People, I’ve found it. I didn’t think it existed, but it does. A highly readable, refreshing, humorous and inspiring book from an expat making a go of it here in Rome.
I bought “When in Rome” by Penelope Green on a whim at the Sydney airport. Most of you probably know that I don’t hold out much hope for books like this. Take the subtitle, for instance. “Chasing La Dolce Vita.” Right. This is usually my cue for a long and emphatic eye roll with a light groan of despair. I looked at it, and put it back. But the prospect of a 10+ hour flight to Hong Kong weakened my reserve and I picked it back up. Tipping the scales was the fact that if nothing else, it could be fodder for a blog post about how every expat who writes a book about Italy seems only to manage to romanticize how they sweated over choosing custom-made tiles for their “rustic” renovated country kitchen, or how stressed they were in poring over which antique vase or rug would look best in their "quaint" city apartment + view. Don't get me started! When they manage to throw in broad, inaccurate or downright offensive stereotypes about Italians, it’s just icing on the cake.
Penelope is Australian. Could this explain why I have only seen this book in the Sydney airport? Did I overlook it on the “English books about Rome written by expats” table at Feltrinelli (which I do peruse from time to time, in spite of myself)? Perhaps. But the real million dollar question is: why, oh why, have I never run across the lovely Ms. Green in person during my six years here in Rome? Especially since reading her story made me feel like I had a long lost twin who was somehow born four years before me and raised in Australia? She got here just a year after I did and I'm guessing we might have around two or three degrees of separation in Rome’s expat community, if she's still living here.
Reading Penelope’s book took me back through so many of my own moments in building a life here, but with lots of added humor, and charm without a sugar coat. This book is pretty much what I would hope for if I ever decided to write one about my adventures. But the fact that she is brave enough to add in tales and details of her love life triumphs and mishaps makes her book more courageous, and intriguing, than mine would ever be. Her self-deprecating humor makes her pretty loveable as well. At the end of one of her first nights out in Italy, after having made the rather questionable fashion choice of wearing Birkenstocks with socks, she reflects: “Staring at my Birkies at evening’s end I rue my decision. I look like I just escaped from a beer hall in Munich.”
I promise I scoured the book for glaring stereotypes, but if they are there, I missed them. When she makes a judgement or expresses an opinion about "how Italians are," she clearly credits them to some specific experience or specific person.
Now, I admit I am probably partial to this book because it reflects a lot of what I went through, so I can personally relate. But besides my obvious subjectivity on this point, I think most readers would find it hard to resist Penelope’s unflinching (first time I’ve ever gotten to use that word! Fun!) and ironic look at her trials and tribulations here in Italy. Some of the finer points?
- On page 128, although she doesn't name the place, I’m fairly sure the escapade she describes must have been an innocent wrong turn into La Parolaccia (a.k.a. "The Swear Word"), a restaurant famous here in Trastevere for the fact that you pay a hefty price for (what I've been told is) mediocre food with a generous serving of raunchy, vulgar insults in Roman dialect throughout the meal. (Tourists: the address is Vicolo del Cinque 3. You have now been officially warned.) Don't expect to be seeing any first-hand blog posts on that place by me anytime soon. After reading about what she went through there, I felt like I needed to thank her for taking one for the team. And then how about the other time when some of her soulless male co-workers asked her jokingly, “Ti piacciano i piselli?” after she put a bunch of peas on her salad? Ah, the subtleties and sheer crass of Roman attempts at verbal artistry. Poverina. Read the book to find out why.
- On page 201 when she describes the helpless feeling of knowing just enough Italian to understand when you're getting ripped off, but not enough to be able to defend yourself. Argh.
- An ENTIRE CHAPTER on the uniquely Italian phenomenon of “la febbre.” The dreaded "fever" and all its accompanying symptoms and drama, which easily merits the full chapter devoted to it. Are Italians just genetically more pre-disposed to getting fevers, I wonder? The conversation at the end of page 208, namely her boyfriend sitting in front of the TV with a thermometer under his armpit, sadly proclaiming, “Mi sento debole,” (I feel weak) is quite possibly a time-honored rite of passage for every girl who spends more than a passing moment with an Italian man. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but among all the female expats I know with Italian spouses and partners, this is not the first time I've run across this.
In short, loved it. Finally an expat yarn I can put my stamp of approval on. And the happy, yet not sappy, ending makes it picture perfect for its inevitable future as a movie. Don't get Diane Lane on the phone---play yourself, Penny! You’d be great! (NYC Caribbean Ragazza, have you read this one?) Sadly, it seems as though it's out of print, or only available new in Australia. I got it on a sale table, even though it was first published recently, in 2005 (but apparently only in Australia and N. Zealand).
Read here for a much more succinct description of why this book won the 2006 Grollo Ruzzene Foundation Prize for Writing About Italians in Australia. Except I can't figure out why they call her "the imagined author" -- is this all a clever prank? If it is, I've been completely had.
Watch a video of "the imagined author, whose name is Penelope" as she introduces her book in her own words here.
Here's another description by the author of her life here in Rome.
Penny, you are more than welcome to join me and Avery anytime for a drink (right, Averina?) It's on me! Does anyone know her? Is she still in Rome?