Longacre Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877135 43 7
Seasons in Tuscany
ISBN 0 14 029441 4
Travel writing’s a fairly new genre for New Zealanders. James MeNeish did well with Sicily; Jean Watson wrote a book about India; and Graeme Lay has cornered the Pacific. Yet despite being a nation of travellers, it’s only recently that we’re seeing much writing in this field.
Allons Enfants and Seasons in Tuscany are both by New Zealand writers, and make an interesting comparison. You wouldn’t know from his book that Parker is a Kiwi, except that he tells us, and he is certainly writing for an international market. Novelist Burgess, on the other hand, writing about a year that she and her family spent in France in 1988, is very much the naive Kiwi abroad. Home is a constant reference point for herself and her family.
Allons Enfants has an impressionistic style, where the reader gleans details about French life, rather than having it shoved down their throat. The tone is engaging and familiar, as if narrated by your best friend over coffee.
Bob Burgess (the ex-All Black, now scientist) organises a job in Montpellier, the kids are uprooted, and away they go. There are initial regrets and teething problems, as reality hits, which are undercut with Burgess’ gentle humour. Their apartment for example: Burgess contrasts cockroaches with the picture postcard view. “We wrote romantically home of French doors opening on to balconies, neglecting to mention the balconies’ nerve-wracking slope towards the street.”
There is quite a lot about the kids and their new school, Clemence Royer. The principal “Gorbachev without the birthmark” – turns out to be “the only Frenchman with a conscience about the Rainbow Warrior, although we weren’t to know that at the time.” Yes, the Rainbow Warrior has just happened, and crops up from time to time through the book.
With the kids settled in their new school, Burgess explores the local scene. There is the butcher with his lewd salesmanship, the boulangerie in the Arab quarter, a tiger show that sets up in the square opposite their apartment: “One night we were kept awake by a tiger giving birth.” The “frighteningly feral” Helga, a lecturer at the university, takes charge of Burgess, thinking she should have a job – which leads to Burgess teaching English part-time at a language college.
Much time is devoted to the renewing of old friendships from 1971 when the Burgesses lived in Lyon (check out the 70s photo). Burgess moves smoothly between the 70s and the 80s, though I found this material to be more in the realm of personal memoir than travel writing, with its affectionate parade of old friends. By the end I had gained some insight into real French families, although I was soon getting couples confused. In a less able writer it would have seemed interminable.
Characters make brief appearances. There is the elderly Gilbert who survived World War 2 as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Lyon. Secret passages called traboules linked the streets of old Lyons, and “many of the Lyonnais Resistance avoided capture by ‘trabouling’ through old Lyon.” Vincent Graule is another, whom they track down to a tiny village in the mountains. The kids are surprised to be given bowls of jam to eat. There is a perfect day in Venice with old friend Anna, who also introduces them to Italian breakfasts – a bun with custard inside, and “the best coffee in the world.”
There is sadness from 1971 as well. Burgess writes openly about the cot death of their first child while they were in Lyon, and the kindness of French friends. Meanwhile, the kids are having trouble settling into school, and Burgess arranges for them to do a language immersion course. Family trips are detailed; for example, a touristy trip to London where the highlight was seeing Chess. “Only incredible self-restraint prevented us from singing along.” Oh, those lovable Kiwis. They do all the things you’re supposed to do in Europe, like visiting the Eiffel Tower and seeing David in Florence. There is some attempt at travelogue, a grape harvest for example, but we only get to hear about the quiche.
Finally, in the chapter entitled “Escape from Stalag Thirteen”, Burgess gets back into story-telling mode with an account of their departure from Montpellier and escape from the evil landlords, the Mesquins, who are trying to rip them off. Again friends come to the rescue: “At times like this one is grateful for streetwise friends who know their way round the law.”
If Allons Enfants could be a lesson to families intent on living overseas, Seasons in Tuscany is the single person’s guide to Tuscan rural life. Parker, a journalist apparently based overseas, is asked if he wants to house-sit in Tuscany. So begins a year at a farmhouse called San Clemente, near the small village of Trequanda.
Whereas Burgess is a self-described Francophile, Parker refreshingly takes the stance of ignorance: “Perhaps it was arrogant to assume I could simply walk into another country where the only language I knew was ‘Ciao, baby’ and ‘Sophia Loren’.” He dreads using the phone, because of his lack of Italian. He asks people to speak more slowly, but locals are “just not capable of speaking slowly for a hapless foreigner.” Trying to master the language, with difficulty, Parker admits “if learning fluent Italian was to be a project of years, survival in Trequanda was to be my primary mission.”
Yet he scrapes by, taking up village life and seeing something of the neighbourhood: “Within an hour I can view a pre-Christian Etruscan tomb, admire Michelangelo’s David, plunge into a steaming mineral pool or walk a battlefield where Hannibal defeated the Romans.” Various small towns are visited, such as Sinalunga, which was built on a hilltop to defend itself against armies over the centuries. Local farm stalls sell olive oil, pecorino and ricotta, cinghiale or wild boar salami and vino nobile.
His favourite town, Pienza, was created on instructions from Pope Pius II who wanted his birthplace to become the perfect Renaissance town: “Its tiny, narrow streets and alleys are a constant visual treat and, in summer, come alive with potted blooms.”
Parker is captivated by Siena. He compares the neighbouring area of Chianti with Tuscany, then goes on to cover historic sites such as the resort area of Tuoro sul Trasimeno, where two millennia ago 15,000 Roman soldiers were killed in an ambush by Hannibal’s army.
Classic guidebook stuff.
As a sub-plot to Tuscany is Parker’s developing relationship with an American woman, Nancy. She visits San Clemente, and eventually moves in with Parker. They share their loves and fears, eat out at local restaurants and see the sights. They go walking in woods beneath the ruins of a 700-year-old castle, and explore Florence. There isn’t a great sense of Nancy as a character, however, and it’s a little flat compared to Burgess’ narrative ability. It’s the old saw of being told, instead of shown – “It was the most sensational week for both of us” – and ends up sounding more like a travel guide.
On his own again, Parker finds out about olive oil from grandfatherly Elario. Elario and his brothers collect five different olive crops together to be pressed at the nearby town of Monfisi, and the system is laid out by Parker in detail: “a curious blend of ancient custom and modern technology.” And the best way to eat it, according to Elario? On bruschetta, which is toasted under the grill, rubbed liberally with garlic on both sides, then doused with olive oil. “And more garlic, enough to burn your mouth.”
Elario proves a goldmine when it comes to personal history. He spent a peasant childhood at San Clemente, when animals lived inside too, on the ground floor of the house: “in a section of the lounge was the horse’s stable. The rest of the lounge housed eight cattle.” Later too, Elario shares his war memories with Parker, over home-make wine and dried figs. How he and his family hid from Germans in a “centuries old escape chamber built by friars at Miciano, the big house further down the lane.”
Parker covers all the right things: truffle season, wild flowers, terracotta, festivals – a barrel race at Montepulciano and a cricket festival which turns out to be not the sport, as Parker had imagined, but the insect. There are intriguing details of rural Tuscany: the variety of wild mushrooms, African prostitutes on the side of the road to Siena, the nightmare of dealing with Italian tradespeople – “Many would arrive on jobs without the right tools, scanning our meagre toolbox for some implement that might suffice.”
Ultimately Parker offers a factual and historical perspective on living in Tuscany, while Burgess gives more of a personal tour – friends and family. In their different ways, both open a window on the experience of living in a foreign country. But to know the full story, I think in the end you just have to go and do it yourself.
Tina Shaw is a Waiheke novelist and writer, whose anthology of New Zealand travel writing, A Passion for Travel, was reviewed in our June 1999 issue.