What’s wrong with her?

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You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. From South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II, sung by a young American lieutenant who falls in love with an island girl during World War II and initially can’t overcome his ingrained prejudice.

South Pacific promotional poster from 1958 via originalposter.co.uk

I’ll never forget that song because my father taught me the lyrics when I was six or seven or eight. All part of my upbringing and inculcation into what I would face as a black person in the United States of America, and a lesson on the stem of racism and stereotypical thinking. “No one’s born prejudiced,” he’d say. “Someone has to teach it.”

I’ve seen the South Pacific movie many times, most recently a few years ago in Rome where I live with my Italian husband. I started crying almost from the opening credits because I knew that all the dreaminess and romanticism of the film, albeit wrapped in blazing Technicolor, would not outweigh or shroud the embedded unfairness and tragedy. The young lieutenant (pictured below in a still from the movie) decides to abandon his life back home and marry his love, but is killed in action before he can. The main characters, however, will end up together but not after racial strife.

20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Barely able to speak, I called my husband at his office. “Gaetano, please come home as soon as you can?” I croaked out.

He did and we watched the film together; I wanted him to understand a little more about American prejudice and how national boundaries can’t contain it. He watched in silence, not knowing exactly what I was talking about until the female lead, Nellie Forbush, a Southern belle, runs from her French suitor, a wealthy plantation owner, after he introduces two local young children. Initially, she swoons over them (Aren’t they adorable? Those big black eyes staring at you out of those sweet, little faces) and then asks, “Are they Henry’s? (the butler)”

“They’re mine,” he responds. A widower, he’d fathered them with his wife, a local woman. Nellie is appalled and flees, with her silk organza dress flowing behind her.

I looked at my husband and said, “See! That’s how it is.”

“But what’s wrong with her?” he replied. “He’s got two pretty little kids and he’s rich.”

I had to explain. Since he dipped in the well of a woman of color, she certainly wasn’t going to let him dip in her well. My husband was still perplexed.

“She’d never have children as good-looking as those! She’s not all that.”

So, here’s an Italian man dismissing the looks of what would be considered the most desirable ‘type’ of woman in the States, appreciating the nut-brown offspring of a Frenchman and a Melanesian woman, and puzzled by all the fuss. For him, the optics played a greater role than anything else.

Gaetano, thoroughly perplexed

What a Way to Olio!

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Ordinarily in November, we make our annual pilgrimage to Civitella del Lago for a year’s supply of first cold pressed olive oil. It’s become a standard day trip and while I hate to admit it, I’ve become a bit nonchalant. A nice ride through Umbria, sometimes stopping, before or after we stock up, for a delicious meal somewhere. But Italy never ceases to astonish and 2019’s journey left me admonishing myself for giving anything in this country short shrift. I will divulge, however, that I chided my husband for neglecting to mention the Michelin star-worthy restaurant just across the street from the oil press.

An astounding little place with an indescribable view (photos above and below), Paolo Trippini serves up anything but traditional fare. His grandfather started the business and handed it down, first to his son and now his grandson. We were the only patrons that afternoon because we arrived toward closing time but no matter; the chef and staff were at our disposal. When I walked in, my mouth fell open and I left the same way but was saddened a bit by how far the restaurant is from Rome.

Non preoccuparvi (Not to worry), Paolo told us. He’s opened a second spot inside Eataly in Rome!

Just me, Gaetano, and that view.

Bergdorf Goodman Versus Hermes

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Not long ago during a visit to New York City, I went to Bergdorf Goodman in an attempt to buy some stockings. OK. Why Bergdorf’s, one of the most expensive stores on the planet when CVS is my US stocking shop of choice? It happened to be my birthday and one of my substitute ‘mommies’ had taken me to a posh lunch. (My mother passed in 2007 but I have two women [one pictured below with me] who’ve known me all my life and have graciously allowed me to adopt them.) Afterwards, she gave me $50 as a birthday gift and told me forcefully.

“Now, you go to Bergdorf’s and buy yourself something for fifty dollars that you would never spend that much on.”

No, it wasn’t stockings that first came to my mind. It was lipstick. Why? Because a good friend was with us and she immediately said,

“I have just the thing.” She whipped out a lipstick by Guerlain that cost $50 (tax excluded). Candy apple red, tucked inside a case with not one but two mirrors (including a pop-up). Beyond perfect! She and I hustled over to Bergdorf’s. I got it and happily paid the sales tax from my own pocket.

I then remembered that I needed a pair of stockings for an event that night. So, the make-up salesgirl escorted us to the Wolford stocking boutique. Pricey as well but the only hosiery available at Bergdorf’s and after all, it was my birthday.

The saleswoman sauntered over and when she asked me what shade I needed (in a pronounced Eastern European accent, I might add), I showed her my leg and she got in my face, and said, “We don’t have anything for you,” then turned on her heel and walked off.

I was speechless and my friend (a white woman) turned red with anger. Ordinarily, I would have gone to the manager and pitched a hissy fit but my time was short. So, I wrote to Bergdorf’s online customer’s service explaining what happened. After about six weeks of silence, I wrote to Mr. Jim Gold, President of Neiman Marcus group which now owns Bergdorf’s. Furthermore, I added that I lived in Rome, Italy where the local Wolford store accommodates me and all my friends of varying hues. I deduced from the difference between the two shopping possibilities that Bergdorf’s was not interested in women of color as clients, even though the pool of potential black shoppers in New York City is phenomenally larger than the bathtub sized number in Rome.  

I got a mildly apologetic note from the General Manager of Bergdorf’s, inviting me and a friend to have lunch in the store’s rooftop restaurant the next time I came to New York. Now — I live in Rome and get to the States at the most once a year, right? Next time you jump across the pond, come on down to Bergdorf’s for lunch.

Let me now compare an experience that a black American friend (who also lives in Rome) had a few years ago at Hermes in Paris (before Oprah Winfrey’s unfortunate non-visit). In short, a saleswoman told her and her daughter to wait until she finished with another client and they did, patiently, for about a half hour (the store was packed). My friend finally inquired and was informed that the saleswoman had gone to lunch.

So, my friend also wrote a letter. The store apologized in short order in writing, included one of its signature ‘foulards’ with the letter, and told her to advise them when she was planning her next trip to the French capital so they could send a car to the airport to pick her up and escort her directly to their flagship store.

Not the foulard, but two of my own for illustration

Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting a plane ticket but maybe a couple of pairs of hose…to match my skin tone?

You be the judge.