When we visualize packing up and moving to Italy, the images that pop into mind are most likely drawn from the two, arguably, most popular travel memoirs on the subject: Eat, Pray and Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. Searching for Wild Asparagus in Umbria is author Terry H. Bhola’s own account of his adventurous move from Brooklyn to begin anew in Italy. That’s where the parallels end. That’s why you need to read this book if you’re interested in moving abroad, Italy or an introduction to Italian wines.
Speaks with a different voice
I became acquainted with Bhola via Twitter when we were both deep in our respective writing processes. That he’d spent his childhood in Trinidad, adolescence in America and was embarking on yet another permanent move to Europe fascinated me to no end. Not since gobbling up Chester Himes fantastic autobiography about his Paris years had I read an account of a New World black man living abroad – written in his own voice.
The Dutch would describe Bhola’s voice as nuchter, meaning matter-of-fact, straightforward no-frills-attached, writing. He does not focus on the emotional side of why he, along with his Italian wife and colorful cat, The Rat, packed up and left Dodge. Instead, Bhola relies on humor (yes, that’s an emotion…isn’t it?) and a bit of self-deprecation to communicate what was going on with him. He makes this clear early on: “Now imagine a married man in his early thirties, relocated to his wife’s host country; enchanted with his new exotic surrounding, but barely speaking a word of Italian except e tu; and having to endure the agony of being observed. That’s how it felt. Everything about our movements toward building our lives was known.” (27) I imagined it perfectly.
Thank goodness for the small things
Bhola uses that same voice to illustrate his relationship with his in-laws, the uncertainty surrounding how he and his wife planned on gaining their independence, dealing with frozen pipelines, crappy bosses, passers-by who glared and stared.
I appreciated his focus on the mundane side of living abroad. Once the culture shock wanes, the novelty of living in another country wears off and the burden of settling in is lifted, every day life takes over. Things like buying a new kitchen, which Bhola thought “was as black and white as buying a toilet bowl” (26) but was actually an indicator of social standing. And arguing with his wife about how to put on snow chains – in the middle of a blizzard. And a difficult to please boss.
Living abroad isn’t always easy and it sure isn’t glamorous. In a positive way, Bhola shows us that through his attention to the business of daily life.
Xenophobia at its best
Having traveled to Italy on vacation and been on the receiving end of stares – albeit stares accompanied by flattery – I’d never experienced the Italian xenophobia. Bhola shows that it’s all too real. However, his being Trinidadian became an advantage. “I knew exactly what it was like not to be an American citizen and, most particularly, the tribulations associated with being an immigrant, which was, basically, firsthand knowledge of xenophobia.” (89)
Indeed, the prospect of being singled out by a stare – or even worse by a glare – is enough to put many black Americans off international travel or overseas living.
In that same nuchter way that I mentioned above, Bhola describes how he and his wife, also on the receiving end of those stares, resolved handle them. “There was a decency element, a deeply ingrained solemnity in these particular Italian communities that we didn’t want to take for granted. Amongst this wholesomeness, it was easy to become the village idiot, so like turncoat criminals living in a witness program, we had to conform and slowly blend in without accidentally turning ourselves into walking parodies.” (90)
Eventually, though, Bhola would turn to one of his strengths, his natural charm, to turn the situation to his advantage. “…if I charmed them with constant politeness, it would help ease us into this community…and the purpose was for us to go from being the mysterious, low-profile, interracial couple to the friendly, but still discreet, interracial couple – and it worked!” (93).
But xenophobia’s demands for at least partial integration are not simply racial: they are trumped by nationality. In this respect Italy is not too different than its European counterparts, namely Spanish and Dutch. Bhola recounts his exuberance that his two younger brothers would spend the first New Year’s Eve festivities with him, his wife and The Rat in their new home. Both brothers flew together from New York; only one traveled on an American passport while the other had a Trinidadian one. Guess which brother had to fly home, already jet-lagged, on New Year’s morning?
Indeed, the anecdotes in this travel memoir are indispensable for having a multi-dimensional image of overseas living. We thank you, Terry H. Bhola.