French Lessons: Adventures With Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew
An Italian Affair
Pasquale's Nose: Idle Days in an Italian Town
In a cheeky bit of self-promotion on the jacket of his latest book, French Lessons, Peter Mayle reveals that his hobbies "include walking, reading, writing, and lunch." Given that Mayle has built a cottage industry out of escargot and duck confit, this boasting of a leisurely lifestyle feels self-conscious, if not self-indulgent.
It's no secret that Mayle lives well. In the mid-1980s, this British journalist wrote a tantalizing series of articles for GQ about the difficulties and the thrills of spending a lot of money: The magazine gave Mayle a corporate credit card and permission to snap up $1,300 loafers and $300 tailor-made shirts. His real agenda was massaging Americans' soft spot for gluttony. And his timing couldn't have been better. As our stock market soared and the national debt ballooned, Mayle reminded us how the Reagan-era tax cuts benefited the wealthy--but still allowed us to sample their lifestyles for a mere $2.50 at the newsstand. As a multimillion-dollar gourmand and consummate bon vivant, Mayle has spent more than a decade advertising a succinct mercantile mantra: It's okay to want foie gras, the table that seats 16, or calorie-rich ice cream. And it's all right--civilized, even--to cross the ocean to get it. This new guru of excess wants us to know that our lives can be better if we just pamper ourselves.
Following the success of Mayle's A Year in Provence, his memoir of refurbishing a country home in the south of France, publishers have hastened to meet the needs of readers yearning to escape their tedious lives. Bookshelves are clogged with such imitators as Daphne Phelps's A House in Sicily, Frances Keyes's Under the Tuscan Sun, and Derek Lambert's Spanish Lessons. Celebrated critics, journalists, and humorists like Adam Gopnik, Michael Lewis, and David Sedaris uproot their families to Paris, and report back in essays and journals on what they find there (namely, the French). The pages of mainstream glossies teem with "travel" features about the Amalfi Coast and the Riviera. Each month, a newly retired 35-year-old banker/writer/celebutante writes gushingly about his/her beautiful bungalow/villa/mansion overlooking Tuscany/Capri/Provence. Door frames are sanded down, stone fences erected, lawns manicured by native help. Miniature paradises appear above the fray of normal life. And if you need a shot of urbanity, here's where you can get a really good espresso nearby!
Mayle has ingeniously discovered that all Americans love the notion of the gentleman of leisure, especially if we can be brought along as cohorts. In this spirit of refined decadence, French Lessons offers a half-dozen tales about hunting down frogs'-legs festivals and the best chickens in the south of France. There are truffle blessings in cathedrals, and wine-sodden luncheons. The locals sniff at the self-effacing Englishman, who, to his credit, meanders through the countryside with a remarkable sense of humor. He looks on while Frenchies feast on oysters, freshly baked bread, and cheese, and even manages a nibble or two. Aside from a few references to carrying a notebook, Mayle is essentially on a permanent vacation.
But when it comes to the caliber of reporting, Mayle begins to let us down. As in many of Mayle's books, the locals become a kind of minstrel act. In one piece Mayle records the goings-on at an eating contest where the French uncharacteristically wolf down record amounts of food: "With a double mouthful, a last huge swig of cider, and a well-earned belch, the favorite finishes, raising both arms in a victory pursuit. He has eaten four pounds of cheese and drunk one and a half litres of cider in twelve minutes flat." With such anecdotes, Mayle draws distinctions between himself and the hoi polloi. Such gustatory showmanship borders on exertion, which is the last thing Mayle would want to be caught doing. Under the guise of appreciating good service, one dining passage subtly revels in the fact he doesn't have to labor to get by:
Now watch [the waiter] work. It seems effortless. There is no furtive wrestling with the wine bottle....Nothing is rushed, and yet all you need--cornichons to go with the pâté, or a good fierce mustard for the daube--is there on your table when it should be. The bread basket is refilled; the glasses are topped up. You don't have to ask for anything. Your man is telepathic: He knows what you need before you know it yourself.
In the arena of cultivated leisure, even a waiter's performance is a kind of entertainment. By including the readers as guests at the table, Mayle lavishes them with the voluptuous, yet still vicarious, delights of his carefree lifestyle.
Not surprisingly, this niche market of high-end international living has overtaken travel literature as a genre. Who wants to read about trekking through Afghanistan or the Sudan when there are truffles and afternoon naps to savor in France? Real journeys--ones that unsettle, unnerve, plot a deeper, more tectonic shift in our perceptions--are being supplanted by fantasies come true, stories about idle living that flatter our taste and pat us on the back for working so hard. Though the hardscrabble tales of Bruce Chatwin, Edward Hoagland, and Peter Matthiessen continue to enchant readers, their sales are dwarfed by the giants of today's travel writing, which luxuriates in the textures of E.M. Forster's world without venturing to the same depths.
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.
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.