I tend to stay away from the genre of books that invite the dream of dropping everything and moving to Southern Europe. Peter Mayle’s a Year in Provence makes me hungry for a different life. Same with Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. They make it all seem too easy and leave me feeling vaguely disappointed in myself for not having had the courage to make their choices to lead a simpler life filled with long al fresco meals.
The Lady in the Palazzo by Marlena de Blasi falls under the same genre of memoirs but couldn’t be more realistic in its portrayal of the hardships of being an American in Italy. This is de Blasi’s fourth memoir and the story picks up about five years after she leaves her life in the States behind, having fallen in love with a Venician and married him. I have not read the prior two memoirs, but to save you the search, they are A Thousand Days in Tuscany, That Summer in Sicily, and a Thousand Days in Venice. She is also the author of a number of cookbooks including Regional Foods of Northern Italy and a Taste of Southern Italy.
The memoir covers a two year period when de Blasi and her husband are searching for a new home, a forever home in Italy. They describe frustrating days with realtors, being shown ruins with no roofs or newly remodeled apartments with garish cheap fixtures. Then finally, in Orvieto, they find the perfect place and begin a complicated dance with two warring family factions. While they wait patiently for their dream home, a ballroom in a palace, de Blasi struggles to make a home in her new village of Orvieto, the village on the rock.
De Blasi is not an easy narrator to like. She is so European in her thinking, complaining about Americans who try to see all of Italy in just a few weeks, who are more interested in purchasing items to bring home than in truly experiencing the culture. She scoffs at people who go on her gastronomic tours and tell her they are lactose intolerant. She’s an American who has become a European, she rides between two worlds, not quite belonging to either, and that’s what makes her memoir such a jewel. She paints the daily life of an Italian village vividly, an assault of all senses, but doesn’t make that dream seem like it is easily within reach.
“An hour later, after a stroll and a cappucino, we are back upstairs tending to our own work. We light a fire in the salone, open the terrace doors to the commotion of the nine o’clock bells and to the sopranos who, up in the practice rooms of the Palazzo di Sette, fling their young voices to high E. Like sun piercing the fog.”
I wanted to put the Lady in the Palazzo down many times in the first five chapters. I complained about it bitterly to my husband, but eventually stuck with it, letting de Blasi drag me into her reality. And instead of a dream vacation, I fell into a different life, a life I wouldn’t want to live, but that I was glad to experience for a while. Finishing the Lady in the Palazzo left me without the guilt of a life not lived, but with a handful of recipes that I couldn’t wait to try. A walnut foccaccia and a handmade pasta that I could taste but would be glad to eat in the comfort of my kitchen, far away from the Orvieto palazzo de Blasi struggled so hard to make her own.