An Italian Education

The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona

by Tim Parks, 1995

Delightful foray into the day-to-day life of an expatriate in Verona, Italy. This book was recommended by The Economist, in an article books about Italy. At the start of the book, he and his Italian wife, Rita, have a little boy, Michele, and by the end of the book, he is expecting his 3rd child, whom he hopes to name Lucia, if his wife, Rita, approves. He describes life in Italy so well. You are there! The coddling parents, especially “Mamma’s” to their sons. The fathers who are somehow always absent, going off to fish, to mountain bike, to garden, or to do this or that, but it’s okay. The religiosity in the background and the landscape – everywhere the Madonna or a saint this or that. The heat in the summer, the color blue of the sky and the sea. His in-laws live in Pescara and they go there every summer for a few weeks. Much of the book describes the daily life of that town by the sea. It’s lovely, hot, sultry, relaxing. They rent their own sun shade for the season – that’s the way of Italy in the summer. The children (Michele and little sister, Stefi) are lively and happy. They have no inhibitions. They play, they laugh, they ask for what they want, they delight, they cry, they whine, but not very much.

I learned why the Italian team on Davis Cup wears blue. All of Italy’s sports teams wear blue. They are called Azzurro. The way he presents it, it’s like the color blue is everywhere in Italy – the blue of the sky, the sea, etc.

Really good book! I have only one heartache from it – he is an atheist and he raised his children to be atheists. Michele, the little boy, doesn’t believe Jesus is God. Stefi, the precious little sister, does at the time this book is written, but I fear that belief will be intellectualized out of her. The way priests have portrayed Christianity for centuries has made it so unappealing to Europeans.

Here are a few quotes:

“Very soon Zia Natalina was a fixture in our lives, a figure of monumental maternity to both children, somewhere between mother and grandmother, overwhelmingly wholesome without being bigoted. Of all the Italians I know, she is perhaps the only one, who, while pursuing the time-honored Italian tradition of spoiling children rotten, manages nevertheless to get them to do as she wishes. It is a skill there is no question of acquiring, but has to do with such imponderables as presence and good will and complete freedom from neurosis or pretension, a total at-homeness with oneself. It has to do with being Zia.” (Oh, to be such a person! I aspire to be such a person!)

When there is a walk and picnic scheduled for Michele’s class, the sky that morning is not a perfect blue, there are a few clouds, and it rained in the night so there is humidity on the ground. The Italians parents are reluctant to go:

“Just as the Italian household must be perfectly clean before one can relax in it, so the sky must be scrubbed an immaculate blue, every smudge of cloud polished away, before one can feel safe, before one can feel that the universe is behaving as it should, that things are fair, that the celestial graduatoria hasn’t been fixed.”

He ends the book with the children begging to get up on the shortest night of the year, June 24th, while they are on holiday in Pescara, the seaside town, to see the sun rise. They walk down to the beach with Nonna and Nonno (grandparents). What a beautiful description:

“The sky suddenly brightens and lifts itself from the sea. Lines sharpen. Not least the horizon. Colors are found. The prosaic floods in like a tide. Already I want to slow it down: sand beige, sunshades green-and-yellow, the red skiff pulled up on the shore…”

“The children are agog at the size of it. It’s huge. And the color. Not unlike that of my eyes right now. “Il sole,” Stefi breathes, “red as a pepper!” She gazes. She likes to be mesmerized, likes a moment to be what it should be, as if her determined awe could create a magic in the sun, the way candles in churches make a god and theatrical embraces a mother-in-law…”

“Following the example of other spectators, the children rush into the water. For a few moments they bathe in a dazzle of red as the sun rolls a regal carpet across the water. Their bodies shine in the horizontal rays. They have that wonderful enamel you can only mix with young skin and water and bright light. Then already the sun’s too bright to look at, and hence in a curious way not there anymore, dissolved in an everyday glare that kindles traffic noises along the seafront road and finds an overnight litter of cans and wrappers that the bagnino will have to clear…”

“Maybe Lucia will be born when we get home,” Michele says. And Stefi immediately replies, “I can’t wait to kiss her.”

“Madness,” Nonno says, thinking of the mouths that have to be fed, the bodies clothed, the coddling and spoiling and pampering, and then again the debts paid, the apartments bought, the inquiries about the will.

“No better place to grow up than Italy,” I tease him.

“Spooning foam into his mouth like a big baby, the crumbs of a second brioche on his lips, my father-in-law is quick to correct me: “No better place,” he says, “Not to grow up!” [That is the end.]