Virginia Agostinelli is Rick Steves' only native Italian guide who lives in the US. She came to Seattle to complete her PhD in Comparative Literature and Cinema Studies at the University of Washington…and stayed. Her research focused on contemporary Italian literature (also known as the "New Italian Epic") and film studies, on which she continues to publish. She enjoys teaching a variety of classes, from her native language to Italian history and culture.
Virginia, you're an Italian guide who leads tours in Italy — but your home is in Seattle. How did that happen?
I was born and raised in central Italy's Abruzzo region. I moved to Seattle in 2004 to continue my graduate studies at the University of Washington. Living in the US has been my dream ever since I was a little kid. I remember watching Magnum P.I., Starsky & Hutch, and I Dream of Jeannie on Italian TV — and daydreaming of being in America. The never-ending highways, the beautiful landscapes, the skyscrapers, eggs 'n bacon for breakfast — it all sounded so exotic to me! Now I've lived in the States for a third of my life and I feel it's become part of my identity. While there are many things I miss from my home country, I do get to spend a lot of time in Italy guiding tours for Rick Steves. I enjoy the best of both worlds, feeling at home wherever I am.
You lead tours from the far north to the extreme south of Italy. Are there any differences that affect your work?
There are many "Italies" within Italy. In the northern part of the country, for instance, everything is precise and efficient. Museums, offices, and people in general are "German-punctuals." It's a whole different story once you arrive in the south. There, a meeting time is intended to give you a general idea. Maybe you stop for coffee on the way to your appointment, maybe you just sleep in a little longer…everything is much more "flexible" south of Rome. It's a philosophy of life, I would say, and it has the great advantage of offering a slower paced, more relaxed rhythm of life. The biggest preparation I have to do when going from Lake Como to Sicily to lead a tour is a mental one. I arm myself with patience, flexibility, and a good sense of humor!
How have your years of living in the US affected your guiding in Italy?
It's helped me immensely. Being immersed in American culture for over a decade has allowed me to present and explain Italy from both points of view. For example, it's always fun for me to draw comparisons of how certain political, social, and economic issues are approached by Americans and Italians. (Talking about the media industry and former Prime Minister Berlusconi is one of my favorite talks on the bus.) Having a good grasp on American and Italian cultures hopefully makes me more objective as a teacher. It certainly helps me better understand and appreciate the cultural differences.
What are the most common misconceptions that Americans have about Italians, and vice versa?
Well, I hope I won't sound too disappointing if I say that not all Italians play the mandolin, go to the opera, or drink cappuccino on a daily basis. The first question that I'm always asked on a Sicily tour on the very first night is about the mafia. And I am happy for that. I want to debunk the myth that all Sicilians are somewhat connected with the mafia. It gives me the opportunity to talk about the other (and better) side of the coin: the anti-mafia effort of Falcone and Borsellino, for instance, two Sicilian judges who were in the front line fighting the mafia. Many Italians, on the other hand, think that all Americans drive a pickup truck, wear a baseball hat, and drink orange juice. Italians have always been fascinated by America, particularly in the years after World War II. There is a beautiful Neapolitan song of the 1950s by Renato Carosone called "Tu vuo' fa l'americano" ("You want to be an American"), in which the character pretends to be American by dancing rock 'n roll and playing baseball. There is only one little problem: He is still living with his mom!
For you personally — having lived in both countries — what do you like most about living in the US and in Italy?
I'm glad you're kidding because that would be impossible to answer for me! I love how in the states bureaucracy is slimmer and faster than in Italy, how one is exposed to more cultures, languages, cuisines, religions. On the cons side, it has been difficult adapting to the intense rhythm of life, which somehow changed my perception of time: When I am in Seattle I wish I had more than 24 hours in a day for all of the things I have to do. One of the pros of living in Italy is precisely the ability to slow down, take it easy, and realize that it's OK to sit down on the piazza for an espresso and chat with the barista, even if you are running late and you still have a lot to do.