The Power of Building Bridges in a World that Wants to Erect Walls
Imagine sitting in a big auditorium filled with students, 50 percent or more women. I was one of the 300 people shifting on uncomfortable wooden benches behind semi-circular tables, ready to take notes. I remember it like it was yesterday. The German professor walks in, takes a seat behind his desk, looks up and says, “Arbeit, die Arbeit, feminine, like all things unpleasant.”
My first class in another language and I was bumping into a mindset that was not Rilke’s, the reason I was there. Maybe comments like that are irrelevant, maybe you take it to heart. Some students might have found it normal, I didn’t.
That very old auditorium was in a building at the University of Bologna my Alma Mater an institution that admitted women to lectures early in its history. It was a progressive move for a school founded in 1088 as a student cooperative. Students got together to hire professors who could teach them. At 930 years old, it’s the oldest university in Europe.
The professor didn’t think twice about what his words communicated. Few took note, ever fewer seemed to take it to heart. We were witnessing patriarchal behavior. I was thinking that rationally, just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it true. But emotionally it plays with your head, it’s out there.
It’s not the work, it’s the environment that trips us
Could his statement be a question? Since I did not think he had any direct experience of the feminine, I was curious to figure out – why unpleasant? Is work something that just causes discomfort and pain? As for the feminine part – it was definitely harder for women. Because of the environment surrounding the work, not the work itself, we can do that.
The patriarchy is still alive in many parts of the country, but it’s not stifled all women, all the time.
Maria Montessori chose to study medicine, even as mentors tried to discourage her. She had to deal with hostility and harassment from some medical students and professors due to her gender. Her cadaver dissections were done alone, after hours – no way you could have a woman and a naked body together, in the presence of others. With a mother as her ally, it was enough to get started. Her determination and skill did the rest.
How many more women could have succeeded with a bigger pool of students?
Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Nobel Laureate honored for her work in neurobiology, started her work in a hiding place. During World War II, she set up a laboratory in a corner of a shared living space where she had repaired with her Jewish family. She was able to replicate the results of her home laboratory experiments after the war. Persistence and patience helped her stay the course.
Were other women inventing and discovering and we don’t know about them?
We have so much in common, even in our differences
Montessori and Levi-Montalcini are two better-known examples of meeting adversity with determination and ingenuity I came across. Many more women have succeeded in fields as diverse as science, politics and public affairs on the strength of their appreciation of nuance and complexity.
Now that we’re looking for them, we’re uncovering their stories for inclusion. I’m interested in the impact and influence of those stories on the world.
In the U.S., mathematician Kathrine Johnson, NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and engineer Mary Jackson went through hoops to contribute to a grand vision. Like many others, I didn’t know their struggles until recently. Many barriers still exist in American and Italian culture. Different cultures, similar challenges for women.
In the 1970s Laurel Ulrich’s phrase, “well behaved women seldom make history” struck a chord. It’s an aspirational statement. It’s been translated into Italian, “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.”
I interpret it as pioneering spirit in U.S. In Italy it sounds much more like character judgement.
The words we use matter. They reveal our thinking, but they also create it
I’ve lived in Italy half of my life and moved to the U.S. to make my work aspirations come true. It’s not been easy, starting with zero connections, means, and a superficial appreciation of culture, acquired mostly from movies and literature. Missing the day to day with family and friends broke my heart – technology was still in its infancy and staying in touch was expensive. U.S. business culture also broke my heart – mergers, consolidations, layoffs, and ghosting so distant from valuing relationships and the long term I learned growing up.
Emotional scars have cumulative impact. I found refuge in my heritage and the comfort of an alternative view of the simple joys in life I’d been lucky to experience. Returning to my culture and traditions was my sanctuary.
The stories in Sophia Loren’s biography echo those my family told. Federico Fellini’s characters live the specialness of the corner of Italian culture closest to where my parents grew up. Massimo Bottura says Bread is Gold. Cooking is the ultimate creative expression, we should not waste anything. His message brought up memories of savoring long conversations over delicious meals using what we had in the house.
Back to the future
I started my journey back in Modena, my hometown, and expanded to Bologna, my adoptive city as a student. Then expanded my exploration further to Parma, Torino, Milano, Verona, Trento, Genova, Cinque Terre, Garda, Firenze, San Geminiano… so many more cities, towns, and villages in Italy where to wine, dine, rest, and be social. I rediscovered Olivetti, Armani, Brunello Cucinelli, Ferrari, and many of the artistic treasures my native country has to offer to the world.
Italian history is full of invasions, kingdoms, and struggles – the perfect environment to brew the beauty, art, and craftsmanship that still enchant the world today. Modern-day Italy continues to be bureaucratic and confusing – I love it anyway. The U.S. is full of aspirations and good words, but it still has a hard time dealing with women – I live it every day.
American women start global movements, Italian women don’t quit – a perfect combination
I lost count of the women I’ve talked to about Italy over the years – the food, travel, art, fashion, and yes, even the Italian football team. Italy is unlike any other place in the world, it’s extraordinary even in the most ordinary things. We start our conversations about something Italian and we instantly build a bridge to joyful experiences – getting inspired on the same journey of tastes and places that feed the soul.
I’m convinced we all have some Italian in us – the playful, fun, curious side that endures and seeks more joy and beauty, that part that sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Many Italians I met in the U.S. came here as opportunity seekers. Making a livelihood is important, but so is making a life.
As I rebuild a third career, I wanted a daily reminder that joy and anticipation are the key ingredients of a good life. Italian Style is your invitation to optimism and quality, the necessary ingredients to engaging work.
Join me, liberate your inner Italian and meet the authentic Made in Italy. On April 25, 1945 Americans liberated my hometown. Maybe it’s time for Italy to liberate other countries into La Dolce Vita.
Why style? In the words of Jean Cocteau, “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”
Why now? Because there’s never been a better time to build bridges to joy… and visiting often.