Monday, February 16, 2015

Ivanka DiFelice's "A Zany Slice of Italy": Book Review

Forced out of her stockbroker's job during the recession, Ivanka DiFelice and her first-generation Canadian husband, David, decide to visit his family's homeland. Their stay, and their eventual decision to resettle there, comprise the series of episodic chapters that make up "A Zany Slice of Italy." I read this, curious about the country as perceived not by visitors but by those who had dealt with relocating there, a more rarely told tale.

This, then, offers a different view than such studies as John Hooper's "The Italians" (also reviewed by me). But it shares its treatment of issues like endemic nepotism, male privilege, female vanity, bureaucratic corruption, the culture of both genuine warmth and instinctive distrust that continue to distinguish Italy. David's relatives, as t.v. broadcasts stories of "violence, racism, unemployment, drugs, and scandals," proclaim "what vastly better lives David and I would have if we stayed in Italy" as "they shake their heads in disgust and yell various saints' names at each news clip." This shows Ivanka's knack for observation. You may not get much detail on actual political situations or facts, but you get a sense of life lived in the villas, beyond the tourist sights--which are barely noticed here.

For instance, the couple's week in Rome is summed up in one sentence, as they are "in total agreement with our guidebook," boasting of the city's fascinations. So, readers anticipating a travelogue will be disappointed. Instead, lots of accounts of their run-ins with the in-laws dominate.

"We soon have to agree with the Minister of Tourism, who declared that 'Italy is like a man driving a Ferrari at sixty kilometers (thirty-seven miles) an hour." But, vowing to remain there and outlasting extended attempts to buy a car, rent a place, buy a place, and negotiate the paperwork for residency, the couple finds brief work as minding children of summer holidaymakers in their adopted Tuscany.

It's not the ex-pat idyll. One may long for more of the sense of Italy's natural beauties (despite the junk heaps nearby) that Ivanka relates late in the narrative. Parts do lag, as like many anecdotes, the telling may regale those in the know more than outsiders to her family, but she sustains a cheerful, self-deprecating tone and she keeps the chapters short to vary the pace. But the food often sounds wonderful, and recipes are added. I liked the telling conversation when David and Ivanka, trying to get out of yet another meal with one of his many uncles and aunts, beg busyness as an excuse. All the more reason to dine out with the relatives, he is assured firmly, as the couple will save time cooking...

It's a pleasant introduction to daily life as seen from a North American perspective, as the couple dares to drive faster, to hang out with the clever and conniving locals, and to offer them a change from mutually held stereotypes. Gradually, the "stranieri giusti" (the right type of foreigners) characterizes the couple, who survive. This will entertain an audience seeking to experience Italy.
(P.S. I was asked to review this in exchange for a copy of this e-book; Amazon US 2-14-15)

Ivanka DiFelice sent me this in reply to my informing her about John Hooper's Q+A in the NYT. "Had I been interviewed (I need to get famous enough!) here is what I would have written:" 

You mention Puglia in your book as a recently popular destination for tourists. What’s an area nearby that people don’t know about yet?

There are lots of lovely places throughout Italy, some with far less tourists than others. However, the most famous sites have all been discovered. Admittedly, Florence, Sienna and Rome are full of tourists but that is because they are beautiful and there is a lot to be seen that cannot be found in North America. The heavily forested Casentino area of Tuscany is lovely with few tourists but while the area is pretty I would not recommend a North American travel thousands of miles to see something he could have driven a hundred miles to see back home. So figure out what you would like to see and don't worry if there are tourists in the area - that is part of the experience and will give you something to come home and grumble about.

Pasta is such a go-to food choice for foreigners. Should it be?

If you like pasta then yes! Pasta is even better in Italy and is served in a variety of sauces which we do not find in North America (wild boar sauce, truffle and porcini) so you can still eat pasta and discover something new. It is also relatively cheap and almost always good. As a side note I have several friends that cannot eat the pasta in Canada yet are able to digest the pasta in Italy. Search the menu to see if you can try something new; even if that means pasta with a sauce you have never tried before.

Italians love to talk about food, right?

Yes, they are absolutely passionate about it - avoid any talk with farmers about their garden - unless of course you have a deep interest in prized tomatoes and several hours to spare. Italians view a "drive through" as a punishment that should be reserved for only the most hardened criminals. 

What are faux pas to avoid with how you dress?

Fashions change so you need to keep up - at the moment I would describe the latest look for men as Homeless meets Zegna (from the head up a man appears to be destitute or homeless; with terribly unruly hair and a long scruffy beard.) From the head down his financial status appears to change as he dons a prohibitively expensive and well fitted suit (except it appears the pants are too short) by Zegna. If you do this look remember to leave plenty of hem on your pants as in no time the fashion will change

For women, as long as you are wearing something remotely immodest you should fit in just fine.

The key difference between Italian and North American dressing is comfort - if you are comfortable go back and adjust something if you really want to appear Italian.

What would be your first response if someone said: “I’m going to Italy next week. What should I do?”

Figure out your interests and what you want to see - then plan accordingly. There is something for everyone in this wonderful land! And don't worry about where tourists are and where they aren't - go see what you want to see and if you don't like crowds try to go "off season!"

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