A friend said this to me many years ago, as I was settling into my just-leased apartment in Italy. No longer a carefree graduate student here for the short-term, but a bona fide long-term resident, I was about to enter a period rife with challenges, sacrifices, and vying cultural allegiances. Yes, I was living in the bel paese, in an extraordinary, little-known corner of Tuscany, an hour from Florence no less. But oceans now divided me from the friends and family whose company and proximity I had previously taken for granted. In my native land, I’d been an educated, employable young woman on the threshold of a bright, opportunity-laden future. Moving to Italy, I downgraded to a penniless illegal immigrant whose education and training had almost no direct applicability. Hopes of a gratifying career in the field of my choice would soon be abandoned. I’d need to start everything over, from bank accounts and bedroom furniture to re-establishing a social life, finding work, and casting off my clandestina status. For many of those early years it seemed every minor success I achieved in my adoptive country necessitated a number of setbacks. This tough, perplexing, sometimes sorrowful time was not without its joys, however. On the contrary. It was also thrilling, full of first-time experiences with food, art, travel, new friends, and a lifestyle I would soon come to cherish. Although it would take several mellowing seasons for me to appreciate my friend’s prophetic remark, I now know no word more aptly sums up my initiation into Italian life than bittersweet.
It still applies today. The challenges of foreignness do not go away, though they do lessen. As I’ve adapted to my new home, what was once an acute pain has dulled to a tolerable, albeit constant, ache. Almost daily are the longings for what I cannot have (physical closeness to family; ready-made buttermilk; reliable high-speed internet); and just as frequent are discoveries of new things to dislike, given Italy’s apparently infinite supply of folly. While to some extent a sense of being locked in an eternal arm-wrestling match with Italy will forever characterize our relationship, a few years ago I yielded. I’d hit a wall, and asked myself: Shall I keep thrashing about, wasting energy in a fight I cannot win? What if I were to cease, to simply surrender with as much grace as I could muster and learn to accept Italy on its own terms? Although it feels like defeat initially, acknowledging that the enigmas permeating this society will never be unraveled (at least not by me) was decidedly liberating. I have learned to live with ambiguity and to let go of the illusion that clear-cut, universally-right ways of doing things exist in the world. This process, fundamental to adapting to a foreign culture, has also influenced the kind of cook and food enthusiast I have become.
My cooking style is due equally to improvisation—to the accidental triumphs and fortuitous results of substituting and side-stepping—as it is to reading cookbooks and food blogs, taking classes, or watching programs. Broadly speaking, Italy has provided the setting in which an aspiring cook need only observe and practice to thrive, yet along this promising road are endless detours, and some rather frustrating roadblocks. And here’s where my cultural adjustment came into play. Much of what we view as Italian flair is rooted in the Italians’ manner of dealing with problems. Delays, arcane procedures, lack of a resource—when faced with any such problem, Italians do not as a rule look to solving the problem directly. No, no. Here, the problem itself quickly becomes irrelevant. It is the work-around that matters, the act of out-maneuvering forces that would have you waste your time, be made a fool of, submit, or suffer. In Italy we call this l’arte d’arrangiarsi, sometimes translated as ‘the art of getting along’. And it is indeed an arte—a craft, a skill, a special knowledge—as developing the work-around invariably results in the forging of something entirely new, some innovation or novel perspective. Their long experience with an infamously knotty bureaucratic system accounts a good deal for Italians’ reliance on l’arte d’arrangiarsi, but the practice extends beyond the realm of officialdom. In my own kitchen, I not only employ the arte, when a needed ingredient is not readily available in Italy, for instance; I also sometimes discover, and create, an entirely new dish as a result of this act of ‘getting along’.
In addition to recipes, The Bittersweet Gourmet is also where I share my writings on an array of (mostly) food-related interests, which include:
- Italian feast days
- La cucina povera
- The Italian sagra tradition
- Food and Italian language
- Food in folklore, material culture, and art
- Home cooks, their personal stories and family customs
- Forgotten recipes and revived traditions
- Chef profiles and interviews
- Celebrity chefs and cookbooks
- My experiences of food when travelling in Tuscany and beyond, whether Provence, Cornwall, or my native Northern California.
- Personal essays and creative non-fiction
I love connecting with fellow bloggers and cooks, so please feel free to contact me any time to discuss any of the above topics, to propose a project, or simply say hello and introduce yourself.
1. both bitter and sweet to the taste; sweet with a bitter aftertaste
2. an emotional state comprised of feeling happy and sad simultaneously
3. pleasant and painful or regretful