Book: At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life, by Jennifer Criswell (Paperback 2012)
In a refreshing change for the live-in-Tuscany book, At Least You’re in Tuscany leads the reader through all the excruciatingly disappointments along with the joys of the landscape and the wine.
I sympathized with Criswell as I read the book, although I would occasionally find myself saying, as she did–“at least you’re in Tuscany.” And, really, how sympathetic can I be with someone who is living the dream of pulling up stakes and moving from the United States to the hill town of Montepulciano?
Actually, quite sympathetic. I just wanted to sit down with her and share some of her Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and a plate of pecorino cheese while she shared all her tribulations. And why am I so much more sympathetic to Criswell than to other authors of ex-pat books? Because she did not go to Tuscany with endless resources or a fat book contract, for one thing. She went there to really live in Tuscany. And because she has such a delightful writing style, reading At Least You’re in Tuscany definitely feels like sharing gossip with your BFF.
When you’re dreaming of moving to Tuscany
- you think of Italian fashion
- balmy summer days with poppy fields stretching over the hills
- chatting with outgoing neighbors who will teach you to cook old family recipes (“This was Italia,” she says, “where every woman seemed to spring forth from the womb with a ladle in one hand and innate sense of the tradition of cooking in the other.”)
- dining on all those Italian dishes
- meeting a charming man who sweeps you off your feet.
What you DON’T imagine will happen when you live in Tuscany
- the problem of fishing in laundry that has frozen on the line stretched out your window
- freezing inside a charming old stone building that is nicely cool in the summer but icy in the winter
- subsisting on tuna fish when your money runs out; not being able to get a job “under the table” because the economy has gone south
- waiting interminably for a work permit because of a combination of Italian and American bureaucracy.
- When you’re dreamy of those charming men, you don’t think about the old men who make inappropriate remarks and grabs and you certainly don’t count on falling for a very married man.
- Those are just some of the misfortunes that befall Criswell in her first year in Italy. Not to mention struggling to learn Italian at the local language school, and to adjust to the reserved personality of the Tuscans who are slow to warm to a stranger.
Needless to say, Criswell survived to share her adventures. No doubt a great deal of that is due to her faithful companion, the Weimaraner, Cinder. Sadly, Cinder recently died. You can read Criswell’s very touching eulogy to her Weimaraner here.) Because she has her own canine companion whose life we learn about along with Criswell’s, she notices other animals as well.
Italians have a strange relationship with animals. On the surface they seem to adore them. They rush over to shower dogs with attention, they alow them in shops and cafes, they welcome them on trains, but then in summer many go on vacation and abandon their pets on the side of the road. And I don’t mean fifty or even a hundred. I mean over 300,000 cats and dogs each year. I don’t get it. I can’t even imagine booking my summer vacation to the beach and then just dropping Cinder off on the side of the highway. ‘If you start walking now, and you don’t get killed by a car, we should both get back to the house around the same time. Buona fortuna.’
Colorful characters abound in the small town, and Criswell captues them well. A next door neighbor:
Alrigo was tall and thin with weathered skin like a deeply tanned rhinoceros and spoke of a lifetime of laboring outside. Eight if he was a day, he wore the same uniform without fail: green camouflage pants, green sweater, and black Nike sneakers that seemed a size too big. Sometimes he added an old khaki-colored cap for variety.
Another thing I liked about the book is that it gives you a bit of a language lesson now and then. She explains how she makes purchases at each of the stores in order to have an excuse to try to speak a little. However, most of the people assumed to begin with that she was a rich American. When she mentions she is a writer, they talk about Under the Tuscan Sun, a book which she discovers the Italians did not like.
They felt she’d unfairly stereotyped the Tuscan people in the book. And they really disliked the movie. A lot of the Cortona scenes had been shot in Montepulciano and they took umbrage at how Italians were portrayed as archetypes and not as true people.
So anyone who is a traveler who reads should definitely add At Least You’re in Tuscany to their bookshelf. Perhaps it will serve as a lure to live in Tuscany. Perhaps it will serve as a warning to be careful what you wish for. But either way, you’ll be entertained.
The publishers provided me with an electronic version of the book for review. I am under no obligation to say other than what I think. The links to Amazon here are affiliate links. You can shop easily without it costing any more, and support A Traveler’s Library at the same time. Magic!
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