You already met Susan when she presented her blog in our Blog of the month column. In this fascinating interview, she tells us how she fell in love with Italy and happened to spend thirty years of her life in Rome. A captivating story told with generosity and honesty. Thank you Susan!
Susan, you moved to Italy after falling in love with the country. This is something that happens to many, who fall under the spell of the Bel Paese. Are you able to remember what it was that impressed you so much with Italy when you first visited, what wanted to bring you back?
Like all first-time visitors to Italy, I was bowled over by the ubiquitous beauty – of paintings, buildings, landscapes, faces, shoes, billboards – as well as in seasonal order by the carbonara, the wild strawberries, and the pesto. But I was even more deeply touched by the Italian gift for friendship: their honesty when it counts, their live-and-let live tolerance, their appreciation of, say, my feeble attempts to speak their language. After one month hanging with young Italians I felt liberated from a lifetime of guilt trips.
You married an Italian in New York and moved to Rome with him in the eighties. So you had to adapt at the same time to a new country, an intercultural marriage and prepare your professional path in an unfamiliar setting. Do you remember that time more as a troubled one or as a positive engaging experience? Tell us a bit about what it took to transition from the adaptation phase to one where you started feel at home and in control.
It was tough. I had been led to believe I could start practicing medicine immediately, but instead I spent more than a year unemployed and unemployable, reduced to wandering the streets guidebook in hand to keep sane. Fortunately I already loved Rome and enjoyed penetrating its secrets, and my in-laws welcomed me with open arms rather than with the hostility that is so common toward foreign wives. As soon as I began seeing patients, even at a rate of a handful per month, everything perked up and I engaged happily in the challenge of learning the ropes.
You are a doctor, and practice in Italy, which in my Italian mind must be a very peculiar experience. We have already talked about your absolutely interesting blog here but I would like hear a bit about how it feels to be a foreign doctor in what I suppose must feel like a rather different medical culture from the US…
Any immigrant can become an American, but nobody can become an Italian. I’m an eternal foreigner, a straniera, despite living in Rome more than half my life and despite having an Italian passport; after all these years I’m still often startled to discover new quirks of thought or behavior. Italians and Americans have quite different takes on health and disease. I think my Italian patients find my foreignness a double-edged sword: they appreciate my American precision and scientific approach, but they may not always feel understood. As for Italian medicine, it has improved enormously since I first arrived, but I can never let my guard down – the system is still both underfunded and professionally uneven.
I have heard many people telling me that Rome has changed a lot for the worse in recent years. You have been living in Rome for a couple of decades, now. Do you agree with it? What have you seen in terms of worsening or improving of life quality in Rome?
The world has become globalized, and Rome along with it. This brings minuses and plusses. On the one hand the Festa di Noantri gets sleazier every year, souvenir vendors are crowding farm-to-consumer stands out of the markets, artisans and workmen are losing their edge, and you miss the friendly corner-store banter when you go to Carrefour or Despar for your bread and vegetables. On the other hand your shopping is done in half the time, stores are open all day, you can find dill and mangoes and Lebanese tahini, you can send a wire transfer to Thailand from the comfort of your living room, there’s a kebab stand on every corner, and a Roman businessman may even be seen tossing his empty pack of cigarettes in a trash can rather than on the sidewalk. The influx of foreign immigrants has helped make Rome less provincial, but restaurants still serve a good amatriciana, girls out walking alone still risk catcalls rather than rape, and Romans are still just as surly in public and warm in private as ever.
How is you relationship to New York and the States? Do you go back often? And what do you plan later on? Do you think you’ll stay in Italy for good, or do you plan to go back to the States at some point?
Every March I’m in the US for the conference of my professional organization, the American Psychosomatic Society, and try to do some visiting before or after, but that’s usually it. Italy is central to my friendships and my lifestyle as well as my work, and I’ve never seriously considered moving back to the States. But of course my husband and I toy with the idea now and then, and who can say what the future will bring?
Interview by Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)