14 Jul 2012

The Two Sides of Italy

As I've mentioned before (but will mention again because I'm literally counting down the days), I will very soon be off for a week or so in Italy. London seems to have forgotten what summer is about and instead of sun, we've had rain, rain, rain, rain. So lazy days of sunshine and pasta sounds heavenly to me and I can't wait to go. I've been preparing by reading non-fiction books about Italy and today I'll share my opinions of two of these with you - they each give an honest account of life in Italy but oh what different lives they tell of. 
"Extra Virgin" by Annie Hawes
This is the most wonderfully life-affirming story of two young British women, who are fed up by the London weather and price levels (oh do I know that feeling!) and flee to Italy for a summer of rose-pruning. In the small, traditional village of Diano San Pietro, Annie falls in love head over heels in a small hovel of a house that she and her sister buys on a whim. In the following years, they live part-time in the Ligurian mountains (to enjoy life) and part-time in London (to make money enough to enjoy life) and "Extra Virgin" is the story of how two very British women who know nothing about olives (the horror!!) learn to adapt to the Italian way of life where every piece of string or wood can be fashioned into furniture and where food is something that you forage for in the mountains and turn into feasts. 
The worst thing about this book is that it left me perpetually hungry for proper Italian food. Go away Pizza Express, I want a proper meal of antipasti, primo, secondo and homemade wine. 
It is a fantastic non-fiction book because Annie conjures up the characters with such vividness that they leap off the pages. It is a book about people and about the Italian spirit and it is absolutely gorgeous. This is la dolce vita sprinkled with village feuds and a dash of fresh olive oil. 
"Gomorrah" by Roberto Saviano
Have you been to Napoli? We went there a few years ago on a daytrip and I wasn't impressed. Everything was dirty and people were less than welcoming. It was a different Italy to the one I knew - which is mainly Liguria, Umbria, Piemonte, Tuscany and Rome. This was crime capital in a way that I hadn't imagined. At all. 
So when I started reading "Gomorrah", I had a clear picture of Napoli in my mind but it was nowhere near as horrible as the picture painted in this book. It's divided into sections focusing on the different types of crime happening in Napoli and spreading not only across Italy but across Europe and the world, like rings in water. There is the smuggling from China, the workers in small, factories in Napoli sewing designer clothes that end up as far away as the Academy Awards red carpet in Hollywood. There is the drug cartels, supplying Italy with cheap heroin and testing the drugs on volunteers who'll do anything for a free fix, even die. The toxic waste dumping and the mountains of landfill waste. And then there's the violence. Everyone in Napoli might not be involved with mafia-like gangs but everyone is a potential victim in their wars. 
It is not a happy read, it won't make you feel good. It will probably make you feel worried, even scared. But it is an important book because it deals with a topic that no one wants to touch out of fear for repercussions. When I closed it, having read the last page, I admired Saviano that he had the courage to write this book and hope that it will inspire others to do the same. 


  1. Italy is one of my all-time favorite places. Part of what I love is how different each area feels. I've been three times, and I've been to Napoli twice (though mostly just passing through). My experience: the first time, I was propositioned in the train station. Yes, really, I pretended I had no clue what the man was saying, though he graciously demonstrated. I then caught the eye of a policeman, and the man ran off. The second time it was just so crowded and dirty and, dare I say, unpleasant. Not the Italy I know and love. I was heading to Positano, which is absolutely amazing, but I thought nope. No Napoli for me.

    This book, though, sounds really interesting. I've always been fascinated with the mob. It seems something so old-fashioned, yet just a couple months ago, there were bombs going off in Sicily. Craziness. Thanks for the rec!

  2. I love love love Italy but Napoli was not a good experience. I am with you - it was dirty and crowded and I didn't feel safe on the streets. Positano, Amalfi and Capri was amazing though!