I’m stuck in something of a conundrum. I’ve realised that writing about Italy – Tuscany in particular – leads otherwise capable writers into committing themselves to the most self-satisfied, plummy language. There are other places in the world in which this becomes equally tempting: India occasionally, rural England, Burgundy, Provence, New England, the Pacific Northwest, one’s own garden, etc. But Italy is particularly bad. It is difficult, when writing about Italy, to avoid harping on upon the vivaciousness of the Italian tomato, or the quirkiness of the stray Italian who happens upon your path. This is problematic. It may be a pleasure for the writer to descant on la dolce vita, but the reader suspects there is degree of the writer’s self-romancing, suspects she has read it before somewhere (or everywhere) else. Such writing does no favours to anyone. It comes to no realisation. It smacks of privilege (and a lack of the imagination). It is best kept for the self to feed over. It is a kind of pornography.
I’m particularly aware of the general irrelevance of my experience in Italy as a friend has just come back from Jordan and the West Bank. Her observations are moral, political, historical, social. She has seen guns, poverty, and injustice. I’ve just driven around a few hill towns.
So it is difficult to think of the adequate or just word to explain my recent trip to Italy. How do you say what it was like without slipping into syrup? I’m at a loss, and will have to just try to avoid wobbling into treacle as much as I can.
I’ve wanted to go to Italy for several years, and besieged A. to go. He finally agreed, as long as we avoided cities. A. did not like Barcelona. He is not a fan of Paris. So, no Rome, no Florence, no Naples. No museums or art galleries or hours trying to fit everything in. We would try to lie low, eat good food, see new vistas, survive in someone else’s normal, not try to conquer the landscape as though it’d never been done before.
I learned a bit of Italian. A. gave me an Italian Pimsleur course, which I would practice while getting dressed in the morning and undressed in the evening for two months. A bombastic American voice would announce, ‘Say “I’d like some white wine”’, and I would dutifully mangle or parrot back what I’d retained. David Sedaris has written about the entertaining codification of national biases in various Pimsleur courses, and the Pimsleur Italian course prepared me to ward off unwanted insistent admirers, to contradict everything my male companion said, and to describe my large brood of children.
I coupled that with a textbook called Ciao! which was mostly for vocabulary and spelling (Italian does have a few silent or elided letters), and found a conjugation handbook at the £2 bookstore. This, plus a smattering of reading on the Medicis, was all our preparation. I packed my new Dante, which I envisioned myself translating piecemeal on a sunburnt hill, and my textbooks (read: crutches) and Pietro Grossi’s new novel in English and set off.