One in an occasional series of Q & A profiles of “wannabe” Italians
Melissa Muldoon is a freelance graphic designer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through her firm, Melissa Design, she creates graphics for Web and print. Raised in the Midwest, she studied studio art and history at Knox College. At the University of Illinois at Champaign, she worked as a teaching assistant and earned a Masters degree in Art History. Deciding she’d rather be “doing” art rather than “talking” about art, she pursued a career as a graphic designer. She is married to Patrick Muldoon and has three boys and a beagle. Her passion for art opened the door to Italy for her. During college she participated in a study abroad program in Florence and discovered a country full of history, culture and tradition, yet overflowing with contemporary style and quirky idiosyncrasies. Her love for art brought her “home” to Italy for the first time.
Q: Living “Italian”. . . Is it a great way to live or the greatest way to live?
A: Ma dai! Non c’e’ un modo migliore! Come on! There is no better way to live!
A: Let me just start off by saying I am a classic type A personality. I am impatient, competitive and a list maker. I don’t know what I like better, adding things to my “to do” list or checking them off. I’m usually up late finishing a project or starting the next. I zoom from one appointment to the next and despise sitting in traffic or wasting time at stoplights. Now, while a type A lifestyle is great for getting things accomplished and moving ahead in life, it may not be the sanest way to live.
Fortunately for me, I found Italy and discovered how to “live Italian.” Italy is my alter ego. It balances out my yin and yang. When I am in Italy, time slows down and I relax. I let go and go with the flow. My senses are reawakened and my creative side is nurtured and flourishes. I savor meals and notice things like the multi-colored marzipan pastries elegantly displayed in the panetterie and bars, or the wheels of cheese stacked up like oversized building blocks in the corner markets. I feel the cobblestones, worn and rounded by time, under my feet. I hear the clang of the church bells and the ronzare of the Vespa bikes. I meet the most interesting people, Italian locals and fellow travelers, and develop long lasting friendships.
Italy brings out the best in me and I try on a daily basis to remember and nurture my “inner Italian”. When I am most frenetic, I think of Italy, take a deep breath and recall the fields of Val d’Orcia or the rocky Ligurian coast, and this helps me to regain my calm sense of self. Perhaps I could never “marry” Italy, I am after all a type A personality and do love efficiency, but I LOVE my “love affair” with the country. It is a romance that I never want to end. It helps me remember what is truly essential in life; appreciating beauty, enjoying small pleasures and nurturing friendships.
Q: When did you discover your Inner Italian? What is your Inner Italian named?
A: My Inner Italian was first awakened during the fall of 1981, when I studied Art History and painting in Firenze through Knox College’s study abroad program. It was my first solo trip abroad and I lived with an Italian family while attending art classes in via del Fiume, near the church of Santa Maria Novella. My home base was Florence, but I also had the opportunity to travel around Italy soaking up historical sites and master works of art in Rome, and Venice and other smaller towns.
It was during this time that I first fell in love with Italy. Michelangelo, Giotto and Ghirlandaio took me by the hand and opened my eyes to a wealth of images, art and architecture that I continue to draw upon for inspiration. In Florence I took my first Italian language class. However, it was not a priority at that time. I frequently skipped language classes to sit in the bars and drink espresso with friends, or lounge on the steps of the Duomo enjoying la bella vita as I watched the busy, fashionable Florentines go about their daily business.
My inner Italian lay dormant for several years after my return to the States. In fact, the first thing I did after I came home was to buttare via il dizionario throw out my Italian dictionary. But, funny how some experiences can haunt you and change your life forever! It wasn’t until years later, after beginning a family and starting a successful graphic design business that my “inner Italian”, which I call Girasole (Sunflower) was reawakened.
In 1996 my mother gave me Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun for my birthday. I read that book cover to cover and it brought back a flood of memories, smells, tastes and sounds that resonated with me. The Italian words that Mayes sprinkled throughout her writing rolled around in my head and I regretted not having really learned the language. In those moments of vicariously traveling through Italy with Mayes, something profoundly shifted in me and like a golden Tuscan Girasole turning toward the sun, my Inner Italian slowly started to come alive and blossom. That year my husband and I made our first return trip to Italy. I longed to show him “my” Italy. I came home from that trip and immediately went out to the local bookstore and stocked up on grammar books and tapes, thus beginning my passionate quest to learn the language.
Q: What does “living Italian” mean to you?
A: For me “living Italian” means recreating a little piece of Italy here at home. It means bonding with others who are passionate about Italy. It means enjoying the Italian culture through friends, films, TV, books, coffee, cooking and sharing meals.
A day doesn’t go by that I am not thinking about expanding my Italian vocabulary or perfecting my Italian grammar. All my American friends are used to the fact that half the postings on my Facebook page are in Italian or have something to do with Italy. I can get as excited about a statue of the Madonna by Donatello, as I do for a Dylan Dog comic book by Tiziano Sclavi. I like to listen to streaming Italian radio while I work, drink coffee made in my Moka caffettiera and eat Panettone served on my Italian ceramic ware during the holidays.
For me there is nothing finer than humming along to Zucchero while attempting to make homemade gnocchi with fresh basil from the garden. And what Google search wouldn’t be complete without discovering an expat’s blog about living in il bel paese or skimming the on-line pages of Gente to check out the newest Dolce & Gabbana fashions and latest Italian gossip. I confess, I am an Italian soap opera junkie and my day isn’t complete unless I have downloaded the latest episode of Un Posto al Sole onto my iPod so I can watch it while working out at the gym. And books! I can’t get enough of Italian novels and I would just as soon read an American or English author in Italian, than in English. Figurati!
Q: What nurtures your Inner Italian?
A: My Inner Italian is nurtured by my love for the Italian language and daily contact with Italian friends. It started at first as “The Melissa Project” — me, an Italian grammar book and a few language tapes. As I grew more confident about my language skills, I took evening classes where I actually had to open my mouth and speak the language. Then I branched out into my local community seeking out Italians to hang and converse with. I combed the Internet looking for chat groups, like impariamo.com and LiveMocha.com, to find people to communicate with through message boards and Skype. 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 and that thought nurtures my Inner Italian!
Q: What Italian movie, or movie set in Italy, do you most like? Why?
A: My favorite Italian movie is Cinema Paradiso directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. This is a wonderful nostalgic film about childhood memories, first love, and changing times. The music is wonderful, the characters are lovely and the story is powerful.
Q: When and where was your first visit to Italy?
A: I lived in Florence during a study abroad program when I was in college. I also visited Siena, Lucca, Viareggio, Venice and Rome and many other places throughout Tuscany.
Q: When and where was your most recent trip to Italy?
A: Since 1995, my husband and I have returned to Italy almost every two years. Our most recent trip was in September 2008. I specifically select locations further out from Rome and Milan where I can use my Italian and my husband can practice his Italian driving techniques. As friendships are born on the internet, so are vacation destination points. So, last fall I selected the cities of Mantova, Bardolino, Parma and Lerici. In Mantova we visited the in-laws of my dear friend Roberta, who have a summer home in the outskirts of the town. We spent a wonderful day with them in their home, where they cooked spectacular meals for us and with them we visited the medieval Ducal Palace of the Gonazagas, as well as the more modern Grana Padana cheese factory and the vineyards near Garda, where we witnessed the start of the vendemia (grape harvest). In Bardolino we spent a day with Rossella and her husband Massimo, who own a leather shop. Massimo is also an artist and we had the pleasure of visiting his gallery and seeing his paintings. In Parma we toured the city and lunched with our friends Gabrielle and Monica. We ended our sojourn in the little fishing village of Lerici on the Ligurian coast where we visited Megan and her husband Luigi. We cooked with Megan’s mother-in-law one day and swam in the Bay of Poets the next. Despite a little bit of rain (okay, maybe a lot of rain!) we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I am currently at work planning our next visit in September 2010.
Q: If you could live in one place in Italy for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?
A: Definitely not an easy question to answer, as I have not yet explored all of Italy. Puglia, Sicilia, Sardinia and all points south of Amalfi are yet undiscovered. But if I were to pick a spot right now, it would have to be in the area around Pienza and Val d’Orcia. First of all, my husband and I love Brunello wines and I love the picturesque countryside. However, I do love Gubbio in Umbria, the truffles and hills are amazing…and there is something ever so lovely about Liguria, il pesce (the fish) and the sea…so, I will have to make a few more visits to Italy before giving a definitive answer to this question. But, I do daydream quite often of having an Italian casa to return to during the summers! Magari! Someday!
Q: Last Italian meal. . .what would it be?
A: Again a very tough question, seeing as every meal I have ever had in Italy, including those at the autogrills along the highway are superb according to any American standard! But, in the end I would have to say, for my last meal I would like Paglia e Fieno or Straw and Hay pasta that was made in a little trattoria just off Piazza Santa Croce in Firenze. I don’t recall the name but it was owned by the Italian husband of my American Art History teacher. I have yet to taste a finer bowl of pasta…or, maybe it would be the stuffed focaccia we had at La Bonta Nascoste during our last evening in Lerici. Again, I will have to get back to you on that…more field research is required!
Italia il cuore resta con te. Ci ritornero’ il piu’ presto possibile!
Italy my heart is with you, I will return as soon as I can!
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 an autographed copy of Cooking Up an Italian Life.