Why I went to Italy & why I still go back (thank you Sir Roy)

roy strong italy

Above: Sir Roy Strong was the person who suggested I go to Italy and study Italian (image via the London Evening Standard).

Samantha’s heart-wrenching post this morning, “In the name of the father,” got me thinking of my own fatherless teenage years and a man who played a very important — however brief — role in my life, Sir Roy Strong.

People often ask me why I’ve devoted my life to the study of Italian language, history, and culture (before enogastronomy, I spent nearly more than ten years studying Italian prosody, narrative, and cinema, and lived and worked in Italy for most of that time).

The answer is Sir Roy.

In 1984, when I was a junior in high school, Sir Roy came to San Diego (where I grew up) to give a lecture at U.C.S.D., where my mother was an arts and humanities programmer for U.C.S.D. Extension, the school’s continuing education program. She had organized Sir Roy’s talk and when she asked him if he’d like to do any sight-seeing while in Southern California, he expressed an interest in driving across the border for lunch and shopping in Baja California, Mexico.

By the time I could drive, I spoke Spanish fluently. La Jolla High School, my alma mater, had a big Spanish-speaking student body and I had learned Spanish thanks to my friendships with a lot of my Mexican schoolmates. And along the way, I also learned where to go to eat well in Mexico.

And so my mom enlisted me to drive her and Sir Roy to Tijuana for lunch and an afternoon of shopping.

After lunch that day, when my mother got up from the table to use the restroom, Sir Roy told me that he was impressed by my language abilities and my passion for Mexican culture.

“You should go to Italy,” he said, “and study Italian.”

You can imagine the impression that it made on me: I’d never met anyone like Sir Roy before. A knight! At the time, he was the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But there was another force at play.

My father, in part because of the pariah he had become in our community and in part because of his unbridled narcissism, didn’t play much of a role in my life. Throughout my teenage years, I looked to other men for inspiration in what I would do in life to adolesce. (I’ve written the story of those years here and here.)

Sir Roy’s words were just what I need to set me down the path. It gave me a goal, a purpose, and a reason to leave the gilded, bigoted community where I grew up and so ardently wanted to flee.

And when I got to Italy and made my first friends there, I learned that Italians didn’t share Americans’ puritanical view of my father’s transgressions.

For the first time in my life (I was nineteen when I went to Italy for my first year of university there), I felt that the burden of the “sins of the father” had been lifted from my shoulders.

Thank you, Sir Roy. I’ll never forget you.

Sir Roy’s written a newly published memoir about his life during the swinging sixties. Maybe that will be my father’s day gift this year? ;)

In other news…

PLEASE read Eric the Red’s superb article on the nouvelle vague of California wine in today’s New York Times. I’ll never forget this day! A shot heard around the world! Bravo bravissimo, Eric! Thank you for this wonderful article!

7 thoughts on “Why I went to Italy & why I still go back (thank you Sir Roy)

  1. Why thanks for the mention kid and thanks for sharing your Sir Roy with us. With father’s day approaching I think it is so important to tell those men in our lives how much they mean, how much they helped shape who we are now…given the title father or not. Loved this Jeremy and my best to you and your lovely ladies.

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