A Small Place in Italy, Eric Newby
Eric Newby's books were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012 (and from my own TBR shelves to boot). That year I read several accounts of his adventures, usually with his wife and long-suffering travel partner Wanda. And then last year I completely neglected them, though I still had some of his books unread. I was hunting around the TBR shelves the other day, unable at first to settle on anything, when I chose this one pretty much at random. I'm glad I did, it did felt like meeting old friends again.
The opening chapter gives a quick overview of Eric Newby's experiences in Italy in World War II, where he was first a prisoner of war and then, after escaping, on the run for four months (a story told in greater detail in his book Love and War in the Apennines). His future wife Wanda was among those who helped him, as did the country people in the hills of the Parma region. He and Wanda returned often to Italy, to visit his rescuers as well as her family in Slovenia (in a region annexed to Italy in the early 20th century). They had always hoped to buy a house in Italy. In 1967, they finally decided to do it, spurred in part by rising real estate prices. They wanted to live in the north, along the Apennines, and the house they finally found was in northern Tuscany, near the Ligurian Coast (the handy map in the front of this book was helpful and instructive). At the time, Newby was the travel editor of the Observer, so they could only visit during his holidays, generally in the spring and autumn.
Writing almost thirty years later, in 1994, Newby details the complicated process of buying a small two-story farmhouse, I Castagni (The Chestnuts), near a small village called Fosdinovo. The house needed major repairs and upgrades, including adding a bathroom. I thought that this was going to be the story of the house, and in fact I kept thinking that the title was "A Small House in Italy." Though Newby devotes several chapters to the work done on the house, he is as always more interested in people, starting with their new neighbors, and in exploring their corner of Italy. The Newbys are the first foreigners to settle in the area (Wanda likes to remind people that she grew up in Italy), and they are warmly welcomed. They go everywhere they are invited, from the first day. Arriving on Good Friday, they join the traditional procession through the village streets, ending with services in the parish church. Each year they also join neighbors in the vendemmia, the harvesting of grapes for wine, in days of hard work in the autumn heat.
Newby makes frequent references to his war-time adventures, comparing and contrasting the lives of the local residents with what he experienced living among them in 1943-1944. He finds some surprising overlaps, but over the twenty-five years that the Newbys own their house, they see more and more changes in the traditional ways. The country-side becomes increasingly urbanized, with people moving out from the cities and with more outsiders like the Newbys themselves setting in Italy.
As usual Newby describes the food of the region in some detail. He seems to have thought his readers would be unfamiliar with the basic dishes (though he cites Elizabeth David's Italian Food, published in 1963). He takes care to explain what pesto is, as well as bruschetta and pecorino cheese (reading this did make me hungry). He also discourses at some length on mushrooms, which grow wild in the forests around the area, the collecting of them and the cooking of them. Local residents had to move quickly to stay ahead of professional funghi seekers from the cities, who often raided the best spots.
This was a quieter book than some of his others that I have read, though it does include an account of a tramp along the crinale, the main ridge of the Apennines, which sounded absolutely miserable (cold buffeting winds and rain blowing along alpine heights). I enjoyed learning about the region as well as the neighborhood of I Castagni, and watching Eric and Wanda Newby find their place in it. Like them, I was sorry to say good-bye, when they finally decided they had to sell the house. I hope the people who live there now enjoy it as much as the Newbys did.