Summer is l-o-n-g in Florence. A vast expanse of intense heat and humidity that stretches as far as the mind's eye can see, dissolving into shimmering waves of mirage on the distant horizon that is September and the blessed start of school. My two adorable urchins are wearing my heat-stroked patience thin. Blogging--correction, everything--seems more like climbing Everest these dog days. I'm as limp as overcooked linguine.
But something has made me crawl to my computer, gasping, through air as thick as pappa col pomodoro. An American woman came into the bookshop peddling her freshly-minted, self-published oeuvre. When my boss asked her what the book was about, she said, "It's about re-inventing yourself in mid-life, in Tuscany."
STOP THE PRESSES!!! Another memoir about leaving behind a dead-end life (and a dead-beat husband) in America and discovering sweet amore and bitter chocolate in Italy has hit the shelves! Thank god, I was beginning to worry that this insidious trend was dying out, and that women were--gasp!--beginning to "re-invent" themselves in dull places like Omaha and Walla Walla and Indianapolis instead.
There is an annoying, cloying self-regard in these memoirs--a naive narcissism that presumes other desperate women are interested in, and indeed enthralled by, a journey from one form of self-absorption to another. A middle-aged, high-powered career woman who is always in control happens to experience one of life's tragic disappointments and sees it as a personal affront. Financially secure, she goes to Italy--the land of perpetual adolescence--and achieves validation through unencumbered sex with the kind of younger Italian man that is always available to eager, needy American women. It is almost a kind of anonymous coupling--each using the other to fulfill a fantasy: she of a hot, ever-ready Latin lover who--unlike most straight American men--is in good physical shape and wears Prada shoes; he of the reflection of himself in her eyes as a hot, ever-ready Latin lover who--even though he still lives with his mother--is capable of attracting an exotic American bird when Italian women regard him as merely mediocre.
She cannot speak a word of the language, and sits in a café with a slice of pizza and a glass of wine and declares, triumphantly and giddily, "I'm living in Italy!" (This is a scene from the above-mentioned book, by the way.) Tooling around all day on the back of a Vespa, over-tanned arms wrapped around the slim torso of her lover, and carefree love-making in every room of a country villa seems like bona fide la dolce vita to the kind of woman who easily mistakes an extended lay-cation for a spiritual awakening. The kind of woman who easily believes that the "Italy of wine labels" (as Anthony Bourdain puts it in Medium Raw) is the real Italy.
Now, add fabulous Italian food and wine to the sex-like-it-was-in-college mix, and you have a heady intoxicant indeed! American divorceés and widows seem especially unable to resist this combination. In their interminable memoirs, they call it "embracing life", "living in the moment," and "enjoying the small pleasures," etc. What is sad and rather perplexing--at least to me--is that they need the "exotic" backdrop of Italy in order to stage their personal transformations, rather like a diva needs a well-designed movie-set. But as with any such pasteboard reality, it seems pathetically one-dimensional.
Don't get me wrong, dear Readers--I'm all for embracing life. Heck, I'm all for embracing hot, young Italian men, if it comes down to it. And who wouldn't want to exchange a boring, paunchy, CEO ex-husband for a horny, fit, thirty-something Italian wine-maker? But sex and Sangiovese do not define a life in the Bel Paese, any more than a stock portfolio and a hamburger defines life in America.
Italians do have an innate skill for living life more fully, and doubtless we over-wrought American women can learn from them. But this talent for living has more to do with extracting the nuggets of joy from (and selectively ignoring) a whole-hog, maddening, messy, corrupt, artful and refined reality whose layers run dark, lovely and deep--and which merits far more than a well-manicured finger-scratch on its handsome surface.
In closing (lest I have appeared too curmudgeonly): to women everywhere who seek to find what's missing in their lives, I would say by all means, come to Italy. Eat! Love! But pray don't tell us about it.