Shortly after I arrived to Italy just over five years ago now, I was comparing notes on spring garden vegetables with my local newspaper seller. He is an avid gardener, and I am a vegetable nerd. Spring was warming up and there was that gardener’s anticipation of starting the first spring harvests. Fava beans and peas featured prominently in our conversation.
“How do you eat your fava beans and peas?” he asked me in Italian.
I started describing the various ways in which I cooked fava beans to make fava bean hummus, soups, and spreads. Anything that involved cooking them and making them into some sort of paste or cream. But peas, I insisted, were best raw on a salad.
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me through his glasses. “You cook fava beans and eat peas raw?” he asked, making sure that he had heard correctly.
“Well, yeah,” I responded. “What do you do with them?”
“I cook my peas and eat my fava beans raw,” he responded. “That’s how we do it here in Italy.”
I have learned that there are a great many things that are done a certain wayin Italy and done differently in the U.S. It starts with the most banal of things, like the calendar week starting on a Monday instead of on a Sunday, or the time of day being expressed in military time. It extends to large cultural and social institutions and political systems: Italians have a nationalized healthcare system (that I participate in), and a parliamentary system (don’t ask me to explain how it works). We both eat peas and fava beans, but in – sometimes strikingly – different ways.
I write regularly about my connection to a specific place; I am a farmer and my job is tied to a specific piece of land. After five years, I know where the soils are tougher and where they are easier, and which ones are best for rice and which ones are best for wheat. I know what types of weed problems I have where. I know where the pine forest is dying and where it is still holding on. I know what happens if it doesn’t rain at all for months at a time, and what happens when it rains for months at a time. I know the telltale signs of the beginning and end of each of the seasons. And how my land responds to those changes. I still have much to learn, but I know the piece of land that is my farm.
I have also written about what it means to have a sense of place – a phrase used by Wallace Stegner to describe that feeling you have when you are in your place – the place where you feel connected, where you feel like you can be your best self because the myriad of social, cultural, economic, historical, and environmental factors in that place make you thrive.
Even though my profession – more than most – is by nature tied to a particular place, I have always struggled with the choice of place. I was born and raised in the Northeastern U.S. but I have always traveled to Italy and spent large chunks of time there. My father was Italian, and his whole side of the family lives in Italy. I grew up speaking both languages and had to take remedial English lessons in elementary school because I couldn’t keep the languages separate. I have always had two passports and dual citizenship.
I tend to joke that my soul lives in two places. I say “joke” to ease the fact that the flip side of feeling a sense of place in two places is that I never quite feel complete in either. I would be hard-pressed to identify a place that I call home. I remember being a young girl and realizing this early on – that I would always feel nostalgia for the place that I was not in because I felt like a piece of me was left behind in the other land. It is one of the earliest feelings I remember feeling, and I carry it with me as an adult.
A Sicilian citrus grower that I met once described that feeling of incompleteness related to place as a feeling of loss. He spent six months on his farm in Sicily growing citrus and spent the other six months on the Italian mainland selling his citrus. Every time he left where he was, he felt like he was losing a piece of himself. I have cried countless times at the airport while leaving one country to fly to the other because of that very feeling.
There has always been pressure to choose a place. I can’t remember when my mother started asking me and my sister where we wanted to live when we grew up – the U.S. or Italy – but it was when we were young. The question was always posed with an either-or, definitive sense to it. You decide where you live, and then the rest of life can go on. Perhaps she was searching for the certainty that parents search for when they ask their kids to decide their career path, whom they will marry, and all of the other anchors that tend to be indicators (correctly or not) of stability in life.
There was also a brief moment when it seemed that I would have to renounce one of my citizenships. Leading up to my 18th birthday, I had discussions with a lawyer about having to choose one country or the other because there must have been a law about having only one passport. It would have been a difficult decision, not only for the emotional connections to both places, but because my sister and I had inherited land in one country but effectively lived in the other. The law changed by the time I turned 18, so I dodged that decision.
The pressure to choose and the anxiety around the decision started to ease this winter. I was listening to Krista Tippett interview the poet David Whyte on her “On Being” podcast. It is an extraordinary interview about how to live fully and engage with our surroundings to counter the darkness that is part of the human experience. Whyte talks about the “conversational nature of reality” to describe the give-and-take between our surroundings and ourselves. Living that give-and-take with flexibility and openness instead of rigidity leads to a fuller expression of oneself.
Whyte grew up half-English, half-Irish and spent a lot of time in the U.S. For him, the conversational nature of reality early on became a conversation between the places that he was from. He realized that in his life he was supposed to live out the conversation between the places.
Live out the conversation between the places.
Making space for that conversation – that dialogue, that exchange – removes the either-here-or-there mindset that can cause a bit of an identity crisis for people from more than one place.
Being from multiple places is not new – it is perhaps as old as humankind itself. We humans are explorers, adventurers, wanderers. We are also refugees, immigrants, asylum-seekers. People move – across countries, continents, and oceans – and they have always moved. And yet the question, “where you are from?” often seems to negate this longstanding truth, requiring us to reply to a complex question as if we were really just from one place.
Asking a person where he or she is from has become a bit of a short-hand for the question, “who are you?” Because place does indeed influence who we are – the norms and culture we are surrounded by, the climate and environment we live in, the language we speak and how we communicate – the answer can provide a lot of information. Once we know where a person is from, we can begin the process of fitting them into a category that goes well beyond place itself and at times causes us to make quick judgments about the very nature and morality of a person. We all do it regularly.
With his concept of a “conversation between the places,” Whyte breaks down the neatness we so often and mistakenly associate with place. He validates the messiness about what it means to actually be from multiple places – which most of us are.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in New York City, but left as soon as possible. I went to school in the Northeast and then worked primarily in Washington, DC, for a national organization. I have farmed in Connecticut, Maine, Iowa, West Virginia, Italy. I grew up speaking three languages and traveling regularly to Italy to visit family, do research, work, and visit my first boyfriend. I run a farm in Southern Tuscany.
Who does that make me? An Italian-American city-girl-turned-farmer with a Northeast-Protestant work ethic in a Catholic country.
You might as well ask me to explain my soul.
What does a conversation between two physical places sound like? For this, Whyte encourages us to live it out. It is much like Rilke’s famed “live the questions” advice to his young poet friend. Embody and be the conduit for the experiences in both places with as open a mind as possible. Definitely suspend all judgment about how things should be in one place or the other, or else you’ll drive yourself nuts and, more importantly, you won’t be able to hear what a place is saying.
From a professional standpoint, the conversation between the places is a constructive exchange on techniques, practices, and systems. The farm has the right soils for growing rice, but no one here knew how to do it organically. I contacted my extensive agriculture network in the U.S. to find a couple of long-time organic rice farmers that could give me some guidance. But farms are on average bigger in the U.S., so all of the advice had to be calibrated to the Italian reality. On the other hand, farms are much more diversified in Europe, so Americans are often interested to hear about managing “multifunctional” farms.
Because there is no perfect island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for people like me, I in a sense exist in two places. That existence is rarely smooth and becomes more nuanced with time. I always have a comparison for any experience that I have in Italy with how I think it “would be” in the U.S. and vice versa. I confess that my comparisons are not always 100% based in reality and do benefit from a bit of the “grass is always greener” effect (“That would never happen in America!”).
Defining who you are when you are from different places can at times bring about some mini-identity crises (in addition to that broader existential struggle). Growing up in New York, I was raised to value punctuality. I was regularly five minutes early to whatever thing I had to do. Italians – and this may shock you – do not place much value on punctuality. When I first moved here, I got really frustrated about this, but with time I’ve changed. The practical result is that I am now an average of ten minutes late to every appointment in New York, and five minutes early for meetings in Grosseto. Am I still punctual?
The point that Whyte makes is that the “I” that used to be on time and is trying to determine whether it is still punctual is only one piece of the puzzle. Each one of us engages in a conversation in which our experiences and desires have to negotiate an outcome with reality. The result is dependent on us and on our surrounding reality. In the U.S., I am no longer punctual (and so can come across as disorganized). In Italy, I am punctual (and so can come across as having too much time on my hands – ha!). The point is that the answer to the question depends in part of the place involved.
That the answers can – and are – different depending on place means that those realities can be compared and be brought into a conversation without claiming a “side” or a “right” or “wrong.” It’s not Italy or America, a choice that has caused me a fair bit of angst and identity crisis. It’s not Italy and America, either – that would be amazing, but I can only be physically in one place at a time. It is all of the Italy in me and all of the America in me, in conversation with the place that I am in at that moment – be it Italy, America, or another place. From that conversation, I change, learn, adapt.
While I certainly do not intend to ever cook my peas, I do now eat my fava beans raw.