An "Americana" in Rome

Fri, 11/07/2014 - 02:30

Words by Trisha Thomas

How did an American woman end up living in Rome and writing a blog called “Mozzarella Mamma: Deadlines, Diapers and the Dolce Vita”? AP TV journalist Trisha Thomas, our featured Blogger of the Week, shares her story.  

It all started back in 1989. I met my future Italian husband while I was in graduate school at Columbia University in New York, getting a Master in International Affairs with a focus on Southeast Asia.  My dream was to become a foreign correspondent in Asia. I had already spent a year working in the Philippines and wanted to work in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. I envisioned myself as the next Christiane Amanpour. Throughout graduate school I had a romantic relationship with this lively, charming, brilliant Italian getting his PHD in Economics and I was quite sure that it was all a lot of fun, but he was definitely not the man for me. I was going to Asia. So I continued to study the politics of Southeast Asia, and I did not study Italian.

To make a long story short, I married him and ended up in Italy at age 29, trying to learn the language and re-launch my career. Starting with my lack of Italian, I had none of the pre-requisites to help me work as a journalist in Italy. I was completely ignorant. My knowledge of the history of Italy and the Roman Empire was limited to gladiators in the Coliseum, Julius Caesar (wore a wreath-like thing on his head and a guy named Brutus did him in) and Mussolini (bad guy, but he did make the trains run on time).  My knowledge of art history was limited to Michelangelo (you know, the guy who did the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel) and Leonardo Da Vinci (oh yeah, wasn’t he the one who painted the Mona Lisa, and then tried to figure out how to fly??). Besides knowing that the Pope was John Paul II, my knowledge of the Vatican was zilch.  As most people, I liked Italian food but if I were given a choice between an Italian or Thai restaurant, I would have chosen Thai. I knew that the Ponte Vecchio was in Florence and that gondoliers wore shirts with black and white stripes and cute straw hats.

It may sound like this was a huge disadvantage, but a journalist, when thrown into a new situation, has to be able to start from nothing and go to places, speak to people, ask a lot of questions, study and learn. So that is what I did.

In my first year in Rome, before getting hired by the AP, I was freelancing for CBS Radio. I remember shortly after I arrived there was a bus crash with some American tourists on the Amalfi coast. I had to do a radio report and I got the local firefighters - with strong Neapolitan accents - on the phone and tried to get some information on what had happened and who was injured, etc. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They passed me from one to the other saying, “there’s an Americana on the phone, you talk to her.”

At the Vatican, my work was also an uphill struggle. In those days (1993), being American, a woman and a non-Catholic (I was raised Protestant) were three counts against me. It was hard to get Vatican officials to speak to me or even take me seriously.

After a year in Italy, I was hired by Associated Press Television and then just five months later, I had my first child.  I had another two in fairly rapid succession and it was a constant struggle to keep up with work and family. Raising children in Italy was about as difficult as trying to cover the Vatican. Italians (my husband and his mother especially) had ideas about how they should eat, dress and be cared for that were entirely different from mine. For example, Italians don’t ever use jars of baby food, everything is cooked fresh, and they measure their child’s temperature constantly. Italians don’t like their children to climb trees, and they give them fancy clothes that need to be washed by hand.  

I tried to keep my work and child-raising separate but sometimes they got intertwined. I was six months pregnant with my youngest child Chiara when I travelled with Pope John Paul II to Egypt and Sinai, my middle daughter Caterina was cheerfully brought along at age two on a story on truffle-hunting dogs in Gubbio (making the coverage pretty complicated), and my misbehaving 10-year-old son Nico got dragged into St. Peter’s Square, so I could keep an eye on him while I was waiting to see smoke during the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

Over the years, I took down notes on small pieces of paper about my experiences and shoved them into my wallet.  What eventually emerged was a manuscript for a book titled “Mozzarella Mamma: Deadlines, Diapers and the Dolce Vita.”  I tried to find an agent in for this book, but quickly gave up. Getting a book published is a serious endeavor that I don’t have time for. Someone suggested I start a blog and use that as a vehicle to find a publisher. I started in 2011 taking bits and pieces of my book and putting them into the blog.  But now the blog has taken on a life of its own. I write about all the exciting stories I do for work – covering migrants arriving on rickety old boats on the Italian island of Lampedusa, travelling with the Pope to the Middle East, or covering George Clooney’s wedding.  In between my work stories, I continue to write funny tales of my experiences as a mamma in Italy.

And as far as my ignorance is concerned: I’ve written a lot about Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi on my blog, I’ve stared down at the sculpted curls on David’s head as I stood on the scaffolding with restorers of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, I’ve reported on the great Roman Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia; I have now covered three popes and interviewed dozens of cardinals, I can converse easily with Neapolitan firefighters and, on Italian food, I am still a horrible cook, but I am always willing to listen to obsessed Italians talk about their food.

Last Monday, I had to spend three hours standing in front of Rome’s Quirinale Palace—once home to the Italian King, now home to the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.  President Napolitano had been asked to testify in a trial that is based on allegations of negotiations between the state and the Mafia to stop terror attacks in the 1990s. The testimony was conducted behind closed doors and the press was stuck in the piazza outside for hours with little to do. During that time, I listened to two AP Television cameramen and an AP photographer talk for at least an hour on what is the best way to prepare a “pasta al pomodoro con basilico” – a tomato sauce with basil.  They went into a lengthy debate about the garlic – should it be used, if used, should it be removed later, should it be left in his shell and then removed.  How many basil leaves should be used?  When should the tomatoes be put in?  How long should the sauce simmer?  And on and on and on. 

That evening I went home and made a “pasta al pomodoro con basilico” for my daughters and one of their friends.  The girls declared it was the worst pasta they had ever eaten in their lives. I didn’t care - I had to run to my Zumba class, and besides, I’m “Americana”, I will never learn how to cook pasta like an Italian - but I can blog about it.