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Italian Neighbors Paperback – October 7, 2003
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"Most foreigners' books about Italy fall into one of two categories--chronicles of infatuation or diaries of disillusionment. It's rare to read one like Italian Neighbors that combines accuracy with affection, analysis with lyricism."
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Industrial estates mingle with overblown villas, abandoned fields with factory farming, and fearful traffic races inches past houses and windows. Parks advises newcomers to find a local bar and befriend the natives, who otherwise resent the in-comers, and this tension between those coming into the North of Italy, whether from the South, from other nations, or as second-home gentrifiers, gives this account more grit and tension underneath the surface.
He finds, as at the bar, people living with two facades. The public one looks ragged, to evade taxes or scrutiny, but the private one opens up to reveal tradition, conformity, and secrets. "Anarchy without, ceremony within." (26) On the surface, Parks narrates nearly a year, from glaring summer through foggy seasons in hot or cold weather, back to glorious spring. His wife bears them a daughter at the end of this account (followed by "Italian Education"), so they will indeed settle down past their year's rent of their share of the noisy concrete villa on Via Colombine, next to the eternally barking dog Vega and above their crazy neighbor Lucilla.
My favorite chapters, as each comprises an elegant essay on a topic ordered chronologically, were on taxes, the way state jobs are coveted, and the local cemetery. Parks ends that section with mixed feelings about where his neighbors have settled in for so long, in life and in death. "Life is so carefully controlled in the Veneto, so attractively wrapped up: cappuccino until ten, then espresso; aperitivo after twelve; your pasta, your meat, your dolce in bright packaging; light white wine, strong red wine, prosecco; baptism, first communion, marriage, funeral; loculo, lumino, exhumation." (149) For, after 10 years, your bones will be dug up-- replaced by a more recent arrival, related to you, in your family plot, and it's off to the ossuary for your remains.
Parks writes well. He doesn't give us much sense of why he and his wife chose there, other than that he teaches at the university in Verona. He gives almost nothing about his past life or his wife's backstory as an Italian. While this focus allows us to concentrate on what he wants to share with us as a common period of adaptation, it risks making Parks and his wife more minor characters than protagonists. His neighbors, as the title indicates, take center stage. Still, I would have liked to know more about Parks, his wife, and how they picked Montecchio village.