Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

JJ Martin on Italy

La Double J founder JJ Martin has lived and worked in Italy for two decades. Fully immersed in Milan, JJ was a storied fashion journalist for fifteen years, writing for publications including Harper’s Bazaar, The Wall Street Journal and Wallpaper, before launching La Double J in 2015. Her Milan-based fashion and lifestyle brand dominates runways, picnics, parties and piazze with ebullient maximalism. JJ looks back on two decades living in Italy.

So, Italy, wow. I’ve been here 20 years.  It feels like 1 million years sometimes. I can’t believe it’s been this long. When I first moved to Italy, I had come as a pretty intense, action-loving, goal-oriented, yoga-doing, health food-eating New Yorker. And I moved to Milan. Not only was there no yoga, there was barely a gym. I mean, it was never open. People were doing more talking and eating inside the gym than they were exercising. Couldn’t find any health food, couldn’t find any prepared food. I didn’t know how to cook. I basically ordered pizzas and went out to dinner all the time for the first years that I was living in Italy, and was just driven witless by all the lines that I had to stand in, in the post office to do the most basic thing, like pay a bill. So Italy, the first few years, was just a source of deep frustration and almost a block towards my…what I thought was self-expression. But what I really realized, the more time I was spending in Italy was what a magic place it truly is. And its dysfunction, actually, is an aid in slowing down the pace of the country and allowing people to melt into the moment and be present. It’s difficult to go so fast in Italy and do so much because the systems aren’t really in place to do that.

Now, of course, a lot has changed in the last five to 10 years. But luckily, I got this lesson before things really started to change. And what was so funny was that once I stopped trying to change Italy and the Italians and their food, once I stopped trying to find avocados and coriander and nonfat milk and all that kind of stuff, I just sort of sunk into the splendor of this place and started really opening my eyes and watching and noticing, you know, when your waiter is slow, you have time to just look around the restaurant and notice how beautiful it is and how much care has gone into the food that’s being made and maintaining the traditions that you see around, and even just appreciating what’s in nature and what’s around us all the time.

JJ’s yoga practice, in Milano.

I mean, obviously, nature is something that’s endemic to every country. But my American mentality did not really place a privilege on this presence, this consciousness, this state of being. And that is one thing that Italy really taught me, was really how to slow down and just melt into the moment and really start enjoying, as the Italians say, “Goditi il momento.” This dolce vita is not really a fake thing or just the name of a movie, I mean, it’s really a national pastime of enjoying. And Italians are much more concerned with their experience rather than how much they can do and how much money they can make and how much they can get out of a situation or a person or a job. That’s a generalization, but it’s definitely true when you compare it to America and where I came from.

So I would say the thing I love most about Italy was really schooling me in the lessons of life and the most important values. And I had to slow down. I was forced to slow down. I was forced to just sit home and do nothing on Sunday when everything was closed. And I started realizing, “Wow, this is such a luxury.”  I was a [fashion] journalist for many years and the PR people t never wanted to give me information over the telephone. They always wanted to have lunch. And I remember being so frustrated by this as a New Yorker, “Just give me the information on the phone or via email.” No, they wanted to have lunch. And what I realized afterwards was, those lunches were bridges. And the bridges were connections to real people, real relationships. And to this day, I thank all of those lunches and all of those relationships because that’s what Italy is built on. It’s a network, it’s a web of people, connections, relationships. And once you make a friend in Italy, whether it’s a PR person or an architect or your dry-cleaner, or the butcher or the person that’s bringing your cappuccino, it’s a friend for life, it’s a connection for life, and it’s a real heart-opening place. And that’s what I love most about Italy.

Another thing I love about Italy is that you really find excellence, especially culinary excellence, in very humble, hidden, non-obvious places. And it’s very special because people are doing it for the passion, they’re doing it for the real love of their creation rather than the money and the exposure. You can’t imagine any famous chef in America opening up a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. But that happens all the time in Italy. And what’s amazing about it is that there’s an audience for it because Italians, in general, are very cultured, they are groomed to appreciate the finer things in life: good food, beautiful clothes, beautiful art. And that’s almost like a national sense of pride.

JJ and Marie-Louise at Mezzatorre.

You know, I also just love the way Italians are gentle. They were so soft with me when I first arrived and I was struggling with the language.  Italians were so supportive and overjoyed that I was even trying. And I think that that’s so beautiful that it even breaks my heart to even think how tender the Italians can be and how open-hearted they are. And you see it also with their children, who run wild and they’re really, you know, sometimes a little too rambunctious but also beautifully free.

So Italy is a land of contrasts. And we see so much corruption in the government and so many systems and bureaucracies are saddled and sinking and not working at all, and yet it’s the heart of the people and the passion of them, and the beauty of what’s made here and created and taken care of that is its real legacy. So it’s such a pleasure for me to be living here, especially in this moment when the earth is shaking and my own country seems to be spinning in a very divisive and very angry, judgmental, critical way. And that’s not what I want to be a part of.  I feel lucky, and I also feel really attuned to Italy’s tolerance and its softer approach, not just screaming children or people that don’t know how to speak a language, but also towards human beings and people who have differing opinions.

Just by doing my job and meeting cultured, well-educated, exceptionally talented designers and architects and stylists and photographers, I got the best education I could have ever hoped for. So it’s been a real pleasure and an honor to be a guest in this country, and now, to really, one day I’d like to get my citizenship. So I’ll keep you posted. Hope that helps. Bye.

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