Envying the simple, yet rich, life in Italy is nothing new. Shakespeare, who understood that location is the thing, set All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing and many of his plays in this luminous land.
Five hundred years later, the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” defined the dream for millions in the new millennium. The adaptation of American Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir begat caravans of tour buses chugging up and down Tuscan hills. The pilgrims fantasize about life in Cortona, Montepulciano, or San Gimignano populated with flirtatious dark-eyed shopkeepers, sunflowers by the armload, and languid afternoons at a caffè. There are no sick kids, overdue bills, cold rainy days, PMS, or arguments with your partner.
The allure of this ideal is quite simply irresistible-even to natives. My Roman friend Anna, who comes from an aristocratic family in Emilia-Romagna (and, from my perspective, has a pretty enviable life) was even given a translated copy of Under the Tuscan Sun by her mother!
The bad news about this fantasia all’italiana is that few Americans, Italians, or anybody else for that matter, can afford an ancient stone house like Bramasole. Fixer-uppers start at three-quarters of a million dollars. The good news is that imaginary Italian real estate is free.
Irish author Frank McCourt’s family “purchased” some prime Italian terra in Angela’s Ashes when floods forced them upstairs in their row house. Just before Christmas, Frank and his brother Malachy come home to a dark, empty kitchen. He writes, “. . . There’s a noise upstairs and when we go up we find Dad and Mam and the missing furniture. It’s nice and warm there with a fire blazing in the grate. . . . (Mam) thinks we should stay upstairs as long as there is rain. We’ll be warm through the winter months . . . . Dad says it’s like going away on our holidays to a warm foreign place like Italy. That’s what we’ll call the upstairs from now on, Italy.”
I, too, privately imagine that I live in Italy. When I mention this during my talks about the happy, healthy Italian way of life, it always gets a big laugh from the audience. People mistakenly assume that I’m joking.
I did live in the real Italy for several years in the mid-’70s, and return as often as I can, and those experiences changed me. Gradually I’ve slowly become more “Italian” in my attitudes and life choices.
I don’t think I was consciously in touch with my Inner Italian until a visit to Italy to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary with my husband Walter and daughters Emma and Tess. Experiencing that old Mediterranean magic through the girls’ fresh perspectives reminded me of all that I had cherished.
I saw with the 20-20 clarity of hindsight that I had unconsciously made many “Italian” life choices. In the Chicago area, I chose to live in a village within an easy walk of a train line to commute to my newspaper job downtown. From the city station, I walked twenty minutes to the office, stopping along the way for my morning caffè. Every evening, I lit the candles and sat down to a soothing family meal. I cultivated herbs and flowers because it was such a kick to pluck my own rosemary for porchetta or catch the scent of lavender on the June breeze.
My reborn passion for Italian ways took the form of a book, Cooking Up an Italian Life: Simple Pleasures of Italy in Recipes and Stories. The volume struck a chord with readers who had also been seduced by Italy’s charms. The executive assistant who takes such joy from painting her apartment a Tuscan ochre. The retired banker who bakes from-scratch pizza every Sunday. The sales rep who ditched her corporate job to open an Italian ceramics shop.
With delight, I’ve discovered that my conscious embrace of simple Italian ways is in sync with a larger movement. In many industrial countries, overscheduled, overstressed, overindulged people are seeking to re-create their daily lives. Italy speaks to this yearning to savor. The magnificent art works of Italy-Brunelleschi’s dome and Michelangelo’s ceiling-are recognizable at a glance. But the greatest Italian art form-the art of living simply, yet so richly-is a more subtle and elusive creation.
I realize that saying that I imagine I live in Italy isn’t quite on the mark. I entertain the notion that Italy lives inside of me. I call my Inner Italian Sharona. It’s silly. I know it’s silly. But as Sharona I’m sexier, feistier, and more alive. My hope with this blog about the joys of all things Italian is to help you name your own Inner Italian.