I would like to know how you became involved and interested in the Italian language and Italy? How did this love started?
Years ago I wrote a book on sleep and was invited to talk on the subject at a conference in Gstaad. Switzerland was cold and bleak, and on impulse I hopped on a train to Italy. I made my way from Milan to Florence to Rome and was entranced by everything I saw, but the only Italian I knew was “Mi dispiace. Non parlo Italiano.” I was so intrigued by the Italian words that I heard all around me and so frustrated that I couldn’t communicate with Italians that I swore to learn this beautiful language.
In a recent interview you quote E.M.Forster: “Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land”. I would have said the opposite…
The Italians have always been gracious, welcoming, generous, charming. One of the things that motivated me to keep studying was meeting some wonderful Italian women who didn’t speak English. I felt such a connection with them that I pushed myself to become fluent in their language so we could become friends—and we did. Yes, Italy is a beautiful land, but I love its beautiful people even more.
What did you learn most about life and about yourself through learning Italian? Do you think a foreign language opens a new window into how you see yourself?
Absolutely. Through Italian I entered what I think of as a parallel universe where I learned different ways of thinking about everything from time to family to priorities to pleasures. English is the language I use to work, write, manage, accomplish things. For me Italian is the language that brings joy and laughter, that opens me up to alternative ways of being and behaving, that touches my heart as much as it challenges my brain. Mi sento a mio agio in italiano ed in Italia!
What is the best thing Italy has taught you?
To follow my passion. For most of my career I have written about health and psychology, fields that I find interesting, but Italian filled me with a passion to learn more and more. Italians sometimes tell me that what makes me Italian is my passion, and what I admire most in Italians is the passion they bring to wine-making, olive-growing, fashion design, cooking, just about everything.
Similarly, what do you try and teach your readers by exploring Italy’s history, language and culture?
I tell readers and students that Italian opens the door to the best of everything: art, music, fashion, literature, food. I urge them to learn Italian, not just for the sake of becoming fluent, but for the sake of entering and exploring new worlds.
Where did you find inspiration for writing an entire book on the Italian Language?
Florence first and foremost. Several years ago I read about an exhibit on the history of Italian at the Uffizi and I arranged to come to Florence and study with one of the docents. Through her I discovered Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch. The language kept leading me in new directions: art, music, food, cinema. There was so much material that I had to leave out an entire chapter on fashion.
One of the most beautiful and also, most difficult thing about the Italian language is the many dialects. Do you find this a positive thing in the sense that in a way your learning of the Italian language never ends?
It’s frustrating at times because when I’m part of an Italian discussion someone will use a dialect phrase and I’m lost. But I appreciate the individuality that dialects give Italian. I’ve never tried to learn a dialect—I still have much to learn in Italian Standard—but I’ve come to appreciate the nuances that only dialect words can capture.
Your most recent book, Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, which is scheduled to come out in August 2014, talks about Mona Lisa’s journey. How did you go about researching and compiling information? Was most of your work done in Italy?
When I was in Florence researching La Bella Lingua, I read newspaper reports about Giuseppe Pallanti’s discovery of various archival documents from Lisa Gherardini’s family. Through another Pallanti, a family friend, in Florence, I met Giuseppe, who gave me a map of Florence and marked with X’s the places where she had lived. When I went to the street where she was born-- the rather sad and smelly Via Squazza—I was struck by the fact that, while everyone knows Lisa’s face (at least as Leonardo portrayed it), no one knows her story—even that it had such a humble beginning.
I began thinking like a journalist and asking the questions of my trade—who, what, where, when, how and why. I rented apartments in Lisa’s neighborhoods in Florence. I came across a 500-year-old history of her family in the state archives. I walked her streets, visited her churches, found the chapel where she should have been buried—and the abandoned convent where she actually was interred. And I immersed myself in every aspect of daily life in Renaissance Florence. Slowly Leonardo’s Lisa began to come alive in my imagination. Now when I come to Florence—or even think of this beautiful city—I see her everywhere.
People often think of Italians as a very healthy population and I know that in the past you have been interested in health. Have you had thoughts to mingle your two passions for health and Italy in some kind of article or book for the future?
What a wonderful idea! I have written some posts about health on my blog, and a book on mental health that I wrote with my psychiatrist husband some years ago was translated as La Salute della Mente. I think Americans could learn a great deal from Italians about healthy eating—and Italians might learn some things about not smoking. I’m impressed that I see more Italians jogging these days than I did twenty years ago, but I still see many more smokers than in the U.S.
What is next for you? Are you currently working on another book?
My “day job” for many years has been writing college health textbooks. My daughter, who is training to be a psychotherapist, and I are collaborating on a college textbook called Personal Stress Management. I know that lo stress is a problem in Italy too, but I don’t know if a book on managing it would be of interest to Italians.
I plan to keep writing about Italy and Italian on my blog (www.becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com) and my La Bella Lingua group on Facebook. As for another book, I will have to keep coming back to Italy until I find a topic as intriguing as the real story of La Gioconda.
Thank you so much for your interest and your invitation. It’s been a true pleasure.
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