Last week, our blog featured a guest post from writer, Karen Haid, on the amazing diversity of villages in Calabria. This week, we have the pleasure of interviewing Karen to find out a bit more about how she came to be an expert on this relatively unknown region of Italy. Karen is the award-winning author of Calabria: The Other Italy and Basilicata: Authentic Italy, travel books that we think perfectly capture the essence of Southern Italy, from its ancient history through to contemporary society, including meaningful encounters with locals, fascinating places to visit, and exquisite foods to savour. Her writing truly immerses the reader in the Italian culture as if in conversation with an old friend.
Over to Karen to find out more….
Tell us a bit about your background and how your love of Italy came about.
I grew up in New Jersey in what we refer to as the New York metropolitan area, a great melting pot of cultures, Italian being very strong amongst them.
From what I know, my heritage is mostly German and some English; however, I was raised with an affinity for all things Italian as my parents lived in Rome just after their marriage in the 1950s. We ate a lot of Italian food at home, we had a Neapolitan nativity scene and with the occasional Italian-from-Italy guest, my parents, who were both fluent Italian speakers, conversed in a beautiful language I did not understand. They often shared wonderful memories of their five years in Italy and the connection continued with a back and forth of holiday cards and letters on onion skin paper with lovely foreign stamps.
You have studied in a number of places in Italy. Where have you travelled to in Italy and do you have a favourite place?
I have visited a good bit of Italy, from north to south, and in such a gorgeous country, choosing favourites would be nearly impossible. As a result of my interest in Italy and the Italian language, I attended several intensive language schools for a month at a time in Florence, Rome, Sorrento and Taormina, and while living in Calabria, took a six-month teacher-training course for Italian language and culture in Reggio Calabria.
The immersive experience is optimal for language learning and I recommend it to anyone who wants to really develop their proficiency. After years of study and then living in Italy, I earned a certificate of mother-tongue equivalency from the Dante Alighieri Society.
What brought you to Calabria?
I landed in Calabria by chance when searching for an English teaching job. Looking at the cost of living and commuting times in larger cities, I opted for a smaller location, where the school was a few blocks away by foot, and in Calabria, there was an additional bonus of being right on the sea. I taught in Calabria for four years, two in Locri, a mid-sized town, and then in Reggio Calabria, the region’s largest city, along the Strait of Messina with Sicily right across the way.
In a nutshell, how would you describe Calabria or Basilicata to someone who has not visited before?
Calabria and Basilicata are regions for which the phrase ‘off the beaten path’ seems to have been created. But the amazing thing is that although these regions are off the radar for a majority of today’s travellers, they are located at the heart of the Mediterranean and have been a crossroads for thousands of years. Thus, there is a wealth of history, with historical and artistic gems that most people don’t expect, yet at the same time, being ‘off the beaten path’, the visitor has plenty of elbowroom with which to enjoy the culture, as well as the unspoiled nature. Both regions are mountainous, so there are numerous remote villages, but both also have access to the sea, Basilicata’s being more limited, while Calabria is completely surrounded by water.
This geographic variety gives visitors the opportunity for a wide range of outdoor activities and also contributes to the agricultural diversity, which accounts for the excellent cuisine based on local, and often unique, products. And most importantly, Calabrians and Lucanians (people from Basilicata) are very welcoming and happy to share their wholesome food and time-honoured traditions with you.
Tell us a bit more about your two books…
During my first couple of years in Calabria, I wrote descriptive emails to family and friends, keeping them up to date with my new adventures and encounters with the local people. Then, as I began to explore even more, I realised that there was very little current information about Calabria in English, so I decided to write a book in which I shared my own experiences, while telling the story of the region itself. My goal was to engage the reader to make a connection with this “other Italy” through its culture and traditions, its joys and challenges, with a bit of humour and also poignancy, and in the end, to nurture an understanding and perhaps spark a greater curiosity and a visit to the largely forgotten region. With the publication of Calabria: The Other Italy, I began a blog in which I have continued my exploration of the land in the toe of the boot.
Basilicata: Authentic Italy came about differently, in that readers kept asking me, ‘What’s next?’ After much thought, I decided to focus on Calabria’s neighbour to the north, another region off the general tourist trail, except for Matera, the City of the Sassi, which has gained much international attention in the past few years and to which I dedicate a substantial section of my book.
My approach with Basilicata was similar and I spent long periods of time, soaking up the spirit of the place and the people. And with both of these regions, I have had so many ‘Who knew?’ moments with regard to everything from ancient history to culinary specialties.
I must also add that my Italian fluency has been indispensable to my writing as I am able to experience everything firsthand, whether through interaction with local people, reading, watching Italian TV, etc. And often, even basic information about lesser-known places is simply not available in English.
Do you have plans to write a third book?
At the moment I am translating Calabria: The Other Italy into Italian with the assistance of a dear Calabrian friend. Believe it or not, on social media, I have almost as many Italian- as English-speaking followers, and a few Calabrian schools have even used my book as a text for their English classes! After that, I have a few ideas, but I’m still in the musing stage.
Do you think Italy has changed in the last 12 months due to COVID?
The covid virus has changed everyone, and Italy, more than most. Forcing an extremely gregarious population to frequent lockdowns, particularly those who live in small apartments, would be considered cruel and unusual for animals in a zoo, so with people… Many books are being and will be written on this topic, and personally I will continue to have hopes for the future.
Do you have any travel plans at the moment?
I have never had a bucket list, and I don’t think this is a good time to start one, as there are so many beautiful places to visit and just about anywhere looks good at the moment. I plan to continue with my small-group tours to Southern Italy, revisit old haunts, explore new places and experience travel and culture to its fullest, about which I will write in the very near future.
If you, like us, want to find out more about Karen or the regions she writes about, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and her in-depth My Italian Blog. With her company Karen’s Travel LLC, she also leads small-group tours which come highly recommended!