Travel: A Romance for Dog Lovers


Destination: Collelungo, Umbria, Italy

Book: NEW Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love by Justine van der

Leun (June 2010)

GUEST POST by Edie Jarolim

First, an admission: I rarely read travel memoirs by living writers.   I consult travel guides for help with trip itineraries  (more disclosure: I’ve written several). And I like travelogues by the long dead for the light they shed on the way perceptions of travel change — and remain the same.

But to me, reading a contemporary travel narrative is like taking a long trip with someone and never being able to get a word — or a change of itinerary — in edgewise, someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with in real life. As I am rarely tempted to harangue made-up characters, I prefer fiction with a strong sense of place.

So why, you may wonder — aside from the skills of an excellent publicist — did I agree to review Marcus of Umbria, a memoir by Justine van der Leun, who is very much alive?

Because Marcus is a dog and I’m interested in all things canine. I’m a particular sucker for stories about dogs and the women who love them.

Van der Luen is a terrific writer. Her prose is well crafted, smart and witty. About her life in Collelungo, the tiny town to which she impetuously flees to live with an Italian lover because she is restless in New York, van der Luen says:

I was unable or unwilling to do what society dictates an Umbrian woman should do — including incessantly cleaning up after a man, killing chickens with my bare hands, and cooking lasagna and wild boar.

But the narrator is young and gutsy and sometimes snarky about people I would probably like, thus setting off the whole would-I-want-to-hang-out-with-her reaction (she doubtless wouldn’t want to hang out with me). I grew impatient waiting for the promise of the book’s subtitle  — “What an Italian Dog Taught An American Girl about Love” — and of the Marcus-heavy first chapter to be fulfilled.

It’s not until about halfway through the book that Marcus begins to inhabit it in all her — yes, she’s female — neurotic, patrician glory.

And then I was happy to keep both Marcus and Justine company, to learn about the cultural differences between how dogs are regarded in small town Italy and in the U.S.:

Dogs, in [the townspeople’s] opinions, were to be chained up or caged. They were creatures, like sheep and cows, that served a purpose for human beings: Hunting partner, guard, truffle finder… .They were beasts.

The horses who share page space with Marcus fare no better in Collelungo than dogs do. Although the narrator excoriates herself for what happens to one of the two horses that she and her lover adopt, that doesn’t make reading about Calamity Jane’s fate any less disturbing.

No question: Rural Umbria is no place for domesticated animals and undomesticated women.

In the end — and, if you look at the photo on the flap of the  jacket cover, you know I’m not giving anything away — Justine can’t be parted from Marcus, which is redemptive, both for her and for me as a reader. If ever a subgenre of travel literature by women with dogs emerges, Marcus of Umbria would rank as an almost classic example. All it needed was less guy, more canine.


I am so delighted that my friend Edie finally found a dog-travel-book to write about for A Traveler’s Library. Thanks Edie! But tell, me Edie–did the book make Frankie want to hide even further under the chair than usual? I’m sure it did not inspire him to travel! At least not to Umbria. You would think that the home region of St. Francis might have developed some sensitivity to animals. But I hasten to add they are very nice to people!

Travel Tips

The book cover photo is from the publisher’s site, and the scenery of Umbria was taken by Vera Marie Badertscher, all rights reserved.

Readers: I have noticed that dogs and cats are treated very differently in different countries.  Do you have any observations from your travels that you would like to share with Edie and Frankie?

And please  spread the word that we are giving away a lot of Italian goodies at the end of this month to some lucky commenters.

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About Edie Jarolim

Edie Jarolim, who has written extensively about travel, food, and pets, has reviewed books about pets and travel for A Traveler's Library. She is working on a memoir of her life as a travel writer called Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. Read more about it at her blog

16 thoughts on “Travel: A Romance for Dog Lovers

  1. Nice review, Edie, but I can’t read the book because of what you hint happened to the horses. And I never, ever want to go to Umbria, not that it was high on my list to begin with.

  2. A travel book that combines Italy and dogs, two of my favorite subjects; must read! Thanks for letting us know about this book!

  3. Edie,you and Frankie would love it here in WA! Dogs are an integral part of the community, and they know it. It’s just assumed and accepted that dogs go with their people. I don’t have a dog at the moment, but I checked out Bremerton UMC because their website said dogs are welcome in church – a good sign, I thought, and now I’m there to stay.

    At the Blackberry Festival everyone cheerfully ignored signs barring dogs from the crowded Boardwalk. Dogs were well-behaved and enjoyed the usual petting and admiration. I’ve never seen such a dog-friendly place!

    1. I’m so happy you wound up in a pet friendly city — and one that observes St. Francis’s dictates. Dogs almost always acquit themselves admirably; it’s the people you have to worry about.

  4. I noticed that pet supplies are way more limited in Europe than in the United States. In the Netherlands, the shops are very small and carry only a small amount of products, especially for smaller more exotic pets like ferrets and degus. The no-grain pet food has not caught on there and that may because of price. Just a observation.

    1. Very interesting. Europe has such a reputation for being pet friendly but it sounds like the U.S. is far more progressive in many respects.

  5. On my dessert island, which is of course near Italy, all residents and visitors would absolutely appreciate dogs (and even cats who think they are dogs).

    1. That’s the wonderful thing about desert islands — though I do worry about whether the food supplies (or I should say the supplies of people willing to cook the food) will be plentiful!

  6. Thank you for having me! It’s true, Frankie is not a happy traveler, and I certainly would never let him know about Umbria. I have told him about Paris, however, so be careful…you never know when my “assistant” (really my muse) and I will turn up at your doorstep.

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