Friday, 14 March 2014

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing… Natilee Festa

Our latest expat guest blogger, Natilee Festa, tells us about living in Italy and ‘feeling Italian’.

I love Italy. I love Italians. Everybody writes about them, including me. Sometimes it comes out like stereotypical dribble, and all I hear is people saying, “A-pasta pizza Pinocchio pie!” like in Charlie Brown cartoons when the parents talk. But occasionally, even the silliest Italophile film strikes a chord with me.

I watched a silly Jack Lemmon film with my mom a while back because it was in English so she didn’t have to toil over subtitles and it was set in Italy so I could gawk at the scenery. At one point, the protagonist declares:

“Italy is not a country, but an emotion.” -Avanti! (1972)

It’s been almost a year since I watched that movie and I don’t remember most of it, save that quotation. It is just so true.

‘Italy’ was a concept long before it became a country. We like to say that the United States is a young country, founded in 1776. When you compare it to Italy, which had thriving city-states and a republic in antiquity, the 13 colonies pale in comparison. But the Roman Empire did not define Italy, at least not until Mussolini tried to bring back it’s “glory,” this time with the addition of Fascism. In fact, the Roman Empire fell. Rome was hardly a city when the country was unified in 1861, 85 years after the Declaration of Independence. Their capital was Turin because that’s where their KING lived. That’s right, they didn’t became a republic until 1946.

Even so, the difference in years isn’t too galling. However, the Italian language (that is, the Tuscan language diffused by Dante’s Commedia) wasn’t spoken by all Italians for decades after. I was harangued less than 3 years ago by an elderly Napoletano man because I didn’t speak Napoletano. My ‘northern’ speak, the Italian standard taught in schools, offended him. Regionalism was very strong in his generation. It still is in many places. Ask a Sicilian where he or she is from and you’ll get answers like, “Sicilia,” “Palermo,” or “Enna.” It’s not they aren’t proud to be Italians; it is that their culture is tied to their region. It’s like if the North-South divide from the Civil War not only took hold but were separate kingdoms ruled often by foreign dominions and popes, with frequent invasions. Oh, and everyone region speaks not just in a different accent with cute Yankee sayings like ‘pop’ where in Dixie we say ‘soda’, but an entirely different language. No one from Georgia (pronounced Joe-jah) is that unintelligible to a Bostonian or vice-versa. But a Calabrese in Lombardia? Mayhem.

Now, of course, things are not so disparate. The diffusion of the Italian language took off with the beginning of mass media. For many, radio and television were their first Italian instructors. There was even a TV show called “Non è mai troppo tardi” (“It’s never too late”) that taught Italian grammar to people who had previously only spoken dialect.

Language aside, we must think about ‘Italy’ as the far-off wish of Machiavelli--who exalted its unification in the final section of Il Principe--then realized by Garibaldi, hijacked by Mussolini, and now one of the members of the European Union. Italy is united, modern. Right? If you ignore La Lega Nord (nicknamed il Carroccio), a political party aligned in part with Berlusconi. Their main goal is to separate the North and the South of Italy for “economic” (also racist) motives.

So after all these political-historical-socio-economic reasons that Italy as a country is a unique concept, why is it an emotion? I would like to amend the wise words spoken by Jack Lemmon: Italy is not a country, it is every emotion.

Rome opens it arms to you, to everyone. It is the friendly stranger who has stories to tell and wants to be your friend. Rome is the excitement of something that is also new.

Venice is nostalgia, its impracticality only adding to its quaintness. Isn’t it annoying to travel almost everywhere by boat? Yes, but it sure is adorable.

Assisi is solemnity, devoutness. It’s quiet contemplation, high in the hills.

Naples is curiosity. It holds many secrets, some beautiful, others terrible. It is vibrant and known to both surprise and scare.

I could go on, but the problem is that each city holds a different emotion for a different person, or for the same person at a different time. For instance, when two young boys came running across the street to tell me not to drink the water in Pompei (the Italian city that surrounds the ancient one with two i’s), Pompei was fear. When we almost missed our bus, our connecting train, and our final bus (final of the DAY, meaning we were almost stuck several towns away from our belongings and therefore our money), Pompei was terror. But those young boys did save us from some gastrointestinal turmoil, once you think about it. Then the nice old man at the limoncello shop invited to his house for a pizza--we declined--and gave us free limoncello samples--we accepted--and Pompei was more like a friendly biker whose tattoos belie a sympathetic heart. And no, we never made it to Pompeii with two i’s due to the transportation difficulties but for me climbing Vesuvius was enough tourism for one day.

In short, Italy is all the emotions, felt if not all at once, then in quick succession. Always with full force. Once I went to a small town in Campania called Agropoli, which I can describe to someone not familiar with Italian geography as being near but not on the Amalfi coast. Actually, I went there several times, the first few to go to the hospital after I fractured my arm in because, the nearby town of Paestum, where I was staying, doesn’t have its own. I went back with my arm in a sling, not a cast, because that is how they roll in Campania. It also took 3 days for me to convince them that I needed pain medication, their reasoning for withholding it being that I was not yet crying and I probably just missed my family. Once I figured that out, I turned on the waterworks, which seemed to scare the children I was supposed to be teaching, so they gave me a disturbingly-powdered substance to mix into my water, and later a cough syrup with a worrisome viscosity to protect my stomach from the aforementioned mysterious analgesic.

Needless to say, I was a little distraught. I had to channel energy and enthusiasm for my students, made all the more difficult by my arm pain and ensuing sinus infection that caused me to lose my voice. But my arm hurt and I did miss my family and the European outlets would not accept my supposedly universal hair straightener. A Good Hair Day being one of life’s small pleasures that I believe can turn one’s day around, I went in search of a decent hair product to tame my half-Italian locks.

My cohorts were looking for sensible things like, I don’t know, CELL PHONES, but I had my international $1 per minute phone so haircare became my sole priority. After explaining to every single person I met 1) ‘Where you from’ (Inglese! No, americana) 2) What you doing here’ (Vacation? No, work), and 3) ‘Why you here’, (meaning why Agropoli? They sent me here!) I finally got down to some serious bouffant business.

“Vorrei...un mousse? Per fare i capelli...ricci?” I asked for curling mousse in awkward Italian, with generous hand gestures.

“Sì sì sìììì qui abbiamo il migliore mousse del mondo e devi averlo! Qui, eccolo, dammi 6 euro, dammi 6 euro, per piacere, ooooh il migliore mousse del mondo per la bella signorina!” The most excited cashier in the whole world sold me the best mousse in the whole world for 6 euro.

That man’s terrifying excitement and the wonders the mousse did for my hair, injected yet another emotion into my Campania experience. I was hurt, sad, hopeful, happy, and at the moment, confident with my new coiff. I recounted the story to my parents in an email, my dad responding that I should come home and my mom asking me if I was okay. I didn’t know what to answer. People kept asking me questions, but how do you answer when you are feeling everything, the full emotional force of Italy?

My favorite question was “Do you still like it here?” always accompanied by a nod to my behemoth of a sling (that wrapped all the way around my body and took two people to secure).  To me it sounded like “Do you still like us even though we hurt you?” I tried not to laugh every time they said it. I felt like they were trying to bribe me with buffalo mozzarella to love them even after the rather harsh welcome I had received, this being only my second week in the country.

“Sì, sì,” I’d always answer. Because for me, Italy is all the emotions at once, jockeying for position in my heart and mind, never settling for a minute. But there is one emotion that is always at the top. It’s widely recognizable in the Italian and thus needs no translation.


About the Author

Natilee Festa is originally from Orlando, FL and is living in Rome for 6 months. She is taking courses in Communication Sciences at L'Università degli Studi Roma Tre for her Master's in Italian Studies at Georgetown University. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, writing, and searching for the best gelato in Rome. You can connect with her @Festathebesta


  1. who can i contact to submit guest posts?

  2. Hi, if you can message us with your email address we'll be in touch - Thanks!


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