It’s time to interview an expat again!
I have been (virtually) chatting with expats for years now, I ask them more or less the same questions, yet I am always amazed at how special and unique every interview is.
Every time new aspects of Italian life come up and there is always the chance of reflecting on the Italian way of life from a different perspective – and that’s why I love chatting with foreigners living in Italy so much!
This time I have the great pleasure of interviewing Juli-Anne Royes Russo, whom you can find on Instagram as A Jamaican in Italy. She has a website, where she writes about her work as an aquaculture scientist and a brand new blog focused on her life in Italy and her passion for cooking.
The interview is long and full of interesting things, so it’s time to let her speak!
Hello Juli-Anne! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your life and work?
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and lived in Jamaica until the age of 30. I migrated to the United States to study for my Ph.D. I am an aquaculture and nutrition scientist and provide consulting services to Non-governmental organizations such as FAO or USAID. One of my joys is to help fish farmers around the world gain access to the knowledge they need to be successful in sustainable fish farming.
In my spare time, I love documenting my journey through journaling and photography, I love to write about cooking, and I am also a certified yoga teacher so I try to incorporate the yogi principles into my daily life.
Your Instagram account is called A Jamaican in Italy. So, tell us: what has brought you here?
Basically, I was searching for a place to call home. For many years while living in the United States I felt homesick for my homeland Jamaica. I never seemed to be able to adapt to America, its issues with race, the culture, and lifestyle and I thought it a very lonely place not being surrounded by family. For many years I have been visiting Italy with my husband who was born in Rome and with each visit, I fell more in love with Italy.
In 2019 after spending the summer in La Bianca in the Monti della Tolfa, and getting to know this area of Lazio better, I immediately knew that this could be home for me. Despite the language barrier, there are so many elements that reminded me of Jamaica. Here they are a wonderful cadre of friends we had made over the years that made me feel welcomed and I have the best of both worlds, the mountains and the sea only 20 minutes away.
And importantly in Rome, there are Riccardo’s family and our best friends in Italy. So when COVID made life in America even more anxiety-filled and unsure we decided that this was the best time to move to Italy to be closer to the support system that I longed for.
When did you visit Italy for the first time and what was your impression of the country? Has that first impression of Italy changed over time?
The first time I visited Italy was in 2003 before we got married. Riccardo did a wonderful job in making me see as much as we could of his beautiful country in 3 weeks! We did the whirlwind tour of Rome, the Vatican, Florence, Siena, Luca, Pisa, and Venice.
I saw every church, museum, and did all the touristy things as well as shopping. How could I not think that Italy was marvellous! It was everything in the movies and more. The year after we got married.
Was it easy to get used to living here? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
I have only lived here for 8 months so I would say ask me in three years. I am lucky and very grateful to have my husband and friends to help me navigate the culture and any obstacles that I may face. I came here knowing about the challenges of living in Italy such as the bureaucracy, the long lines to get business completed, and the lack of efficiency compared to the United States.
Nothing happens immediately and will often take several tries before getting anything done. The language barrier is the biggest challenge that I have been working on and with each day I hope to improve my communication skills. I have really enjoyed not thinking about the colour of my skin every day which is something I could not escape in the US.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
When I first came to Italy as surprising as it may seem, and I love and miss it during this sad time of COVID, was the kissing, hugging, and lovely signs of affection that friends do when they greet each other. I come from a culture that has the remains of British colonialism and it is not very expressive with kisses and signs of affection.
So when I first met Riccardo’s friends – which he has lots, for every friend there were 3 kisses! And I used to joke about the amount of kissing and hugging that goes on between friends.
Now I miss all that affection. However, I still cannot get used to the hand signals and exuberance when they are in conversation. Sometimes I am not sure if there is an argument ensuing or they are just being expressive with lots of flare. Until I am fluent in the Italian language it will probably take me a while to get used to this.
You have an Italian husband. Now we want to know all the fun stories about Italian families, I know you have them!
Riccardo’s parents are the unconventional bunch in his family. His parents own a camper and would love to travel around Italy and Europe in it. In their younger days, they would spend all summer living out of their camper. Now that they are older, my son finds it a hoot to spend time in this camper. In warmer weather they will drive to their land in the woods and my son would hang out with them and spend hours while his Nona teaches him about nature, after which they would do a cookout in the woods.
You also have a son. Do you see differences in the way kids are raised in Italy compared to the US or to Jamaica?
I love the family structure. The kids love being with their families and will sometimes stay home until they are adults. Three generations will live with each other, unlike in America kids leave home at 18. Kids like in Jamaica are taught to respect their elders and are very polite and will not pass an adult without saying hello or good morning or good afternoon.
When you live in a place for a long time, that place somehow changes the way you are. Do you feel that living in Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
Yes, and it is one of the reasons why I wanted to live here. I enjoy the traditions and the family structure. The slow pace and the movement with the seasons. I have learned to appreciate living in the moment and to only shop for the things that I need. I have come to get used to the idea that I do not need a lot of material things to make me happy and have much gratitude for my Italian friends and the people that are in my life. I have more patience and I now go with the flow of life.
It took me a while but I am fast getting used to everything closing at 1 pm when everyone goes home to prepare for the pausa and Mothers head home to prepare lunch for the family. Then everything comes alive again at 4.30 pm. I love the fact that families eat together at most meals. Sundays all shops close at 1 pm like when I was growing up in Jamaica. In fact, I feel more like myself here, and being in Italy in a sense helped me to rediscover my true self.
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about the US and Jamaica (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
I miss the warmth of Jamaica – the year-round sunshine, the waterfalls, beaches, mountains, the food, and my friends. Apart from Italy, Jamaica is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Apart from my workout buddies and a few friends, I do not miss the life I left behind in America.
You have a cookbook titled “From Jamaica to Italy”. Can you tell us more about this great project?
It was here in Italy that I discovered that I was missing something living in America. I felt like I lost my culture and my identity as a black woman. I missed my country so painfully especially every winter and I thought that one day I would return to Jamaica. But the opportunity never arose to move back and with all my family not living there anymore, it made it more difficult to return.
I remember my first trip to Rome how much it reminded me of Kingston with its crowds and everyone walking and how much the Tolfa Mountains reminded me of the rolling green pastures dotted with cattle in the countryside of Jamaica. In 2015 we decided that we needed to take an extended vacation and for the first time since we were married, we spent 4 weeks in Italy.
Two of those were spent in La Bianca a tiny commune of Allumiere. For the entire trip, every day I either cooked with friends or family or they cooked for us. I decided to start a journal of that experience. We had no internet and social media as a distraction so I read and wrote and cooked. In the end, I had a journal and lots of recipes and decided to put it together as a book. I have gone through many titles but the original was Spring in Italy. Not only because it was during the Spring one of my most favourite times of the year but because I had an ah-ah moment by the end of the trip which started a journey to change how I was living in America.
I started my book writing journey in 2017 and now that I am living here the book has even more meaning and I am currently updating it to write about my experiences moving here and living throughout all the seasons.
Since you write about food, I can’t help but ask you about Italian food. What is your favourite Italian food and why? And which is the not-so-famous dish that people must not miss when they come to Italy?
I understand that each region has its specialty. In general, it’s hard to say which is my favourite because I love the flavours of Italian food in general. Italians pride themselves on cooking with pure ingredients and with the least number of preservatives. So a dish that may have three ingredients will have the best flavour combination because the starting ingredients were of the best quality to start with. To me, it is one of the best cuisines in the world – outside of my Jamaican of course!
The variety is so wonderful compared to Jamaica which has much fewer dishes than in Italy. Riccardo was the first to introduce me to Italian cuisine which is far different from canned ragu and spaghetti sauce that I first would cook in America. I became his sous chef and still am to this day. I would find the recipes and ingredients and then he would show me how the dish is prepared the traditional way.
In the Tolfa Mountains, the best dish you will get is where none of the ingredients have travelled very far. I love the ravioli with pumpkin and sage when I go to the Rischio and if you come to this region the porchetta and cinghiale is a must. The porchetta is a whole roasted pig seasoned and roasted on a spit while during hunting season the wild boar/cinghiale becomes the specialty dish.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in Lazio, an amazing Italian region that goes way beyond the beauty of Rome. Can you tell us more about the area where you live? Do you have tips for some interesting off-the-beaten-track locations?
The Monti della Tolfa is an agricultural region. It is a beautiful unspoiled part of Italy packed with history and culture and many of the traditions still exist. About a 60-minute drive north of Rome, from the coast of Santa Marinella, 600 meters from sea level the towns Tolfa, Allumiere lie in the heart of the mountains. Here the Etruscans and ancient Romans left behind plenty of memories which you can discover through trekking through the woods, like the many necropolis at Tolfa and the rustic Roman villa on Mount Tolfaccia. The museum in Tolfa has a really nice collection of Etruscan artifacts.
Many of the traditions of pasture rotation is still being carried out where the animals are left to graze freely on the land. You may see a carpet-like flock of sheep or at other times a few donkeys, grey-white Maremmana cattle, or the black Tolfettana horses happily grazing in various pastures. Cassettes can be seen from the road dotted around the pastures where the pastori will rest or to shelter from bad weather. My favourite thing to do is to take photos of the many varieties of spring wildflowers in April and May and to go searching for wild asparagus.
The further up the mountains, the woods which surround the landscape are filled with chestnut, beech trees, holly, and many more species. In the fall the colours are oranges, yellows, and reds and in the spring greens and pinks. The beechwood forest (faggeto) in Allumiere is extraordinary in flora and fauna in the spring and fall and is perfect for a day of hiking, photography, birdwatching and to get away from the big city such as Rome. There are about 30 species of wild orchids and many species of wildflowers. There are many hiking trails and one can hire a guide that can show you to Etruscan or ancient Roman sites, birdwatching, or collecting wild herbs. In the fall there is mushroom and chestnut collecting and for the adventurous hunting for cinghiale or wild boar
The restaurant and trattoria scene are spectacular here. The region is known for its slow food movement. One of my favourite trattorias is the Ristorante Rischio in the small commune of La Bianca. There is no menu and dishes are prepared from only ingredients that are in season. Many ingredients come from the surrounding farms in the region. It’s not uncommon for Romans to drive the distance on weekends to have dinner at one of the restaurants and then spend the afternoon strolling the town of Tolfa which is a splendid Medieval village. The Remains of the 14th-century fortress of the Castle Rocca is perfect for an afternoon stroll to work off the 5-course meal. While exploring the remains I often imagine the fascinating stories told about villagers behind the walls defending them from barbarian and Saracen raiders
If you love horses and riding, it is home to the butteri who are the cowboys and girls of Italy. In July there are many tournaments of the “Torneo dei Butteri” which are real spectacles. For equestrian lovers this a wonderful cultural event that keeps alive the tradition of breeding the native Tolfetano horses, and the artisan sectors of the production of saddle, harness, and clothing. At the tournaments, the local butteri dress in typical costumes and participate in equestrian sports competitions, where the protagonists are the horses and cowboys.
At the end of August, the palio in Allumiere is a must-see event. Starting from the age of 14, the villagers of the six communes of Allumiere, participate in a parade dressed in Medieval costumes representing the people of that time. There is an elaborate procession through the town to the piazza of Allumiere. After which there is a competition for the flag throwers and then the main event the racing of the donkeys representing each commune.
And if you love ceramics, you can spend a day learning how to make pottery from Pirjo who is a Swedish transplant living in midst of nature in the woods with her Italian husband. I would have to say this is on my to-do list.
Do you speak Italian? If you do, what is your relationship with the language? Was it hard to learn it?
I was very enthusiastic about learning Italian. I think that it is one of the most beautiful and poetic languages. I love when Riccardo gets philosophical in Italian – it’s pure poetry to me. At first, I had many difficulties with the pronunciation, it has taken me many years to get used to the accent and proper pronunciation. My teacher Monica always tells me I have to open my mouth to get the words out and it made me realize that my Jamaican accent is very laid back and conservative in comparison.
In a way, learning to pronounce Italian words is a metaphor for how speaking Italian has helped me to come out of my shell as an introvert and speaking forces me to open my mouth to pronounce the words properly. I have also learned not to be shy about speaking because it is the only way to learn.
I always knew that it would take me to move to Italy to be able to learn faster. Over the years I have taken many classes and studied on my own. But being immersed is the best way to advance in learning the language. Moving to a place like Allumiere where there are not too many English speakers forced me out of my comfort zone to speak. Because as my father-in-law once said to me “If you don’t speak, you don’t eat!”.
Also, I didn’t want to keep relying on my husband or son and love the independence of being able to communicate my needs myself. I always have a sense of accomplishment when I can communicate successfully- and have a conversation. The next challenge is getting my driver’s licence. At the moment I am at the level of an Intermediate or A2 and I have heard the test is quite difficult for non-Italians. My father-in-law has now stated, “If you don’t read Italian you cannot drive!”
Thank you so much Juli-Ann for taking the time to answer my questions!
If you are interested in more thoughts about Italy, I have a whole section of interviews with expats. I have chatted with a Canadian living in Bergamo, a Polish girl in love with Rome, an American artist who lives in Umbria, another American who moved to beautiful Tuscany, a Mancunian who now resides in Molise, a Scottish lady who is now happily living in Veneto, a British couple who lives and work in Garfagnana, Tuscany, a US lady who runs a hostel in Rome, an American lady who now lives in a beautiful Tuscan villa, a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time, a writer from Seattle who has been living in Rome for 15 years now, a couple who has just gotten Italian citizenship, a lovely Texan who moved to a tiny little Italian village, a super energetic travel expert from the US now living in Rome, two young YouTubers who live in Prato, Tuscany, a Texan lady who lives in Turin, Slovak girl who now calls Bologna home, a Mississippi lady who is now Neapolitan, a girl from Canada who has fulfilled her dream of living in Florence, a New Yorker who now calls Ischia home, an American lady who chose the countryside near Naples as her new home, a brave lady who has moved to Italy in the midst of the pandemic, an American who has a YouTube channel about life in Italy as a foreigner, and a couple who has moved from the US to a farm in Sicily.