At the beginning of Enrico Franceschini’s book, “Voglio l’America,” there is a quote. Not just any quote. But a quote that signifies the essence of the American dream. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” *
And that “there” happens to be New York City, la Grande Mela, the big Apple. Not a gentle city to conquer by any means, and certainly not a cake walk for a young Italian man with a dream in his heart and hardly any money in his pocket. But against all odds, and equipped with just few phrases of English, Mr. Franceschini did indeed make it.
Looking at his success now, it all seems so easy. Noted author, famed journalist. But it was not easy, not by any measure. Back in his hometown of Bologna, Enrico had finished law school and was working as a journalist for a local newspaper. But something within him, an inner calling, wanted more. That more was a longing for, as he puts it, a “big city…the unknown.” Thus, he packed up and left for New York City, leaving behind friends, family and the comforts of home.
Once there, without a steady job, it looked as though this young ambitious man would have to go back to Italy empty-handed. But what he lacked in money and resources, he made up with talent and gumption. And whereas others would have quit, somehow, Franceschini rolled up his sleeves and persevered. Just as he began to wonder what to do next, something clicked and it is then, that the lion within him came out and began to roar.
On the streets of New York, as he grew hungry and more determined, his instincts became keen, and his wit sharp, and there while reading the works of Bukowsky, Miller and Hemingway from his apartment in a neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen which was as squalid as it sounded, his writing flourished. Today, the Franceschini writing style is razor sharp, honest and well yes, as sexy as he is. He does not sugarcoat nor add fluff. Sex is sex, black is black, “journalism is journalism;” pane al pane e vino al vino.
Yes, New York did him good. That raw grit and savvy he found on the streets perhaps could not have been developed in the softer, kinder ease of life at home. Despite initial rejection in his early days, he soon found work as a writer and eventually became a force in Italian journalism. Today, he is at the top of his game.
An international correspondent for La Repubblica, Franceschini has interviewed world leaders including Mr. and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos in Hawaii as they were planning their “comeback”, the past leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev in the moments after his resignation, and has been invited to both the White House and dinner with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. And he did it all on his own- one word at a time, one article at a time, one book at a time. Mr. Sinatra would have been proud.
When I approached Mr. Franceschini about doing this interview, I have to admit I was as giddy as a Belieber. Here he was, this grande scrittore of so many books including Londra Babilonio and L’uomo della Citta’ Vecchia. In the beginning, I probably made a fool out of myself by my incessant compliments. After a few minutes, he stopped me and said “ma va. Ti ringrazio. Come on. Thank you.” Despite being busy, he then went out of his way to work around my schedule. Bello AND simpatico. I tell you… he had it me at ciao.
The morning I interviewed him, I had already had a few cups of coffee. By the time, I saw him on Skype, sitting there wearing a sweater and that deliciously debonaire smile, I wanted to hide. This is a man who lived life to the fullest and then wrote about it-- and here I was interviewing him while writing notes with my Hello Kitty pen.
I was so star struck, I didn’t realize I had shifted to the side of my screen. “Gaya,” he said. “Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“I’m nervous,” I finally admitted.
“Why? Come on. You make me feel like a rock star.”
With questions in hand, I took in a deep breath and refrained from any further gushing. I moved to the center of the screen, looked him straight into his eyes and rolled up my sleeves. “Yes Enrico”, I responded, trying to act like that leone he had been in New York and still is today. “You certainly are.”
Yes , “rock star,” writer, international hopscotcher. At the end of the day, Mr. Franceschini is all of the above. But most importantly, he is a man who simply enjoys the art of writing, and who at a very young age, listened to his gut, that inner calling of a writer, and indeed just like that song, made it everywhere.
Gaya Lynn: Welcome to L’Italo-americano. Please tell me about yourself. What kind of childhood did you have?
Enrico Franceschini: I was a child of the post-war economic boom. My father, who had been the son of “carabiniere” was the first in his family to graduate, and as a result, we become a well to do, middle class family. I had a happy childhood in Bologna while in the summer, we stayed at a seaside resort on the Riviera Romagnola. Even my mother was a college graduate and the daughter of a college professor. We had a home full of books and since I was little, I always read a lot. Every morning, the city newspaper was delivered to our home, and while having breakfast before going to school, I eagerly read the sport’s page. My passion for journalism had thus begun.
GL: I can picture you there with your parents having their caffe’ and you devouring the sports page. You know, throughout my interviews with Italian artists, I am struck by how many from an early age, had a sense of their destiny. Almost always, the child had this unique liberty to decide his own course in life without too much interference from the parent. Being the son of a doctor, did you feel pressure to follow in his footsteps?
EF: Looking back now, I'm surprised that neither my father nor my mother pressured me to follow in my father's footsteps. My father was a doctor, dentist, had a studio, and did and earned well for himself. Yet he never pushed me into pursuing medicine. I think my parents realized that I was not gifted in the skills needed to go into medicine. But I am also very grateful to them for having left me the freedom to follow my passion-writing. I wish I could ask them why they did so, but unfortunately they have passed on….
GL: I am sorry to hear that. At an early age, you had a teacher who predicted you would go into journalism. What was it in you that prompted such a statement?
EF: When I was eleven years old, a teacher wrote on my report card that I had the style of a journalist. Being influenced by the newspaper articles that I read in the morning, I tried to imitate that writing style. I remember I had made even a class newsletter, one in which I wrote, and then hand wrote ten copies and later sold them for 10 lire to my classmates. I also wrote short stories, fables, novels…. In short, I was good at writing and I liked it. So then, when I was a little older, in high school, I started writing about sports for some local newspapers and I continued doing so until I graduated in law at the University of Bologna. At that point I had already knew that I did not want to pursue a career in law; I had studied law just because at that time in Italy, a degree in journalism did not exist. But I wanted to be a journalist.
GL: At twenty three, you made a took a huge leap of faith and went to New York. There you were, in the big Apple without money, without knowing the language (only a phrase or two such as “the cat is under the table”). My question is Why? Why you leave that beautiful world where you had your Mamma, your friends and a home? And why New York?
EF: Up until then, my plan was to be a sports reporter and maybe move up to Milan. I thought that I would have been happy writing about basketball and soccer the rest of my life. But in the summer, I went to the US: Greyhound bound, hitchhiking, sleeping at friends or even at the beach in Los Angeles. I fell in love with America, a love I had always felt through novels (Hemingway, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski) and film (Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro). Also, while going to school I became more political, and a part of the student movement which had me dream about social uprisings, all those ideas that were perfect for a twenty year old. The idea of writing about sports the rest of my life no longer fulfilled me. I needed more. And finally, there were another reason. A relationship with a girl that had ended but neither one of us could completely end it because we cared for each other… And the feeling that Bologna, as much as I loved it, felt suddenly quite confining I wanted a big city. I wanted the unknown. I wanted that element of surprise. If things did not go well, I knew I could always come back to Italy…..In fact, sooner or later I was going to come back, perhaps in six months or a year. But sometimes, life decides for us
GL: Eventually despite initial rejections, you made it and became a successful journalist and author. You wrote about your stay in America in your book, “Voglio L’America” (Feltrinelli) I remember when I was in Italy, I missed not just things of importance but also the most mundane. Along with my family, also the taste of butter peanut, that fresh cold Pacific ocean, and Thanksgiving. What did you miss?
EF: I could tell you that I missed tortellini, a bolognese dish – but after a couple of years, all the restaurants served up a version which was called' Tortellini Alfredo ', tortellini alla panna, although in Italy, no one ever refers to it as ' Alfredo.’ By the way, who is this Mr Alfredo? I still would like to know even today. I missed my friends, but I was fortunate not to lose them; we're still friends after so many years and we can see each other two to three times a year. And I missed some the landscapes of Italy, just as how you missed the Pacific. Even now from London, I go to Italy often. Sometimes I wonder why. Thirty four years after I have left Italy, I still have so much longing and love for my country….. And speaking of my book “Voglio l’America.” it was inspired by a book that took place in Los Angeles, a wonderful book, ' Ask the dust ' by John Fante.
GL: Now with the extraordinary cost of living in New York City, perhaps it would not be possible for a young man with no money to do what you did. Do you believe that such leaps into the unknown is beneficial for a writer. If so, why? And if not New York, where?
EF: You are right, today New York is too expensive, or at least in regards to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Perhaps a penniless young man like I had been, could try Queens or the Bronx and would be able to live as I did in Hell's Kitchen, the Manhattan neighborhood where I rented my first apartment for $ 250 a month – which back then was a fortune. But a young person who wants to pursue journalism, I recommend going to exotic places such as :China, Asia, Brazil, or Africa, and from there, try to send articles to newspapers back home, just as I did thirty or more years ago from America. Call it a leap into the unknown, or a need for adventure of a twenty something, these experiences in my opinion are important for everyone, not just a writer, admitted that I could be called such, I prefer the expression, ' one who writes books ', a writer for me is Hemingway. But certainly I think it's important that a writer lives, that one throws himself into life, without spending time at some creative writing course, or in those intellectual salons. I hate those kind of writers. I love those like Hemingway, Miller, Bukowsky, who lived and then had something to tell, rather than describe it…
GL: I love the candor especially in regards to sex in your books. You write about gorgeous busty blonds, and the adventures of a handsome young man,. Do you think a female could write with such candor without being judged?
EF: I do not think that talking about sex is a taboo in literature, neither for men nor for women: ' Fifty Shades of Gray ', written by a woman, was a huge best-seller two years ago. And they say that, beyond its dubious literary quality, that book legitimized some sexual fantasies for women, while allowing not only just the author, but also the readers, to validate every fantasy, at least between consenting adults. Not to mention that already Anais Nin years ago wrote about sex freely, while causing more of a scandal during that era than would be the case today. The fact remains that writing about sex is difficult because there is always the risk of appearing ridiculous…I like how Bukowski writes about it because it does so with the same ease with which he drinks a beer.
GL: I found it interesting that while in New York, there were others like you. Young, ambitious and Italian who were pursuing journalism. One day, you would all become important figures in journalism. A bit like the era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein in the 30 's in Paris. Back then, did you ever have that feeling that the work you were doing would one day become such an important part of the fabric of Italian journalism?
EF: No, I don't at all…. Important or not, we had a lot of fun. We lived in an era in which newspapers were rich, loaded with money, of pages, of initiatives, and we had unforgettable experiences. Today, who would send me to Fiji to see how one would live on the island of Malcolm Forbes or to Las Vegas to follow up on the World Series of Poker? But leave alone Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Paris ' in the thirties…: when I saw ' Midnight in Paris ' by Woody Allen, I wanted to travel back in time, and spend my nights with them.
GL: Let’s talk about the digital age and how it affected journalism. Here by me, those quaint mom and pop bookstores such as Fahrenheiit 451 of Laguna, have closed, followed later by the big ones such as Crown, Borders Bookstore. Are you still optimistic about the digital future?
EF: Yes, I am optimistic. Books and writing will not disappear just because they will become an ebook or because the digital screen has replaced paper…we have less time for three volumes of ' War and Peace ' in the age of 140 characters’ on Twitter, but it's always been this way, in ‘900, one didn’t write like that in the ‘800 or ‘600 . As long as human beings exist, we will continue to tell stories and write them and there will be someone willing to buy them…..
GL: When I lived in Italy, America back then represented such greatness…Levi jeans, Beverly Hills, democracy, President Clinton. Once, I went with my ex ragazzo, Marco, to see a circus. We were so thrilled because it was called American Circus. It turns out the circus was from Eastern Europe. It was the saddest circus I had ever seen-kind of like that pathetic environment you once saw at a topless bar. The ushers looked tired, even the clowns were so sad. They used the American to attract patrons. Do you feel that America still has the same pull? Does the USA still represent such grandeur?
EF: Judging by the number of Italian tourists I met this summer in New York, where I returned for the first time after a 25-year absence, I would say Yes. What country could possibly replace America? Maybe France, perhaps England. But America's cultural soft power remains unbeatable: China may become the number one economic and political superpower in the world, but for now I cannot imagine they will ever enchant us with their films, fashion as America has and will continue to do so. As long as America will represent the ideal of the melting pot, as long as it continues to defend the words of the Statue of Liberty, ' give me your tired, your poor, your huddled mass…', this model will continue to remain singular in the world, and only if Europe wakes up, could imitate it.
GL. Let's talk about the world of journalism. You have witnessed many important world events.. From the years of the Cold War to Iraq to dealing with Ebola and fighting Isis. Now not only men but also women risk their lives to report the news.What do you think about Journalism today?
EF: Today journalism is different from that of yesterday, which was different from that of the day before yesterday, but journalism is journalism: it serves to tell what happens, by explaining, interpreting…. I have had the fortune to witness to an unique moment in history, the end of the Soviet Union. I was in the Kremlin to interview Gorbachev on December 25, 1991 while the red flag with the hammer and sickle descended, and he had just resigned. It was tremendously moving….. But you know what is that calling as you call it? For some, it will also be the desire to inform and be of service for society, but for me, I think for the most part it is the pleasure of writing and, when there is some danger, that adrenaline or high which comes with it. It is like going hunting, or perhaps being hunted, and returning in the evening to your inn, with your friends there…drinking, laughing, telling stories, and the next morning, you start again. And you meet many interesting people along the way while making a living that is a cross between being a diplomat, a secret agent and an international playboy, while getting paid for it.. This was the calling of foreign correspondent, if you want me to tell you the truth and not something that is necessarily politically correct..
GL: You once said, “one thing is for sure, the Americans are polite.” For London, you have declared that the city as the love of your life. But now I want you to comment on the greatest love of my life: Italy ... Speak to me of Italy’s situation today, your hopes, if you think a person of great talent, as the artists that I talk to, who are young folks working from early morning until late at night, what does the future hold for them?
EF: I think that Italy if it gets back on its feet, it is capable of great beauty and talent, as well as being noted for its kindness and warmth. Filled with art, of breathtaking views, of towns, one more beautiful than the other. In my opinion…it is by far the most beautiful country in the world. For historical reasons and economic, the economic boom of the 1960’s will not return but this also applies to the rest of Europe – but Europe will not disappear, it will remain a fascinating and important continent. Maybe Europe and especially Italy, to speak of the artists you are referring, will have no longer witness the great masters as we have had in our past; Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, De Sica, are irreplaceable. . But our young filmmakers are still able to win an Oscar and make good movies in a difficult market. They honor the great traditions of Italian quality. It is good that you love Italy. It will not disappoint you.
For more on Mr. Enrico Franceschini, find him at https://twitter.com/e_franceschini
After living and working in Italy, Gaya now spends her days with her two little girls, teaching and watching ‘Finding Bigfoot.” Stop on by at www.about.me/Gayalynn
(*) New York, New York composed by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb