Italians Of The Bay Area: Judith Branzburg

Italians of the Bay Area is a new series in Italics Magazine that features interviews with Italians living in California as well as with Californians of Italian descent.

Judith Branzburg was visiting Italy for study purposes. She remained for three years and now she has an Italian family.

Italians of the Bay Area is a new series in Italics Magazine that features interviews with Italians living in California as well as with Californians of Italian descent, by columnist Thomas J. Puleo. For our first interview, we spoke with Judith Branzburg. Her first visit to Italy was for study purposes, but she remained for three years. Today, she has an Italian family.

Tell me about your first trip to Italy.

My first trip to Italy was supposed to last nine months but it was almost 3 years before I would come back home for what I thought was just a visit. I flew alone on my first international flight and when I finally arrived in Florence, was greeted by the elderly mother of the college professor who was my mentor and largely responsible for my passion for all things Italian. I was there for my Master’s degree in Italian studies through Middlebury College but actually attended classes at the Università di Firenze with Italian students.

Away from home for the very first time, I opted for an apartment with two other girls and quickly found an Italian fidanzato. I had never been happier than during the years I spent in Florence and thought I would live there forever. My classes were rigorous and my funds were limited, so I really didn’t travel outside of Tuscany with the exception of a long weekend in Rome. After dreaming about Italy for so long, I couldn’t believe I was actually there, and remember the feeling of walking by Dante’s house and from my bedroom window seeing a tower where Michelangelo supposedly hid during a siege. I felt that we just didn’t have that kind of history in San Francisco, and I loved being a part of it.

When my family came at the end of the school year, we traveled to major tourist sites in Italy. I was supposed to return home with them at the end of the trip, but I insisted on staying in Florence, with the excuse that I wanted to be completely fluent in the language I had been studying. I was able to work to support myself, first as an au pair with a wonderful family, then in the fashion industry. When my parents finally got me to come home for a visit, they convinced me to stay. It took me several years to get over the fact that I wouldn’t be living in Italy, but at least I knew that I would never stay away for too long.

What was it about living in Italy that you liked so much?

There were so many things about living in Italy that I loved. First of all, it was my first taste of freedom after living in a very strict household. At the age of 22, I finally got to experience being an adult — having to shop and cook for myself, manage money, make my own decisions. I also loved the weather in Florence — after growing up in the fog belt of San Francisco, I got to experience actual seasons, life without blustering wind, and most importantly for me, summer evenings where you could stay out and never need a sweater. For a girl from the Sunset District of SF, where we spent summers having to drive to “find the sun,” this was a dream come true.

I realized later that I could have found the things mentioned above without going all the way to Italy, but Italy itself was the magnet that had attracted me for so long so I associated everything positive with her. I loved hearing the Italian spoken by Florentines because it was the first Italian I had ever heard, spoken by my professor at SF State. I loved the history of all the old buildings and their former inhabitants that I had studied, as well as the beauty of the countryside. My classes took me behind the scenes in various museums and I got to see and study world-famous art up close.

One of my favorite pastimes was the passeggiata where we would stroll by shops in the evening and admire the gorgeous displays. Walking was so much more interesting in Italy than back home.

And then there was the food. Although very different from the Italian food I had grown up with, I quickly fell in love with the regional Tuscan specialties, the way Italians spent time at the table and were not rushed in restaurants, and the bars where we got amazing coffee and pastries.

I thought it was so civilized that everyone came home for pranzo, the main meal of the day, and then took a nap during the heat of the afternoon  before resuming activities around 4. When I worked as an au pair, we spent every weekend at a country home in the heart of Chianti country and enjoyed meals outdoors that lasted for hours. It was my job to keep the three kids quiet and entertained while the parents and their guests were napping. We had so much fun, it never felt like a job, and everyone treated me as if I were a member of the family.

I also thought Italians were so fashionable and elegant and did my best to emulate their sense of style. When I got the job in the fashion industry, I suddenly had a closet full of designer clothes, mostly samples that I had modeled when buyers came from the States to make purchases for department stores in New York that I had only read about.

So after you came back to the United States, how did you stay in touch with Italian culture?

There were no full-time teaching positions available when I came back, so I settled for teaching Italian to children on Saturdays at a school in North Beach. Eventually I was hired as the assistant manager of a savings and loan branch in a neighborhood where there were still many Italian families. Although I had no banking experience, the management felt they could teach me banking faster than they could teach Italian to a banker. I stayed in the banking industry for several years until I left to teach EFL at the school that introduced us to the foreign students we hosted. Since many of the
students at the school were Italian, I was able to maintain that connection.

I worked at the school for ten years and would probably have stayed there for the rest of my career, but my professor-mentor contacted me one summer and encouraged me to apply for a teaching job at Lowell High School in San Francisco. The Italian program was in danger of being eliminated because the teacher had quit at the very last minute. As it turned out, I taught Italian at Lowell for fourteen years, during which time the program doubled in size. For many years we were the only high school in San Francisco to offer four years of Italian, including AP and honors classes. It was a bumpy road at times — most students opted for practical languages such as Spanish or Chinese — and we were often precariously close to being cut. But with the help of supportive parents and the local Italian-American community, we continued to thrive. I generated interest by taking upper division students on trips to Italy, by organizing student exchanges with schools in Assisi and Parma, and by showing recent Italian movies. Student projects included cooking traditional Italian food and making movies in Italian.

In a school which was highly competitive and often stressful, I tried to create an environment where the students could learn but at the same time unwind and have fun. Several of my students went on to study Italian or to spend a semester abroad in college. I am proud to say that, thanks to Facebook, I am still in touch with many of my former students.

In our initial discussion, you mentioned that you have hosted many Italian exchange students over the years. Could you tell me about that? I am specifically interested in knowing their impressions of the Bay Area.

My husband and I don’t have kids. One day I saw in the local newspaper that a school was looking for families to host foreign students from Italy.  Little did we know that following up on that article would change our lives in many ways.  We wound up hosting a total of 20 students, mostly from Europe. I also ended up quitting my banking job and going to teach EFL for ten years at the language school where the students studied.

Most of the students preferred to stay in the dorms at Mills College (where our school was located) so that they could socialize with the other foreign students. A small number of them preferred to stay with host families so they could practice their English and have a real American experience. The students who stayed with us were from Italy, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, and Taiwan. We still exchange Christmas cards with several of them but have remained in regular contact with a very special group, two of whom are Italian.

We got to choose our very first student from a binder which had pictures and brief descriptions. We decided upon a 17 year old boy from Asti, Italy because he was from Piedmont and my husband was really into wine. I still remember his description “I am a common Italian boy with light brown hairs.” He came for one month and immediately became part of the family. Coming from a rural setting outside a fairly small city and away from home for the first time, he was so excited to be in the country he had only seen in movies. We exposed him to as much American culture as possible — local sights, camping, shopping malls, county fairs, parades, Great America, block-buster movies, and he loved every minute of it. We had him try all kinds of “typical American food” and agreed with him that Italian food is far superior. He was amused by the food that Americans think of as Italian, and also by the size of our portions, as well as the fact that we put ice in our drinks. He thought baseball was extremely slow, but enjoyed watching how much Americans eat and drink at the games. Among other dishes, he taught my husband how to make vitello tonnato, which we still enjoy to this day.

The month went by very quickly and we immediately made plans for him to return the following year. Meanwhile, we visited Italy and got to know his parents and grandparents. This time he came for 3 months, but rather than enrolling in school, he volunteered as an unpaid intern at the bank where my husband worked. We were at the airport in Honolulu when we heard about the earthquake in SF, and had to stay an extra night because SFO was closed.

During the subsequent years, when he was at the university and then in military service, we visited his family on a regular basis and remained very close. When he got married, we were seated at the family table and referred to as the American parents. We had never been to a wedding that lasted so long or had so many food courses.

Our friend is now 50 (!) with a lovely wife and three children of his own, and we remain in close contact. They have visited us in the States and we have continued to visit them. They are our family in Italy.

We hosted another Italian from Milano and our relationship is quite similar. He was also 17 when he came the first time and we have remained very close to him and his family over the years. He is a psychologist, has a wife in the furniture industry, and a son whom he has brought to visit us on several occasions. They are very well travelled and have been all over the world. They had planned a trip to the US this past April which was going to include the Fender guitar factory as well as basketball arenas and sites where some of his favorite tv shows were filmed. In March, when I was trying to decide if I should go ahead with my plans to come to Italy in April, they were the ones who updated me regularly on what was happening in Milano.  They are our other family in Italy.

These are the two Italians from what we call our “A list” of host students. We also have a Norwegian, two French, and two Swiss in that group. We feel blessed to have had these amazing experiences with students from other countries. We always like to say that we have enjoyed the best of both worlds — we got to experience great relationships with kids but we didn’t have to raise them or put them through college.

Anything else you would like to add?

My family name is Musante. I will never forget Sister Annunziata at my high school who told me I was not pronouncing my name correctly, that I should say “Mooooo-zahn’-tay.”  It just seemed so wrong, no one in my family said it like that. Only later when I took Italian in college did I find out that she was right, we had all been mispronouncing our family name.

I grew up in the Sunset district of SF, a middle-class neighborhood where everyone seemed to be either Irish or Italian. Our mothers didn’t work and our fathers earned enough to send us to parochial schools and take us on a vacation every summer. My father was also born in San Francisco and grew up in the Marina district. His parents were from Bavastrelli, a hill town in Liguria not far from Genova. He was the youngest of five brothers. Both of his parents died when he was quite young, so he didn’t grow up speaking Italian. His older brothers took care of him and kept the family together.

My mother grew up in Ohio. Her mother was Calabrese and her father was Sicilian. Both of them came to the States when they were fairly young, so they learned to speak English, which was the language spoken at home.

Until they met, my mother had never tasted pesto or focaccia, regional specialties of Liguria, and my father had never been exposed to the spicy dishes that my mother had grown up with. We used to joke that because my father was from the North and my mother was from the South, our parents would never have met and married if their parents had stayed in Italy.

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