The entrance to my neighborhood perfume shop, H B, cuddled next to Rome’s impressive Rinascente department store, is so unassuming that it’s easily missed. With a second look, however, you’ll be seduced to go inside. It turns out that the store resides inside the late 19th century headquarters of Il Popolo Romano, a newspaper founded about a decade after Italy’s unification and dedicated to supporting the new country. The storeowners haven’t touched the frescoes that led from the ground floor’s printing shop to the editorial department above. And how or why would they?
Not a bad way to sniff some scents, imagine the bustle of the printing presses of once upon a time, and spend more than a few cents on the pricey perfumes that have now replaced them.
When my brother, David, and his wife visited Rome last summer, my husband, Gaetano Castelli (he’s worth a Google), and I took them to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Moderna. Furthermore, we decided to lunch there, although the A/C wasn’t working very well (welcome to Rome) and it was VERY hot! Gaetano, a somewhat demanding type (welcome to the Romans) was not pleased with, to make it short, anything — the A/C (or lack thereof), the menu at the bar, the decor, etc. and sort of, MADE IT KNOWN to anyone within earshot (welcome to Rome and the Roman way).
When we finally settled into a table in the coolest spot in the room, a waiter approached, and when my husband asked for a glass of wine, I, jokingly said, “He can’t have any because he’s bad.” His retort was, “No, I’m Roman.
This started some banter between him and the waiter that deserves a blog.
“From where?” the waiter asked, in an almost confrontational way.
“I’m Roman,” my husband answered, almost annoyed.
“But from where exactly in Rome?”
After several minutes of back and forth questioning, as in —
“but from which quartiere?”
“but which section of that quartiere”
“OK, but which street in that section of that quartiere?” —
did they determine that they had grown up around the corner from each other. In different decades, for sure, but that distance didn’t matter much. Neither was more Roman than the other. They both won the who’s more Roman than whom game. And they both understood what they meant.
This exchange couldn’t be compared to our dozens. No self-respecting Italian would joke about, let alone impugn, his or anybody’s mother given the reverence, obsession, and devotion accorded the Madonna and by extension, mothers in general. Yet, there was so much posturing and one-upmanship that it made me think of the bluster of the dozens.
But the piece de resistance came when my brother excused himself from the table and tried, surreptitiously, to pay the bill, something my husband doesn’t allow in ‘his’ town. The waiter looked toward Gaetano and raised his eyebrows, searching for permission. Gaetano gestured an emphatic “No!” and David lost.
Gaetano smiled at the waiter and then said to us, “You see, he and I – we’re brothers.”
Rome: Members of Rete Restiamo Umani (We Remain Human) renamed a Roman street Via George Floyd e Bilal Ben Messaud during the night of June 18. They chose to retitle Via dell’Amba Aradam near St. Giovanni, a hallowed basilica, because it recalls the battle which took place in Ethiopia in 1936, a “shameful massacre carried out by Italian soldiers.” The covering placed over the marble street marker was soon removed but not before it gained notoriety, covered by much of the mainstream media. Mr. Bilal Ben Messaud, a refugee, was also honored because he died in Porto Empedocie (Sicily) in May while attempting to reach land, having been confined on a ship offshore.
Naples: Italian/Dutch street artist, Jorit, took to a Neapolitan rooftop to paint a mural of the faces of Lenin, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Floyd, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. All have red tears flowing down their cheeks, in my eyes reminiscent of Native American war paint. At the mural’s feet, Jorit painted: Time to Change the World
Milan: The Simpsons as black Americans and the Statue of Liberty, shrouded in a Ku Klux Klan hood with Bart writing ‘lines’ which read Who is next?, is how one Milanese artist chose to protest the killing of George Floyd. The artist also has Bart having painted a portrait of George Floyd ‘saying’ JUST BECAUSE I’M BLACK. (See here)
A friend from Moldova (first photo) decided to plant a rose for Rome. She’s madly in love with the city and wanted to show her appreciation for all it has given her (warmth, friendship, cappuccino) by beautifying a neglected patch of earth near the famed Piazza del Popolo. So, she cleared the terrain of an obscene amount of trash, bought a small rose bush and, before you know it, had over 100 additional roses sowed by friends and passersby even. I planted two in memory of my parents. My mother nursed a rose garden in our backyard for decades and I know she’d be pleased.
If you’re ever in Rome and want to take a look (please bring a water bottle with you; there’s a fountain nearby), you can find the garden at the start of Via Ferdinando di Savoia.
On June 5 in Rome’s Piazza Barberini, a modest group of demonstrators (mostly Italians) gathered in support of the protest movement against police brutality taking place in the United States. It was one of many that occurred in these days and was as peaceful as they come. The police were prominent but hardly paid attention and didn’t seem ‘at the ready’ at all. The speeches were to the point and came from the young.
This gathering gained less attention than the one to follow at Piazza del Popolo two days later where thousands stood and kneeled but, I felt, was still noteworthy.
Last summer while visiting the Agrigento region of Sicily, we spent a day at one of its eye-popping beaches called Scala dei Turchi. What I saw on the way in burst my sockets almost as much: a poster that announced the title of the beach resort’s weekly Sunday night music festival. It read:
I WOULD LIKE BLACK SKIN
And the first thing that came to my mind was “Be careful what you ask for.”
I’m just using this event to illustrate that a black person can also be caught shopping while black outside the United States. Most of my African American brothers and sisters will nod in agreement when I say that we can be anywhere shopping – yes, just minding our own business in a department store, pharmacy, grocer, etc. trying to spend some money we made, usually working for the man – and get mistaken for the help.
This happened to me a long time ago in Europe, before globalization made international travel, especially for Americans of color, more accessible to the hordes of tourists now seen globetrotting (in more ‘normal’ times at least).
To be precise, it was 1981 during my first overseas posting in Oslo, Norway as a Foreign Service Officer. I took a long weekend in October to visit a colleague assigned to Helsinki, Finland. Early winter had already begun to fall on the Nordic countries, along with brightly colored leaves. Accordingly, I packed a full-length coat.
One of the to-do things in Helsinki (for a woman) is to visit the Marimekko flagship store. The burst of color of its fabrics inside the shop (see below for examples), in a way, mirrored the vibrant tones of the changing and falling leaves outside. Oranges and reds and yellows abounded in the clothing and on the bolts of cloth that lined the walls.
I quickly eyed a blood-red shirtwaist dress printed with leaves in just those shades. I imagined how the abundant skirt would swish and swirl with my every step and decided that I had to have it. As I fingered the starched, heavy-duty cotton, someone interrupted my thoughts of making a show-stopping entrance in this frock and how I would accessorize it.
“Could you help me?”
I turned toward the voice and saw it attached to a white, 30-something, blond American woman. Mind you, I had on my coat with a purse on my shoulder.
“I need some help,” she continued.
I wanted to go rude to her face but opted for the silent treatment, looked her up and down, and then walked to my friend and told her what happened, loudly.
“You see that woman,” I started, pointing at the offender. “She thinks I work here. The Finns are some of the palest, blondest people on the planet and plus, I’ve got on a coat! She sees a black person and automatically thinks – salesgirl. Thousands of miles and common sense still can’t separate them from their prejudice and stereotypical thinking.”
By then, the woman had disappeared into the racks of clothing. I bought the dress and huffed out.
Now, I’ll admit that I have confounded a shopper for a seller in the States. And yes, they’ve all been white and yes, I’ve done it on purpose more than once. I like to see the befuddled look of “How could you possibly take me for someone who works here?” When it happens to me, my look is more one of exasperation and yes, anger and offense, especially when it’s so obvious that I am not a subservient worker bee or as Native Americans would say, ‘a mascot.’ (Think the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs, etc.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting a plane ticket but maybe a couple of pairs of hose…to match my skin tone?
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