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BOOK REVIEW

Italy through an American's eyes

November 26, 2002|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

'Botticelli Blue Skies'

An American in Florence

Merrill Joan Gerber

University of Wisconsin Press: 288 pp., $26.95

*

Merrill Joan Gerber, who teaches creative writing at Caltech in Pasadena, is the quintessential reluctant traveler: one for whom the prospect of roaming translates not into visions of adventure and frolicking good times but into anxiety of the unknown and a longing for life's daily rhythms. Yet, as she recounts in her delightful travel memoir, "Botticelli Blue Skies," she is prepared to relinquish her distaste of roving as she embarks on what turns out to be a life-altering three-month sojourn accompanying her history-professor husband and his group of 38 college students who have signed up for a semester in Florence, Italy.

The entourage arrives in Tuscany, sets up housekeeping, figures out the bus system and does its best to see the important tourist sites while learning to live as Italians do. For these transplanted Americans, even the simplest tasks -- navigating the grocery store, figuring out the money, lighting the stove -- become both precarious and funny.

Detailing the day-to-day happenings of their stay, Gerber illustrates how she eventually makes peace with the exotic, learns to see beauty in that which initially frightens and uncovers the dogged resourcefulness all good travelers must have, enthusiastic at heart or not.

Most enjoyable are the scenes of quotidian Italian life, like the chore of washing clothes: "Unlike my American washing machine, which agitates in pit-bull furor, shaking the dirt out of the clothes, then spinning them wildly as if wringing their necks in revenge, this Italian version gives our clothes a gentle half-turn and then pauses for what seems three minutes before it gently shimmies them about again for a few seconds," she writes. "A cluster of soap bubbles appears in the round glass window and then vanishes while the clothes rest or gather strength for the next little jiggle." The predicaments are never-ending: Once the clothes are washed, how to hang them out on a clothesline that's five stories high? And then, what to do when a piece of purple underwear flies free and lands on a lower line, accessible only through another tenant's apartment? Depicted with keen perception, the tale illustrates the way travel wakes us up from our daily lives and compels us to see existence anew.

Having failed to study her Italian diligently before the trip, Gerber is hampered by her inability to communicate verbally, but is ingenious in surmounting this obstacle.

Trying to buy baking powder at the grocery store, she leads a clerk to the packaged cake section and tries to indicate that she wants something to make a cake rise. "To do this, I lift a cake over my head. This is becoming a little like a game show. He cocks his head as if trying to think of an answer. Then: the light bulb smile. Does he have the answer?" (He does.)

There are moments of human connection despite language and cultural differences, as well as times when the emotional edge of travel and discomfort have rubbed raw any sense of openness for new experiences. In the Vatican Museum, for example, Gerber hears "the thunderous hoof beats of thousands of tourists behind me" and after a grueling day of museum madness, she declares she's suffering from "Overload Art Syndrome," a condition that makes "the victim want to hop on a plane and go home."

When frustrated by the Florentine lack of efficiency, she indulges in arrogant Americanisms, redesigning the laws of Italy: "Bus drivers will be permitted to sell tickets on the bus to confused tourists

Handled with subtle humor and disarming honesty, Gerber's narrative ultimately uncovers a core truth about travel: To surrender to a place, not the version from one's fantasies but as it really exists, is the only way to experience it. (In Italy that means uneven cobblestones, odd rhythms and quaint customs, frustrations and breathtaking splendor.) And though the adventure may not always be a comfortable one, even reluctant travelers are welcome to join in.

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