La Dolce Vita – Italy with Lauren Mouat
American Writer / Blogger
Who is Lauren Mouat?
I grew up in California and had never been to Italy until I studied abroad here during university and fell in love with Rome. After graduating, I moved to Rome for what was meant to be a year but has now turned into more than a decade. While I taught English at the beginning to get by and wrote for a few publications in Rome, I started a boutique tour agency called Unlock Italy in 2017 and got my official tour guide license. I am also a writer and the founder and editor of the Open Doors Review, a literary magazine that publishes fiction, poetry, essays, and visual art in English and Italian from contributors around the world. The inaugural issue will be released in January 2021.
Tell us about Unlock Italy
Unlock Italy is a boutique tour agency that I started with my partner Luca. I’m American, he is Italian and between us we have over 15 years of experience in the tourism industry in Italy. We offer private guided tours primarily in Florence and Rome and our aim is to customize experiences for each group. No tour is ever the same and we love to mix up our tours with history, anecdotes, food and wine so that we can share a little bit of all our favorite parts of Italy with our guests.
Heard from the grapevine you are releasing a book. Tell us about it.
This has really been one of the silver linings of the big changes of last year – that I’ve had the time to work on my first passion: writing. The book is still a work a progress but it’s coming along! All I can tell you now is that it’s set in Italy and is a book about friendship, family, and overcoming obstacles.
Living away from the US, what do you miss most about home
I, of course miss friends and family the most since it’s not easy to travel from Italy to California whenever I want but beyond that… well… I feel silly saying this because Italian food is my favorite in the world but I miss those old school American diners where you can get a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs and pancakes and a big mug of coffee. And also all my favorite ethnic restaurants that are hard to come by in much variety in Italy: Mexican, Thai, Chinese. You can find them but I was very spoiled with choice and quality growing up in California!
Best book you’ve read this year
I’m going to cheat and name a series: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante have surprised me a lot this year. The series is about a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples and how that friendship evolves and influences them throughout their lives. I really enjoyed reading about the intricacies of female friendship in an Italian context and I really couldn’t put down the last two books in the series!
When you need to feel inspired
I talk to a friend. It’s can be easy to get into a loop of self criticism or feeling like you haven’t done enough when working on your dreams and in those moments, it’s best to have a chat with a friend who you can talk through a problem with or even just laugh for a bit and forget about the problem entirely. The perspective and optimism I feel after a good friend catch up is the best medicine.
Things you’ll always have in your fridge
If I can substitute “kitchen” for “fridge” then the answer would be baking supplies! I love baking so I always keep my baking shelf stocked with things like chocolate chips, cocoa powder, baking powder, powdered sugar, spices, nuts, and various baking goodies. When you have to bake a cake, you just have to bake a cake!
A typical day for Lauren Mouat
In 2019 a typical day looked something like this: Wake up in Rome, answer some emails from guests booking tours. Take the metro to do a tour of the Ancient Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum or perhaps the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Jump on a train to Florence answering emails on the way to do a tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence then nap on the 1.5 hour train to Livorno to have dinner with my partner Luca. A few more emails then falling asleep in our Livorno house, trying to remember what city I’ll be touring in the next day!
In 2020 a typical day is having a big breakfast with Luca then settling down to write – working on my book, the Open Doors Literary Review, blog posts for Unlock Italy, and freelance articles to come out in 2021. In the afternoon I go on a run or do yoga. I sneak in as much reading as I can and this year, I have more time to cook and bake. Life is much less social but I’m grateful I can focus my energy on other creative projects that were falling by the wayside in all the hustle of 2019.
I’m hoping 2021 can be a combination of the two!
What have you come to appreciate in 2020?
The little things. Having experienced varying degrees of lockdown, just walking through a forest or watching in the sea can make my whole day better. I’ve learned to enjoy slowing down and appreciate things which I think is also the essence of Italian living that I’d started to forget in the frenzy of getting my business off the ground in the last few years.
Biggest inspiration comes from
Books! Reading has always been my favorite hobby and books are often where I turn to when I feel stuck in my life. Sometimes you can feel like you’ll never amount to anything, like you don’t know how you’ll make your dreams become a reality so reading about other people’s lives, how they pushed through those feelings to achieve incredible things reminds me that anything is possible.
One gadget you can’t do without
Country you can’t wait to go back to
France. Like Italy, France can feel like it has it all with art, nature and food. I’m looking forward to exploring more vineyards there in the next couple of years.
On Being for interviews with great thinkers, scientists and artists.
Art Curious is the best art history podcast.
The Bittersweet Life is produced by two wonderful friends, one who lives stateside and one is an author in Rome.
Philosophy in life
Believe in yourself. You are capable of more than you can imagine and in my experience, half the battle is overcoming self doubt and fears. You can’t know how something is going to work out but you can start on the path and believe in the process.
What brings you to Italy
I originally came to Italy during a semester study abroad program in Rome. I had already loved the Italian language and art history and being immersed in it all the time in such a captivating city as Rome made me desperate to move back after I finished by undergraduate degree in the US.
Moving to Italy
I moved to Rome two months after finishing my undergraduate degree at 22 years old. I got a teaching certification in Rome (CertTESOL for those looking into it but you can also get an online TEFL degree) and then started to look for work. It was very hard to make ends meet at the beginning but slowly, things started to fall into place and I realized one year wouldn’t be enough for me. Then two years wasn’t enough, then three… and now I’ve been here over ten years!
I am so shy when it comes to speaking foreign languages that learning Italian has been a real struggle for me. One part of learning a new language is doing the grammar exercises and perhaps taking a language class if you can but the other half (and I saw this as a teacher of English for my first five years in Italy) is just letting go and being willing to make mistakes when you’re speaking.
Time taken to have decent conversation, banter and argue in Italian
It’s different for everybody and a lot of it depends on your confidence more than your language skills! I think it can be done in a year if you are very dedicated to learning a language and practice speaking as much as possible. For me it took me much longer than that because I struggled with my insecurities more than anything else! The best way is to speak it as much as you can – practice, practice, practice!
Home in Italy
As a foreigner living in Italy, the concept of home is always changing for me. For 9.5 years I lived in Rome though in constantly changing apartments. Last year I moved to the Tuscan coast to be with my Italian partner and now home is Livorno. As a Californian, I think there’s something about a beachy, laid back town that really appeals to me and although I’ll always love Rome, Livorno is now home.
Best things about Italy
This is tough because Italy seems to have it all: a lyrical language, gorgeous countryside, mountains and beaches, art and history and the best food. But I guess the best thing about Italy would have to be the Italians. I’ve experienced such warmth and generosity in the people I’ve met here and that is what has made me want to stay.
Making friends in Italy
As a foreigner, I think it’s quite easy to meet other foreigners. You already have that connection of being the outsiders and there are so many ways to meet – language classes, traveler meet ups, pub quizzes. Making Italian friends can take more time but as with making all friends in life – if you just pursue your interests, you’ll come across your tribe no matter what their nationality or native language.
Foreigners have always romanticized a love-affair in Italy. Should we still?
It’s true that Italy is always seen as a great romantic adventure and books and movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat Pray Love have just increased that. But the thing is… all of that fantasy and beauty and drama and romance is all real. Italy is more beautiful than any book or movie can describe. But anyone dreaming of moving here has to know that there’s always another side of the story that is more complicated. It’s very hard to get a job and moving to a foreign country can take a big emotional toll. I think it’s fine to romanticize Italy and if that’s all you want to see, that’s your prerogative but if you want to get to know the real Italy, as with any good love affair, you have to get to know all the sides of the object of your affection: the good, the bad and the in between. The bigger picture of Italy might not be perfect, but it’s more real and what’s more romantic than that?
Favorite Italian movie
Some people hate it, but I love Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza for how it captures a magical and melancholy side of the eternal city. When I’m missing Rome, I watch this movie.
Best café in an Italian city
Caffe Siascia in Rome is my favorite! It’s a little off the beaten track in the neighborhood of the Vatican but I love its décor, the professional waiters and you can also ask them for extra chocolate in your cappuccino.
An unforgettable bookstore
There’s no bookstore like Acqua Alta in Venice. Books from floor to ceiling, piled into painted boats and a doorway opening straight onto the canal… it’s pure magic.
Best Italian souvenir brought home (to the US)
My leather jacket from Florence that I still wear over a decade after I first bought it. I wish I could remember the little shop where I found it!
Top 5 favorite Italian cities
So difficult to answer! Besides my two home loves of Rome and Livorno, my top cities would include: Naples, Ravello, Parma, Matera and Venice.
Most favorite city and why
It has to be my first Italian love: Rome. This was the city that stole my heart when I was 20 years old and never let go. Rome is packed with everything from ancient monuments to dramatic Baroque churches, tiny bakeries, cobblestone streets, fountains, vistas, the best artists, the best history – Rome contains universes within it that you can’t ever fully explore in one lifetime.
The basilica you can’t get enough of
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Even though, as a guide, I have set foot there hundreds of times, it never fails to take my breath away with its sheer size and unparalleled beauty. Then the works of art inside it (Michelangelo’s Pieta, numerous sculptures by Bernini), the architecture and the stories put it over the top.
Recommendations for a first time visitor to Italy
Don’t try to do too much. Don’t go to a big city for just two days – you’ll be exhausted. You realize very quickly that you can’t see everything. Leave time in each city for a rambling walk with no agenda. Research at least some great restaurants or take a food tour – I’m the most sad when I hear a visitor just had touristy food and missed out on one of the greatest things about Italy: the Italian meal!
Favorite Italian dish / food
I have an obsession with the Roman pasta Amatriciana – it’s my all-time favorite!
What’s in your glass and plate for aperitivo hour
Pizzette and an Aperol spritz.
Is for Christmas markets and visiting the big museums without the crowds!
Is for staying up late in the piazza, chatting with friends until the wee hours and planning your perfect romantic beachside vacation.
Favorite things to do in Italy
Go on a road trip. Choose one part of the country and take your time exploring the big tourist destinations, the little off the beaten track towns and all the glorious countryside in between. You’ll get a better idea of what Italy is about and you’re bound to have a few surprising adventures along the way!
Italian indulgence you’ll never forgo
Giving yourself a break when you need it. In the US, we tend to be proud of how tired and overworked we are. In Italy, rest is sacred from the yearly vacation to the daily five minute coffee break.
Best beach in Italy
Oooh such a hard question, every time I write one beach town name, I think of another! I’ll have to go with Puglia for stunning natural beauty, white cliffs and turquoise clear waters.
Work of an Italian artist you collect or would (collect) if you could
I love the portraits of Vittorio Corcos and always want to start writing a fictionalized version of the lives of the women he painted in the early 20th century.
Favorite Italian architecture
It’s the clichéd favorite of every tour guide that has worked in Rome but my favorite architecture HAS to be the Pantheon. There is no other building or feeling that compares to walking into this ancient space that has been standing since the 2nd century.
An Italian furniture worth investing in
For all my interior decorating questions, I turn to my friend Sara Glenn at Atelier Glenn. Sara lives and works in Milan but offers remote design services world wide and as you can see from her Instagram @atelier.glenn, her taste is flawless. In the past, she’s turned me on to Italian pieces by Poltrona Frau, Giorgetti and Poliform.
How apt is Eat, Pray, Love’s Italy?
Eat, Pray, Love accurately displays a small slice of life in Rome. Rome really is gorgeous, the food is incredible, Italians do love gathering together over meals and cheering for football teams. Of course, she experiences only the tourist dream of Italy. The realities of living here long term are more complicated but that doesn’t diminish the beautiful things depicted in the book and film.
Italian tourism in 2020
For those like me working with many foreigners, tourism has been almost nonexistent! Which means that for those who could get to Italy (mostly Europeans) they found the sites at their most beautiful – nearly empty of tourists. It’s been a strange but beautiful year of remembering what our favorite cities look like in the summer without the crowds but I know we are all looking forward to the day when more visitors can join us here again.
Unforgettable Italian city / town you have travelled to during the pandemic
Well it’s not exactly one town, it’s a whole island. As soon as it was safe to travel after the extended period of spring lockdown, we traveled to Elba, just off the coast of Tuscany where we live and I fell in love with Elba Island. The white pebble beaches, the colorful towns, interior mountains, the crystal clear water… it was like a dream.
Where can Fab! Luxe readers read your work
I am the editor for the Open doors Literary and Arts Review at www.opendoorsreview.com where I conduct interviews with our guest judges, Italian authors and artisans.
I have a blog on my tour website, www.unlockitaly.com that is partly about travel tips but also there is a series called “Laurenissima” where I talk about how I moved to Italy and some of the comedic situations in my early years living in Rome!
Connect with Lauren
Email : [email protected]