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Saturday, January 1, 2022

Around Italy - By Virginia Landgren

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This memoir is about several trips to Italy taken over the years by Bridget and Bruno. They are married, both retired, empty nesters, and have a mutual love of Italy. They have lived in a condo in Eugene Oregon for years, and plan their lives around the trips.

The story is written in 3rd person but from the perspective of Bridget. It took a while to come to terms with this peculiar point of view. Why wasn’t it written in 1st person, would not that have given it a more immediate feel? The trick to reading, (I frequently have to tell myself) is to accept the terms of engagement that the writer sets. What this means of course is we learn what Bridget is thinking and planning but we only see Bruno through her eyes.

But - the bones of the story - where they are staying, what they are eating, how they are traveling is presented at a 3rd person distance. You still feel Bridget is telling the story, but somewhat formally, and that is oddly comforting. The formality drops at unexpected and appropriate times too, such as when they hold each other at night, feeling the effect of the lights and “vapors'' of the Grand Canal in Venice. There is no apparent pattern or method to when the formal veil drops and we see more deeply into their lives, and this lends a pleasant tension to the story.

The story unfolds like a Rick Steves’ PBS episode, where he tells you the history of the cathedral in one scene, in a brief, neutral, National Geographic manner, and then in the next scene he is introducing you to the innkeeper who he has known for years, and who always prepares, (along with his wife who speaks no English), a special meal for Steve when he comes the city.

It is a comforting story, one that I came to quickly appreciate. It is repetitive, but in a good way, like a Buddist chant or a Catholic Mass. Bruno is slightly mischievous, always out front, finding the cafe, or the museum, but he never breaks character and intrudes on Bridget’s story. They arrive in a city - Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Assisi, Venice, Trieste, and more, sometimes returning to the same city, but always the same ritual: Get to the small hotel or rental home, met the proprietor, learn the foibles of the place, (closet that doesn’t shut properly, stair that creaks) , fall on the bed to rest, get up, eat, go wandering around the city, stop in a small cafe, eat, (always with luscious detail of the food, or the interior, or the scene on the sidewalk) come back, Bridget takes a nap, Bruno continues to explore, comes back they go out again meet people, drink wine, come back sleep. On to the train, a new city, new people they met by plan or happenstance, a new adventure.

It took me a few pages, but I really began to love this story. Bridget has a wonderful eye for architecture, and color, and natural scenery and it gets better and better as the story continues. She brings it. While the story feels breezy and light, there are no narrative cliches. It is never dull. You come to like Bridget too. You learn her doubts about herself, her physical and emotional weaknesses, her own internal pettiness, but with clear headed self acceptance, no maudlin regret, all the while delivering picture perfect stories.

While the rhythm of the story does not change, the details within it do. Even when she comes back to Rome or Florence a second time, Bridget sees her surroundings differently. She just lets you tag along with her.

The best part? I learned quite a lot, and plan to bring Around Italy as a guidebook when I finally end up going to Italy. It is one thing to look through coffee table books of the art and architecture of Italy, but a whole other thing to be led to the Spanish Steps in Rome by a woman who you would like to get to know better. She knows what to look at, (although she says it is actually Bruno who knows these things). This memoir is an unpretentious story, told by a really smart and learned woman who passes herself off as a little bit ditsy, with her tongue slightly up against her cheek, and that is the most wonderful aspect of the story. Reading Around Italy 2011-2019 makes me want to go to Italy even more than I did before.