Posted by: koolwine | August 9, 2010

Italy: I’ll Steal You Away

Country: Italy

Local Name: Italia

Title: I’ll Steal You Away

Author: Niccolò Ammaniti (Italian); Translated by Jonathan Hunt

Published: 1999  Pages: 405

Acclaim: Best-selling author; youngest ever winner of the prestigious Viareggio-Repaci Prize

Time Period: 1990s

Summary: In small town Italy, the lives of a bullied 12-year-old and a narcissistic 44-year-old guitar player intersect in surprising ways.

My opinion: In I’ll Steal You Away, Ammaniti spins a tale reminiscent of Robert Cormier (I Am the Cheese; The Chocolate War) but with some sexual escapades and a sense of humor thrown in.  Although the book has its share of deeply funny moments, be prepared for a dark ending and lots of ugly truths.  Characterizations are remarkably detailed and complex.

In my book (or how Italy has affected me, and maybe you, too):

Guilty conscience
Sabotaged by Walt Disney again!  Once I saw the movie, I lost all interest in reading Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio, especially after I heard that in his version Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket!  Disney’s Americanized Pinocchio served as my introduction to Italy, although aside from the characters having Italian names (FYI, Pinocchio is the Tuscan word for pine nut), I don’t remember there being anything particularly Italian-esque about the movie.

Now that’s Italian!
My love of Italian food started with canned Franco-American’s SpaghettiOs and Chef Boyardee Ravioli.  I ate bowls and bowls of each, topped with Kraft Parmesan cheese (the kind in the green can, of course).

When I reached puberty, I learned that the best Italian food came delivered in greasy cardboard boxes.  My favorite pizza-noshing memories include Pizza Hut pepperoni pizzas ordered by dial phone on Saturday night and shared with my closest high school friends while talking about boys and watching VHS movies.

All that red sauce gluttony came to an abrupt end when I developed a food intolerance to tomatoes.  Thank God for alfredo sauce – in college I lived on fettucine alfredo TV dinners, and gorged on salad and breadsticks at The Olive Garden.

Then I got a new roommate who asked, “Why are you eating that all that of junk?” and “Why are you supporting chain restaurants?”  He encouraged me to create my own pasta dishes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh vegetables, kalamata olives and Parmesan cheese that I grated myself (it comes in blocks!).  His influence was mighty: over ten years later, I’m still fixing similar meals.

Thinking back on all of the “Italian” food I’ve eaten has made me realize that my gustatory experience of Italy had been hijacked by unhealthy processed food products in much the same way that my cultural experience of Italy had been warped by Walt Disney.

But let me end on a sweet note.  A friend introduced me to gelato, the Italian version of ice cream (it has less butterfat than regular ice cream), right here in Missoula, Montana at Caffe Dolce.  Personally, I scream for stracciatella (sort of like chocolate chip) and bacio (chocolate hazelnut).  When my husband and I visited Italy last year, we made sure to indulge twice daily at a local gelateria.

I still have the souvenir pen that my parents bought me when we visited Venice in the late 1970s.  One side proclaims “venezia” in bold red letters next to a drawing of the winged lion sculpture from Piazza San Marco.  On the other side is a canal scene.  When I tip the pen right or left, a gondola slides across the canal.

To my huge disappointment (and despite what must have been large amounts of whining), my parents did not shell out the lira for an actual gondola ride.  So rather than remembering Venice as a really cool city with water everywhere and lion statues (I loved lions when I was a kid), the Venice trip ended up being stored in my memory bank as The Place Where We Didn’t Ride in a Gondola.

Cinematic experience
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel with the same name, the 1999 movie  The Talented Mr. Ripley is a veritable travel ad for Italy.  Filmed in Rome, Venice and Naples and starring a knockout cast, this dark drama has defined the country for me.   When my husband and I visited Rome last year, we searched out filming locations and dined at Otello’s, the restaurant that Matt Damon’s character describes as “on delle Croce, just off the Corso” which turned out to be accurate directions.

There’s no place like Rome
Anything goes in HBO’s 2005-2007 series Rome, which depicts a city and its people without any Christian taboos.  My jaw dropped numerous times.  If any teacher ever showed this in school they’d be fired, but their students would be a lot more fired up about ancient history.  The first season depicts the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the second the power struggle between Mark Antony and Octavian.

My excellent Italian adventure
Mom and Dad took us on a trip to Italy last year. We traveled to Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Siena.  It was my first time experiencing a foreign country as an adult.

Colossal bloodshed
My husband and I have thoroughly (and often) enjoyed watching Russell Crowe fight for vengeance and his life in the movie Gladiator.  Our first stop when we arrived in Rome: the Colosseum.

Think of any other “tourist” destination where thousands have died or were buried – battlefields, concentration camps, cemeteries – and the atmosphere is subdued, respectful, teary-eyed.  Why would the Roman Colosseum, where an estimated 500,000 people and a million animals met their deaths in an area roughly the size of a running track, elicit a response from visitors more akin to morbid fascination and giddy excitement?

A coworker who’d studied in Florence recommended that we climb to the top of the Duomo (the dome of the city’s famous cathedral).  Sounded like good advice; we’d get an outstanding view of the city from one of the world’s greatest works of architecture.  Before buying our tickets we were warned that people with a fear of heights should reconsider.  No problem.  We bought the tickets.  We started up.  There were two staircases, one for people going up and one for people going down.  The stairs were normal stair-width at first.  Then they spiraled and narrowed.  The higher we climbed, the tighter the  space and the more people there were.

Then the up and the down staircases merged into one very narrow staircase.   So narrow that the tourists going up had to alternate turns with the tourists heading down.   Our up line was stopped and there was a seemingly endless stream of people pushing by us on their way down.  There were now large numbers of people ahead of us and behind us.

Being trapped in small spaces makes me nervous.  Relying on the politeness   of other tourists makes me nervous.  I cursed the Italian sign-makers who made a huge deal out of acrophobia and no mention whatsoever of claustrophobia, even though the claustrophobic portion of this experience comes long before you have made it to the top of the Duomo and any possible height issues.

After what seemed like years but was probably less than ten minutes, the line moved and we emerged from the world’s scariest staircase high above Firenze.  While trying to appreciate the view over the panicked percussion of my heart, I overheard an English-speaking tourist exclaim, “Wow! That was easy.  The last time I did this it took two hours to climb up and it was about 90 degrees in there.”

That’s what they should print on the warning sign.

A little Pisa America
Finally, an Italian tourist destination that had plenty of working and clean bathrooms!  After having to cut short our visits to both the Colosseum and the Forum due to out-of-order toilets and long, barely-moving bathroom lines, the  Leaning Tower of Pisa’s facilities were almost United States-worthy (almost, because it cost .30 euros to use them).  God bless America and its numerous public and free restrooms.

A banner horse race
I’m a big fan of horse racing, so I was eager to visit Siena, the home of Il Palio, one of the world’s most famous horse races.  Held twice a year in the center of  town (called the Piazza del Campo), the Palio is a no-holds-barred affair: jockeys ride bareback  and are permitted to use whips on opposing riders, falls are common on the sharp turns and riderless horses are eligible to win.

Only ten horses compete in each race, and each horse represents one of Siena’s 17 neighborhoods, or contrade.   The Selva (Forest) contrade won the first of this year’s races on July 2 .  Click here to watch the race. The second race will be run on August 16.  I’ll be rooting for the Drago (Dragon) contrade; we have a plate with their emblem on it hanging in our living room.

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