At Bar Glorioso, Jhumpa Lahiri stirs her daily espresso next to Roman workmen sipping beer, and converses in shy, fluent Italian with the barista. She speaks with the vocabulary of a bibliophile, the faint accent of an unidentifiable foreigner, and the serenity of a neighbourhood regular.
If the barista knows that Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when she was 32, he does not treat her any differently because of it. And that’s one of the many reasons why she loves living in Italy: she has recovered the anonymity she cherished before becoming a literary celebrity.
After a lifetime of feeling that she never quite fitted into either India or the US, Lahiri feels a casa (“at home”) in Rome. She recently wrote about her Italian metamorphosis in a “linguistic autobiography”, titled In Altre Parole (“In Other Words”), which hit Italian bookstores in January. “I waited a very long time to really go away from the world I knew,” she says. “Rome has given me a sense of belonging.”
Three years ago, Lahiri, 47, fulfilled her life-long wish of living in Italy, and moved to Rome from Brooklyn with her husband and their two children, Octavio, 13, and Noor, 10. A fan of Roman mythology as a child, a student of Latin at Barnard College, New York City (where she majored in English), and a PhD scholar in Renaissance studies at Boston University, she had always felt attracted to Rome.
Although she got engaged to her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, an American journalist of Guatemalan and Greek descent, in Venice, and attended several literary festivals in Italy, she had only visited Rome twice before she decided to uproot her entire family and move there. In 2012, she enrolled her children in an international school in southern Rome, imagining one year off from life in New York.
It took about a year for Lahiri’s family to settle in. Her children gradually embraced their bilingual curriculum at school. Both have become fluent in Italian, and Lahiri ponders the idea of returning to Rome for her son’s university years. Her husband’s fluency in Spanish enabled him to get by in Rome at first. After countless dinner parties where Italian was the only language spoken, he now speaks Italian fluently, too.
For Lahiri, after three weeks in Rome, she says she knew she needed and wanted to stay longer. “Here, I’m able to accept myself in a way that I haven’t ever been able to in the United States or India because these two sides were always at war,” she says. Having been born in London to Bengali parents, and raised in Rhode Island from the age of two, Lahiri says she felt eternally torn between the language in which she was educated (English) and the language in which she was raised (Bengali). “I felt I could never please either and it was always a battle and a loss.”
Upon moving to Rome, she entered into a self-imposed “linguistic exile” from English. She spent her first three months as a resident writer at the American Academy in Rome. She kept a diary of her thoughts in Italian, read exclusively in Italian and, rapidly, shut out of her system the language in which she has written four acclaimed books.
“This is not something that popped out of nowhere — it’s not that I decided all of a sudden to go on a crazy grapefruit diet,” she says, recalling her “20-year-slog” of studying Italian of her own accord in New York with private tutors.
In her latest book, she confesses to feeling unworthy of receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She was seeking a new direction in her writing. Starting from scratch in a foreign language she had always loved has offered her novel, creative challenges.
“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place,” she says. “This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”
Lahiri particularly enjoys the slower-paced daily living of Rome, the small-town feel of her bohemian neighbourhood, Trastevere, the cultured conversations that she shares as easily with professors as with barmen and the spontaneity of social gatherings.
“Here, you know the person who bakes your birthday cakes, who makes your salami and cheese every day, and the people who sell everything you put in your body,” she says about her jaunts to the local food markets. “And they know everything you put into your body because there’s this deep, human connection that you create day after day.”
She chuckles when thinking about the Italian friends she invites for Sunday brunch, who often linger until suppertime. “I feel like I’ve known my Italian friends for 13 years rather than three years because in every conversation you plumb the depths,” she says.
“Italians’ concept of time is radically different from most people I know in New York, and I’m realising that I don’t have to accomplish 29 things every day, and read the entire New Yorker while drinking my coffee from a paper cup and texting on a treadmill.”
Speaking Italian, she says, has been central to understanding Italian culture and developing friendships. Without this ability, she believes that entering into Italian society is difficult. Her greatest frustration, however, is that no matter how well she speaks Italian, she always finds herself face to face with “the wall”, a phenomenon she explains in a chapter of her recent book.
“Because I’m not Italian-looking, there’s a microscopic scrutiny of me,” she says. “And there’s a presumption that being me, looking like me, there’s no way that I can have the competence to speak this language.”
In her time here, she has encountered racism, she says, recalling an incident in which a Roman stranger rolled down his car window at a traffic light and screamed at her, “Go wash yourself!”
She talks to the Bengali immigrants peeling fava beans at vegetable markets, and listens to how they loathe living in Italy and wish they lived elsewhere. “These are sobering moments, and they make me realise what a privileged landing I’ve had here,” she says.
“Immigrants here are doing all of the grunt work,” she says. “They are hidden cooking in the kitchens of the trattorie, and very rarely do you see them here on the front line.”
In September, she will move back to the US as a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Although reluctant to leave Rome, she knows her children feel an attachment to the US and she wants them to cultivate the connection. However, she longs to keep an apartment in Rome, and worries about finding Italian outlets in America to maintain her fluency and newfound identity.
Some people may seek to brush off this Italian chapter of her career as a phase, she says, but she sees it as a turning point, liberating her from the sense of perfection she feels she has to live up to in the US.
“What I was wanting to get away from in moving to Rome was the sense of me being an expert,” she says. “Here, I have felt free and invisible, and have felt that sense that there’s another mountain to climb, I’m at the bottom of it, and that’s the great challenge.”
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A 65 sq metre studio apartment in the historic centre
€1.7m A 190 sq metre ground-floor apartment in Trastevere
€2m A 300 sq metre second-floor apartment in Parioli
Lahiri’s verdict . . .
● The quality of the light
● The pace of life
● Lousy public transport, combined with stressful driving and limited parking
● Italian bureaucracy
Favourite places . . .
Having lunch at Al Biondo Tevere on a sunny day overlooking the Tiber river
A romantic walk among Roman ruins in Piazza Sallustio
Gelato at Neve di Latte on Via Luigi Proietti
Photograph: Liana Miuccio
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