A feminist in Florence: Blogging Italian-style on "Maple Leaf Mamma"
In Maple Leaf Mamma, Canadian Michelle Tarnopolsky chronicles "where feminist motherhood meets expat life in Italy." And that means ruminations on everything from weird Italian baby fashion to sumptuous food to questionable immigration policies. The result: a consistently well-written and insightful look into la dolce vita.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a proud Canadian of Ukrainian and Dutch heritage who has lived in Florence, Italy for a total of 12 years. I have moved back and forth between here and Toronto three times since studying here nearly 20 years ago. Five years ago I married a native and we have a gorgeous three-year-old whose pseudonym is Peanut—his nickname since he was about the size of one. Writing is my passion, though I struggle to fit it into my busy schedule of full-time work and raising a kid. Feminism is the driving force behind it, which I try to make as intersectional as possible to acknowledge all the privilege I’m swimming in as an educated, able-bodied, cisgendered white woman.
I had the incredible luck of soaking up the energy of the Maclean’s newsroom for two years during one of my Canadian stints, and have written a few freelance pieces for them since moving back to Italy six years ago. I contribute to The Florentine newspaper, and I’ve got a piece coming out in a forthcoming anthology on creative writing about motherhood being published by Demeter Press.
I’m also a long-time translator. My translation of Simone Cinotto’s Soft Soil, Black Grapes, coming out in paperback this spring, was recently reviewed favourably in The American Historical Review. Though I stepped off the academic/PhD track a while ago (I call myself a “recovering art historian”), I still get a thrill out of leading student groups to churches and museums throughout Italy for one of my many jobs.
When and why did you start blogging?
I started blogging in 2010 when I was newly pregnant, with my Tumblr blog Made in Italy. But I soon realized this platform wasn’t suitable for the kind of long-format blogging I really wanted to do. So in October 2012 I hired fabulous designer and friend Kate Hash to help me launch Maple Leaf Mamma (that third "m" in mamma is important, you have to pause when you say it, like you’re tasting something delicious). Although I do like to write about art, culture and travel, I blog primarily out of the urge to act on the feminist inclinations that bubbled up and broke through my surface when I became a mother. Faithfully following Blue Milk, an amazing Australian blog about feminist motherhood by Andrea Fox, for about two years before I got pregnant planted the seed, and soon after I realized I wanted to do the same thing, from the perspective of a Canadian living in Italy. I also wanted to write without restraints, not having to tailor my words to a particular publication or try to make them marketable.
So Italy (sigh) Is it everything we think it is?
You know, it really is. It’s absolutely divine. I’m madly in love with Italy and the Italian way of life. The food and wine are so good (and cheap); the vistas so dreamy; the art and architecture so beautiful; the joie de vivre so palpable. Your sensory perception just stays in overdrive here. Yet, as we all know, there is also a dark side. If you don’t know the right people or have family to support you, it is cruelly difficult to live decently. Italian-Canadian journalist Erica Alini nailed it when she compared changing Italy to getting an alcoholic to quit. I often think living in Italy is like staying in a relationship with someone who is unhealthy but irresistible. She has so much potential (politically and culturally) that she just squanders, disappointing you over and over and over again. Yet you just can’t seem to leave her.
What was the biggest shock you had upon arriving 11 years ago?
Hands-down the most shocking thing, what took the longest to get used to, was the emphasis on appearances. I couldn’t stand how Italians looked me up and down so unabashedly, and how preoccupied they seemed with physical beauty. Yet the appreciation for beauty is one of the things I have come to love about this country. I was also quite surprised by how sexually liberated Italians seemed to be considering they live in the bosom of the Catholic world. They seem much more relaxed about extramarital sex than North Americans, which is not the impression I got growing up in Canada. But it turns out that Old World immigrants are often more old fashioned than the fellow nationals they left behind. Keeping the traditions alive and all that.
After over a decade away from Canada, do you feel at home in Florence?
I do and I don’t. It does feel really comfortable on many levels. I feel like a local when I’m riding my bike or my moped to work, when I take my kid to the park or the ludoteca (children’s rec center), when I catch up with the barista of my local bar (coffee shop) or the owner of my local bakery. But I have always worked and socialized in English, so I have never integrated myself 100% into Italian life. Part of me always feels like an outsider. I treasure my cathartic expat powwows, in which I can commiserate with friends over culture clashes. I try to be as balanced as possible when I criticize certain aspects of my adopted home, and I believe there is great value in commentary from an outsider on the inside.
What do you miss most about Canada?
My family and friends. Ubiquitous friendly customer service. Being able to buy milk on a Sunday. Indie films. Good ethnic food. Inexpensive clothes. Big cups of takeout coffee to carry around all morning. Businesses being open from 1pm to 4pm.
Your blog is an insightful and resourceful look at being an expat and mother with progressive values in a country that holds deep traditions. What kind of reaction do you get from readers?
Thank you! So far I’ve only gotten really positive responses from my readers. But frankly I think that’s because I don’t have very many! The f-word right there in my tagline may weed out a lot of folks. I know I’m lucky to have been spared the horrors of trolling that regularly befall Internet feminists, but that is also surely the mark of a modest audience. Indeed, I still feel very much a baby blogger, and am seriously honoured to be in such fine company in this series. The subject of my blog is very niche, but those who respond to it seem to appreciate what sets it apart from your average expat blog or mommy blog (ugh, how I hate the latter term). And those who stay tend to be thinkers, open to new ideas. The few Italians who’ve commented are fellow feminists and really supportive.
How do people find you? Do you promote your blog?
I would love to know how people find me! I’m terrible at tracking that kind of thing. To promote my blog I share new posts on Facebook and Twitter and run a Facebook page. I try to comment on as many other blogs as possible. And I try to have the URL appear wherever my name is published. Getting better at self-promotion is on the to do list, along with figuring out how to blog more regularly.
Do you have any advice for aspiring bloggers?
Take your time to figure out what you want to write about and how you want your blog to look. I regret diving in with Tumblr for my first blog and realizing when it felt too late that it wasn’t the right platform for me. There’s no hurry, and you’ll be so grateful you have everything just right when you finally do launch yourself into this marvellous world.
All images courtesy of Michelle Tarnopolsky and Maple Leaf Mamma.
Read profiles of other Canadian bloggers:
Straight from the Arse by Ryan ArsenaultCouple of Yuppies by Jamie Munro and Kyle FootObscure CanLit Mama by Carrie Anne SnyderLe Blog du Rob by Rob WatsonThe Art of Doing Stuff by Karen BertelsenMan on the Lam by Raymond WalshIronic Mom by Leanne ShirtliffeClockwork Lemon by Stephanie EddieOffQc by Kevin Felix PoleselloCaker Cooking by Brian Francis