The Death of the Idyll

Travel Books: Frank Bures on "The Wisdom of Tuscany" and the last, dying gasp of a travel book genre

11.13.09 | 10:54 AM ET

For many years now, the northern edge of the Mediterranean has been besieged by Anglophones searching for the good life. First Peter Mayle settled in Provence. Then Tim Parks met his neighbors in Verona. Frances Mayes looked up in the sky near Florence. And Chris Stewart ran over some fruit in Spain. The list goes on. As Matthew Kneale recently pointed out in the Financial Times, the tradition of what he calls “idyll memoirs” may go back even further.

Yet it is this most recent spate of blockbusters that has sent a frenzy of discontented Americans and Brits to sunnier climes. Now, perhaps mercifully, that era is coming to an end. With the publication of Ferenc Máté‘s new book, The Wisdom of Tuscany: Simplicity, Security & the Good Life—Making the Tuscan Lifestyle Your Own, it’s all but official. The idyll is over.

The dream was harmless enough: A sunny fantasy to pass the day at the office. Somewhere out there was a warmer, more human place with no treadmill, no rat race, no endless corporate ladder. Just wine and vine-ripened tomatoes and a house in the hills. Simple. Full. Satisfying.

Having lived in Italy myself, I know there is much to love about the country, and I was happy to see how this trend changed the world’s impression of it. These accounts were amusing escapes. 

Yet at the same time, I was a little annoyed, because I knew there was more to the idyll than met the eye. I saw this, ironically, last summer, when one of my old classmates from Bologna came with his girlfriend to visit us in America.

“So,” his girlfriend said as we drove through the streets of my city, “this must be the part of town where the important people live?”

“No,” I said, “This is just a normal part of town. These are normal houses.”

“But,” she exclaimed, “look at all them! They’re so beautiful. Look at the yards. It’s just like in a movie!”

The trip went on like that, with one discovery after another of the magic and charm and (dare I say) wisdom of America, along with asides about how much better it was here than in Italy. 

I never had the heart to tell her that, yes, it was like a movie here, but where they again were watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I was seeing a mix of Fargo, Short Cuts and American Movie. Which is just to state the obvious: that there are many layers beneath the facade. Good travel writing, I think, strives to get down to, or at least acknowledge, those layers.

“The Wisdom of Tuscany” is not a book troubled by such matters, and Máté, who wrote his own idyll book a decade ago (The Hills of Tuscany), shows no desire to go beyond the caricature of Italian life, of which we have already heard too much. In fact, it is not so much a book as it is a pastiche of impressions and anecdotes about himself going to the market, staring out over the hills, thinking about all the trouble caused by our North American way of life, and reflecting on the wisdom imparted to him by his neighbors, who live in a kind of heaven on earth to which we all should aspire.

“When I mention Tuscany to outsiders, the response is usually a wistful sigh,” he writes. 

It’s likely, however, that they are sighing because they are tired, since Máté has taken the idyll genre to its logical conclusion. He has turned our Italian affair into a service piece. He has merged travel with self-help. The book is arranged by chapters centered on Máté‘s forced musings, with titles like, “Close to Nature,” “Getting a Life,” and “Your Own Tuscany.” The book is full of vague anti-corporate rants and armchair social science, and bizarre pronouncements like, “Tuscans strive for quality even in daily items,” and “[T]here is the sense of security and tranquility instilled by Italy’s medical system.”

All of which is to say that in Máté‘s world, all that is perfect in Tuscany is all that is wrong with our own society, and this has the ring of untruth to it. Surely there are things we could learn from Italy, and probably from every country. But this kind of simple-minded Italophilia is painful stuff at this point, and demonstrates how the genre has exhausted itself, and from now on can be little more than a self-mocking cliche.

To fall in love with a fantasy is one thing. But reality is another, and it will eventually make itself known. I love Italy too, and agree with many of Mate’s points. But Italy is also a dark and complicated place, as are all places if you care to look. And while there is surely much wisdom to be found in the hills of Tuscany, there is also much foolishness.

And that is what I love most of all.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


14 Comments for The Death of the Idyll

Marcy Gordon 11.13.09 | 5:53 PM ET

I have worked and lived in Italy and it always cracked me up to read the books that paint it as the idyll. But it’s easier to sell the dolce vita version than the Monsters of Florence side. As Frank points out if you look carefully you will find things are much more complex. Issues of unemployment, immigration, and crime, are huge problems in Italy as they are elsewhere. I’ve never met so many people on anti-depressants as I have in Italy. But it behooves the tourism (and sells books) to maintain the sunny dolce vita façade.

I once stayed with a friend at her cousin’s house on the Tuscan coast. The house was located down a tiny dirt lane situated between six other homes. When I mentioned it looked like a nice friendly neighborhood I got a hideous look. “We don’t speak of them.” said our host. “Never!” I looked to my friend for explanation and was told a ten-year feud had been raging among the neighbors over a zoning issue to pave the road and crate an easement for a house in the very back to access the road. “They all hate each other. It’s normal here.” my friend said and shrugged it off. I was pleased to see that just like in the states people fight and fuss over the NIMBY stuff and cling tightly to their turf.

Italy is still my first love, but I love it for its reality as much as for its fantasy.

William Tester 11.16.09 | 11:11 AM ET

Call me an overworked American Philistine, but how does one get get anything done in Tuscany? I am all for the idea of ‘slow food’ and enjoying la dolce vita, in moderation, please.  I have an italian family and far too many Tuscan lunches and dinners requires a few hours, minimum. Basta, enough is enough. Not to mention the maddeningly frequent and mandatory attendance one must make at unending religious rites and family celebrations, where the chit chat rarely gets beyond just that, chat. The Tuscan good life also carries a social veil that eschews serious discussion of anything too problematic or troubling, in an interesting sense. And, sadly, as great as Italy is, nowhere outside of St. Petersburg or Kiev have I seen more evidence of drug addiction, heroin syringes and crack vials in this or that foyer. I almost quit wearing summer sandals. Tuscany has its own problems and its grass is not always greener, by any stretch.

cash 11.16.09 | 11:29 AM ET

I lived in Italy for just under five years, four in the Veneto and then nearly a year in Tuscany.

Rich Brits/Americans using their lives in Tuscany to generalize about Italy is like a foreigner using a few years spent in Aspen, Nantucket, Malibu to generalize about America.

Andrea 11.16.09 | 9:05 PM ET

Funny to come across this article - I was just recently thinking about a scene at the end of the movie Stealing Beauty when Lucy’s new boyfriend says how much he hates it there (in his hometown in Tuscany) & Lucy exclaims in disbelief.  But then the camera pans away to show that in the midst of these beautiful fields, there are prostitutes on the highway soliciting passing drivers.  Lucy’s nostalgia-driven reality and her Italian boyfriend’s reality are quite different.

Chaos Tamer 11.16.09 | 9:33 PM ET

So, I guess every book has to be Pietistic, legalistic “woe is me” “end of the world” pap?
Try reviewing all contemporary books written about Tuscany, for example - you will find as much of the tawdry, dark underside of life you are looking for but not finding in the writings of one individual who also finds some redeeming qualities and joy in their hard work and ongoing life in Tuscany, as well as respect for his neighbors.  You must be among those living on that unpaved easement, mortally suspicious and hateful of neighbors, covetous of what you dream they must have that you either don’t have or don’t want others to have.
Shame on you.

anthony 11.17.09 | 2:00 AM ET

yep, i’m going to write ‘my year in basra’. the unfulfilled middle classes will love it.

nicko 11.17.09 | 3:19 AM ET

Notwithstanding the undeniable fact that parts of tuscany are breathtakingly, unpretentiously beautiful, someone needs to write a book about Livorno. Working port. Little Venice. Old and new. Good and bad. And one of the world’s great restaurants. The real deal.

D.V. 11.17.09 | 10:08 AM ET

Being Italian myself, and having lived in the U.S. for many years, I’m always amused by the view of Italy painted by American visitors. While the eccentricities of tourists are tolerated with a benign shrug, so they might come away with an impression that Italy is easygoing, Italian society is very traditional and highly homogeneous in its values.

If you’re an actual Italian, you have to dress a certain way, have meals at a particular time, meet all sorts of arcane but very specific familial obligations, etc. It’s not a freewheeling place at all, certainly not compared to the U.S., where no one cares if you go to the grocery store in your pajamas.

Frank 11.17.09 | 12:47 PM ET

I care, D.V.  For God’s sake put some clothes on.

Seriously, though, those are exactly the things my friend mentioned.  He was shocked when we went out to dinner without changing what we were wearing (not pajamas, but not a smoking either).  There are always trade offs, I suppose.

Robert Townshend 11.18.09 | 4:48 AM ET

I’ve recently spent two months in Siena. The highlight was long hikes in the Crete Senesi, the lowlight was the obligatory visits to a drab, smelly Florence.

The underlying social rigidities, the conversational narrowness, the pathetic and erosive mistress-culture…it’s all too true.

But go figure: I love that place and those people to death!

Nancy Todd 11.18.09 | 11:24 AM ET

As an expat in Barcelona bliss, I have met many Italians who have packed it up, said good by to family and fettuccine, and are now residents of Spain.  When they lived in Italy, they could have a sound job one day and be told the next they were replaced by the boss’s cousin Luigi.  They could be ousted from their apartments with no real reason.  And Berlusconi.  They cried when Berlusconi was elected again.  One man told me if he had the money to move his entire family to Barcelona, he would, just to get away from this madman. 

Life as a awe-filled tourist is very different from being a resident and having the the day to day challenges of bungled banking, weird apartment leases that want a ton of money, and smelly sewers.  I have to work for a living and have no time to untangle water rights or figure out how to make goat cheese.  The less beauracratic junk to deal with the better.  As much as I love Italy, no thanks.  It is off my list as a place to practice life.

Tom Weymes 11.20.09 | 12:14 PM ET

All your commentators, on both sides of the divide, should read ‘The Dark Heart of Italy’ by Tobias Jones, published in 1993, for a clear-eyed, affectionate/exasperated/ take on Italian life and society. Given that SB is still in the saddle six years later, it seems unlikely that the aspects that horrified him have improved.

Tom Weymes 11.20.09 | 12:17 PM ET

Sorry - should of course have read 2003.
TW

IronCelt 11.23.09 | 3:11 PM ET

It is a great mystery why any American would want to travel abroad at all anymore, even (or especially) to Western Europe. Anti-tourist attitudes, high prices, endless disappointments . . . and North America offers plenty of interesting destinations of all types.

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