My name is Michelle Damiani. I’m a forty-something mother of 3 children, and I also have a psychotherapy practice. About 5 years ago I started writing, and felt pretty secretive about it, fairly certain that I was rubbish. I entered a short fiction contest juried by John Grisham really as a way to force myself to finish a story, and to my surprise I won! Even though I was still convinced I was rubbish and perhaps I only won because my main character was named John so Mr. Grisham could relate, I decided to keep writing. My first book, a memoir of our time in Italy, was published in July, and I’m already knee-deep into my second, which is fiction.
What brought you to Italy?
I always had the feeling that there was more to life than what I saw on a day to day basis. I just felt it. Like a glimmer on the horizon, promising something… more. Early in our relationship, my husband and I decided that we would move abroad for a year or five years or ten years, just to be able to get a sense of the depth and scope of possibility in the world. But what with having three children and plugging away at our jobs, we lost track of that dream. Every once in awhile, I’d feel it, like the curl of something in my pocket, but then I’d distract myself with other things, not wanting to acknowledge to myself that I’d given up this thing that had once been important to me. Then one evening over a bottle of wine, the conversation between us resurfaced, and we actually asked the question, “Could we do this with children?” We decided, yes. Yes, we could. We came up with a five year plan to save enough money, and also to allow our youngest to be old enough to manage. Then we decided on Italy, as it was the country where we felt unrelentingly happy. Plus, we loved the language, it seemed manageable, and besides, I really love pasta.
What is it that you like/dislike about Italy and the Italians?
I can’t speak to all Italians, as we lived in a small town, and I’m told I would’ve had a different experience north or south or bigger or smaller. But what I loved about the Spellani was how willing they were to not just tolerate us, but to make us their own. The students were eager to befriend my children, when I was sure my kids would be excluded as conversational liabilities. By the end of our year, we felt like we belonged to Spello. When my husband was hospitalized, people drove me back and forth to the hospital, they spoke with the doctors (HIPAA be damned, there wasn’t confidentiality and I liked it that way), they made sure we knew we weren’t alone.
What I didn’t like was Italians’ inability to form a line. Not at the police station where we completed our residency paperwork, not at toll booths to enter the autostrada, not at the post office. I really missed American allegiance to rules! I like knowing where I am, it was tough to think we were three cars from the tollbooth after 30 minutes of waiting, and then have another car zip to the front of the line, and then muscle in front of us.
Has any of the stereotypes about Italy/Italians been confirmed?
Well, they really do love Italian food. That’s certainly deserved, but one funny incident was when we came back from a visit to Paris and my landlady asked us with worry if we’d been able to eat okay, because the food is terrible. We were stunned and finally said that yes, we’d eaten quite well. And she conceded that the bread and meat and fish and pastries were all excellent, but the French couldn’t cook a decent pasta.
Have you learnt anything new about your home country while living in Italy?
We Americans have really no idea what it’s like to connect to the rest of the world. I think that as a country we are less willing to help other countries because we really do think we are the center of the universe. Think about what we call our president, the leader of the free world. While I think that makes logical sense, I started to become deeply uncomfortable with the idea of American exceptionalism. What do we have besides the blind luck that made us born into a wealthy country? I don’t see the map as the United States in bold Red, White, and Blue with some dimly lit fuzzy countries spreading out around it, anymore. Instead, I look at a map, and I wonder about the lives of people in Yemen. People with hopes and dreams and fears, just like me.
Do you feel yourself integrated?
We left after a year, I think it would’ve taken longer to feel fully integrated. Certainly more language acquisition at least. But even with that, I’m not sure we’d have ever stopped being “the American family.” The children integrated, they reached the point that when they were introduced to kids they didn’t know, those stranger kids would not believe that they were American. In any case, being a bit on the margins was pretty comfortable for me.
Have you experiences any cases of racism/discrimination?
Not at all. But when I had my blog, I would hear from African-Americans who felt like they couldn’t stay in Italy for extended periods of time because of racism, and that made me sad.
Is Italy a multicultural society?
It’s becoming one. The town where we lived had a rising Moroccan population. I think the financial opportunities for these immigrants is less, and so they struggle economically. If they had access to more lucrative work, I think there would be less of a social disparity.
What is the first thing you do when you go back home? 😉