Welcome to shortest, darkest day of the year. Grab a couple books, it’s going to be a long, sunlight-impaired season. Why don’t we pretend we are in Sunny Italy for a few hours?


Welcome to shortest, darkest day of the year. Grab a couple books, it’s going to be a long, sunlight-impaired season. Why don’t we pretend we are in Sunny Italy for a few hours?

LITERARY ALERT– Do I hear an Ecco in here? Well, no. Neither of these books are up to Umberto’s level or Dante’s or Calvino’s. These two new books aren’t even by Italians. But they are about Italy and Italian life as seen through two foreigners’ requisite rose-colored glasses. If, for the sake of comparison, you say Umberto Ecco is a nine course meal with fine wine and, stand back! flaming deserts, well these two tiny morsels are snackish-like things that drop out of vending machines in brightly colored foil bags. But, in the putting-money-where-mouth-is department, I have to say I’ve liked both of these books enough to walk up to the check-out counter with them. And to read them. And to gift them to friends. Sure, gift is a verb. Why not?


That seems like a good title for one book. But it is two. And both are perfect for sampling by the open fire. So, feet up on the couch, pillow punched into shape. Open at page one.

playing for pizza john grishamPlaying for Pizza first. It’s light but tasteful. Light, even by recent John Grisham standards. I rather think he’s newly discovered Italy’s fulsome charms, like so many people out there in the world. But unlike the rest of us, he’s figured out how to get his publishers to bend to his request for research time on their dime. In Italy. Sometimes his Italian connection is a stretch. The last book I read of his, The Broker, started in the U.S. President’s office and ended in the middle of Bologna. As if there wasn’t plenty of that in Washington. Fine, fine, whatever it takes. As long as the plot ends up with some trite, fairly obvious Italian words in italics sprinkled here and there, we’re good. In our house we have shelves and shelves of books of, by, or for Italians. And (gasp!) some even in Italian. Ok, those are mostly Dylan Dog comics. We had a whole small room set aside for Italian themed books in our previous house. Maybe that was extreme. Fear not, we haven’t thrown any Italian books in the dumpster, but just have all our Italian books in the same room with books on all subjects in one bigger room with more shelves. Still segregated, of course.

But enough about me and my book stacking habits. In Playing for Pizza, Grisham has an interesting premise: minor NFL player backs into the lineup of a huge game and being an idiot, blows his big chance, the game, and his career just like that: one, two, three. And he is consequently now so roundly hated all across America that he goes to one of the few places where they actually don’t care: Italy. In fact, in some quarters of Italy where they haven’t gotten the memo yet, he remains a bit of a big shot. But still, being Italy, where our football is teenie tiny minor eccentric leaning sport, our hero basically has a metaphoric sign around his neck reading “WILL WORK FOR FOOD”. Which, at this point in his life/career, he’s grudgingly willing to do. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, and you don’t have to be either to see how this will pan out. Othello it’s not; nobody dies. But it was a pleasant passa tempo even so.

And yes. They DO have “real” football in Italy in addition to that popular imposter they call football, but which any right-thinking person can tell you is soccer. Be that as it may, Italians call our football “fooootball Americana” to differentiate it from their football/soccer/calcio thing. And why on earth would I actually know this semi-useless fact?

Padova saint he ain't Stew Vreeland in Padova Saints american footbal club jacketThat would be Alexia’s fault. She was our foreign exchange student and her family owned the Padova Saints. I still have a Saints jacket as you can see. Oh, you wish you had that. And oh, the things I learned from Riccardo, Alexia’s wild card of a dad. The main thing we had in common was that he and I both hated any boy she brought home on either side of the Atlantic. “You let her go out with HIM?” he said just a bit too loudly (but at least it was in Italian) while pointing to the insolent, bad intentioned rogue slinking through the door under the porch where we were standing. “She’s YOUR daughter” I yelled back. “YOU should have raised her to know better.” Ecco il pappa. Times two. Of course Riccardo knew full well what bad American boys were up to. Because he “owned” a bunch of them and hung out with them as much as he could. Bon vivant barely covered this mischievous, wise cracking ad guy. As soon as we got to Padova he introduced us to his friend Prosecco. By the pitcherfull. I think that bottles, what, inhibited, Riccardo? He poured us Prosecco in dives high and low as we followed him around Padovatown. Hanging on his every fast-moving word. And he had lots of them. He could, and did, tell stories ninety miles an hour in all known European languages, blisteringly funny; subtle and not so subtle jokes and story lines spilled out across Prosecco- and pizza-covered tables. Occasionally there would be a gap in the blanket of Marlborough brand smog surrounding Riccardo. That is when you would see more cat-that-ate-the-canary eye twinkle than is surely legally allowed.

This was the “capo” of the football Americana team we knew. The Head Saint as it were. A character much larger than life, so any you meet in this book, just assume Grisham met some real ones and toned them down.


Can I pass you Living in a Foreign Language while I’m up? Still comfy? Slippers? Anything we can get you at all? Quick trivia question before cracking the cover. What show was just like, but predated Ally McBeal? Don’t give me that look. Don’t tell me you only watch PBS. Here’s my theory: if there is a TV plugged in somewhere in your home you probably (just a guess) have at least occasionally watched the same shallow stuff we do. And you probably have secret favorites like all the other Neilson Families out there. LA LAW was one of ours. Michael Tucker, remember him? Played a short, soulful, over-sensitive lawyer in the show. In fairness, he probably didn’t actually play short, he probably just is short. Like his book.

living in a foreign language michael tucker life in umbria by hollywood tv starIt is the typical, misty-eyed, Isn’t Italy Amazing genre. He’s clearly happy, happy, happy with his new lifestyle there. The food is fresher, the sky bluer, people friendlier, the sun sunnier, you know how it is. The usual. We liked book. My wife bought it in an airport and elbowed me awake to say “We KNOW all these people in the book”. Awake now. And it was a gas to us. We do know, at least by long term email relationship, the people who sold the author his dream house. And we are pretty sure we know the people who drove him to it. They used to own a wild B&B we visited a few times with friends of friends. Their place was so over-the-top Michael bailed out after one night even though he had paid for several nights in advance. Could totally relate. He left Tuscany with his shirt tail flapping after him and headed out across Umbria to find a place to stay. Any place just a little more Italian and a little less kitsch. And in true novel tradition, he immediately stumbled over the traditional diamond in the rough, way off the beaten path that had never been on the market and was available to him that day. And it came with a full set of built-in friends for life.

I thought he had a nice, breezy, open, accepting, non-judgmental way of jumping into la dolce vita with both feet. Seems very in touch with himself, doesn’t do the “star” thing where the author puts himself in the center of the universe. And hey, he’s an actor. And an actor from LA. Even so, he still really seemed like the kind of guy you could party with. I know! He hasn’t called you either? What is up with that? I’m American, he’s American, we’ve both been to Italy more than the one time. Why aren’t we being handed the plates piled high with local indigenous treats baked to perfection in his massive wood burning oven? Think he’s lost our number? That’s it.

I’d say it again, this book is a light and tasty treat. You sense the people, you smell the food. Every few pages I feel, just for a moment, sigh, that I’m there. Sitting at a plank table under Christmas lights strung through low-hanging grape vines. Glasses clinking. People laughing, telling stories. And here’s the Stew Personal Opinion: at the end of the day, on the slowest page of this book it’s metric tons more fun than Under the Tuscan Sun ever was. That’s right. I admit that I watch junk TV and that Under the Tuscan Sun is pretentious twaddle. Michael talks constantly about food. But does he slap in an impossible bet-you-can’t-do-this-where-YOU-are, you-poor-saps recipe every few pages? Thank heavens, NO.

Why in the name of everything that is good and sane and logical would I want a recipe? In a book. In a book I’m reading. Am I standing in the kitchen wearing a gingham apron with frilly trim? No. I’m on the couch, in my favorite purple NU Wildcats sweatshirt, shoes off. I’m r-e-a-d-i-n-g. Is this a book, or a cookbook already? Decide. Get back to me.

Oh. Did I go off on a tiny momentary baby-rant there? Sorry. We’re back from the dark place now. I liked Michael Tucker’s book. He’s surprised that he finds himself in Italy. He’s not strutting and posing, or worse, condescendingly gloating about his exquisite and well-deserved good fortune. He seems like a kid in a candy shop, honestly tickled to pieces to be there, basking in the moment. It’s infectious and fun. And he knows he’s living the dream. Thanks for sharing, Mike.

There you have it. Two book reviews for the price of one. Unlike real reviewers who get free pre-release books backed up to their office door by the semi-trailer-load, I’ve bought both these books, I’ve given them to friends, and I may buy them again for other friends. And I still want a copy on our bookshelves. I’m just not putting them up on the same shelf with Lampedusa’s Gattopardo.

Learning the language of Dante in the land of Ben & Jerry

Some of my favorite memories are Jenn and I, together, being able to hold a single conversation with some unsuspecting Italian.

culture vultures decend on Perugia, umbriaCiao, Ciao, Amici,

As the Wiley Traveler I have had the good fortune to collect a bunch of Wiley Friends over the years, from Maine to Switzerland to Italy and London. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Jenn Corey, is also one of the best travel buddies I have yet to find. From drives-across-America, to giggle-fits on the Cutty Sark in London, to Panicale on its Umbrian hilltop, Life is always an adventure with Jenn.

I remember returning to Panicale after a long weekend in Florence with Jenn and it felt like: A) three days had been turned into three jammed packed weeks and that: B) That the Rapido I had just gotten off of had run me over – yes, always an adventure.

I was spending a year in Umbria when Jenn was in Florence doing a pre-architecture term through Colby College by way of a Syracuse program. Every day that I was there visiting her she would (literally) drag me out of bed as soon as the sun peeked over the stone window sills and then she would proceed to walk me miles and miles from this cheese stall to that mountaintop monastery, to those Bobolli gardens, to that secret hole in the wall restaurant, to God-knows–where. And back.

At night we would go to members-only jazz clubs or funny kitchy disco-teques. And between the two of us we would stumble merrily through conversations with just about everyone we would meet. And we met a lot. From Sicilian boys (and their sisters!) to the lovely Valentina who rescued us from a lecherous Aussie by spilling beer on us and swooping us away to the ‘bathroom’ which was really the free drinks and good conversation end of the bar that she and 20 other Fab Florentines were inhabiting. Yes we can get ourselves good into trouble.

We got A for effort, but Language was always an issue. Some of my favorite memories are Jenn and I, together, being able to hold a single conversation with some unsuspecting Italian. My half of this two headed being had a better vocabulary (at the time) and Jenn’s half had the grammar; so I would start shooting out five or ten words that made some sort of descriptive sense and she would rearrange them and interjecting prepositions. Maybe two heads actually are better than one. Maybe it only works with a certain amount of wine.

cgelatiagogo.jpgHopefully, now, a few years later, I have gotten better at Italian. But with Jenn, there is no question. After graduating from Colby with an Art history/English double major she decided that perhaps architecture wasn’t her bag after all and that English might well be. And to go to grad school for English – you have to know two foreign languages- oh the irony!

Well, between getting ready for grad school and planning to teach abroad, Jenn found the Middlebury Language Immersion program. This is the poorly kept secret of all college language professors- the ultimate quick fix set against the backdrop of a Vermont summer- go figure.
It is a non linear and maybe completely unexpected way to become fluent in Italian. But is there really a bad way? Regardless, Jenn’s Italian has come out- dare I say it- better than mine, and in very short order. This fantastic program, replete with its exciting/daunting absolutely No-English Policy is rightly famous. And Jenn was nice enough to share her insider’s view and we thought we just had to pass it along.

Ciao, a tutti,

Wiley Vreeland


MIDDLEBURY, Vermont — Aspetta! Unhand that mouse! Credi sulla parola, you are in the right place. My cursor is taking us back to the states, but—as I discovered this past summer—really not so very far from Italy. In fact, given the rolling hills and aggressive pastoral pride a Tuscan could feel almost at home in rural Vermont (trade pecorino for cheddar). And, as it turns out, on Middlebury College’s small liberal-arts campus, could carry on a conversation quite nicely.
italy goes to vermont. italian immersion classes
It may seem counterintuitive to look for Italian immersion in perhaps the only state to rival Maine in cultural diversity—we can’t count the cows—but every summer for two months Middlebury works to convert a collegiate bubble into a small international globe: something akin to Disney’s Epcot for the academically-inclined. The much lauded program enrolls around thirteen-hundred students from a mélange of backgrounds, a sprawl of future hopes and dreams. And by week seven—waking in bed with your textbook from the night before (come si dice: osmosis?)—more often than not those dreams are coming through on an Italian frequency.

But many conjugations before you start dreaming in translation, there is much work to be done. Living the everyday in a foreign language can make even reality seem somewhat less than lucid; it’s amazing what the inability to name things does to the mind. However, when I got desperate enough, I found myself a regular Petrarchan poet—reeling off fourteen lines just to court one elusive word (I can picture it on the vocab list: it was between the Italian for “to do aerobics” and “fishmonger”), and after dealing with my problem for about eight phrases, I usually probed a creative solution. But, as a beginner speaker with a severely limited verbal toolbox, sadly, sometimes the mot juste just would not come—usually because I was working in literal translation. But how to purge all those lovely, native, idiomatic phrases that made my writing—for instance—so blog-worthy? It was a genuine, if incomplete, process of deconstruction. And eventually I got my stubborn English self out of my own way and did my best to tinker with the Italian I knew I must have…somewhere.
more italian immersion. learning the language of dante in the land of ben and jerry
Philosopher and sometimes lingual theorist John D. Caputo said, “Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell—a secure axiom or a pithy maxim—the very idea is to crack it open and disturb it.” And what better way to take apart your own language than to chink away at it with another? Right? Unfortunately, I am allergic to nuts. But when in doubt in life, food is (almost) always an good place to start. What goes into your mouth may be the single thing more important than what comes out of it. Hence, I found out how to get back to basics at the language school dining hall. Everyone always has something to say about food, particularly—you may have heard—Italians. And the constructions are usually simple. The Pizza Regina pleases me. The gamberetti with the faces still on them do not. I would really prefer a Florentine bistec. Even the occasional idiom from the other side of the isle: the pasta was usually way past al dente—count yourself lucky if it stayed firm to the fork. So while even the mensa had the best of intentions (replete with green roof, in fact…oh, Vermont), sometimes the better classroom was the mondo vero.

And it was in the spirited moments outside classroom walls that my Italian came forward to realize itself—Middlebury knows what it’s up to. The program offered a host of extracurricular distractions: movie nights, theatrics, tango lessons, soccer games, our very own Sistine facsimile from the resident fresco expert. No doubt many students found their Italian between their toes on the tango floor. However, I have two left feet….or, case in point, ho due piedi nello scarpa (two feet, one shoe).

italy goes to vermont. italian immersion classesFor me, all it took was an improvisational step outside into the verdant Vermont summer and you couldn’t help but comment. Italy has its own graces, but here the sights (green, heaving mountains), the smells (manure that makes you remember where dinner comes from), the sounds (OK, maybe bocce practice, maybe birds) gave you a sense of immediacy that I couldn’t help but think of as Italian.

In a childlike embrace of experience the passato remoto tense felt a little bit less important, and, thus, left you more free to remember it. With good company and a good picnic blanket I was able to say all that I needed, without stress or urgency. The word sentire issued in full force: to taste, to smell, to hear, to touch—to feel.

So many more words in English than in Italian. Striking that a single verb could mark the spot where such distinct, refined senses coalesce; deliverance from a muddled mind back to the world that makes those thoughts worth thinking. Complex categorization simplified by basic need. Watching La Dolce Vita (1960) to suss out the Fellini of Amarcord (1973). Looking for Italy in Vermont and, on some level, actually finding it.

Jenn Corey, 2007


Thanks Wiley, thanks Jenn! And now that you are all so fluent, lets get you all on a plane to Italy already! Think of the times you will have!

Ci vediamo, a presto

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland