.

Q: Why?

A: It’s one of the greatest ways to live because no matter where you physically call home — or where you are — it enhances the everyday quality of your life. And that’s a gift we all can give to ourselves.

Q: When did you discover your Inner Italian? What is your Inner Italian named?

A: My “Inner Italian” is named Marina, a name bestowed upon me by my Italian friend Monica’s mother. Her mom hardly speaks a word of English, but explained to me that “Marina” is much prettier and softer than “Maureen,” and I couldn’t agree more! I can’t recall an exact moment of DISCOVERY when I met my Inner Italian, but I think she first surfaced during my first solo trip, which took me to a bed-and-breakfast in Napa Valley. I also met a gorgeous young Italian ragazzo in San Francisco’s Little Italy during that trip, one I kept in touch with and reconnected with in New York, Milan and Rome years after. Who wouldn’t want to keep discovering her “Inner Italian” after that?

Q: What does “living Italian” mean to you?

A: It means wholeheartedly embracing the simple goodness and sensuality in life. Taking the extra time, for example, to stop at a specialty market or gourmet grocery store for fine imported cheese or salumi rather than dashing into a regular supermarket makes a huge difference. Think how special it feels opening these hand-wrapped treasures as opposed to ripping open an industrial-strength package. It’s worth every extra dime you pay. It means purchasing the best quality you can afford, whether you’re talking shoes, pretty lingerie, or wine glasses. And even when it comes to things that DON’T cost money — valuing quality time spent with family and friends; enjoying the arts and culture just because and not only when out-of-town guests come to visit — this to me also embraces this wonderful way of living and being.

Q: What nurtures your Inner Italian?

A: Being IN Italy, of course! But since I’m usually in the United States instead, remembering what made my living and visiting Italy so pleasurable: good, unhurried meals with simple yet exquisite ingredients; good wine and conversation; and time spent dining with those I love spending time with. And since I can’t BE in Italy, I nurture my “Inner Italian” by reading travel books and cuisine/wine and travel magazines that celebrate this wonderful country. I also find it by seeking out authentic restaurants in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States where the waiters or owners actually speak Italian, giving me a chance not only to practice l’italiano on this side of the Atlantic but also allowing me to reconnect with the special times I’ve spent in bella Italia. It’s one of my small personal joys!

Q: What Italian movie, or movie set in Italy, do you most like? Why?

A: No question about it — “Under the Tuscan Sun” with Diane Lane. UTTSfilmGranted, the beautifully shot film had nearly NOTHING to do with Frances Mayes’ original book, but who cares? The story of a middle-aged woman who moved to Italy to renovate her life along with a Tuscan villa spoke to me in a way that no film ever had. In fact, it helped inspire me to quit my stressful corporate job, figure out how to make a living as a freelance writer, and move to Florence for nearly one year. The film is one I pull out periodically when I need inspiration for some other major life change — one of which I’m working on now!

Q: When and where was your first visit to Italy?

A: I first visited Italy in May of 2002 with two girlfriends, a trip we’d delayed after September 11. We first landed in Rome, had crazy issues with our luggage at the airport, and then had a mix-up at our original hotel. But thanks to the company I worked for, we ended up at a FAR better hotel, met women who have become great friends, and fell head-over-heels in love with Rome and all things Italian. What can I say? I was hooked.

Q: When and where was your most recent trip to Italy?

A: My most recent trip to Italy was in the fall of 2008, when my mom and I took a 12-day Mediterranean cruise. Among the places we visited were Livorno (the port town near Florence), Civitavecchia (the port of call near Rome), and Messina (on the gorgeous island of Sicily). Having lived in Italy, I’ve spent plenty of time in both Florence and Rome, but Sicily — especially the town of Taormina — was a super-special treat. Because of gale-force winds, we were forced to abandon the ship’s original port of call in Greece and headed to Sicily instead. I fell madly in love with this beautiful island and have vowed to return — hopefully for at least two weeks during the warm, sunny part of the year.

Q: If you could live in one place in Italy for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?

A: Hands down, it would be Rome. Not only is the antiquity simply stunning and amazing no matter how many times I see it, but parts of Rome are as modern, savvy and cosmopolitan as any other major metropolis in the world. It never ceases to fascinate me — the food is incredible and the people are beautiful. What more can one want?

Q: Last Italian meal…what would it be?

A: As much as I love all Italian food, I think mine would be fairly simple. I’d start with a good glass of Prosecco, savor some prosciutto di Parma, have a bit of super-fresh mozzarella di bufala along with some simply fried potatoes (a basic delicacy I discovered in Naples at a friend’s home during my first visit to the city). Of course, a glass of Brunello di Montalcino would have to figure in somewhere. And perhaps a digestivo of homemade Limoncello to finish me off. I’m a simple ragazza — and I’d leave this earth a happy girl!

Has Italy changed your life in a profound way? Send us a brief comment describing your Inner Italian and you may be selected as our next “Inner Italian Q&A.” If picked, you’ll receive a free autographed copy of Cooking Up an Italian Life.

5 comments on “The Inner Italian Q & A: Maureen Jenkins”

  1. By now everyone who knows me, knows I am a passionate italianophile! In fact I found “Simple Italy” because a friend of mine posted a link to this blog on my Facebook page, saying she knew this would be right up my alley. All my American friends are used to the fact that half the postings on my FB page are in Italian from Italian friends or have to do with something about Italy!

    I began my love for Italy in 1983 when I studied Art History in Florence. I lived with an Italian family and traveled throughout il bel paese soaking up the culture. I was a painter and an historian, but didn’t learn the language – then. The experience of living in Italy however, changed my life forever and when my mother gave me a copy of Frances Mayes’ book “Under the Tuscan Sun” years later, just reading the passages awakened my longing for Italy and the beautiful language I had never mastered. The Italian words Maye’s sprinkled through out her writing rolled around my head, awakening in me a longing and a passion to reconnect with Italy. Shortly thereafter, after the birth of my third son, I woke up one day and went to Borders filled with my new ambition to learn the language – and bought the first of many Italian grammar books. The rest is history. Over the past ten years I have self taught myself the language. Then I branched out into the internet to meet Italians to converse with, constantly seeking new ways to get closer to Italy. I bought and read every travel diary as well as innumerable accounts of expats living extraordinary existences in Italy. THEN I began to read them in Italian.

    My love for the Italians and their language has opened up a wonderful world of friendships and experiences. Italy is a way of life for me. I cook Italian. Drink Italian. Dream Italian. A day doesn’t go by in which I am not studying the language, writing letters or chatting on Skype with my Italian friends. My husband and I travel to Italy every other year and I select the places more and more remote so that we can enjoy and relish the real Italy that is beyond that of tourist haunts and attractions. We seek out the small towns and villages just so we can have the extraordinary experience of meeting truffle hunters in Gubbio, inn keepers in Castelmuzio and shop keepers in Praiano. I now have dear close friends, who I never would have known, had it not been for my passionate love for Italy. Because they are there, thinking of me, part of me always lives in Italy! Non c’e’ un posto migliore di Italia. Per me Italia vive sempre nel mio cuore. Ritornero’. Ritornero!

    P.s. this is so beautiful, but Barbara who posted before me is also a friend! I had to laugh out loud when I saw her post because I had no idea she was a follower of this blog as well. She and I met in San Jose, at an Italian Meetup Language Group. We became instant friends all due to our love of Italy.

    1. Sharon says:

      Melissa, you are an Inner Italian poster child!
      I truly admire your determination to master the Italian language. I struggle with my language skills but you’ve inspired me to redouble my efforts.

  2. Italy has always been in my heart, only I didn’t realize it until I had my own children. I was raised by Italian immigrant parents who came to the US in the late 50’s. Back then, it was important to assimilate into your new culture. But both my parents had the good sense to teach me to speak Italian (in fact, I learned Italian before I learned English) and to continue speaking it to me throughout my life. As my relatives in Italy tell me, I am lucky because I never had to learn to speak a language – it was always there for me!
    In so many ways, I am a true combination of American and Italian – and not really totally one or the other. Sometimes this is a bit unsettling because I feel I don’t really fit in with any one culture. My actions and decisions are based on my intuition which results from being exposed to both cultures throughout my life. But I feel that I have been blessed with the best of both worlds. My inner Italian is evident in so many aspects of my life from cooking to interpersonal relationships. I almost always cook in an Italian tradition – using fresh ingredients and creating simple, yet tasty meals. I enjoy sitting around the dinner table, long after the meal is over, to talk to my family or guests and to catch up on the happenings of the day. Whenever I hear a traditional Italian song, I am instantly happy and want to start dancing and singing to it. I love Italian home decor with its brightly hand decorated ceramics. To my eyes, there is nothing more perfect than seeing an Italian landscape – every part of Italy is beautiful. And it’s funny, I also have an inner Italian that worries like every good Italian “mamma” does about their children – are they eating enough? Are they sleeping well? Did they arrive home safely?
    I can honestly say that when I am in Italy, I am at home. Italy is in my core and in my heart.

    1. Sharon says:

      Barbara, I appreciate your comments so much. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that your Inner Italian came alive after you gave birth to your children.

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