Nehemiah Hunter Brown (Florence)

Each month we introduce you to someone who has made the dream of picking up and moving to the Bel Paese a reality. In their own words they share the good parts, the bad parts and the just plain absurd moments of day-to-day life in Italy.
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ID Card:
Nehemiah Hunter Brown – musician, singer, writer, arranger, vocal
coach. Age: 50 – Grandson of an American slave.

Currently living in:
I have lived in Florence for 6 years.

By way of:
Born in Charlottesville, Va., lived in Mass. and 15 years in California (San Diego and San Francisco).

How (or why) did you get here from there?
At the end of 5 years working in the investment industry I decided to return to college to study the Italian language.

What role did language skills play in your experience?
The fact that I did do some study before coming to Italy, gave me at least some sense of security while traveling and in my rapport with Italians. (It’s hard – not impossible – to “break the ice” when you don’t speak the language.)

Your biggest challenge:
My biggest challenge has been the difference in the way Italians and Americans think. We think 7 days a week,(continuously, working) 5 + the
weekend for many Italians. (Many places and services don’t exist on the weekend) We also believe, “Volere ? potere,” after years of a patriarchal society, many Italians ask permission instead of exercising their freedom to do something, that is unless the family is from the
aristocracy; in that case we often see the face of the “ugly American”.

What did you do to feel at home or adapt here?
My degree counselor told me to stop speaking English or I would never adjust to the Italian culture. A part of that was the insistence that
everything must be done the American way; The second key was to stop living like a tourist and start living as a resident. It really helps when you
need to do reality checks. It also helped to learn to express my anger in the Italian language.

What do you still have to get used to/learn?
I still don’t have a good since of direction in the cities like Florence. I call them circular Labyrinths.

Compare an aspect of your home town (or other place you’ve lived) to current town.
Florence is very much like my hometown Charlottesville (I love it but there is no ocean/breeze); It is also much like San Francisco, where I lived more
than 15 years before moving here. There is always something to do but you have to research the choices. It is cosmopolitan like my two other favorite cities.

If you think in terms of the high exchange rate, lira/dollar, it is not expensive to live here. However, if one thinks and is paid in lire, it is very expensive. Consider the cost of food; sometimes it seems more expensive than San Francisco. The bus systems sucks, especially when there is a strike, which is often…busses, trains, airlines. Information, of the transit nature, is difficult to come by. Rarely is there an announcement of your particular stop. You just pray that you can read the schedule, if you find one, or that someone is getting off where you are supposed to go.

Latest pursuits:
www.florencegospelchoir.com. My friends, here, encouraged me to go for it. It helps to be patient here and to remember the there are some things only God can do. My latest pursuit is to create two choirs in two prisons in Florence. One is at Solliciano, the men’s prison and the other is at the women’s facility in Empoli. After 3 weeks things are going well.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is not true:
I don’t know that I had one.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is true:
I had a notion that Italians know their friends better that we know ours. Friends spend a lot of time together; at first I thought that it was strange. (Like, “we just saw each other yesterday or earlier today, and you want to spend more time together? Don’t you have a life?) Friendships are a
great part of a person’s life here, and they last a long time.

Your response to the following question: “I really want to live here, but I don’t speak Italian or have a job. What do you think?”
My response is that one should prepare. Go to some night classes at the community college (like I did) get a good Italian teacher who teaches Italian culture and you will be In Love with the culture, in a realistic way. Don’t be clandestine about your stay in Italy, it takes a little doing but you can be here, legally. It helps to have friends that know the law–policemen, lawyers, notaries and accountants.(You need to have faith, it’s not enough to be a blond, female and American).


How would you sum up your Italian experience in a word (and why)?

“Un miracolo” (the challenges) I came to Italy 6 years ago to study. I had problems with my financial aid (it was late and /didn’t arrive/or was cut without notice), my father died 5 months after I arrived, there was an air strike so I couldn’t return home for the funeral. My oldest brother died last year. For me living here was not an escape from the states or from being a Black man in the US, with all its challenges. (I have been called everything, by
my fellow Americans.)

The rewards have been that I have studied at The University of Florence for 3 years, performed for Ferr? and members of the fashion scene at the prestigious Pitti Immagine. Last year I performed for the Pope John II at the Vatican (2 days) and at the Olympic Stadium before 75,000 people and the Italian soccer team.

I am a resident of Florence Italy, and an honorary citizen of Santo Stefano di Magra, in the province of La Spezia. I have held numerous seminars on Jazz, Gospel and Spirituals and American Music all over Italy. I teach at two Elementary schools, and an Italian high school. I have been interviewed/ in Italian magazines, newspapers and television as well as Switzerland and Portugal.

My languages skills are improving constantly as I have to communicate at a technical and business level.

Italy’s best-kept secret:
The small communities are the best-kept secret because there you find many cultural events organized at a very high level that manage to include everyone.