Saturday, March 3, 2018

ON MOVING TO ITALY: My Interview with Gillian Fox

You quit your job, sold your car and moved to Italy with two suitcases of your stuff. What made you do it? Had you been to Italy before? Did you know anyone there?
Life as a single mom is not easy. I was working seven days a week just to make ends meet. I had four jobs, three of which actually paid: I was a group fitness instructor at 24-Hour Fitness in Houston, a personal trainer for a select clientele, a writer for UpClose magazine and a freelance writer of novels. My critique group of twelve years met in my cramped dining room with my two cats and two kids. In hindsight, where I found the time to do any of this, I can’t say, but I did perfect the art of power napping in my car.
I was sitting with my bestie, Joyce Kaufman, one day in front of the computer and happened to see a sidebar ad for a writing workshop in Italy with Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down The Bones fame). All I did was sigh longingly for the kind of life where such junkets were possible, and Joyce got it into her head that come hell or high water, I was going. Unbeknownst to me, she started passing the hat around to all my classes and collecting air miles from a generous Facebook friend, Jim Mazzei. Joyce called me about three weeks before departure and said in her droll, inimitable way, “Let me ask you something. Do you have a passport?”
The minute I set foot in Italy, I knew I was home. It was an eerie feeling, to tell you the truth, because I’d never experienced it before. I knew absolutely no Italian. In fact, the first thing I did after getting off the plane was hightail it into the men’s room because I couldn’t read the signs saying uomini (men) and donne (women). A bus collected me and about forty other American writers and took us to Villa Lina, a beautiful eighty-acre organic farm in a little town called Ronciglione. I was in heaven.
But poor Natalie did not hit it off with her students. Almost from the moment we arrived, Natalie laid down a moratorium on drinking wine. In Italy. She said it was because wine “polluted our instrument.” Personally, I hate wine, so I didn’t have any skin in the game, but even I could see how problematic this would be with ladies who came to Italy to write, socialize, and have a grand adventure in vino. By Friday of that week, the organizer had chartered a bus to whisk us away from Villa Lina where mutinous cabals had formed to plot Natalie’s overthrow, and take us to Calcata, which is an artists’ colony that sits on top of a rock in the Treja Valley.
 Sixty people of all nationalities live in Calcata. I was delirious with happiness as I wandered its cobbled streets and drank in its breathtaking panoramic views. I was sitting on the steps of a 15th-century church, former home of the foreskin of Christ (until it mysteriously disappeared one day) when a man walked past me, a gorgeous man that I knew at once was not Italian. I also knew he would turn around and talk to me, which he did. He claimed to be the grandson of famous American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. His name was John.
Thus began the ecstasy and the agony of our passionate long-distance romance. We had an unforgettable week together in New York a few months later. I swapped personal training sessions for air miles so I could visit him in Calcata. In addition to our deepening relationship, I was also falling in love with Italy.
Houston is a thriving city full of wonderful people, but it’s never going to win any beauty awards. Sitting in soul-deadening traffic was a torment when all I could think about were crumbling Italian walls covered in blood-red roses. Instead of thousand-year-old churches, I had ten thousand screaming billboards. Instead of real coffee, I had burnt vanilla roast at Starbuck’s.
In the States, it’s all buy, buy, buy. In Italy, there aren’t even chain stores. Not many. In the States, I lived in a crappy apartment behind a mall. In Italy, John’s apartment overlooked a fog-strewn cobblestone street. A part of me was dying a slow death of heartsickness—not just because of John, whom I loved, but because Italy had taken up permanent residence in my soul. I wanted it so badly I barely let myself want it at all.
Then two things happened. First, my son turned eighteen, graduated from high school, and told me he wanted to live with his father who’d just bought a big house not located behind a mall. Then a few weeks after that, John invited me to move to Italy to live with him. We’d been doing the long-distance thing for over two years now and had reached a “do or die” juncture in our relationship. We were ready.
With my son flying the coop and my thirteen-year-old daughter eager to have me homeschool her in Italy, the decision was an easy one to make. I hated saying goodbye to my students, my friends, and my family, but a part of me always knew I was destined to be there. Was I panicked out of my mind? You can’t even imagine. I was betting everything I had and I was betting it against the house.
I was going to Italy on very little money, rolling the dice that my part-time writing could become full-time employment, and ruthlessly gambling on an untried relationship with a man who’d been a lifelong bachelor. But Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” and I’d always preached that kind of seize-life-by-the-balls philosophy to my students. Now I was about to put it to the test.
More than three years later, John and I are still going strong. We’ve been through good times, great times and lean times. Very lean. As in sometimes-we-didn’t-have-enough-money-to-eat lean. But Italy never really lets you starve. Italians are the most generous people in the world. They’re always ready to feed you.
My daughter’s tenure was disappointingly short. The culture shock hit her pretty hard and I promised not to keep her in Italy if she didn’t want to stay. Now she can’t wait to come back. Italy will do that to you. It works its way into your blood and you can never get it out again.
Nothing in this country works well—or at all. When repairmen say they’re coming to your house, that could be today or a month from now. But if you live with no expectations, along with a gentle understanding that life in Italy happens on its timetable, not yours, you can be very happy here. Unlike the United States, it’s actually affordable to live as an artist. I am surrounded by deliriously beautiful countryside, incredible food, and a fascinating culture.
Moving to Italy—doing something that terrified me—changed me on a molecular level. I will never regret it. I’m not afraid anymore. Of anything.
If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
Despite having taken French, Russian and Japanese, I wish I’d studied more languages. You really can’t speak enough of them. Rice University in Houston (at that time) offered Italian classes. If I had come to Italy speaking better Italian, I wouldn’t hit these walls where the overwhelming urge to ask questions, obtain information, learn more is stymied by my inability to communicate. John speaks perfect Italian. He even does a radio show in Italian. But speaking it at home is a bit of a busman’s holiday for him, so I’m on my own.
Men and women, I’ve found, approach the language barrier a little differently. Like most women, I refused to open my mouth for the first year I was here unless I was absolutely certain that what I was saying was correct. Men just dive in. They don’t care that their grammar is road kill and their accent sounds as though they’re gargling rocks.
What advice would you give to someone who has the desire to pick up and move to another country?
Do it. Even if it kicks your ass, do it. Don’t use your age as an excuse. Don’t worry about not knowing the language. If you can point at something, you will always be able to communicate.
Comfort and ease are soft chains. You swap truly living for cable television and the bleak ugliness of modern American life. How will you ever discover what you are made of unless you put yourself to the test?
We think we have time, but we don’t. What we have is conditioning. We are conditioned to go to work, get married, have kids, pay our taxes, not ask questions.
Moving to another country is like living inside a soccer riot and you’re the ball.
Comfortable? No.
Safe? Probably safer than most cities in America at this point, but you never feel entirely safe halfway around the world from your family.
Exciting? Always.
Scary? For all the right reasons. You’ve never lived until you’ve taken the wrong bus, wind up in the middle of nowhere, have no minutes left on your phone, and don’t speak the language.
Being an immigrant takes a special kind of crazy. Know thyself. If you find yourself being ground down bit by bit by American life, shake off those soft chains. Go do something that terrifies you.
Any regrets?
I regret that most Americans, good Americans, have no idea that there is this whole other world out there, a world where healthcare is paid for, where no one goes into ruinous student loan debt just to get an education. It’s a world where food tastes like food—not like chemicals. The cost of living is actually affordable here (although consumables are expensive).
There are no FICO scores in Italy. Leases are usually for five years with another five-year option at that same rate. Don’t think you can come to Italy, teach English and make a living. Your self-sustaining lifestyle is going to have to be a bit more creative than that.
In the United States, the stress is killing us, the food is killing us, the lifestyle is killing us, healthcare is killing us, the cost of education is killing us. Italy has a different set of problems, but they’re sure not those problems.
If you think you can handle it, I strongly urge you to put yourself to the test. Give it a year, maybe two. See what happens. No matter how wild the ride, you will come back a better, smarter, stronger person. You will have taken Eleanor Roosevelt’s sage advice about doing the thing you thought you could not do … and you won.