I have itchy feet. Spring always brings it on, the urge to run far from the office and have an adventure in some foreign land, and every spring I manage somehow to resist it. But only with intense literary aid. If I did not have travel memoirs to escape into at these desperate moments, who knows what would happen.
Right now, two of the three books I’m reading are travel-focused: Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, about an English couple who moved to Andalusia in southern Spain, and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim by Harry Bucknall, about walking the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. They are both perfectly suited to my mood and I can’t decide which I like more. Farming in rural Spain is far from my idea of perfection – or even, let’s be perfectly honest, something I could tolerate for more than a week – but Stewart has won me over. On the other hand, the Via Francigena fascinates me, as all pilgrimage routes do, and it’s one of the few pilgrim routes I could see myself doing one day. This is why I keep flipping between the books, loathe to neglect either. Bucknall at breakfast and before bed, Stewart to accompany me to and from work. For someone who rarely has multiple books on the go, this is a shocking aberration.
Of course, these are not the first travel memoirs I’ve read this year. Let us be serious. They are the fourth and fifth, following the excellent trio of I’m Off Then by Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian’s account of walking the Camino de Santiago (okay, that makes it sound dire and I promise it is not), Falling in Honey by Jennifer Barclay, about an English woman who visits and then moves to a remote Greek island, and, my favourite of the bunch, Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson.
After finishing university, Katherine Wilson moved from America to Naples to take up a three-month internship at the U.S. Consulate, following her family’s tradition of complimenting classroom learning with an “experience abroad”. Her parents had done the same and had marvellous memories. Naples, however, was not the vision of a European experience her family had in mind for her. Upper-class overachievers who graduate from Princeton go to Tuscany, not the seedy south. But upper-class overachievers can rebel too, albeit in a very small way (government service not being a particularly rebellious pursuit, even in Naples).
In Naples, Katherine finds her introduction to her new city through the Avallone family. Salvatore, a twenty-three year old law school student, will go on to become her husband. But the book is really about Katherine’s relationship with Raffaella, the glamorous and eminently practical matriarch of the Avallone family, and the lessons Katherine absorbs from her about Italian culture and cooking – and the management of Italian families.
To an alarming extent, I could identify with Katherine who “spent my childhood overachieving at private schools, and in college I could have majored in Surpassing Expectations or Making Mommy and Daddy Proud”. She is not apologetic about her financial independence and I loved the family’s attitude towards trusts: “interest could be skimmed off for emergencies, but the phrase tapping into capital was akin to shooting up heroin.” As someone whose days are spent doing financial planning, this is music to my ears.
I loved this book. Katherine writes well about food and the Italian food culture – and about her conflicted relationship with it when she first arrives in Naples, pudgy and suffering from a binge eating disorder. It is a warm and funny and kind book, a memoir not just about discovering a new culture but about growing up and coming into a new family.