I feel incredibly fortunate to have “met” so many interesting people through my work. And I say that in quotes because it’s only recently that I’ve started actually meeting many of them in person – most of them I meet only virtually. But given how much time we spend online, I’ve gotten to know some of them pretty well without ever being in the same room with them.
Still, even though I feel like I know quite a bit about a person, there are always things that surprise me about them. So when I got a chance to ask one of my fellow Italophiles, James Martin (who I’ve never met in person) a few questions recently, I was delighted by his answers. I hope you will be, too.
James is the man behind About.com’s Europe for Visitors site, and has his own blog called Wandering Italy. You’ll find a short bio about James at the bottom of this interview, including links to the various sites where you can read more of his writing. He’s got a great dry sense of humor, which I appreciate, and I was particularly interested in his experience buying property in Italy (something I haven’t even thought about trying yet).
>> James recently interviewed me, too, and posted it on his blog – so for the full circle interview treatment, head over to his site and read that one as well.
What first brought you to Italy? Was it love at first sight, or did it take some time to grow on you?
Italy took a lot of time to grow on me. My first visit in the mid 70s wasn’t so memorable – except for the memory of getting dropped at the border with France on a TEE train that was supposed to go to Milano but was so late that it just stopped. All four of us trying to get to Milano eyed the last conductor like lost children – tired, lost children.
Eventually he pointed us toward a little shed. Under the illumination of a single, naked bulb stood an enormous woman in uniform who grunted for us to put our bags on the table in front of her, whereupon she commenced ravaging them with her meaty paws. When she got winded from the exertion she motioned for us to pack them up and take them away. Eventually we made our way down an overgown path – weeds up to my belt – to a train with cars that had wooden planks running along the flanks instead of seats. I swear there was straw on the floor. After a long delay, we chugged ever so slowly to Milan. The station was closed, of course, so we tried to sleep on the benches. One of the guys couldn’t sleep, so he went out and stuck his toes in the fountain. We couldn’t find him in the morning until it was time to board the train. He’d been held in a police station and strip searched for his surprisingly criminal foot bath.
Italian food in the 70’s was nothing to write home about either, unless you happened to like canned tomato sauce swimming on overcooked and only partially drained spaghetti. There was no shortage of that.
Then one of those “economic miracles” occurred in the 80s that the government couldn’t see coming because of the intricate and pervasive underground economy. Monuments got cleaned of their diesel grime and marble suddenly shone brightly. People started taking pride in their cuisine. It was quite a transformation.
After doing five field seasons on an excavation in Sardinia and 7 weeks on an archaeological survey in Puglia I got to liking the people and food and archaeology so much I was hooked, especially on rural Italy.
As the writer behind the about.com European travel section, you clearly have lots of experience traveling in more parts of Europe than just The Boot – so what brings you back to Italy?
To tell the truth, there are many places in Europe I like equally. France, northern Spain, the Alentejo and Norte regions of Portugal are some of my faves. But learning a language – as I was forced to do when we worked with a mixed Sardinian and American crew and Martha and I had to shop and cook for the project – allows you to participate in a culture to the extent that it’s frustrating to travel to other countries right now. We’re always saying to each other, “gee, I could have said that so easily in Italian…”
Knowing the language and the customs of a people opens so many doors you’ll have trouble choosing which to enter.
When you’re in Italy, you live in a region of Tuscany called the Lunigiana. What made you settle there, and what makes that part of Tuscany special?
Well, we were looking for a similar experience to the one we had in Sardinia, where folks still make most of their own food and drink – and where you knock on a village door and a beautiful woman greets you and you hand her your 5 liter wine jug and she fills it for a buck a liter.
The Lunigiana is a beautiful place in the Apennines. There are over 160 small castles and castle ruins. My village of maybe 200 people produces some of Tuscany’s best olive oil – in addition to corn for polenta, prize-winning salami, honey, wine and some other stuff I’ve forgotten. I’m not talking about industrial production, people make this stuff for themselves and their friends. Luckily we’re their friends now.
And when you go to a village and you see that people leave their keys in the door when they go out, you gotta be impressed.
I’m going through the colossal pile of bureaucratic paperwork that is getting a legal permit to live in Italy, but I haven’t even contemplated buying property here. Is it as daunting a process as it seems? From your experience, is it something you’d suggest a potential home-buyer do with the help of a non-Italian (for example, English or American) intermediary?
The one thing that’s true in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” is that buying a house in Italy is easy – but a scooter? Impossible.
As long as you find a real estate pro and a lawyer who speak English, buying a house is really easy (as long as you have cash to pay for it). In fact, while we were in Italy Martha bought a piece of property – just dirt – adjacent to our home in California (so we could putter about building an Italian orto). I can tell you without a doubt it was easier to buy a house in Italy from the US than it is to buy an empty bit of land in the US while you’re in Italy. Believe it or not, it’s the paperwork.
As you mention on your site, exploring some of Italy’s less-well-known areas is often easier if someone has a bit of skill with the Italian language. What are your top three tips for people who don’t speak Italian but still want to get off the beaten path – and have a good experience?
Leave your shame at home. Really. Then learn the polite words. Greet shopkeepers with a cheery “buon giorno” or “buona sera”. Say “grazie” when appropriate. There are ways around all the rest.
There was a guy from New York we called “Pepino Tubatura” who signed up for our project in Puglia. He got that name after an experience in a restaurant when an Italian woman – with whom we had vowed not to speak English – asked us in Italian what was better in the US than it is in Italy.
Suddenly Pepino lurched from his chair and ran into an open field bordering the restaurant. He came back into the restaurant with a massive tangle of plastic pipe. “Questo” he said while pointing to the cobbled-together drain pipes, which in our dig house really didn’t like to drain water at all.
“Ah, tubatura!” she replied.
So Pepino learned the word for “pipes” in Italian, and somewhere in a small, Puglian village they’re probably still talking about the crazy American. With fondness, I’m assuming.
The third thing: admit your travel to an off-the-beaten-track location is an adventure and just go with it. Approach travel like a child; look at things in wonderment. Give up control. If you can’t decipher a menu, then point to something and see what comes up. (I can say I’ve eaten the brains of some animal or other when I did this in France and I didn’t die – nor did I get noticeably smarter, unfortunately). Better yet, let the chef (or more likely, the cook) decide. In small places like where I hang out in the Lunigiana, I never know the prices of what I order or am advised I should have. I’ve never been cheated. That’s one of the advantages of off-the-beaten-track places where people leave their house keys in the door.
People, universally and instinctively, want you to like their food and culture. Let them feed you what they want you to eat and you’ll see what I mean.
Get out there and experience the world. That’s the big message. A child could do it. If the kid had money, I mean.
James Martin has the best job in the world. He goes to interesting places and writes about them and even makes a living at it. He knows it’s the best job in the world because he’s tried a whole lot of occupations and passtimes, from being an electrical engineer to racing cars to digging in caves on an uninhabited island in Greece. He authors Europe Travel on About.com as well as his personal blog, Wandering Italy. He’s become enamored with slow and simple food, so he’s started La Cucina Povera to spread the word about the cooking of the poor and how much tastier and better for you it is compared to Industrial Crap Food.