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.

Thank you, Justine. You can read more about Justine and Marcus at her website or you can follow her on Twitter @justinevdl or check in with her on her Facebook page.

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.

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Comments

  1. I never understood the fascination with Eat, Pray, Love. Isn’t it being made into a movie now?

    It is, although I really liked the book.

  2. I’d love to read more about your year in Collelungo. It sounds like a good counter point to Under the Tuscan Sun.

    I hope you enjoy the book!

  3. Right now I’m contemplating a move across country, albeit the country but I have that same wariness…….I hope my decision works out as well as yours did. After all, I’m not 20-something any more!

    I think that is normal (to be nervous!) In bocca al lupo!

  4. This article is just another reason why I HAVE to move up to Umbria as soon as possible. It’s another culture…another way of life.

    By the way, I have visited Collelungo. Would love to live there but I’m pushing for Todi. Grazie!

    In bocca al lupo!

  5. It truly is a testament to your inner strength when you, even though you were scared, made the move. Your amazing adventure so far is life telling you that you made a good decision. I wish you more adventures as the days go by.

    I look forward to reading the rest of the book

    Suzette

    Thanks for stopping by, Suzette.

  6. Having just returned from a one-month adventure in Italy, I could relate to Justine’s experiences on a much deeper level than I would have before.

    My husband & I visited, and sometimes stayed with, a dozen families we share a last name with, and whom I made friends with through Facebook. While most of the families only had one Italian & English speaking person (usually my Facebook friend) we had a wonderful time. We were welcomed into several homes in my husband’s father’s birthplace, although we could not find relatives.

    We visited tiny 200-person villages built in the 1600’s, nice homes in the “suburbs”, small towns, and farms. I wasn’t there long enough to have to “put on the boots” but we did have “one of grandma’s chickens” for dinner, boar stew & sausages, and several meals I’m still not sure what they are!

    Mostly, we felt the warmth of the Italians who adopted us all along the way… (we only ate dinner at a restaurant 3 times!) and we learned the enjoyment of laughter in any language.

    If I had only taken those creative writing classes I could express and share the wonder as you gals do so well!

    Grazie!

    Sounds like you had a fabulous vacation-I hope you can return soon.

  7. The book looks fabulous, but I worry I would abandon my husband and three screaming kids to chase a dream of living in Italy. Maybe someday …

    He he, I won’t tell them you are dreaming!

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