Many expats-especially those of us who fancy ourselves writers, dream of publishing a book about our experiences. One ex-expat in Umbria, Justine van der Leun, has done just that.
Justine’s book, Marcus of Umbria isn’t about her love affair with Prada, pasta or Pietro, but rather her pooch, Marcus.
In addition to guest blogging today here on My Bella Vita, Justine is also giving away a copy of her book, Marcus of Umbria. Welcome her, won’t you (and see below for giveaway details).
My year on a ramshackle sheep farm in the Umbrian backcountry was really bad for my hair (hard water). It was bad for my career (time difference). It was bad for my friendships (no email). But it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. In my entire life.
I’d ended up in Italy for the same reason women my age often ended up in Italy: Love. I’d met Emanuele the obviously unsuitable giardiniero while on vacation in the 200-person village of Collelungo smack-dab in the middle of Umbria, halfway between Terni and Perugia. He had pretty eyes and I was 25 years old. The next thing I knew, I’d packed up my studio apartment in Brooklyn and bought a one-way ticket to Rome-Fiumicino.
But the whole Eat-Pray-Love-Under-The-Tuscan-Sun fantasy? Well, as it turns out, there’s a whole other Italy beneath the wine-filled feasts and the cypress-tree-dotted hills. There’s a rural Italy built on generations of hardship and poverty, of near starvation, of just barely surviving off the land. There’s a rural Italy where everyone knows everyone, and has since birth, and will until death. That’s the Italy in which I landed.
The village’s old ladies were shocked: What was this random American doing, suddenly living in the centro storico with one of the local boys? I was shocked right back: What was I doing, suddenly living in the centro storico with one of the local boys?
I didn’t know it then, but I was there to get tougher, kinder, and slightly less ridiculous. I was there to grow up, and to learn.
In Collelungo, the girls regularly broke pigeon necks by hand to kill them for the pot. My prissiness had no place. After a month tiptoeing around, I finally took off my ballet flats, put on boots, and mucked out the horse stall. It felt strangely refreshing, the dirt on my hands.
I learned of the utter necessity of women: I expected Emanuele’s mother, Serenella, to roll her eyes at me. But when the boys had gone off for an after-dinner card game, she lit up a long cigarette and talked with me in Italian until I learned it.
Meanwhile, Emanuele’s sister-in-law Marta brought me to her makeshift beauty salon. “You need a facial,” she said in English, and got to scrubbing. Later, she taught me how to make boar stew (Not for the faint-hearted, I’ll say). In fact, I learned more about food than I could ever have imagined—how it should be made with fresh, local ingredients, cooked by hand and with love.
And I learned about family. I had grown up in a home in Connecticut with divorced parents and far-flung, distant relatives. In Collelungo, I was swept into Emanuele’s clan, surrounded by people who, without question, patched my jeans and gave me a seat by the fire. It was a loyalty I’d never seen before.
It wasn’t easy, parachuting into a tight-knit community with values so different from my own. I spent a lot of time ranting about gender-specific expectations (I was to clean while Emanuele hunted). I also expended an inordinate amount of energy trying to find clothes that didn’t come from the back of a Moroccan’s traveling van (I ultimately relented, and the results weren’t pretty). I tried valiantly to iron Emanuele’s shirts (bo-ring). I failed miserably at collecting mushrooms (they’re really quite camouflaged). I refused to even try milking sheep (the ewes became—and you couldn’t fault them for it—hysterical when you reached for their teats).
But even my failures were illuminating: I knew I was cool with picking up horse poop and sporting an unfortunate haircut that bordered on a shag. But I was also not okay with picking up a grown man’s underwear and hand washing them. And even though, to nobody’s surprise, it didn’t work out with Emanuele, I had fallen head over heels for a pointer I rescued and named Marcus. (Even my naming of the dog fell into the failure/illuminating camp: Marcus turned out to be a she, but the name stuck.)
After a year, I left Collelungo. My departure was bittersweet: I would miss Emanuele’s family, their swath of untamed land, a life lived close to the earth, the familiar faces at the café and the market. At the same time, we all knew I wasn’t really for that world.
I no longer had an apartment or a job back in New York, so I would return to the States without a landing place. And for the first time, that was okay.
There’s a particular and mysterious beauty to giving it all up and diving into an unmapped future. If I had done it in order to go to Italy, I could do it again in order to leave. Having lived in such a foreign place, both in body and spirit, and having survived—and even thrived—I wasn’t scared of uncertainty.
Okay, I was a little scared. But by then I had some pretty good practice living my fears.
Now for the giveaway!
It’s easy. Leave a comment on this post between today and Friday, June 18 at 5:00 PM, Italy time.
Leave as many comments as you like, but only one entry per person will be included in the random drawing.
Winner must have a US mailing address and will be notified by email.
If you can’t wait until Friday, you can order Marcus of Umbria today, right here.
In bocca al lupo!
Traveling south? Click here to see how I can help you plan your trip to Calabria or southern Italy.