Wednesday, May 09, 2007

When in Rome

[UPDATE: Since this book seems to be impossible to find, I am willing to put my copy into circulation. If you're interested in getting on the list, see the comments section!]

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.
As an added bonus, you’ll walk away with a formidable vocabulary of Aussie terms. I was able to decipher most of them in context, but I still need to get around to Googling the origins of “Poms” and the exact meaning of “spruiking.” Among some of the other priceless gems are: kipping, utes, daggy, skerrick, hoon out, jim jams, gas bagging, and my personal favorite, “on my Pat Malone.”

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?

23 comments:

sognatrice said...

Sounds great! "Imagined author" *is* a rather strange phrase; I imagine (hah!) it means that she is pictured on the book? Aussies? Now if only I can find me a copy (a trip to Sydney not in my immediate future) ;)

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

no Shelley, I have not heard of this one (I thought I had read all of them!)

I will see if I can find a copy stateside. Did you ever read EAT, LOVE, PRAY? What did you think of the Italy section? It is a huge hit here.

Rose in Cali said...

I just checked amazon.com and there are only two copies available for $36! A used one sells for $30. A little too pricey for me, although I am now dying to read this book.

(nyc/caribbean ragazza: I thought the Italy section of Eat, Love, Pray was the best part of that book.)

Shelley, keep these recommendations coming! Those of us longing to live in Italy always need something to savor while plotting our (hopefully) inevitable moves.

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Ok, to all you faithful readers who managed to get to the end of this post and are now craving a read... here's my idea.

Shall we start circulating my one copy through the mail? And after each person reads it, they can sign inside the cover and then mail it on to the next person on the list? The list being, those of you who have commented and want to read it?

What do you think? Whoever wants to be a part of it, let me know. Unless I hear otherwise, we can start the list with:

1. Sognatrice
2. NYC/Caribbean Ragazza
3. Rose in Cali

And no, I still haven't read Eat, Love, Pray... SHAME ON ME! NYC, you were the original one to recommend it to me, and since then I have gotten quite a few more people telling me to read it! Do you want to send it to me and I'll send you something from Rome in return?

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

PS If you want to participate send me an email (ahirswap AT gmail DOT com) with your mailing address.

It'll be like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants! (I saw that movie once on an airplane... it was cute.)

sonyaustraliana said...

Hi!

I've been a lurker here for some time now and I love your blog! (By the way congrats on the wedding)

I'm in Australia and I too am a fan of Penelope Green.

I'd be more that happy to send in my old copy to you Shelley to circulate (I think it's a cool idea and my small sway of saying thanks for writing such a great blog!)

If you'd like it please email me your postal address to vita4 AT go DOT com

Ci sentiamo a presto!

Tamara said...

If anyone is interested, I turned up the book at Alibris, a website that specializes in rare, used, and out-of-print books.

Here's the link to Penelpe Green's book http://www.alibris.com/search/search.cfm

If for some reason the link doesn't work, just go to www.alibris.com, and type in the relevant info.

cheeky said...

Spruiking - think used car salesman, or any other arena to try and puff things up a bit; i think politicians may at times do a good job of this, fancy language that's just fluff and self promotion, and even comical. :)
Thanks for sharing your great review of the book. Enjoyed it.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Great ideal thanks Shelley. I had check with my local bookstore and they were not able to order it for me.

I'll send you my address.

re: Eat, Love, Pray...I'll buy a copy for you and send it ( I need mine for research).

Sisterhood is a cute movie. The sequel is shooting this summer.

TinkerBlue said...

It's for sale at http://www.booktopia.com.au/search.ep?keywords=when+in+rome&attribute=title&submit.x=63&submit.y=6

Booktopia is an aussie company that ships overseas.

Pom - is what Aussies, & Kiwis call the English. We will say Poms or Pommies/Pommys. It's normally an endearment. There's all sorts of theories about what it actually means - Prisoner of Mother England. Port of Melbourne.

thomas tucker said...

I think ya'll should definitely go on a Penelope Green hunt and let us non-living-in-Italy readers know what clues you find, and whether or not you find her.

FinnyKnits said...

Sign me up for the book swappie - sounds like a great read. 'Specially since my similarly-minded friend did not think it was like the trashy *other* books about Italy. Particularly that one written Under a certain Sun. Gag. GAG.

Shell - see if Kelli will share her copy of Eat, Pray, Love with you. I sent it to her the moment I finished reading it because I *knew* she'd love it. I believe she did.

My Melange said...

Shelly,

I love you idea. Please put me on the list to read it!

Ciao!

Mitch said...

Hi There - Just throwing my two cents in:
Rose in Cali is right - there WERE two copies on Amazon (I just bought one of them!).
There are also several shown on Ebay.

Once I get it (and read it), I'd be happy to distribute it among the readers here!

M

Rose in Cali said...

Shelley: I have Eat Love Pray & would be happy to send it to you. ~Rose

Madelyne said...

i read this book about a year ago. I'm not an expat but I still really enjoyed it.

Madelyne said...

oh, and sorry I don't have a copy to give away cause I pass on all my books to friends & clients....enjoy reading it :)

sognatrice said...

Well this will teach me for not checking back on comments...I think the swap is a great idea, and if anyone wants to throw around Eat, Pray, Love too, I'd definitely be interested; I'll send you an email Shelley.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Hey Shelley!

I was so excited to see this come up! I actually have a group of sisters/girlfriends who do this, and it works out GREAT. The really cool thing is that some of the girls in the loop don't know each other but they are becoming familiar with everyone... finding cool friends through the chain.
We all send must reads back and forth and write brief notes etc. inside the covers... it's really cool to be one of the last people on the list that gets the book because then you get to read all the notes!
We've sent 'The bad girls guide to getting what you want' by Cameron Tuttle - OMG - so hilarious, and now she has a whole 'bad girl' series out. So great. I started that one when I sent copies out to all my friends for valentines one year.
Another highly recommended one is "The Sweet Potato Queens - Book of Love"... this is a MUST if you are female. Here's the website:

http://sweetpotatoqueens.com/

They have several books out now, and the woman who started it all goes on tour to speak and la la la... but definitely one to pass along. There are awesome recipes for desserts and margaritas in the Love book, as well as the all time best 'magic phrase' that when spoken to any man, will get you anything you want. And it's true. I tried it, and can I tell ya, I swear by it.

...but I digress. This is a great system, you save money and then everyone gets to talk with each other about the books they shared. Good stuff.

Can't wait to read reviews and opinions here!

Scarlett

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Here is the list of people who have requested to receive one of the two copies of "When in Rome" and have agreed to send it along to the next person on the list after they receive it.

If you wanted to be on the list but don't see your name here, please send me an email by Friday, May 18. Thanks!

Copy 1 going to:

1. Bleeding Espresso
2. Rose in Cali
3. Finny Knits
4. My Melange
5. Allora, Aspetta!

Copy 2 going to:

1. NYC/Caribbean Ragazza
2. Italy Logue
3. Karin
4. Jill

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Ok, folks, round one of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book is now officially closed, a bit earlier than Friday... as the list just kept growing and I was worried that some people wouldn't get the book before Christmas!

But, if you missed out this time, never fear. An even crazier idea is in the incubation stages. Stay tuned.

Caroline in Rome said...

Let me know. I would like to read the book, too.

Maria said...

I have read When in Rome and thoroughly enjoyed it and I have just finished her new book See Naples and Die which I thought was even better than the Rome book. I'm writing from Sydney Australia.