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!
Once upon a time, not too long ago, we were all together on the streets of Rome, celebrating the 2020 New Year. Open air concerts, replicas of ancient buildings, block after block of parades of fanciful creatures, site specific installations, video art, dance performances, fire-fighting damsels braving some impressive pyrotechnics, and more with thousands of spectators all crowded next to each other.
Thanks to the Comune of Rome, beginning New Year’s Eve and running through the following day, we all drank, ate and were very merry. Oh, for the days of yore!
I got invited to speak at Oxford. Yes, Oxford as in the oldest university in the English-speaking world! I spoke there several years ago in October during their Black History Month since the United Kingdom celebrates it to coincide with the school year opening. I still pinch myself whenever I think about it. Was I really asked to talk about my book, my life, and my ideas? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to a chance encounter with an Oxford co-ed of color when I spoke about my book at the American Library in Paris. She rushed up after my remarks and insisted that I come to Oxford for a similar talk.
“Uh? Well, yeah, I can do that. Just tell me where to sign!” I thought to myself. She took my contact information. “I’ll be in touch,” she said and left as quickly as she had approached me, without my getting her email so I could follow up.
After more than a year, one of her colleagues from the university’s African and Caribbean Society wrote me with an invitation. And as I thought earlier – just tell me what I have to sign.
I arrived by bus from Heathrow and was met by a quite jolly co-ed and her friend who would be my ‘handlers’ during my two and a half days on the history-packed campus. As they escorted me to my dorm, I peppered them with questions; the most pressing for me was “Well, where are you from?” And then, I was nonplussed.
One told me that her mother’s side came from Ghana and her father’s from Nigeria. “Granny’s still in Accra and we talk to her all the time. We get our recipes from her because they are still the best,” she laughed. The other replied, “Daddy’s from Cuba and me mum’s from Antigua.” Both of these girls had visited their relatives more than once.
Why was I speechless? I expected to hear, London or fill in the blank town in England; just as black Americans in the States would have answered, Cleveland, New York, or Paducah, when asked.
I wove delight and wonderment into my speech that night by emphasizing how lucky they were to know where they came from, unlike so many of us black folk in the States who don’t know much, if anything, about our roots.
During the following reception, I asked as many as I could the same question. I swilled down every country, every subtle difference in accent, and every nuance of comportment. It was a heady experience because I felt their sense of place in the world. Yes, they were British but they were so much more than that.
I had to chide them a little, however, because they had used a photo of Josephine Baker in her French Red Cross military uniform to advertise their BHM activities (below) and didn’t know who she was and certainly not where she came from.
“She’s from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri!” I told them, trying my best to appropriate Ms. Baker’s je ne sais quoi.
For more information on the Society, please click here.
For the complete article I wrote on cultural identity, please follow this link.
For the next few lifestyle pieces (bloggettes), I’m delving into my cache of photos from before the lockdown to help take our minds off the current crisis. Endless and priceless experiences to share, this particular one comes thanks to Cornell University. Its overseas program in Rome offers students of architecture, fine arts, and liberal and urban studies the incomparable opportunity to learn in the historic Palazzo Santacroce (pictured below).
We were lucky enough to be invited to Cornell’s student exhibition in late 2019. Besides the stupendous surroundings and the students’ impressive output (images below), I have to say that I was really astonished by the temperature inside the building. It was very warm! Now, I’ve lived in Rome for a while and the heat, well, let me just say, I usually wrap myself in a couple of sweaters even when the thermostat is on high at home, and I always go out layered up to brave unpredictable temps at parties, etc. But oh, no, not at this reception.
And as you can see from the photo below, the art studios are about two stories high and hot air rises! But somehow it remained at ground level (this takes real bucks) and we were actually able to walk around without our coats, drink cold beverages, and not sneeze!
During Holy Week a few years ago, I stopped by the Church of the Gesu’ — the Jesuits’ mother church in Rome — and saw yet another interpretation of Mary’s grief, a striking sculptural assemblage this time.
As Easter approaches, my mind wandered back to last March when I went to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma to hear the revival of a composition, written for a dear friend.
Twenty years ago, when immigrants from Africa first began arriving on Italy’s shores, the Oscar award-winning composer, Nicola Piovani (Life Is Beautiful, 1999) wrote the music for his rendition of the Stabat Mater, a 13th century Christian hymn to Mary’s grief, in collaboration with Vincenzo Cerami (lyrics). Derived from the first line, Stabat Mater dolorosa, which means “the sorrowful mother was standing,” numerous composers (Scarlatti, Rossini, Dvorak, Poulenc) have written their versions.
Composer and lyricist took an unusual view when they created La Pieta’ expressly for Amii Stewart, a soul and jazz singer who lives in Italy and is known widely for her rendition of Knock on Wood. Two 20th century mothers in mourning for their sons became the protagonists. Ms. Stewart played the role of a woman in the developing world who lost her child to famine, desolate in her inability to feed him. The other part, written for a lyric soprano, is portrayed as a wealthy woman more engaged with consumerism than with her son. The piece was compelling years ago and is still relevant today.
I attended the sold-out, single performance. What a thrill!
“What are you?” Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one question I never get asked when I am outside the United States but one that has followed me around for years when I’m at home. I guess I look like a biracial person to some people but 99% of black Americans seldom think that. They know what my roots are and easily identify me as one of our tribe.
White Americans, however, are often discombobulated by my appearance because I don’t fit into the box they have labeled ‘black’ or once upon a time, ‘Negro’ or ‘colored.’ I think it stirs some latent fear of the American bugaboo, miscegenation, so they would rather reduce me to an object. With that one question, I become a thing. It’s not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living,” or “Where do you live?” or even “My name’s John. What’s yours?” I’ve gotten it on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and especially from seemingly well-educated, white people whom one would think would know better than to ask.
I’ve lived abroad a lot (this time in Italy since 2001for the past eighteen years) and have been mostly immune to ‘the’ question because when I visit the States now, I am in a cocoon of family and close friends. But that doesn’t mean that ‘the’ question isn’t still alive. At a meeting of fellow expat Americans in Rome not too long ago, I met a student who, to me, looked like a girl of Italian descent, although it turned out she was biracial. She told the gathering that she was actually stopped on in the middle of a 5th Avenue sidewalk by a woman who asked her, “What are you?”
Ok. Now let’s return to this side of the pond. Not only have I never been asked “What are you?” the most intriguing question I’ve gotten has to do with my children. I don’t have any but that doesn’t stop people who don’t know that from assuming that my Italian husband’s daughter from his first marriage is our offspring. And she has long, straight blond hair and see-through blue eyes! Or that Roberto Bolle (the world renowned Italian ballet dancer with whom I had a photo taken) is my son!!! I’m flattered because they are both comely but I’m also flabbergasted.
Once again, let’s compare that to what I have been told by white Americans about my two nieces. They both do look white because my brother married a Caucasian woman and they came out, well, read some Gregor Mendel for the particulars. (Europeans obviously are familiar with him.) In any event, when they were little girls and I would proudly show their photos, white people would invariably flinch and say (and I’m quoting verbatim here), “They can’t be your nieces. They’re white!” To them, this is beyond their limited comprehension of reality.
They might as well have said, “What are you? Crazy?”
For starters. During the aforementioned trip to Athens, I decided to buy a fur coat because Greece has a centuries-old tradition for making some of the best. It was the 1970s and PETA* had yet to be founded, so you’ll forgive me, ok? I was teaching at a university, had a few extra pennies, and this was a BIG deal for me. A French friend, who was living in Athens, said he’d help me out so we waited until the sun started to set because no one with any sense shops during the day in summer. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and thought I knew what hot was . . . until I spent a week in Athens in August.
We made our way through the muddling market that tumbled forward and backward along cobblestone streets. As the sunlight dove into the Aegean Sea, electric light bulbs strung along the streets took over its job. When I finally found ‘my’ coat, we sat down with the store owner and bargained politely over steaming coffee that soothed my throat and surprisingly didn’t spike my temperature. Once we agreed on a price, I cheerfully handed over my credit card.
“Sorry, Miss, but your card doesn’t work.”
“But,” I stammered, “that’s not possible. I know it’s good.”
George (yes, his name was the ubiquitous George so many Greek men are named) then explained that there was a spending limit on my card for any single purchase. I was beaten, I thought.
“That’s all right,” he continued. “You can wire me the rest when you get back to the States.”
“Huh? But you don’t even know me.”
“Oh, but I do. Everything I need to know about you is written on your face.”
Well, that just about knocked me off my feet and into the mountain of fur coats piled up behind me. I immediately thought of how many times my colored ‘face,’ had gotten me kicked out of a restaurant or gotten me called the ‘N’ word, or gotten me turned away from a movie theater growing up in my own backyard. And here I was in a very foreign and distant backyard with a complete stranger telling me that my face was all he needed as collateral.
“That’s so kind of you but isn’t there another way? I’d really like to pay you now.”
He rubbed his brow, took my card and disappeared but returned quickly with a fellow shop owner waving a receipt for me to sign.
“We’ll split the amount in two. You sign his and mine.”
With my coat bundled up in a shopping bag, I left but not before hugging them both.
I’ve thought of that incident time and again. In fact, it resonates whenever I experience this type of color-blind kindness abroad. Don’t, however, take me for a Pollyanna. I know the times they are a-changing and Europe ain’t what it used to be. But it still happens. Trust me.
Gail Milissa Grant
*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)
I’ve been traveling the world for decades, making stops (long and short) in more than forty countries. As a black person from the United States of America, I defined myself as a black American whenever I was asked until late one summer night in Athens’s Plaka neighborhood. I proudly announced my provenance to our waiter. He, however, wasn’t having it.
“No!” he insisted. “You are a black international!”
That stuck with me. He saw me untethered to any nation. Although that’s an appealing idea (especially in this present-day climate), I feel firmly attached to my country and my peculiar vision. No matter where I am on this planet, I perceive the world through a black American lens.
I’ve chosen Nightingale Noir as my moniker because of the bird’s creative and seemingly spontaneous song and I aspire to bring my stories to you similarly while keeping them noir. My recollections will include tales from the past as well as current opinions as I continue to travel the globe and wander around Rome, where I’ve lived this time since 2001.
And why should you care? Well, if you are a black American, I hope you do because ‘we’ have a particular way of observing, born out of our inimitable history and out of our complicated relationship with the United States. It colors how we live, think, and move about our country. And how does it inform us when we voluntarily move outside our borders? I intend to present how one black person views the world from overseas. I also hope this will encourage you to travel and ‘see’ with your own eyes.
And if you are not a person of color? Why should you hitch a ride on my wings? The issue and effects of ethnicity are pervasive, no matter where you are. I grew up during the heart of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, shepherded by parents deeply committed to and actively engaged in its evolution. Then I launched into a career of international, cultural diplomacy. I offer you a rare opportunity to explore my unique world view — through the prism of race and geography. I believe my stories will offer unexpected insights, some surprises, and even some humor — to open up your perspective. Granted, my blog is international in scope and not grounded in the “black experience” as it is lived daily in the United States. If you, however, choose to follow me, you will see how even when one roams the globe, this paradigm travels alongside.
By the way, my blog will wonder off its black track now and then. Whenever something strikes my fancy (be it a stroll past astounding Roman monuments on my way to the city’s premier organic market or my take on the Venice Biennale or running into an haute couture photo shoot on the street where I live), I’ll include it as well.
Hope you enjoy the ride! Join me tomorrow for my first blog.