Let Them Read Cake

A new brand of travel writer savors foie gras, catnaps, and voluptuous idle living for the rest of us

Granted, the idea of looking upon a whole continent as a movable feast is hardly novel. Yet well before Hemingway took to scripting paeans to his café creativity, he wrote about the sensual life in Europe representing a kind of respite from solitude and loss. When the battle-scarred Count advises Jake Barnes on the value of a good wine in The Sun Also Rises, he isn't particularly concerned about the specific vintage so much as a philosophy of embracing small pleasures in the face of purposelessness and dread.

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that one of the chief problems with Barnes and his unhappy crew was that they had too much time on their hands. Yet it is just this idleness that stands as the ultimate fantasy of the new expatriates. The central promise of these texts is that you, too, can slough off the working life like a snakeskin and seize the dream of being landed gentry. In their latest collaboration, In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, novelist David Leavitt (Equal Affections)and anthologist Mark Mitchell do exactly that. They patter on about the dilemmas of finding and decorating a 1950s farmhouse in Tuscany. Their manifesto: "In Italy, we wanted to learn to edit our possessions more stringently: to own a few things, but lovely things. What need had we of closets?"

After a few misadventures in real estate--and having already considered nearly a hundred properties in California--they purchase a farmhouse and set about fixing it up. They hire ironworkers, tile layers, and even a 70-year-old lawn man to handle the renovations, while they settle into their studies to write. Yet, in spite of all the hired labor, nothing goes as planned. By expanding their fireplace too much, Leavitt and Mitchell accidentally fill their house with smoke. There isn't enough water for a lush English garden, so they opt for a cactus and rose one instead. It takes them several attempts to get driver's licenses. Sometimes they wait as long as 45 minutes at the village butcher shop for a slice of meat while doddering women dither over minuscule cuts of meat. For Mitchell and Leavitt, these are not just comic inconveniences, but blows to their cherished dream. Their tone grows shrill as they explain how they changed butchers, flew in a Danish wood-burning stove (to replace the fireplace), and leased a post-office box in a nearby town in order to avoid the unreliable mail service.

In spite of their grievances, Leavitt and Mitchell reconcile themselves to these practical obstacles, cobbling together the following bromide about travel: "When you live abroad, the ordinary and the mysterious trade places. What from a distance seemed exotic, the very things in pursuit of which you left in the first place, lose their charm, while the alchemy of time and distance reveals in commonplace things--the things you took for granted--a surprising loveliness." What's missing from their tome, however, is any sense of what they left behind in the U.S, or what they intend to do in their adopted country. (Except write more books about it: Like Mayle, Leavitt and Mitchell have too much to say about their cultural adjustment to fit into just one volume. This latest is a sequel of sorts to another living-in-Italy collection, Italian Pleasures, from five years ago.) With this book, Leavitt and Mitchell are seemingly writing over their past: Each word, each new bit of drapery hung puts distance between them and the everyday world.


In comparison to Leavitt and Mitchell and their fatuous sense of entitlement, Laura Fraser embarks on her travels for pressing emotional reasons. When her husband leaves her for his high school sweetheart, Fraser bolts for an extended sojourn in Italy, where she falls in love with M., an older aesthetics professor from Paris. They rendezvous again in Milan, San Francisco, Paris, and Marrakesh, but the real story--told in an engaging second-person singular voice--is the recovery of Laura's emotional life, a drama that requires an evocative backdrop and bloated credit-card bills to support it.

Unlike Leavitt and Mitchell, who couch their pursuit of pleasure in guidebooklike summaries of local history, Fraser candidly admits that travel is a means of escape. Even when her suave lover visits her in the Bay Area, Fraser feels the urge to flee to prettier horizons: "You drive with the top down to the outskirts of San Francisco....You point out Silicon Valley in the distance, which he wants to visit. You explain that for all the fuss about Silicon Valley, there is absolutely nothing there worth seeing, no concern for the aesthetics of the real world. It's all office parks, strip malls and highway exits." When her affair evaporates, Fraser has already absorbed this lesson: Love, like other exotic destinations, is rarely what we imagine it to be.

As seductively entertaining as these books may be (try not rushing out for pâté after reading Mayle's book, for example), they miss an opportunity to say more about the regions they inhabit--something Gopnik, to his credit, achieved in his dispatch from France, From Paris to the Moon.

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