I decided to start writing again.
Several times, in fact. But now, at last, I am.
It began a few weeks ago, after the thrill I got presenting my final research (on the traditional cuisine of Torino and my vision for the future of bread) for the Modern Breadmaking course at ALMA (Corso Superiore di Panificazione Moderna), arguably the top cooking school in all of Italy.
"I should write," I said to myself.
And I started: mostly notes here and there, random thoughts and titles and ideas. But nothing concrete. Nothing ready to publish.
And then, about a week ago, close to 1000 words came pouring out. It was a post about my last two years here in Italy. About what I've done, where I've been, the things I've learned. "Look at me! So happy! So free! So in touch with nature and tradition and la dolce vita."
It was, in a word, total bullshit.
OK, that's two words. But they're true.
Because while these past two years have been full of visiting farms and cheese producers and vineyards and flour mills, learning about the diverse cuisine of Italy's 20 regions, making the traditional recipes that everyone knows (and hearing about all the grandmothers and their "definitive" versions), working in one of Italy's top restaurants, and then, one of its top bakeries, speaking the language, vacationing in southern Italy in August with everyone else, drinking spritz after spritz and glass after glass of local wine made with native grapes, tasting products in the Slow Food Presidio, and all the DOP, IGP, STG delicacies I could find, learning about the raw materials and traditional methods of production, studying the history and culture of Italian cuisine, and then even studying breadmaking with Italians in Italian, the truth is that talking about all that says pretty much nothing remotely close to the truth.
It's a beautiful story. The classic, romantic story of being an expat in Italy. It's the Italy of Call Me By Your Name, of Under the Tuscan Sun, of the first few episodes of Season 2 of Master of None (I mean, I even ate at the same restaurant in Modena featured in that show). The Italy that we Italian-Americans call "The Old Country," the Italy my father expected (and failed) to see when he came to visit me last fall in Torino. It's the Italy that my family and friends in the U.S. thought I was leaving New York for, thought I was leaving my fancy job as a director at an ad agency for. It's the only "Italy" that would make any sense at all for an American—a New Yorker—to leave for.
In truth, it's the Italy I thought I was leaving for, too.
And as I met Italian after Italian, their first question was always "ma perché?" But why?
In the beginning, the answer was simple. "Italy is beautiful. There's such history, such passion, such amazing food. New York/America was all about work, all about what's new, all about running into the future and never settling down."
But that, I've learned, is also bullshit. It's not reality, and it's not even my reality.
That's not why I'm here. That lifestyle is not even what I want. What the hell?
Truth is, the last two years have been insanely difficult. I've spent more than half my time living apart from my wife, and a full year with no immigration status to speak of: caught between an expired student visa and the permit of stay I needed to allow me to live and work in this country. Were it not for a trip to visit my wife's family in Bulgaria (during which I exited the Schengen zone) that reset my entry date (to say nothing of the tireless work my wife has done since we arrived to find and keep a job contract that was a prerequisite to my permit, among a million other fights she's fought on my behalf), I'm not sure I'd be here now. I've struggled to learn the language, and to gain the confidence to speak it (the latter of which has been more of a problem), and I've often felt disconnected from the people here as well as those in the U.S.
In retrospect, it should've been expected, but what I couldn't anticipate was just how long and how strongly the romantic stories of life in "The Old Country" would persist even in my perception of my time here. How potently they would dictate the way I felt about my daily life and future possibilities. How hard it would be to see beyond the drunken haze brought about by the magic of the land and the history and the passion and the food.
Those stories mask deep problems of political and bureaucratic dysfunction here in Italy, of a fetishization of the past that stifles innovation, and of a pervasive xenophobia masquerading as national pride (disclaimer: as far as I can tell, Italy is no worse on these points than other countries, including the US—I mean, seriously, we elected Trump, and that is a source of great ongoing shame—but also no better). You see it in the story of Massimo Bottura's struggles to get Italians to accept the food he serves, even as the rest of the world calls it the best. You see it in news stories such as a pizza chain called Rossopomodoro having one of its locations shut down for selling smaller-sized pizzas for takeout (which apparently is unfair competition with the god-awful frozen pizzas sold by bars and cafés in the same commercial center).
And I see it most (perhaps because it's the thing I see most nowadays) in the bread. Held up as one of Italy's great contributions to global cuisine, bread is thought of with great affinity and nostalgia and romanticism. But reality paints a different picture: bread consumption in Italy has decreased by half in the past decade, and most of what is consumed is bland, pale, partially-cooked-and-frozen supermarket loaves that sit on tables in breadbaskets to harden, only to meet their fate as the generic vehicle with which one transports leftover sauce into his or her mouth.
It's this image, of bread that's been left behind (of pain perdu—lost bread—as the French call it), that drives me now. It's the motivation for my exploration into what bread means to us, how it connects us to one another as families and cultures and humans, into what we have to lose from the relentless march toward a gluten-free world in which bread is eaten not for its sensory pleasures but for its nutritional content, and what new frontiers might lie ahead for this seemingly primordial mixture of flour, water, salt, and yeast.
Two years ago, I came to Italy looking for meaning in history, in my roots, in the way things were. Today, I'm looking to the future: to new experiences that bring more hope and joy and love and understanding to the world, to what I can do to change things for the better—not just in Italy, but from Italy.
And so that brings me back to writing. And to this site and what I hope it becomes. It's been roughly a decade since I wrote regularly for the public, and I'm ready to do it again, but with more focus, more depth, and, importantly, more truth. I'll be writing a lot about bread, but not solely. There will be recipes, definitely, lots of teaching (because that's one of the things I've realized is most important to me in my work), and occasional rants (OK, maybe frequent rants). Maybe even some performance/conceptual art, some WTF? moments, and some philosophy.
Thanks so much for reading. More soon, I promise.