Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maybe You Shouldn't Do As the Romans Do

You may have noticed that in my sidebar this month I mentioned that I was reading As the Romans Do by Alan Epstein. Well, I was reading it. That is, until I got to page 101, at which point I was so frustrated by what I was reading, I had to contain myself in order to resist throwing the book across the room and watching it bounce off the wall.

Now, Rome may seem like a big city, but those of us who live here, especially us expats, know that its actually just a small village. That’s why my intention is not pointless book bashing. I have absolutely nothing against the author or his wife, both of whom still live and work in Rome, and I commend the author for having such incredible success with this book and his Roman life. But there are a few things that I think it’s only responsible to point out if you decide to go ahead and dive into this book, since I was half-recommending it by the fact that I had it displayed on my page.

What attracted me to this book:
  • Breezy, conversational style that makes you feel like you’re getting a one-on-one peek into Rome from the author himself
  • You can tell the author is truly in love with his adopted city and his joy and amazement shine through the pages
What eventually drove me away from this book:
  • Blanket statements that are written as if some kind of eternal truth about Romans/Italians, without any citations or opposing viewpoints from Romans or Italians themselves
Alan Epstein and his wife, both Americans, moved to Italy from California with their sons, so the book is written through American eyes. I was hoping this wouldn’t become a Roman version of Under the Tuscan Sun, and overall it doesn’t, except a little Frances Mayes-ing on page 25, when the author describes furnishing his new Roman apartment:
The hand-painted lamps from Sicily were placed on our inlaid wooden side tables that we had picked up at a little antique shop behind Campo de’ Fiori. As we smoothed out the Caucasus Kuban rug under the wrought-iron and glass coffee table that holds our vivid yellow Peking glass vases…
Anyhoo, you get the idea. Luckily that only goes on for a short chapter and is forgiveable.

What I ultimately take issue with are statements that, despite adjusting for the six-year time span from when the book was first published, still have no place being put down as absolute truth, in my opinion.

Take, for example, this from pages 95-96:
  • Italians certainly don’t come together primarily for love[…]the romantic kind[…]
  • The males want to be pampered, well fed, and given free rein to play. The women expect to be the capo della casa, to run the household, to be able to express their emotions without restraint.
  • A spouse is chosen because, all things considered, he or she would make a good partner for familial, rather than for personal, romantic, sentimental, or sexual reasons[…]
Following this reasoning, the author goes on to say, quoting on page 97 an uncited survey, that 70 percent of Italian males “betray” their wives, while 64 percent of Italian women do the same to their husbands. As the reader, we are unable to discern the source of these statements, and are left to assume that they must simply be built from the author’s observations, personal opinion, or perhaps something he read somewhere.

On page 98, he gives an example of an Italian female friend who informs him that when a man is found cheating (already lending credence to his claim that this is a typical occurrence), his wife “hits him on the head with a frying pan, tells him not to do it again, and domestic life continues.”

Then, for the grand finale, on page 100 he explains that "...in Italy, where men do not do housework, do not raise kids, do not get up to help with any kind of domestic chores..." the low birth rate is due to Italian women purposely refusing to have children in order to "shed the weight of domestic dependence" and "by sleeping with whomever they want, since it is clear that they never got married primarily for love..."

I find all this quite offensive. I’m not proposing to be an authority on Italians or Italian life and culture, and I’m not trying to say I am naïve enough to think that marital infidelity doesn’t exist in Italy. However, I am an American girl who came over to Rome by herself, has had several years of professional experience working with Italians, has daily contact almost exclusively with Italians, and has been in a relationship with an Italian (Roman) man for almost six years. These are the things that I feel qualify me to be surprised with such statements being presented as if they were a cultural fact.

After reading such a tirade, I couldn’t continue through the book chronologically any longer, but I started flipping through further, since it is organized in small topic-centered chapters, hoping to find one that might lure me back in. When I did, it only turned me away again, with the statement on page 214 that:
Italians are, in fact, pretty much where the Americans were in the fifties: charmed by new gizmos, earning money, and having more market choices than they ever dreamed possible. Many people are, at bottom, still bowled over by the fact that they own a car.
This came across to me as incredibly condescending. Granted, the book came out in 2000, and I am not a sociologist or economist specializing in Italy; however, I arrived in mid-2001 and my personal experience has never led me to believe that Italians are coming out of some sort of industrial or economic dark age, in which they are continually amazed by what it feels like to be a car owner. On the contrary, I feel Rome is actually a perfect example of what happens when lack of a viable public transport system actually forces most people to own a car.

What compelled me to write a sort of review of this book is the simple fact that an author who presents himself as an authority on a particular subject, even if simply through personal experience, in my opinion has a responsibility to his readers when making broad statements like the ones above. Many descriptions of Roman places and customs are accurate, such as how jogging down city streets isn’t so common, or how most everything stops for holiday in August, or what it’s like during a transport strike; however, the fact remains that statements like the ones above have the power to leave the reader with a rather one-sided and stereotypical picture of Italian lifestyle and culture, and I think that is unfortunate. My personal experience with Italian friends and family of all ages has shown me otherwise, in a most positive way.

If you’ve read this far, by all means, please leave me a comment about what you think!


Michelle said...

I haven't read this book, but in a weird way, now I kind of want to. I guess I always was attracted to train wrecks :) When you wrote that he made generalizations, I was ready for the usual ones--but judging from the quotes you included, the author here goes waaaay over the top! I mean, a wife hitting her husband with a frying pan and then returning to domestic life after the husband's affair? That's just silly. If the author wanted to say (with proof) that many Italian marriages stay together despite infidelity, fine, but it is simply offensive to paint such a caricature of real people dealing with life events. I could be wrong, but I think the experiences of two Americans/foreigners dealing with Italy together are *very* different from those of people who have come to the Bel Paese alone and had to integrate into Italian society/culture (right down to our partners)--not saying either set of experiences is better or worse, just different. Brava for giving us the dirt on this, ahem, dirt :)

Gracie said...

Well, surely I'm not willing to read this book and I won't! As Michelle said, lots of families stay together after an infidelity for many reasons, but I don't think this is an italian prerogative! I think the author should live among italians, but my guess is he has a little all american group to spend time with, and no time to go deep our real life. If he would do that, he would surely change his mind, especially about the reasons we get married. Italy is the country of the sun, the blue sky, the songs and the poetry, and sure is the country of love too, Mr Epstein!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this. Similar books have been written by similar expats here in the Netherlands, so I'm familiar with the debate. I'm glad that you're having a great experience there, but of course others see the culture they’re living in through a more negative lens, and often this negativity can be what prompts one to write a book. This is true for the Dutch case, anyway.

Great blog, by the way!

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Michelle: That's really what I was trying to point out, that some of the comments were a little too exaggerated or stereotypical, and in my opinion this wasn't necessary to illustrate the points, or at least, it could have been done in a more responsible way (ie, by showing us where these ideas come from, or what experiences prompted him to state them as fact).

Gracie: The author understands Italian and does interact directly with Italians, describing his encounters at the bar, children's school, etc., but still I agree that it isn't possible to say in general that Italians don't get married for romantic reasons. It's just too broad of a generalization. Saying something like "All the Italians I know got married for familial and not sentimental reasons" would be more responsible, in my opinion.

Blonde: Thanks for your thoughts! I don't mean to say that the author is negative regarding Italy, in fact he is actually very positive. I just take issue with these generalizations because that's not the reality I've found in my years here, and even if the facts could somehow be true for the majority of Italians (I'm not saying they are, but say my experience was the unusual one), where does this information come from?

tatiana said...

...questa volta è stato davvero difficile tenere le fila di tutto il discorso ma era cosi interessante che alla fine ce l'ho fatta!!! e comprendo benissimo, da italiana, il perchè avessi il gran desiderio di scaraventare lontano il libro!!il capitolo sull'infedeltà non mi lusinga un granche e che dire della parte che ci dipinge come madonne votive tutte rivolte alla famiglia e al marito (di cui il 70% per di piu traditore?!) :-/ ...mmm...mmm..
l'unica cosa che mi vien da pensare è che l'autore riferisca un'esperienza vecchia di almeno 50 anni e che da quel di non si sia più aggiornato!! :-)
shellina avrei voluto scrivere di più ma il mio livello di comprensione dell'inglese non me lo consente!!!!!tati

Ms Adventures in Italy said...

Hah! I saw this book on your sidebar and I waited to see if you would comment on it. I read it while living there as well. I also wanted to throw it against the wall!!...other than for the reasons you wrote, I am tired of reading about expats that "had to sleep in a hotel for three weeks while their dream house was being refurbished" - I think these people are so far away from the average expat's reality that it gets nauseating. I think I blocked out the rest of his book.

Ash said...

Here in Holland there is always someone/something/a book like that about the local population and I think it sucks.

In my opinion one can't ever really generalise about another culture, even if you've lived in it for a long time. Thanks for sharing.

I know now to avoid this book, should I ever come to Rome.

I'm also somewhat relieved to know that culture-bashing is not something confined to the Netherlands!

Rose in Cali said...

Hi, Shelley~
I am SO glad that you posted this book review! I recently read the book, and after initially falling in love with it, I, too had to put it down after being confronted with the gross overgeneralizations the author makes. I would hate to think that all Italian men are as promiscuous as he states, and that their wives/girlfriends laugh their indiscrections off with a smack of the frying pan. He makes waiting in line at a deli or bank a romantic walk in the park. Hee hee, you just accept it as part of Roman life. That may be true, but where is the acknowledgement of actual anxiety that realistically accompanies such frustrating moments? And addition the things you point out, who is he to generalize Italian Catholics? Surely there must be a few who, despite the obvious failings of Catholic Church dogma and certain practices, still hold their actual faith in high regard.

One has to think: What was his editor getting paid for?

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

This is very interesting. I found the book frustrating toward the end as well. As you know my book is also set in Rome and about someone who moves there, alone. My book is fiction not a memoir, so it has to work on different levels, plot, character and dialogue. Having said that I am trying not to make the same broad statements. There are huge cultural differences between Los Angeles and Rome and I can't help but notice them. However, unlike some other expat books, there are some well developed Italian characters in it.

No one is doubting that the birth rate is very low and there are less divorces in Italy despite higher infidelity, etc. It's the way the author presented these facts that was troublesome. It's clear he loves Rome and Italy though.

Did you read EAT,LOVE,PRAY? What did you think of it?

Anonymous said...

I think any expat in any country can write what he wrote. EVERY country has these problems. Someone could easily write about how Americans are fat and lazy and how high school shootings are a normal occurence here, etc etc. Is it true of all Americans? Absolutely not. Someone needs to tell this guy that he is writing about smaller group of people and not Italians in general. I can't stand it when someone decides to pack themselves up and move to another country, then complain incessantly about it's people and their way of life. I mean some complaining is to be expected because it's a different life, but to insult them??!! He should just move back to the U.S. since no one ever has affairs here and we are soooo much more advanced than Italy...right??!!

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

I am really enjoying everyone's insightful comments...

Ms: Yeah, that's what I call FMS: Frances Mayes Syndrome. Oh, woe is me, this big ol' villa all to myself, to decorate with fancy antiques and have my personal chef whip up meals. Sigh.

Ash: Thanks for joining in! I have to pop over to your blog.

Rose: Agreed, agreed. You know I didn't mention how he said that even at the altar when the ring is being slipped on the finger, the thoughts of the couple wander to the future possibility of cheating. Argh.

NYC: Your book? Tell me more! I didn't know! Haven't read Eat, Love, Pray...will get back to you!!

Ebony: Good point. When I first moved here I had to constantly tell people that all US kids don't go to school with a gun, and that I personally hadn't even ever seen a gun. No one could believe it! Stereotypes are so hard to break. That's why it's important not to foster them unnecessarily.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review of this book. I was interested in reading it and looked at the reviews given in Amazon. Many readers felt the same as you. This author made blanket statements about Italian culture that simply are not true.

Anonymous said...

Generalizing. You have just highlighted my secret blogging fear. I am relatively new to blogging and still find myself re-reading my posts, always looking for those dreaded generalizations. I don’t want to generalize about Italians or Americans... I think some authors do it out of convenience while trying to entertain. But what a high price! I would feel bad if I hurt someone’s feelings. Anyway, I am happy to hear your book review. I will save myself the frustration. Although, now that I think of it, I could read selected parts of it out loud to my Italian husband (insert evil laugh here)! Nah! I think I will save him the frustration too. Thanks for the heads up Shelley!

Darbs said...

From one book lover, to another (so it seems), I totally understand where you are coming from and appreciate your sharing. I would hope, however, that readers wouldn't allow one person's opinion of Italian/Roman life/culture sway them one way or another. But understanding that there may be some that do, the least this author could have done was cited his references or make it clear that what was being presented was his personal opinion.

But I guess James Frey proved that anything goes now when it comes to the world of literature! LOL - just jokes!

I have certainly been in your predicament though...become so disgusted with a book that you just cannot bring yourself to finish it.

Susan in Italy said...

I never imagined anybody could be worse than Beppe Severigni about blanket statements, but there you go. Thanks for the heads-up!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Yes Shelley I am writing a book. I'm calling it travel lit (lol). I have been working on it since Feb. and I'm on draft number #11. I really do need to watch the generalizations.

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Moon: I got curious and checked out the Amazon reviews. A real mixed bag! People either loved it or hated it.

Ambra: I think about this a lot too when I write things on my blog. I am still very new to blogging also and I often am not sure what direction to go with posts. I think people understand though that you are writing from the heart and from your experiences and at least a blog has the ability to comment and discourse on things. (PS I kept reading parts to Ale and he was like "cazzatte, tutte cazzatte!)

Darbs: Ciao bella! You're a book lover too, great, we can trade suggestions.

Susan: No prob. PS, Bought chestnut honey at the grocery store yesterday...it's all your fault! ;-)

NYC: Keep me posted. I'd love to read it. Good luck!

J.Doe said...

I never read the book and now I'm glad I didn't waste my time. \he overgeneralisaions are wrong in my opinion, not that it's ever right to overgenerlise anyway.

Expat Traveler said...

I'm thinking most books are written by the people with exceptions. It irrates me to no end.

Wishing it was real and well when they say you can learn how I did it too, when they actually did it way too long ago to even be the same situation for the newbies...

It's called good marketing and learning how to extort the average person into persuasion!

Oops, did I just say that?

Tracie B. said...

italian's are making money?! maybe i should come to rome...

sorry, i have to say that the neapolitan men DEFINITELY EXPECT to be pampered. for the rest, it is really dangerous toss around statistics without siting a source. less discerning readers may take it as the truth.

Sara said...

I read this book as well, and parts of it I enjoyed - i.e. his runs in the morning through Rome and the some of the descriptives behind that. Being married to a Roman man myself (albeit he's done the opposite and expatted to Minneapolis... for right now, at least) I saw some of the stereotypes, but also some of the stereotypes were untrue as well as outright exaggerations. You're totally right.

I recommend instead, if you haven't already, some Tim Parks. I was hooked by his book about Italian Calcio in Verona, and am loving Italian Neighbours right now. I'm liking it because it's more of a glimpse into daily life, not the life that the author wants you to hear. I found it in a map book shop in London in Covent Garden. I'm sure he's elsewhere - common WHS bookshops had him as well. Figured I'd mention it, if you didn't already know.

Am reading backwards in your blog and just loving it. Grazie mille, --Sara

loretta said...

I'm Italian and been so for 55 years, so I think I know a thing or 2 about Italians. The author of this book is ignorant and wrote the book with little research. I would put the book where it belongs in the trash can.....