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.
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?
To have gone to the 2019 Venice Biennale! Why? Because I got to see an exhibit by AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the black artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968. When I taught at Howard University in the late 70’s, I worked with a number of the founding members who had created a black aesthetic to supplant demeaning stereotypes found in mainstream white culture. Their work was arresting, fresh, and technically superb, but to some extent, ignored — certainly by the mainstream art establishment. That certainly didn’t faze them and this group is still going strong and is considered to be the longest continually active artist collective/commune in the United States.
I almost jumped for joy when I saw AfriCobra listed on the official program. The Biennale has grown so large that many countries’ exhibits and collateral shows have to be housed outside the main grounds of I Giardini and L’Arsenale. But no matter. The prestigious Ca’ Faccannon displayed it and Christie’s Auction House described it as one of five “must-see exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale.” How’s that for these extraordinary artists finally getting their due! Here’s a smattering of what was on display except for the last image which, I’m happy to say, is only on view in my home.
Once upon a time in a country far, far away (in this case, Norway), I had a job. It was my first overseas assignment as a diplomat with the US Foreign Service and I was posted to the Embassy in Oslo to learn the ropes. Well, this blog isn’t about my time there or my job but the backstory is integral to the plot.
Another salient factor is that more than 500 moons ago, I spent an academic year in Italy and I was heartbroken when I had to go back to the States. Italy stayed in my blood, as did a thirst for international travel. What I learned and how I lived during that time were reasons that I eventually decided to become a diplomat.
In any event, Norway was nice, but definitely not as warm as Italy, so I took some vacation time and went to visit some friends and, on a whim, some friends of my friends who lived in Trieste. We wound up meeting them on an impressive estate, situated virtually in the middle of the city. Imposing, automated wooden gates opened onto a small park of sorts with several buildings scattered around the property, including a stable for horses. I tried to keep my eyes from bugging without success.
To welcome us, two people stood outside a contemporary wooden house with immense glass windows covering its face. One was the owner, a widow, and the other was a lawyer from Naples named Gianni who was her boyfriend and lived between her place and his apartment. He was a handsome guy, albeit a bit on the short side, with dark, naturally tanned skin.
He immediately unnerved me by the way he stared my way. I’d seen that ‘look’ so many times in the States from white people. A stare hard to define but indisputably menacing. A stern look that was also curious but seemed to say, “What are you doing here?” In the States, this ‘look’ usually turned out badly. Some racist innuendo. Some way to belittle me and make me feel uncomfortable, as if I didn’t belong at the event where I was sometimes the only black person or one of two or three others. I just tried to ignore him but I could feel that he was on the verge of exploding just like Vesuvius still threatens to do in his hometown. And before too long, he popped! With the verve that Italians are so expert at, Gianni started shouting at me while rubbing and stabbing at his forearm.
“What are you doing in Norway? You have the skin! You have the skin! You have color in your skin! You should be here, not there with no sun and no color and no warmth!” He stared at me and said it again, even more emphatically.
“What are you doing there?”
Well, I really didn’t have an answer for him, other than “Well, I’ve got a job there,” which didn’t make much of an impression and it certainly didn’t placate him. He shook his head but kept glaring at me as if I had somehow betrayed myself.
My expectation of his ‘look’ was so far afield of his intention. I was in a world warp, fully waiting for some snide remark. Instead I was being emphatically told that I belonged in Italy.
The next chapter shocked me even more. I went back to Oslo. He got my number from our mutual friend and started calling. I rebuffed his advances with as much tact as possible but he persisted. He tracked me down once I left for my next assignment in Paris and showed up there one weekend with our mutual friend, insisting that he and I get married and have children! His girlfriend had a grown son, her biological clock had ticked-tocked, and he was desperate for a family. And I mean desperate. Well, the story pretty much ended there but I still hold a fondness for this crazy Neapolitan who finally took ‘No’ for an answer.
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.