CHIAVARI, Italy - A couple of years ago the UK’s Guardian newspaper published a series of articles written by writers about a defining moment in their lives. The series was called Once Upon a Life and out of the 80 or so writers the only names I recognized were George Pelecanos, the brilliant mind behind The Wire, and Peter Leonard, whose claim to fame is unfortunately based on the fact that he is the son of Elmore Leonard, one of the greatest writers of all time.
|My Favorite Piazza, Rome, Italy|
Some of the writers, in fact most of them, talked about experiences in their childhood – going to summer camp for the first time, going away to boarding school or other events that took them out of their ordinary day and put them in unfamiliar and often challenging circumstances. For Pelecanos it was his father’s heart attack that pushed him at the age of 18 into running the family business, a diner in Washington, D.C., and for Leonard, it was being arrested in Rome, Italy for stealing a taxi cab and ending up in an Italian jail.
It got me wondering if I had ever had such a defining moment in my life, and I decided no, I had not. Nothing as dramatic as their events had ever happened to me, at least not an event that changed my life. I have had some life changing experiences, but totally normal ones which did not affect me anymore than they affect anyone else – getting married for example, having children, getting divorced. But then I realized I was wrong and sometimes life-changing events take place in a very un-dramatic way.
|Rome's Fiumicino Airport|
You might think that moving to Italy would qualify as a life changing event, but I think it was something that occurred long before that that was really the game changer. It happened on my first trip to Italy, and no it wasn’t the glories of Rome that seduced me, or the beauty of Florence or even the Italian Riviera. I hadn’t gotten to that part yet, I was still in the airport.
We had just gotten off the plane and were making our way across Rome’s Fiumicino Airport when a very strange feeling came over me. It was in that moment I knew that I would live in Italy. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, I just knew it would happen. And all the time I was there I felt as if I had come home after being away for a very long time.
|Still Near and Dear to My Heart, Philadelphia, PA|
When I got back to Philadelphia, I started to study Italian. There were some forms that took forever to master and even years later, the best fashion photographer I ever worked with, Davide Maestri, would always correct me when at the end of the day I would say ‘siamo finiti’, which in Milanese jargon translates to ‘we are dead’ instead of ‘abbiamo finito’, we have finished.
Italian is a tough language to learn. I was a single mother, I had plural children, I was also in a full time relationship and held down a full time job. Time to study? What a joke. I barely had time to buy groceries. But study I did. Every morning for one half hour I sat with my ‘Learn to Speak Italian’ book and struggled through those beastly conjugations as I sipped my first cup of coffee of the day.
Then I discovered RAI International had started broadcasting in the United States – RAI being the Italian state-owned radio and television company and I could now watch programs direct from Italy, in Italian right in Philadelphia. But because of the six hour time difference between the USA and Italy, the programs were broadcast when I was at work. So I taped them – using those big black reels of tape and my VCR. That meant that every minute I was in the apartment there was an Italian program playing on my TV.
|Le 'Veline" of Mediaset|
It drove everyone mad, but I persisted and listened to speeches by the then President of Italy, by the Prime Minister, watched scantily clad ‘veline’ (showgirls) prancing around on stage under one pretext or another and through it all I understood nothing. But I persisted.
Inside my apartment I lived in Italy, but outside my door it was still Philadelphia. I remember thinking how happy I would be when I would walk out the door and find Italy. It took more than 10 years to get here, 10 years of times, many times, when I wondered if I would make it. But whatever it was that happened to me that day walking through Fiumicino Airport, was my life changer. I never really believed in destiny, I always believed we made our own destiny – until that day, until Italy.