Embracing Italy through Carla Markell’s words

Screenshot 2024-04-05 alle 14.47.55

Photo by by Elisa Morris

Since her husband, the former Delaware Governor, Jack Markell, was appointed United States Ambassador to Italy and San Marino in August  2023 by President Biden, Carla Markell is deepening, day by day, her connection with the “Bel Paese”.

As anyone spending 5 minutes with her in a room could easily tell, she is a very determined and energetic woman who could never serve her time as Ambassador’s spouse just twiddling her thumbs. In fact, Mrs.Markell is already working on her advocacy around women empowerment and arts advocacy. She told us more about her commitment, describing her perceptions of Italy and the American Dream, but also sharing memories of her journey side by side with an important public figure like Jack Markell.

Mrs. Markell, let’s start from your relationship with Italy and the Italians. Are you particularly struck by something living now that you’re living in Rome?

I have noticed that the Italian people, as a whole, are very sensorial and aware. They notice everything, appreciate excellent food and wine, beautiful design, fashion and the arts. When I came the first time in 2008 with my teen aged children, I saw the Colosseum and many of the amazing outdoor buildings and artifacts, it didn’t occur to me to go to a museum because I was surrounded by ancient ruins everywhere I turned. Now that I’m living here, I do a lot of walking and have gotten to know the city quite well. I am learning more about Renaissance Art, Baroque art, stories of the long standing aristocratic families like the Borgheses and Colonna’s.  I’ve met authors who have written about the Renaissance era and I continue to process how the layers of Rome, history, art, culture and language all fit together. I feel like I’m an Elementary student in a world of PhD opportunities that I’ve just begun to scratch the surface on. It’s just outstanding.

How has your idea of Italy changed through time, from before your first visit until the days you are now spending in the “Old Country”?

Before I came Italy was just a vision, I didn’t know what to expect. I had just seen pictures that looked beautiful. When I came in 2008 with my kids, we were here three weeks with a wonderful itinerary staying in apartments closer to the “locals”.   We spent time in Rome, Montalcino, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre, Milan, Lake Como and Chianti.  You can imagine how the real life experiences  exceeded any expectation I could have conjured.  I began to understand the heart and the way of life of the Italian people and I loved the way they took their time with meals, to show acts of kindness, to have lovely conversations.   My children who were thirteen and fifteen at the time, both said to me, “what can we do to bring this way of life home”?  Meaning the ability to slow things down.  Americans tend to have relatively fast paced lives. The more relaxed lifestyle and pace of Italy feels anchoring.  The people are warm and wonderful, there’s a formality to aspects of the culture and an informality in other ways. The traditions around food, wine and holidays are rich . Families tend to want to be together on certain days of the week and times of year like many of the holidays, of course.  We have a fantastic team here at the Ambassador’s residence, Villa Taverna.  Recognizing and respecting that importance, we wanted the employees to be with their families on Christmas eve and Christmas day so we gave them those days off including Jack’s Scorta (police protection) so they could all be with their families. We Americans of course, love and celebrate our family times as well but sometimes, with large distances, it’s difficult to be together as often.  Italy feels accessible: you can be anywhere in the country with a quick flight, train ride or even a 7-hour drive.

In Italy the American Dream is vivid. What is your personal perception of that Dream and of the mutual reputation between the US and Italy?

I love my country.  We are a young one compared to Italy!  We have some growing pains: our culture is currently somewhat divided but deep down I believe we all want the same things which is great education for our children, healthy family lives, rich experiences, safe streets and neighborhoods, human rights, an excellent justice system, the ability to vote and maintain our freedom of faith.   We still believe in the American Dream. You can work hard and build something positive for your family. As for Italy and the US, we have 18 to 20 million Americans who identify with Italian heritage and culture. Some of our friends would like to get their dual Italian citizenship.  6 million Americans travel to Italy every year.  Americans and Italians share an enthusiasm for living, an interest in food, history and culture. We have a lot in common and get along well.  We are strong allies.

In Italy, you already showed your commitment to the cause of women empowerment hosting the “Women in Leadership” event. Could you tell us something about it?

Women around the world struggle for income equality and opportunity.  Any event that can cast a light on such issues feels important and also a way to build partnerships and network.  The event at Villa Taverna brought together Italian and American women who are engaged in partnerships between Italy and the United States.  It was an honor for Jack and me to welcome so many brilliant and talented women from all sectors in Italian life.

So what kind of advocacy work should we expect from you as Ambassador’s Spouse?

I plan to advocate for women with breast cancer.  I’m a two-time breast cancer survivor. One of the previous Ambassador spouses, Linda Douglas, reached out to me after Jack was nominated and told me about a fantastic physician in Rome, Professor Massetti, who is doing a lot to help women with breast cancer.   Dr. Tavano from the embassy is deeply involved with the cause as well so that feels like a natural fit. I’ve been an advocate for the arts of all kinds and am getting around to the museums, churches and palazzos.  I’ve become very friendly with Francesca Cappelletti from the Borghese gallery who has “tucked me under her wing” and is giving me personalized tutorials! I’m also deeply passionate about mental health and issues of substance abuse. I come from a family that has a lot of addiction issues and fortunately for me, when I was 17 years old, I got involved in family counseling and therapy. My mother had severe depression. She was a single mother and I was in essence the parent for her starting at a young age. I look back on my life and realize all of these experiences made me who I am and gave me tools that have helped me in the world. I’m taking an on line course to learn how to be a “life and leadership coach.  I’m learning a great deal and look forward to helping others.

Have you already treasured any anecdote or memory from your home in Italy?

We arrived here at the very end of August and noticed there were about 8 stray cats on the property.  The caring team at Villa Taverna was feeding the felines, paying for the food with their own money.   The cats were struggling with some health issues and making more kittens!  I immediately knew in my mind I wanted to do something to help them. Maybe it was divine intervention, because at 6 o’clock AM when my husband and I were doing an opening tour of the Vatican, I met a woman on the elevator who was wearing a cat shirt. I struck up a conversation and she connected me with the veterinarian from the zoo next door.  He and his Biologist wife had worked at the zoo for more than 25 years and had never been to the house.  They were very open and gracious and came over the next week to survey the situation.  Soon after they provided an extremely caring service with gentle catch and release and proceeded to deworm, vaccinate, spay and neuter each one. Now we have these beautiful healthy kitties and Jack and I are buying the food. These wonderful cats entertain us and our visitors!

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