Eric Newby’s travel writing does not show off. As hinted by the title of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, about a treacherous hike over mountains in northern Afghanistan, he mastered understatement So what makes his travel writing so unforgettable, so essential, really, if you are enamored of travel literature? He conveys you to the place he is writing about by telling you the basic facts about the land and buildings. He draws unforgettable characters, speaking in their own quirky ways. And he makes his experiences your experiences.
When I read the last sentence of Lonely Planet’s A Small Place in Italy, tears filled my eyes. And I realized that I was not feeling sad for Eric Newby and his wife Wanda as they left their Italian farmhouse for the last time, so much as I was sad for the much-loved houses that I have left behind, and all the endearing people who are no longer part of my life. He makes the particular universal.
Time after time I have read memoirs about English or American people who moved to another country and built or remodeled a house. They met odd neighbors, overcame cultural and language differences, and settled in to a life that stay-at-homes envy. However, these books, almost every one of them, merely irritated me. I became bored with the detail lavished on their decorating plans. I disliked their sense of superiority over the peasants who lived around them and the way they pick and choose which cultural differences are “acceptable” and which are laughably primitive.
There is none of that in A Small Place in Italy. Newby truly loves the country folk around him and admires their good traits. One unfortunate exception arises toward the end of the book, but it would be a spoiler if I talked about it here. And even with that person, Newby does not make the mistake of categorizing that person as typical of the Italian countryside. Instead, he recognizes that there are universal traits, both good and bad, that inflict us all.
Newby returns to the area bordering Tuscany and Liguria where he was a World War II prisoner of war. He escaped into the nearby mountains, and his wife Wanda helped him when he escaped. After the war, when they buy a tumble-down farmhouse in the same area, they take it for granted that they will work alongside the Italians and they plant their own vineyards and respect the religion and history of the community. In exchange, they are accorded the honor of being invited to work the vendemmia–the grape harvest–alongside neighbors. This exhausting work gives Newby the opportunity to poke fun at himself as weak and ineffective.
Through his little stories of every day life, we see not only the way that rural Italians lived in the early 20th century, but we observe along with Newby as the old way of life disappears after WWII. Men stop wearing suits when they work in the field, young girls wear bikinis in public, tractors replace hand labor, grocery stores replace the family cow, and houses replace agricultural fields.
Newby relates these changes without overt sentimentality or nostalgia. If I shed a tear for things irrevocably gone, like the matchless presentation of a travel writer like Newby (who died in 2006)–that is my own doing.
The pictures in this post are my own, and I appreciate your respecting my copyright. They are from Le Marche, a region to the east and somewhat south of where Newby lived. Links to Amazon are here for your convenience, however you should know that any time you order something (anything at all) from Amazon by using one of my links, A Traveler’s Library makes a few pennies, and we need all the help we can get. So thanks!
Have you ever been tempted to buy property in a foreign country? Where? Why do it, or why not?