Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Footpath in Umbria by Nancy Yuktonis Solak

The book's full title is A Footpath in Umbria:  Learning, Loving and Laughing in Italy.  Memoirs about spending time in Italy are so bountiful that there are now sub-genres within the genre:  hyphenated Italians connecting with their ancestors' heritage, retirees embarking on a new life in a new country, immigrants attempting to set up a business in Italy, students trying to learn the beautiful Italian language, cooks trying to become Italian cuocos-chefs, and Italy as therapy.

That last sub-genre, Italy as therapy, is where I place the divorcees hoping to find peace-of-mind and new love in Italy.  It is also where this memoirs belongs, because the U.S. American author, who suffers from anxiety and a high-strung nature, finds solace in Italy's slower pace of life; Italy's more humane social interactions; Italy's wild nature, low-technology society, relaxed mindset, lovely sounding language, and the ease of making friends in Italy's sociable and accepting society.

The author admits this, when she first visits Italy:
Totally contrary to my genetic makeup, contrary to my usual behavior and preferences, contrary to all logic, I fell madly in love with Italy, its people and its chaos.

Her genetic makeup, as described by the author herself, is Type A, list-obsessed, sarcastic, hyper-competitive, order-seeking, routine seeking, anxious, very self-judgmental, socially restrictive, with depressive tendencies.  Although she does not name this trait, it seems to jump out from the book's text:  a tendency to miss social clues from other people, such as facial clues and body language, clues to other people's feelings and emotional states.

Most likely as a result of that trait, the book keeps us locked into the mind of the author, letting us see the world as she does, as something of a mystery, especially as to why people say and do what they do.  Suddenly, her need for routine and order makes sense, it is a way of managing the frighteningly chaotic world around her.  When the couple arrive in Italy, the author finds herself in a situation where the strange culture makes it normal for her to feel confused.  And strangers are aware that things must be confusing, so they go out of their way to help the couple manage life in Italy, welcoming them into social situations, and forgiving their, at times, awkward social behavior.  So the author's usual social anxiety is no longer a barrier to enjoying life.  She enjoys these new situations, situations that would normally cause her anxiety.

The author has a touching insight at one point, when contemplating why she loves books so much, a love that certainly lead her to become a librarian:
If only I could be as focused in my daily life as I am when my nose is in a book, I suspect I would not need as much time for reading and would spend more time living.
By "focused" is suspect she means "as aware of other people's inner states".  In a novel, the author tells us the character's inner state, bringing the character to life.  In real life, we have to discern other people's inner states in order to feel they are alive to us.  Italians are highly expressive people, verbally and physically, not afraid of showing exaggerated emotions in public, so I imagine discerning their inner states of Italians is not as difficult for the author as it might be at home in the U.S., in a community that shuns emotionality and verbosity.

She actually comments positively in the book on how verbal Italians are, and on their physical expression of their feelings.  This physically may have had an effect on her husband, because at one point in the book, the author comments that she is becoming better able to discern her husband's irritation by the increased tension in his body.  Being able to discern this, she comes to understand when his patience is tried to the limit, something she was unable to do in the past.

True to the author's need for order, the book, which I received as a review-copy, does not follow the usual chronological order of memoirs, but is instead grouped by subject matter.  So, intentionally or not, the book can be seen as a guide for the visitor to the various tasks necessary for daily life in Italy:  grocery shopping, general shopping, learning the language, looking for housing, telephoning home, posting letters and packages, getting around, making new friends,  getting your hair styled, using the internet, finding doctors and dentists, surviving in a hospital.

As her stay with her husband in Italy progresses, the author's anxieties soften to the point that she can embrace improvised activities and spontaneous social interactions.  She admits at that point:
This is how retirement is.  You run into something interesting and suddenly the plans you made that morning vaporize and you don't care one whit if they change completely.

Sadly, she relates that when she returns home, she reverts to her old habits.  While she may have changed in response to Italy's more relaxed, accepting, highly social, and much kinder culture, the culture of home has not changed.  It quickly has the old effect on her, making her high-strung nature return.  Italy is therapeutic for the author, but it is a therapy that must be taken continually to be effective.  Not a bad reason to move to Italy! 

The style of writing reminds me of a letter home to a dear friend, letting them know about the daily struggles of the writer's new adventure.  The book is scrupulously edited, with not a typo in sight!  There are fifty photographs that compliment the text perfectly.  This is an interesting read, about an unusual woman, written from her own unique perspective.  I suspect that what the author found most wonderful about Italy is really what so many others find wonderful, but they convince themselves that what they love most is the food, wine, and art.  Food, wine, and art do not give the same emotional jolt that a human connection does.  I believe it is Italy's moments of human connection that draw people back there, just as they draw this author back to Italy.

From the book's description:
Being a homebody, Nancy never would've spent a year in Italy had it not been for her husband's wanderlust. The couple didn't go there to buy or restore a house or to heal a trauma from the past. As ordinary boomers, they simply wanted to experience "The Dream" - to live in Italy.

They settled down in traditional Umbria, just east of Tuscany. Constrained by a strict budget, their experience took on challenges as diverse as getting accustomed to the vagaries of Italian appliances to gathering their own wood. Transportation was by train, bus, bicycle or footpath.

What neither of them knew when they began was how the adventure would challenge their habits, upbringing, and outlook on life. Most surprising of all was how the experience would challenge their relationship to each other.

A Footpath in Umbria is a celebration of the joys and revelations to be found by changing venues, whether it's living in another country or simply venturing cross town.

This book reminded me of another book that was adapted to film:  My House in Umbria.  The story is about a group of people who suffer a trauma in Italy, especially a young girl, and they all find solace in Italy's cultural "therapy".  Here is the trailer for the film:

A Footpath in Umbria is available as a Kindle e-book and as a paperback edition.  Here are links to the books at

Here is a beautiful and therapeutic two-minute postcard video of Umbria:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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