■ 10 September 2012 by James Martin
There are great piles of books on the subject of living in Italy stacked on rickety tables in every bookstore on earth (well, both of them). You may have noticed if you happen to frequent these dinosaurs. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why there’s so much demand for these kinds of books, as authors in unison bemoan the creaky and unfathomable bureaucracy, the crime against nature that comes in the form of the afternoon closure of shops (it is a basic human right to shop at all hours! Mon Dieu!) and the inevitable parking ticket or thirteen.
I have no such prejudices. I can do without peanut butter. I can shop whenever stores are open. Even the bureaucracy is effortlessly cracked; neighbor Francesca deals with it.
So it’s nice to read a series of witty essays that cast our poor Italia in an honest light without the whining over the disgraceful shopping hours or the wallet-busting practice of being forced to pay a cover charge in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Perhaps because author Rebecca Helm-Ropelato is from California where yours truly spends his non-Italian days she has been able to adapt the Golden State’s clarity of vision and a sense of what’s important in the universe. I’m sure that’s it. (Oh, no, wait, that was the 70s, when tea was tea and not part of a party, which was defined to include, as a minimum, a hot tub and, if rumors from far off Mill Valley were to be believed, peacock tail feathers. Today, well, all is lost.)
But I digress. As usual. How to Live in Italy is a collection of essays about the essence of living in Italy, previously published in respectable places and strung together like a string of magically twinkling Christmas tree lights to amaze us with their simplicity and colorful charm.
Allow me to regale you with a small quoted paragraph, one of my favorites, just to give you some idea of the flow of carefully-chosen words that sets this book apart from the crowd. The author is talking about friselle pugliesi, hard doughnut-like bread objects that need to be softened in water at the table before being topped with grilled vegetables.
Using the tongs, I placed the bread in the bowl of water and mentally counted off thirty seconds. Then I returned the bread to my plate, I clearly heard a clunk as it landed. So I dunked it back into the water. I waited another thirty seconds, then another. A rock would have been more porous. Hoping for some abracadabra-like magic, I ceased the soaking process. I proceeded to pile the veggies on top of the still rigid ring and began to saw away at it with my knife. In vain. Resting from my labor, I munched on the grilled eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini and fresh chopped tomatoes. They were delicious.
What happens next is entirely believable—but only if you’ve lived in Italy for a great long time.
I liked this book a lot. Its sub-title, “Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise” is spot on. Without prejudice, the exploration of a different culture as Rebecca Helm-Ropelato approaches the complicated task is both enlightening and enjoyable.
Buy this book: How to Live in Italy: Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise. It’s not like 6 and a half bucks is gonna kill you.
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