Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Zany Slice of Italy by Ivanka Di Felice

Ever wonder what it would be like to take a year off and live among your Italian relatives in Italy?  Wonder no longer!  The author has done it and recounts it with wit and wisdom in this memoirs.  Her first-generation Canadian-Italian husband manages to get Italian citizenship, so they can stay in Italy legally, and have some health coverage, too.  What they didn't count on was the gregarious Italian social life that centers around family. 

Family in Italy means obligations, inspections, helping hands, intrusive noses, lots of free food, opinionated lectures, and a bedroom now and then when touring the country.  North American culture allows for more privacy than the author and her husband, both a bit introverted, discover is an oddity in densely populated, highly-social, and close-knit Italy.
The reality is that when you visit Italy, you'll be hijacked by relatives of all sorts; the entire family tree is waiting to meet you.

The style of humor and writing in A Zany Slice of Italy reminded me of Ferenc Mate, another Canadian who emigrated to Italy and wrote a book about it.  Mate bought a property and built it into a winery.  His story was about a project, and it had a beginning and end, of sorts, since the end of the book meanders off into strange territory.

A Zany Slice of Italy is more about family in Italy in 2006 and 2007.  Here is the author describing their camping out in the guest room of a relative's Roman home:
The next day, two presents are sitting on our bed--for me, a pair of bright green fuzzy pajamas.  I put them on and bear a resemblance to a giant frog.  I show them to Zia, and she is pleased.
"You just need to tuck the top into the bottoms," she says.
I obey and now resemble a giant pregnant frog.  With my new pajamas and my baby-pink wool socks, I am informed that my insides are now safe.  David, too, has received a pair of pajamas in a ghastly color, suitable for arctic conditions.  Romance in Rome will just have to wait.

While I know many of the situations described will provoke laughter in many people, I have experienced many of the same difficulties as the author and her husband, so I did not find them all that funny.  Instead, I found many of them capable of provoking harrowing flashbacks of past frustrations, humiliations, and inexplicable roadblocks to happiness. 

There may be too many chapters about problems and annoyances, and not enough about pleasures, since more than once I found myself wondering why they remained in Italy!  The quality of the food, and the beauty of the art, architecture, and much of the landscape is not always enough to forgive the corruption, inefficiency and lack of professionalism, rudeness, pollution, traffic, ignorance, bigotries, superficial attitudes, sexism, and a lack of housing and jobs.  Not in the long run, anyway.  A low-trust society can be very draining on people from high-trust societies.

There is no explanation as to how and why the author started writing down her experiences, which take place roughly fifty percent in Abruzzo, and fifty percent in Tuscany.  From the description of the often hectic life they had that year in Italy, I wondered when the author had time to write anything at all!  I can imagine the chapters as humorous blog posts, or diary entries:  they are that summarized and of the appropriate length. 

What is sometimes missing is the filler information.  I found myself asking questions like:  How did they befriend those people?  Where did they meet those couples?  Why did they accept that invitation?  Why did they make that momentous decision?  How did they prepare for that?  Why are they there? 

The questions faded as I continued on with the author's engaging voice, filled with humor and irony.  She has a good eye for the absurd, is sensitive to insults, and has the open mind of a person who grew up in a multi-cultural society.  Most Italians do not have that open mind.  For the most part, they reject the reality of immigration, and out-of-hand reject the idea that another culture can offer them something worthwhile.  The author presents these bigoted ideas by simply quoting the Italians, letting us hear them for ourselves.

The book is well-written and expertly edited.  The cover is cute and fits the book perfectly.  I feel that the book is actually a book and an half.  The selective story of the couple's year in Italy feels like one book that should end when the couple returns to Canada.  I looked for the chapter on how they try to integrate into their life in Canada all the things they learned they loved while living in Italy. 

Instead there is an immediate and barely explained leap back to Italy, where the couple hopes to live permanently.  They leave good jobs behind to move to a country where it is nearly impossible to find a job, let alone a job that provides a livable wage.  The stories related in that "second book" are so negative I kept waiting for the leap back to Canada. 

That leap may still come, but it is not in this book, which is why I feel like the second book is only half there.  There is no resolution to their economic woes.  Perhaps this book is an attempt to find one.  As the author says:
...despite my reality--the chaotic, relentless visits from fun-loving paesani and relatives; dealing with Italy's Byzantine bureaucracies; the difficulty earning a living--I realize my life here is much richer than I ever could have imagined.
I wish them all the best of luck and happiness!

The couple spent much of their time in Abruzzo.  If you've never been there, here is a 2 minute tour:

From the book's description:
This light, lively book takes place in Italy, with hilarious anecdotes about the author and her husband’s trip to visit his family in Abruzzo and finally their escape to Tuscany.

Her own expectations were shattered when she embarked on la dolce vita. She envisioned drinking unforgettable Brunello by candlelight and discussing art and history with elegant dinner guests. Instead, dinner discussions revolved around how to avoid a “bad wind,” whether the Mafia runs IKEA, and bizarre theories on why the Chinese in Italy never have funerals. Now she drinks Zio’s own “unforgettable,” almost undrinkable, wine, as he pays long-winded tributes to the vile liquid as if it were an elixir of the gods. Celebrate with our author—for mere mortals, or their livers, could not have lived to tell the tale.

Ivanka thought her hair would suddenly become long and thick and her bust size would miraculously increase. She would be dressed by Dolce and Gabbana. Yet instead of wearing four-inch spike heels with a flowing linen skirt, she actually became less fashionable in Italy and could model “forty is the new sixty” with her newly adopted casalinga look.

Follow her unlikely adventures as she’s reduced to tears by crazy-making Italian bureaucrats and tries to find work as a truffle telemarketer. You will encounter elderly aunts climbing trees, pyromaniac septuagenarians, and all sorts of “fowl” play.

So pour yourself a glass of bad Italian wine, add a dose of accordion music, and spend some time in Ivanka Di Felice’s Italy.

Here are direct links to the paperback and e-book editions of the book at

Please visit the author's Facebook page.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

1 comment:

  1. I just read your review of A Zany Slice of italy I have to add that in Italy there are distinct cultural differnces between the North and South. What the author wrote was comical to say the least, but she gives the impression that Italians are all zany like her relatives in Abruzzo.

    I live in a small town in the province of Turin and my husband's relatives (as well as my relatives) from the area of Parma, and Mondovì, are culturally a world apart from those of the author. I read the first few chapters, and altho I liked her easy natural style of writing, I sincerely hope that her Readers don't think that all Italians are as eccentric as hers!

    This isn't meant to criticize the book, whick looks like a good read, but I think she should make it known that her experiences are personal ones and don't reflect Italians as a whole.

    I'll get off my soapbox now!!!