I often get the question – why the Tolfa Mountains? How does a Jamaican move to this region of Italy? Considering that my husband was born in Rome, why is it that we chose these hills instead of Rome? I think perhaps you may have to visit Jamaica in order to be able to fully understand.
They say a Jamaican can be found anywhere in the world and as it is, I’m the first and only Jamaican that has ever lived here. Italy has truly become a second home to me. I recall my very first visit to Italy when Riccardo brought me on a 10-day vacation back in 2003. Even though it was one of those you must see everything kind of visits to all of the tourist spots, I still fell in love with Italy. As the years went on and our visits to the country became more frequent, it was less about seeing the tourist sites and more about being in the moment and enjoying the company of family and friends.
Even though Rome is where my husband Riccardo was born, it feels like the Tolfa Mountains have been whispering to us quietly in the background. Over the years, we dreamt and pondered about how and when we would ever move to Italy, and as fate would have it the coronavirus pandemic decided for us.
In February, Riccardo just returned from visiting his family in Italy and the country was already in the throes of the virus’ devastating surge. For some reason it felt like we knew what was in store in America before most Americans could even comprehend what was to come. In March 2020, as we experienced the first wave of deaths in America, and as New Jersey went into that surreal lockdown, it felt like my heart stopped beating in my chest. I later came to realize that I’d experienced a panic attack.
By April, I felt like we’d waited too long to fulfill our dreams of moving to Italy. Riccardo and I knew in our hearts that we did not belong in America. America isn’t either of our birth countries nor is it a place either of us wanted to die in. The realization that the latter was a possibility felt stifling, and when the borders to our home countries closed, the stifling gave way to suffocation. We could not leave! I needed to leave!
The summer of 2020 became a toxic and unsafe environment in America, especially for Black people. Most importantly, I did not want my middle-school-aged son to grow up in such an unhealthy environment. America was no longer that sparkling dream I thought it was when I arrived in the summer of 1998.
The Medieval towns of Allumiere, La Bianca and Tolfa that make up the region of Monti della Tolfa, are a little over one hours drive north of Rome. It is one of Lazio’s secrets and it has become the place we wanted to “come home” to. Riccardo and I thought that the woods would be our safe haven from a world gone mad. After all, the second thing on Maslow’s pyramid of happiness is the need to feel safe and secure, and we were in desperate need of both.
As we drove along the coast, from Rome towards La Bianca, I felt the same sense of familiarity as I did growing up on an island. The sea on the left and the mountains on the right, were just like the coast of Jamaica. Those first glimpses of the sea transported me in my mind back to Jamaica. Even though the circumstances were chaotic, the reminiscence of my home country gave me comfort.
Growing up as a child in Jamaica, my dad would often drive us from Kingston to visit our relatives on either coast. As my family of three left the coast of Santa Marinella, and made our way up a narrow, winding two lane mountain road filled with potholes, the memories of those childhood drives to visit my father’s relatives in St. Ann came flooding back.
The drive up Constant Spring through the flaming red blooming Poinciana trees of Stony Hill, were replaced by the shocking pink Judas trees that invaded the green mountainside. I could no longer discern the rolling meadows dotted with white long horned Maremmana cows from the goats and sheep grazing in the rainbow of flowers.
For me, Monti della Tolfa is the place that feels most like Jamaica, but the uncomplicated version. Jamaica is one of the most beautiful countries and it’s where I feel the most whole. Where there are other people that look like and sound like me. But it is a complicated country. Its complexity has more layers than an onion and is constantly changing. I feel like once you’ve left it – and 23 years is a long time – you’ve lost a piece of what it means to be Jamaican. The Jamaica of the 70’s is different from the Jamaica of the 80’s and is different from the Jamaica of the 90’s. Each immigrant has a nostalgia for something different based on the time that they left their home country behind.
While living in America, I was never able to assimilate into the culture. Oftentimes for immigrants, assimilation often involves letting go of certain nuances that make us unique. Accents, personality, culture and backgrounds are hidden in order to try to become American. Over the years, the nostalgia of the Jamaica that I’d left behind became overwhelming. I wanted to find my way back home. After spending a summer in Jamaica in 2018, I realized that I had changed so much along with my country. Although I will always consider myself Jamaican, my rate of change did not keep pace with my country’s rate of change, and I suddenly felt “foreign”. At least that’s what the taxi drivers and the vendors in Jamaica led me to believe. I am foreign. I looked different, dressed differently, and no matter how much I tried to sound Jamaican, apparently, there was enough of a change in my accent that led them to believe that I was “foreign”.
My nostalgia for Jamaica and thoughts of returning home were tempered by my new reality. Nevertheless, I still felt that I needed to find a place that felt like home. The place I know I belong. They say home is where the heart is. Maybe I am wrong but I am one of those people that needs a physical location and community.
Prior to making our eventual move, we’d been visiting the Tolfa Mountains pretty regularly. We did our first extended stay in the spring of 2015, and it was then that the seeds were planted. After spending several days in the company of friends and observing their lives which appeared to be more in tune with the way I lived in Jamaica, I had an ah-ha moment. Ultimately, it was our 6-week stay in La Bianca during the summer of 2019, that I knew this was the place that I could call home. It offers the best of both worlds. Mountains 4000 ft above sea level and when I have a yearning for the sea, it’s just 20 minutes away. For an island girl like me that grew up and worked near the ocean that is of number one importance!
Fast forward to 2021, driving up the winding road from the Port of Civitavecchia, my mind is at times transported to St Ann driving towards Claremont from Ocho Rios. Or, I think back to those drives from Kingston Harbor up to the Blue Mountains. The mountains reflect the serenity that I have found in the cool air.
Where is home anyway? The Dalai Lama said home is where you feel at home and are treated well. For me home isn’t only a physical space, it is having a community of family and friends. But it must feel like home, smell like home, and look like home. For now, I have found home in this Medieval town of Allumiere, a place that was once inhabited by a group of people nearly 3000 years ago, long before Jamaica or America were even a thought in the European mind. A place where I can transcribe attributes of Jamaica that make me feel like I have come home.