Continuing our series of interviews with Italian experts, we’re chatting to Marilyn Ricci from Take Me Home Italy. Marilyn set up her business in 2015 at the Festa Italiana exhibition in St. Paul, Minnesota. She received my first contract for services there – for a family of 15 traveling to their hometown of origin in Italy – and hasn’t looked back since.
We are so grateful to Marilyn for sharing her Italian journey with us. We were incredibly moved by her account of what she has learned from Italians, especially over the past 12 months and think you will be too. This post comes with a health warning though – if you thought you were missing Italy before reading this, then you’ll be more desperate than ever to return once you have heard Marilyn’s story.
Tell us a bit about your background.
My name is Marilyn Ricci. I was born in the 1950s during a December snowstorm in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. My parents were from 100% Italian-American families – my mum was from Abruzzo and my father from Campania. We lived in a tiny Italian community and were surrounded by earlier immigrants who mainly arrived from Scandinavia in the 1800s.
I always thought I was Italian. I did not realise that I was actually an American of Italian descent until I entered school. I knew we were different from our neighbours. Our skin was olive, not pure white. Our features were distinctly different. Our mannerisms were unlike the calm, quiet neighbours we knew and loved!
Sometimes I wanted to change how I looked. My nose was too big, my skin was not white enough. My hair was black, not blond. My eyes were dark brown, not blue or green. I had a love/hate relationship with my heritage.
Love won out, however. I was fortunate to know my great-grandmother, my grandmothers on both sides, my grandfather Ricci and many other Italian aunts and uncles. It was the strong, single (or widowed) women who taught me how to love my Italian heritage. I loved the food, the history, the language, the art, and so much more. When my great-grandmother passed in 1971, my heart broke. I had learned so much from her. It was this tragic event that made me decide to see what Europe, especially Italy, was all about. When I met my relatives there, I felt my great-grandmother, Orphelia there with me. It filled my heart where the hurt had been.
Ever since then, I have been regularly traveling to Italy, visiting my family in Italy and exploring as much of the country as I can.
In January 2016, my daughter, granddaughter and I all became dual Italian and American citizens. My dual citizenship meant that it was easier for me to choose to move to Italy than it is for expats. I am thankful for that benefit. Because of it, I was able to transplant myself from Minnesota to Liguria, Italy. I arrived in Italy on January 11th 2017 and moved into my apartment in Chiavari on March 4th, 2017. It remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Tell us a bit about where you live today.
Chiavari is not a well-known tourist town. In fact, I chose it partially for that reason. There are almost no Americans here. Few people profess to speak English. And the culture in Chiavari has not changed to attract tourists. But many of my clients have chosen to stay in Chiavari for its ambiance and its relatively economical lodgings and, from here, they tour Cinque Terre, Genova, and other towns in Liguria. Here’s why I love it so much…
Chiavari is about half-way between the towns of Cinque Terre and the city of Genova (Genoa). Approximately 30 minutes by train will take you to either. The ride along the sea is spectacular, the rugged coastline dotted with tiny towns, ancient ruins and pastel-coloured structures glistening in the sunshine. The sea in all seasons centres me. Our beaches are stunning, diverse, and rocky. The lungomare (promenade) along the sea stands about 20 feet above the shore. It is a favourite spot for locals to walk, jog, or stroll with their families. It also features excellent bars and restaurants right on the promenade. Most other towns I have explored do not offer restaurant seating on the actual promenade. I love to be able to enjoy a meal while watching the sea and all her machinations. History, fantasy, beauty and creativity all flourish here. The revolutionaries Garibaldi and Massini lived here when creating their fighting forces for the unification of Italy. And, as you would expect, the food is incredible. I am not Ligurian. I am southern Italian and had never had pesto or many other specialties featured in this area of Italy. The food of this area was foreign to me before moving to Italy. But, it’s absolutely delicious!
I could go on and on about the benefits of my new hometown! If you would like to know more, I am writing a book featuring Chiavari and many of her neighbours. I hope to have it published by the end of 2021.
Tell us a bit more about Take me Home Italy and the services you provide.
My business was born out of my love of the country of my heritage. I wanted to share my love of Italy with others of Italian heritage like myself, who longed to walk the streets of their hometowns of origin, to meet long lost relatives and to see where they came from.
For the rest of the world, I chose to offer opportunities to meet the people who have created this spectacular country. I search for off the beaten path locations. My clients can meet the locals and the artisans who create the food and wine of each region, and share a meal with them. Or, I make it possible for history buffs to touch the tools of those living in Italy in the Middle Ages or beyond. Other opportunities display the creativity and unique qualities of each little hamlet so that my clients can better understand the conglomeration of Italian towns and city-states who joined together to form the country of Italy. Clients will experience a small town or farming region untouched by mass tourism, where people live much as they did 200 years ago—just with WIFI, Netflix and cell phones. This is above and beyond what travellers would normally experience on a tour would. It is also more than most people will find digging through the myriad websites. In the vast majority of cases where I recommend a service or a location, I have already physically explored it and can personally recommend a visit.
However, because of Covid-19 and the lack of tourism in Italy for over a year, creativity and necessity have forced me to change my focus and to offer items on my personal ‘back burner’, to adapt and expand in other ways. I have now written over 200 blog posts about being Italian-American, a dual citizen living in Italy, traveling all over Italy and more. Over the last 12 months, I’ve also been Interviewed by I-Italy Magazine (based in the USA) and Italy Magazine (based in Florence, Italy) regarding my move, my life, and my business. I have also written posts for other businesses and am now writing a novel.
I also now offer membership to my Patreon Page where you can read the first drafts of the chapters of my latest book, receive newsletters all about what’s happening in Italy, hear about the funny things that have happened since I have lived here, enjoy more detailed content about specific areas and read interviews with experts in their fields within Italy. In short, it includes plenty of things that I do not automatically publish anywhere else.
What were your original plans for 2020? And what did you actually do?
Early in 2020, I asked my followers (now numbering over 10,000) where they would like me to travel beyond the well-known locales of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan. I received so many suggestions that I was forced to narrow it down according to the number of people who suggested the same places.
My first venture was to Sicily, a place I had not yet visited. I arrived in Sicily in mid-February, only returning to Chiavari on 26 February, the beginning of the Great Lockdown of Italy, 2020. I loved my time in Sicily. I visited Catania, Siracusa, Ortigia, Noto, Buccheri, Taormina, Castelmola, Pallazolo Acreide, Messina and Erice. I met incredible people, found hidden gem locations, and ate too many cannoli. I also wrote several blog posts you can access anytime for details.
The rest of my immediate plans for exploring more of Italy’s little hidden places came to an abrupt end, at least temporarily. But, beginning in June 2020, I set out on several adventures that my followers and I had planned.
First, I explored my home region of Liguria beyond Genova, west to the French Border. There were so many towns along the sea and in the hills beyond it where, again, I met incredible people, shared meals with them, heard their stories and fell deeper in love with Liguria. I visited Cervo, Allessio, Varezzi, Laigueglia, Colla Michere, Toirano, Lucinasco, Pieve di Teco, Finalborgo, Albenga, Loano, Varigotti, Imperia and Valloria.
After a week or two at home resting up and writing, I chose to visit my friends in Siena and see the Duomo once again—this time from above. The upper level of the duomo opens twice per year. It is worth the visit. It was a marvellous experience that I would recommend to any art aficionado. It was incredible, as were the other locations included with the ticket. The art, the history, well it was more than I expected. The way I felt walking along the upper level of the church, the lower levels and adjacent museums moved me to the point of losing track of what century I was actually living in. I also visited a number of smaller towns and a monastery along the way plus Montalcino. Again, check my blogposts for more information.
Next, I visited the small town of Vicopisano, near Pisa in Tuscany, where I stayed at a restored locale originally built by Brunelleschi of the Florence Duomo fame. This incredible experience will be a future post by request of the owner. Their town was hit badly by Covid-19 shortly after I departed. A blogpost will come out soon. Watch this space!
And then, I headed to Rome where I explored the Colosseum and the Forum once again. I was torn between feelings of melancholy and bliss without the throngs of tourists there.
And I traveled to Chianti and slept 3 nights in Panzano. As always, I am thoroughly fascinated by the Chianti province, the abundance of Slow Food Movement places within it, the Biodynamic and/or Organic farming done there, and the tiny artisans who do all that the big companies provide but do it with more passion and pride.
I met friends in Lunigiana, the north-west corner of Tuscany bordering Liguria. We also visited a winery, and the beautiful town of Sarzana, Liguria.
I took a ferry ride to Portovenere, a town near Cinque Terre and off the normal tourist path. This was my third visit to this island, and I loved every second of it, including the marvelous ferry ride from Chiavari. I took hundreds of photos.
And, finally, when it was extraordinarily HOT in my tiny appartamento in Chiavari, I decided to visit Moneglia, a seaside town close to Chiavari. I found a 2-star hotel and explored this gem while cooling off by the sea. The waters in Moneglia are among the cleanest in all of Italy and have been awarded Blue Flag status for over 20 years running.
What are the life lessons you have learned about Italy and from living in Italy itself?
I have loved the history, the beauty, the food and the stories of Italy all my life. When we were growing up in the melting pot that is the USA, we felt a certain pride because we were ‘100% Italian’. However, I learned that I am not truly Italian – not just by blood tests but by the experience of living in the USA most of my life as my parents had done. Our Italian experience is tempered by our poverty-stricken elders who emigrated to the USA around 1900. They carried the stories, the traditions of that time and, in general, did not progress beyond that point. They did not experience living through 2 world wars and more strife that has shaped the Italian people since 1900.
After experiencing the great lockdown of 2020 alongside my Italian neighbours, sharing their sorrows at losing nonni, (grandparents), seeing businesses lost, people without food, general fear and the entire emotional rollercoaster ride of our very visible and extremely strict lockdown, I appreciate that difference even more. Yet, I feel more like them, as though I am a comrade in the war against Covid. I find myself speaking from my Italian heritage side more and more.
Even before Covid, I learned just how little I needed in the form of physical things since I moved to Italy. I have only kept a very few treasures from my past life. The ones I treasure most are my mother’s china, my grandmother’s dishes, my great-grandmother’s silverware, the few (maybe 100) books I could not leave behind. I feel the presence of my elders when I use their kitchenware. When I read, I leave everything behind and travel along the pages of the book I am re-reading.
I miss my daughter and granddaughter more than I can express. They are my heart and soul. Until Covid, I managed to return to the USA at least for a few months each year, spending most of that time with my granddaughter on my lap. I left them in early January 2020 and will not visit the USA until June or July of this year. Thank goodness for Facetime – but it’s just not the same.
I have discovered both kindred spirits and wayward travellers here in Italy and become friends with several. What the lockdown taught me very quickly is that I do not have many friends here in Chiavari – they are scattered all across Italy. For most of the last year, I could not even leave the town where I live. I have friends only an 8-minute train ride or a short bus ride away in another town. But we could not leave our prospective towns. I felt loneliness more acutely than I have before. I moved to Italy alone at the age of 65. I do NOT mind being along usually. But, when I began talking back to characters on a Netflix series, I realised I needed to see friends as soon as I could.
While extensively travelling to small locations over the years and especially during the last four of them, my American view of Italy and travel therein has altered. Italy is adored by the masses all over the world, but especially in the USA. We love the glitz of the old Italian actors, ball players and politicians in the USA. We love pizza and spaghetti and meatballs as made in America. We love the image of the Latin (Italian) lover, the music of Fellini and Pavorotti, as well as pop music from Italy. We fantasise about the romantic gondola ride, the 4-hour dinner by the sea or the view of the Colosseum. We yearn to ride on the back of a vespa with a cute Italian man driving it. We hunger for painted buggies drawn by donkeys, people in costumes doing the Tarentella. These are all things you can experience in your travels to Italy.
Yet, for me, the heart of the people I have met where I have traveled (I have traveled to 13 or the 20 regions of Italy), the heart and soul of these diverse people really make Italy what she is. Depending on where you are you will find kindness, openness and warmth. You will always find their pride in who they are, their knowledge of their history, warts and all, their love of their music, their art, their history and archeology, all of which they study in elementary and secondary schools. There are even classes on wine-tasting in some schools. Even those less educated understand the treasure that Italy IS. They hold that in their hearts, and they share their love with you.
Are they all wonderful? NO. Do you make friends wherever you go? Not really. True friendship and respect must be earned. Do they all sing like Caruso? Well, many do. Will they judge you by your looks and your attitude? Yes, most likely they will. It is not all roses here. But even roses have thorns.
Still, during the covid crisis, even when so many in Italy are not thrilled by all the immigration that the country has seen over the past few years, no one discriminated when they shared their food with the less fortunate. Everyone when shopping bought an extra dried pasta and tomatoes to drop into the box at the cash register for those less fortunate. Everyone, even the reserved Ligurians in my town, opened their hearts to others, helped you up when you fell, brought your groceries to your door when you were down with Covid-19, checked on people they hardly knew to make sure they were alive in their apartments. They also treasure their elderly, even if they’re not actually related to them. These are things I have experienced here in Italy but not so much in the USA.
It’s the people of Italy who make us fall in love with this country.
It may be another year before you can travel back to Italy. It may be 4 to 6 months. We just do not know. But you will be back. When you return, remember that Italy is so much more than the advertising you receive. Look at the people. Spend a few days in a smaller town and try to talk to people. Or at least observe them with their families as they walk in the passagiata, the evening stroll of well-dressed families and friends. Thank everyone at restaurants, on tours, at the tourist office. Enjoy the dog sitting between your table and another while you eat. Dogs are as important as the kids are here in Italy! Slow down and walk like a local. Let the elders pass you by—don’t rush past them. Attempt to love their idiocyncrasies. It is all part of what makes Italy so fascinating.
We will see you again here in Italy. Who can resist?