26 June 2004
Travel writing is going the way of the telly: it’s all about personality, or at least personal narratives, rather than place. Add to this dubious trend the bloated value of British homes, and it’s no wonder our bookshops are piled with paperbacks in which Brits swap mortgages in the drizzle for farmsteads in the sun. As a former expat, I am particularly interested in the lies and deceit these escapists can spin. Ten years in Argentina, teaching, writing and doing assorted odd jobs, was a formative experience for me, but it certainly wasn’t all lemons, sun-baked terraces and rustic renovations. It was sometimes dark and lonely – just like life. Perhaps I went to the wrong place. Isobel Dusi’s Bel Vino (Pocket Books, pounds 7.99), a follow-up to Vanilla Beans & Brodo, describes a year spent in the medieval village of Montalcino in Tuscany, with her partner Lou, as an extended vacation in heaven.
Portraying the community around them and detailing their efforts to join it -which included renaming themselves Isabella and Luigi – she gushes about the famous Brunello di Montalcino winemaking family, local ecclesiastical issues and the “last remaining shoemaker”. At 500 pages, it’s an awful lot of rural harmony and hearty food even for the most accomplished armchair fantasists. Also, for all that the couple’s life in this stable, familiar EU country is utterly ordinary and middle-class, Dusi elevates her prose to an oddly dated, romantic register: she “dwells” in Italy, “tarries” on her walks, holds plates “aloft”. Modernity, it seems, cannot be allowed to infect the pure pleasure of a year lived at pre-industrial rhythms. From the same safe, idyllic stable comes Celia Brayfield’s Deep France (Pan pounds 7.99). Brayfield, an author of romantic comedies, spent a year in a village in the Bearn, and admits that her book is merely a record of other people’s (mainly Francophile expats) lives taking place around her, written as a parallel text while she worked on a novel. Sharp, succinct pen portraits of locals and literary allusions partially rescue a naive, generalising narrative (too many sentences begin “the French are like this”, “the French do that”), but the high points are the culinary anecdotes and authentic recipes. Which aren’t very high at all, and hardly constitute an original angle on the French interior. Far more specialist, but even more domesticated, is the American journalist Joan Marbles’ Notes from a Roman Terrace (Black Swan pounds 7.99). It’s based on a whopping 30 years living – or rather, gardening – in a 16th-century palazzo in Canale, near Rome. History, culture and life get in here and there like so many weeds, but they are all subservient to grass-cutting and peonies. Moodier and too intelligent to be merely opportunistic, Sofka Zinovieff’s Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens (Granta, pounds 14.99) comes to us in a year when the Greek capital seems to be getting only bad press. Countering the hysteria of wilful racism, this is an insightful account of a chaotic and exhilarating city, where the writer had personal as well as cultural obstacles to overcome. Zinovieff, an anthropologist by training, had fallen in love with Athens as a student. This time round, she takes with her an expatriate Greek husband and two young daughters. Committed to staying, she tells a story of adapting to Hellenic habits with wit, wonder and occasional bouts of well-managed exasperation. If Zinovieff’s book represents the clever, critical end of the genre, How to Get a New Life (BBC Books, pounds 12.99) is the dumb, desperate end. The ultimate collusion between two insidious forces – reality shows and me-culture – it is couched in an excitable prose specially created for tie-ins (“Hey, believe it or not, you too can live in fantastic France, ideal Italy, sun-baked Spain”) and presents the big move as a series of boxes to tick, with the margins full of first-person accounts of how “Dave and Petunia” or “Terry and Janet” got on in Pisa or Pennsylvania. The real challenges of expat life – language, culture, breaking ties with family and friends – are skirted over breezily in what is, I suspect, a guidebook for people who will never move any further than the kitchen between one episode of the TV series and the next. The BBC can hardly be blamed for supplying what the market wants. Its prosaic manual on removal is merely a response to the previous four poetic books by these travelling ladies with their divine homes in the Med: if we are not to burn with olive-green envy, we want to have a crack at living abroad ourselves. But what is missing in all this is the possibility of failure – the difference between a story we yearn to be in and one we really enjoy. Life is just too twee and sorted in these Mediterranean memoirs. Everyone I knew in Buenos Aires lost something while living there – a job, money, sanity, a partner. To make a home abroad is to live in a heightened state of awareness – at least at the beginning – as all the social rules and rites you know are abandoned. Then – and this is perhaps even more drastic – you slowly, imperceptibly, let the locality seep in and, one day, you’re a tourist no longer. It’s not about building homes as much as building a life. And, finally, I have a confession: I did once buy a place in Buenos Aires – a mere caja of an apartment – but I haven’t got it any more, a lesson that even bricks and mortar aren’t quite so solid when you leave this house-proud isle. No one ever talked about mortgages, either, and few Argentines killed time dwelling on a life abroad (in England, say), so if that’s your gig – talking about it and toasting the 20 per cent increase in house prices over the past month alone – stay put. There are plenty of books to keep you dreaming.