Read any good books lately?

Sometimes you just get lucky. Getting ready to go on a flight down south I found not one, but two Donna Leon books. That I hadn’t read! They are not heavy reading, always set in Venice and perfect for a day at the beach or a day in the air. Guido, the police commissario, is so erudite and engaging, as is his family.

And the author has many nice turns of the phrase. Well, I like the stories. Harmless entertainment.

book james joyce trieste


Particularly, when it happened in my own post-Joycean world. Go ahead, paint me a Philistine. I tried. I wanted to like old James. He and I both love Trieste. So, my first choice on our last flight was “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Written early in the century in Dublin and then started over and finished in Trieste, ten years later. Clearly Mr Joyce was miserable times seven when he initially wrote it. Hopefully, finishing it in Trieste, he was crying on the outside, on the pages of the manuscript but laughing it up on the inside, having survived and escaped Catholic boarding school in Ireland to sunny Trieste!

Beautiful Ruins is a surprise. I bought this book for my wife awhile back. We both like books set in or about Italy and it had a cool Cinqueterra-looking cover so that was enough for me to want it for her. Mid way thru our trip she said “I’m almost done with this, I think you will like it.”

Half way thru it I’m ready to break a Cardinal Red Rule which is “don’t brag on a book until its over.” Which is just what I’m doing. I like it a lot. It has complex, interesting characters, over laid with each other in surprising ways, lots of specific “voices,” just a myriad of things to like. I’m already plotting to try more of Jess Walter’s books.

Speaking of books: What good books have you read lately? Either set in Italy or about Italy or by an Italian? Anything, even marginally Italian-oriented, would be considered. If I get a lot of responses, I might like to share them here. Which will drive me to update my Favorite Italian Books List on the web site.

Thinking about our upcoming September trip to Venice, Umbria and hopefully Trieste already. Which makes me want to keep repeating

See you in Italy! See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland


First, lets get one thing right out on the table: Italian is very sexy mistress. She has you feeling on top of the world one moment. And the next moment, she’s disgustedly stamping out her cigarette. On your face.

incident3 incident in english versus incidente in italianITALIAN CLASS, Portland, Maine – “Well, Stew, did that adventure have a happy ending?” Prof Sandro of Sardina wants to know. I’ve told my story (in Italian) and I’m almost off the hook. One more word from me and it is the next person’s turn in the white hot spot light. All eyes still on me, I think: I can do this. A simple “Yes” would work fine. But I feel expansive and try to geld that lily and say “eventualmente” Felt right at the time, but long suffering Sandro shook his head and muttered “False Friend.” By complete accident, I knew what he meant.

dictionary2 italian to english and english to italianWe were in Italy and all our good intentioned dictionaries were not. We ducked into the book store on the main drag in Castiglion del Lago. They say Italian to English. We say English to Italian. Pot-ate-o / Pot-ah-toe. it all comes out in the same wash, no? No. Almost, but still no. Once I saw the difference I realized this could be a very good thing.

First, lets get one thing right out on the table: Italian is very sexy mistress. She has you feeling on top of the world one moment. And the next moment, she’s disgustedly stamping out her cigarette. On your face. It happens to everyone. You are so dazzled by the romance and the soft vowels. It seems almost too easy. Pizza, spaghetti, ciao, buon viaggio, piano, volcano. It’s hardly Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. We’re using the same alphabet and we’ve heard so much Italian in music and the arts that it feels comfortable, approachable. That’s where we get complacent and let down our guard. And start making up words on the fly. If rapidamente is rapidly (which it is) then surely eventualmente is eventually. But therein lies the rub. Eventualmente cruelly IS an Italian word. It just doesn’t mean what we (ok, what I ) think it means. Prima or poi would have been a better answer if I had to go past the simple answer of Yes, Sandro.

italian dictionary, inside, showing false friend conceptUnlike any dictionary I’ve ever used this Italian one (who knows, maybe they all do) highlights all these bad boys. And trust me there is a “Nota” or a “False Friend” on almost every one of the 600 pages here. Accident (accidente) really means incident (incidente)? And vice versa, for good measure. In what world would that happen? Ah, but it does and “Quando a Roma” we need to step up to that ancient plate and do it the way the Romans would want us to. Wonderful dictionary. Highly recommend picking one up the next time you are in Italy. Whole new perspective. I’m sure Italians look at these FF’s and throw up their hands and say, those crazy English speaking people. THEY’VE got it all backwards. Just like we do going the other way. Allora, relax and enjoy the ride. False Friends is better than no friends at all.

See you in Italy,



MONTEPULCIANO, SIENA, ETC ITALY – We paid for this holiday in many ways. Do not go shopping with a mom at this time of year. Especially if she is your wife. Not on the day before Mothers Day. The operative phrase seemed to be “well, tomorrow is Mothers Day” What can you say, facts are facts. You might as well release your grip on your credit card for a minute and start picking bags and Sherpa-ing them to the car. That was our day in Montepulciano. And Siena, too, now that I think of it. Glorious, non-stop sunshine kind of day.

saintmadonna, poggi, umbria, italyThe actual day of Festa della Mamma dawned dark and sort of stayed that way. So we took a trip to nearby Poggi to see friends’ reno progress. Their house project shares a painterly and pastoral hilltop at the edge of Poggi with a tiny temple-like brick church. Its always been closed the many times we’ve been there. But this day it was open. They shouldn’t do this when tourists are loose in the area. You know what they say? Permesso? And in they come.

From the outside, this church-ette has a quietly abandoned look about it. But inside it is somewhat grand and ornate and seems ready for business. In fact there had been a baptism that very day. Which was why it was open. The church’s cleaning lady in no nonsense black apron, much to the annoyance of her leather jacketed son, ran and got us laminated Virgin Mary cards oblivious to her sons dark looks, beetled brow, the motor running on his car, just outside the door. The two of them perfect cartoon characters. A brooding devil and a beaming angel. One for each shoulder. We said our “la ringrazias” and backed out.

The next day, back in Panicale, our cleaning lady and good friend Anna had her purse’s contents spread out on our madia, rifling thru papers of all sizes and shapes, searching for the one with the hours she had worked for us written on it. Like a card shark dealing from a familiar deck, she moved past receipts, souvenirs, and what is this? Yes, it is a laminated Saints Card, not unlike ours. Which she held up for our edification. I pulled down our card from where I’d stuck it into the edge of the mirror frame and handed it to her. Whereupon it was promptly and affectionately kissed.

Nice to have cards like the other kids.

Here’s the card, and what Stew thinks it says. This is our translation, we welcome yours.

saintpreghiera, card from church in Poggi, Umbria, ItalyOUR REQUEST, OUR PRAYER

Remember, o most pious Virgin Mary, that there is not anyone in the world that ever has turned to you for your protection, implored your for your help and asked your sponsorship, that has ever been abandoned.

Spurred on as I am by this confidence, I appeal to you oh Mother Virgin of all Virgins, to you I come, eyes full of tears, heart full of sins, prostrate at your feet, begging for pity. Mother of the spoken word please do not despise my voice, but gently listen and grant my wish. Amen.

Indulgence of 300 days granted, every time. Limit one per customer, per month. Now, with new ecclesiastic approval. Collect all seven cards today!

Ok, that last bit was Stew-ified a small amount.

All best to all,

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland


All about Umbria

Kathy McCabe of “Dreams of Italy” subscription newsletter about, yes, Italy – asked us to write an article about about the area around Lago Trasimeno for her June issue that was completely focused on Umbria. So, i did! And she used several of our photos. Got to mention many names of many favorite people and places.

If you’d like a copy, just let me know and I’ll send you a pdf of it, in living color.

and we have tickets in hand for Italy in October.

if you will be there then we really can say:

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland



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.