Let Them Read Cake

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

Michael Rips avoids this mistake in Pasquale's Nose, delving deep into Italian soil to strike at the roots of cultural difference. At first glance, Pasquale's Nose has all the trappings of a where-do-I-get-my-damn-peanut-butter read. A former appellate attorney in Manhattan, Rips moves to Sutri, a tiny village outside of Rome, to do...well, nothing. While his wife paints, he sips cappuccinos at local cafés, where he meets a cast of quirky locals: the blind postman, a hermaphrodite named Frank, a bean grower whose crop is so potent, he claims, that "when you eat my beans, you have to sleep with your ass out the window." Within his first week there, Rips is relieved from gastrointestinal agony when a friendly old man bends him over a Fiat and airs him out like a whoopee cushion.

Rather than filter his experiences through irony, Rips layers his present-day escapades with riffs on Sutri's past. He tells of how the village's palazzo was made from wine-based cement, and how the pope once came to Sutri to challenge a renegade cardinal. Like an artist thickening his canvas, Rips applies one scene on top of another and mostly leaves himself out of the picture. In contrast to Leavitt and Mitchell's closing pages, in which they triumphantly exclaim, "After seven years...we have become Italian," Ripps understands what good travelers know in their bones: That boundaries must be respected. "The Sutrini," he writes, "believe that their town is timeless, that their postman is an oracle....It is no different from tribes whose members believe...that the air is clogged with the spirits of dead ancestors." It is this kind of humble observation that is missing from our current crop of "good life" travel writing.

Sometimes while reading these foreign fantasies, one wonders why this lifestyle couldn't just be imported to a handsome spread in the Hamptons. Fine wine and cheese, after all, are available for import these days; Amazon.com stocks Jacques Brel discs; and the Home Depot carries a fine line of Italian marble. Yet to sit around a house stateside doing nothing but gorging oneself on expensive living would be considered sloth in some quarters--and certainly would make a hard sell to a publisher. No, the voluptuous life is best led as an exotic one.

While the cozy villas and picturesque gardens depicted in these books are a few rungs down from Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous they underscore a common theme: Nothing is as luxurious as throwing it all away, at least for a season. A house and a garden are not idyllic havens if there's a mobile phone ringing, a deal that needs to be closed, and children clamoring for a ride to the local swimming pool.

Our contemporary travel literature has revised the romance of the Tuscan and Provençal living experience, but with the twist that no one, anywhere, goes to work. While he may have a few more zeroes on his annual income than you or I, Peter Mayle still must maintain his status. Leavitt and Mitchell must sell their product in order to pay for the their $1,600-a-meter drapes. Hence a crucial irony: These books must sell to ensure that writers like Mayle, Leavitt, and Mitchell will continue to taste fine caviar and sip tannic merlots for the rest of us. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it.

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