Sunday, March 11, 2018

Inside Italian Houses: From Padre Pio to the Proper Way to Hang Your Bra

Outdoor living in Italy
You want a house? Texas has houses. We're talking a Tyvek-clad, three-car-garage, big brick energy monster that sits in the middle of a "waterfront" subdivision/mosquito retention pond and comes with a fully sodded lawn and a tree. The tree is about the size of a umbrella and will take the years far better than your house. But you can also get your McMansion at the rock bottom price of $250,000 in a decent school district and with about 3800 square feet. You'll be close to swim team and the mall.

Italy isn't like that. First of all, houses come in three sizes: apartment-sized, house and castle. Apartment-sized flats for sale in Rome, for instance, start at about 300,000 euros and look like this: 800 square feet, a forest of satellite dishes, maybe a small terrace, and if you're lucky, a temperamental elevator. You try schlepping up five flights of stairs carrying two bags of groceries and a six-pack of water. It'll make you swear off religion.

Elevators in Italy are not the sleek modern kind we're used to seeing in the U.S. First, there's a door problem--as in, if you fail to remember to close the outside doors and the inside doors, the elevator won't work. That means you're walking, pal, hauling your groceries up flights and flights of stairs in flimsy plastic bags. All just part of the adventure!
Italian elevator--note the double set of doors

Roman flats are far from glamorous (most of them) and you pay a lot of money to live there. This is ROME, of course, so you don't care. Fewer steer horns, more linguine. Apartments in Rome are, comparatively speaking, mostly cramped and utilitarian. Many have plain white walls, spiral-shaped low-consumption light bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling, and a single bathroom. Mismatched IKEA furniture or grandma's hand-me-downs? Absolutely. The truth is, credit is scarce, and most people aren't willing to shell out thousands of euros for showroom furniture.

Italians don't care about making a decorating "statement". What they care about is family and functionality. And you can't have a house full of designer furniture and invite family over for protracted Sunday dinners if said family includes adorable munchkins with sticky hands. Family knows all about you, so why try to impress them? Half the time, they're the ones helping you foot the bills anyway, so if you're spending cash on new furniture, you'll have some explaining to do.

Italian Angolo Cottura or corner kitchen
Italians spend more money on cleaning products than just about any other country in the European Union. Their houses are usually spotless, especially the kitchen. And here's where it gets really good. Most Italian kitchens are no bigger than a largish American closet. They don't include dishwashers, appliance garages, double ovens or decent steak knives--but your average Italian can cook any American into the next century.

American idea of Italian food: overcooked spaghetti and extra cheese. Italian idea of Italian food: spaghetti cooked to exquisite perfection (called al dente or "to the tooth"), a savory homemade tomato sauce, and cheese, sure, but only as an appetizer. Food is a subject of worship here, which is very humbling because I grew up making dinner by pressing the buttons on a microwave.

The charm of air-dried laundry
In all the Italian homes I've been in, I've never seen a dryer. Italians love doing laundry. It's like a second religion to them. Laundry is air dried, slung on a line that stretches from one window to the next or across the street. I find it charming. My boyfriend finds it annoying. He says it ruins the aesthetic of beautiful old architecture. I'm sure he's right, but I continue to secretly adore the brightly colored T-shirts, sheets, skivvies and bras that wave gently in the breeze. They tell a story about the people who live there. Ergo, the old trope about "airing your dirty laundry", right?

Saint Padre Pio
No Italian home would be complete without its patron saint, Padre Pio, who was an old mystic that Pope John Paul II canonized. His claim to fame was the possession of stigmata, or weeping bloody nail-driven holes in his hands. Rumor has it he made free use of carbolic acid to keep the wounds open, but try telling an Italian grandmother that. You will find pictures of Padre Pio staring forlornly at you everywhere--restaurants, train stations, houses, stores. At first, I was a little creeped out by it, but now he's grown on me. Padre Pio is like a talisman against change. And Italy resists change with an unholy passion.

Roof line of Civita Castellana, Italy
Lawns in front of Italian homes you will rarely see. Italians do charming stone patios and terracotta pots overflowing with flowers. They do grape arbors and trellises and little cafe tables with folding chairs, even on their minuscule balconies. Italy is the land of abundance--spit anywhere and something will grow. Crumbling stone walls are covered in blood-red roses. Ivy clings to the insides of ravines and to the faces of old buildings. Come May, the air is sweet with the scent of night blooming jasmine. Italy is oleander, roses, grapes, cypress trees, artichokes and olive groves. Its flavorful waters, bottled at their source, taste of all the minerals in the rock.

Twenty or thirty lesser countries were sacrificed to make just one Italy. Work/life balance? They've perfected it. Delicious food? They've mastered it. Their way of life is completely different from what I was raised with in Texas--and I admire them fiercely for it.

In Italy, life is about family. Houses are about family. And family is always there for you. That's the Italian way.

For more about Stacey, click here.

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.

Why I Moved to Italy and Never Looked Back

When people find out I sold my car, quit my job, packed all my earthly possessions into two suitcases and moved to Italy, they tend to have questions. So I thought it might be nice to give a brief overview of the pros and cons of living here. FAIR WARNING: I’m crazy about this country, so expect absurd amounts of gushing.


1. Things don’t always work in Italy the way they should. The ATM at the bank, for instance. It’s down a lot, especially when I’m really strapped for cash and in need of an emergency cappuccino. They say the wifi connection is slow, but I have my suspicions. In Italy, the afternoon pausa pranzo, or break, is observed with near-religious reverence, and if that means a bank employee can’t be bothered to reset a modem because he has to walk back to the house for a coffee, a cigarette, a home-cooked meal and a nap, you’re out of luck.

2. Every other day here is a national holiday, which means all the stores are closed. Stores are also closed daily for that pesky pausa pranzo, 1pm to 4pm, and on Thursdays for no reason other than they want to. You never know for sure when a store might be open, but for Italians, it’s fun to keep the foreigners guessing.

3. Italian pop music is ghastly. And Italian pop is all that’s played on Radio Subasio—and Radio Subasio is all that’s played in every coffee bar in or around Rome. Italians LOVE a power ballad, which is always wildly over-emoted, features the same three chord progressions, and is usually sung by some shockingly old pop singer from the early part of the last century.

4. Noise. Italians celebrate it. Marching bands, squalling babies, blasting car horns, blaring televisions (especially soccer matches)—but in Italian, even normal conversations sound like yelling. This serves to remind me of what a sadly repressed person I am, which is why I’ve learned to yell along with the rest of them and to swear volubly in Italian. It’s pretty impressive, to tell you the truth. I can teach you.

5. Italians don’t do good junk food. Most potato chips taste as though some clueless but well-intentioned individual took wood pulp, salted it, and then stuffed it in a bag covered in bad English. Crik Crok, for instance. Famous Italian potato chip company. Their national slogan? “Snack is fun”. It’s on everything, including their display cases. No one could be bothered to see if the English was right or not. Because #Italy.


1. It’s so beautiful here, you are tempted to remove your eyeballs, polish them on your T-shirt, and then pop them back inside your skull just to make sure you’re seeing things correctly. Twenty or thirty lesser countries were sacrificed in order to make just one Italy. Whether it’s the ancient artifacts, the old churches, the priceless paintings, the ramshackle farms, the clear-water beaches or the quaint seaside villages, you are never the same after you set foot on Italian soil.

2. The Italians are so patient with my attempts to speak the language. I can understand Italian, but I’m not a fluent speaker yet. Unlike the French ***COUGH*** your average Italian is kind and helpful even when you’re blithely mangling the tongue of Dante. Writing in English all day definitely hampers my efforts. But to be fair, Italian is a bitch to learn. Think: Times Square meets the Spanish Inquisition. It’s both a beautiful and expressive language, one that requires many florid-sounding syllables strung together in a way that promotes the use of hand gestures, which are needed to speed things along.

3. The food. In Italy, oranges taste like oranges. Grapes taste like grapes. The difference between what food tastes like here versus what it tastes like in the States is shocking. When I go back to Texas, I always smuggle a little fruit in my purse—and LIE ABOUT IT ON MY CUSTOMS FORM because hell, yeah, I’m that kind of badass—and give the fruit to people who’ve forgotten what fruit is supposed to taste like. Their reaction is always the same: “Holy crap, is that fruit? It’s DELICIOUS!”

4. Italy holds constant reminders that you are going to die one day, and that’s because you are rubbing shoulders with history every second that you’re here. When you gaze upon an ancient aqueduct that has existed for over a thousand years and has been seen by millions of people who are all dead now, you tend to value what time you have left. This death thing is why Italians are not only fatalistic, but seek constant religious and sexual confirmation with people who are not necessarily their spouses, just to remind themselves that they, at least for now, are alive.

5. There are hardly any chain stores in Italy, which really struck me (coming from strip-mall Texas). What you will find are a gazillion tiny coffee bars run by families. And the coffee in most of them, as you can imagine, is divine. The Italian middle class is still kicking here, thanks in large part to the compulsive thrift and mattress-stuffing money management of Grandma and Grandpa. Houses are multi-generational and it is customary for children to live in them until … well, forever, actually. A forty-year-old man who lives with his mamma is not considered too hopelessly dorky to date. Mamma still cooks for him and does his laundry. Family is both the strength and the curse of Italy. If you find yourself in a bit of an Italian pickle, family is there to bail you out. If you find yourself in trouble with the Mob … well, that’s another kind of family.

I love this life. I love the church bells. As I sit here writing this in my little she-shed on top of the terrace, those bells are ringing now. I love the stuff that makes no sense to a non-Italian. I love the idiosyncrasies and even the dysfunctions. Italy is one of the most important love affairs of my life, and I am so happy to be able to share it with you.

Viva Italia!


 I like stories about working-class heroines. Maybe it’s a push-back against all the tinsely “Falcon Crest” television I grew up with in the eighties—the over-starched George Jetson snap-on 'dos, the glittering cocktail gowns, the sobbing betrayals.


Give me a nice girl who maybe hasn’t had it so easy. Who doesn’t have a lot of money. Who’s learned something about herself because golden opportunities weren’t handed to her at birth.

That’s exactly why I came up with Cassidy Roby, heroine of DREAM ON.

Cassidy is a roller-skate waitress at a Saturday night fixture that is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in a small Texas town: The Dairy Queen. I don’t call it a Dairy Queen in my book, but that’s exactly what it is. I don’t call DREAM ON a Cinderella story, but that’s what it is—Cinderella, given a 21st century upgrade.
SWEET DREAMS, the second book in my Dreams Come True series, is a riff on Beauty and the Beast (non-Disney version!) DREAM LOVER, due out in July, is Sleeping Beauty. When you read the series, you’ll immediately spot the parallels. Then you can write and tell me about them!

But let’s get back to Cassidy and her solidly middle-class upbringing.

Even as a child growing up with my Brothers Grimm anthology of trolls, witches and fairytale princesses, I wondered how difficult it might be for a girl with humble roots to adapt to the lush opulence of a privileged existence. We’ve all read that change is stressful, even good change. So what happens when you go from being a single mom in a tiny Texas town who works at a Dairy Queen … to dating the hunkiest, richest quarterback in the free world?

I’ll give you this example.

Let’s say it’s you who’s working at Dairy Queen. Long hours. Low pay. Afternoons spent unclogging grease traps behind the fryer. Now imagine somebody handing you the keys to his Lamborghini, the gate code to his palatial ocean view estate, and stuffing your closet with half a million dollars in designer gowns.

Sure, you’d love it. But wouldn’t it freak you out a little, too? With Cassidy and her Super Bowl winning quarterback suitor, Mason Hannigan, I wanted to see what happened when he opened up the world for her—including the downside, especially for a comparatively shy, soft-spoken woman like Cassidy, which is fame.

Cassidy hates having her picture taken. Poor Mason can’t stay out of the camera lens.

Relationships, even fictional ones—especially fictional ones—require sacrifice. In order for Cassidy to be with Mason, she has to come to terms with the spotlight, and Mason has to avoid making the same “putting work before family” mistakes that cost him so dearly in the past. That struggle is why DREAM ON qualifies as a love story and not just a romance. It’s why Cassidy and Mason belong together.

Hey, if love were always easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?