The Tuscan countryside has inspired novels, films, memoirs, and blogs, most famously Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun which was diluted into an airy Diane Lane vehicle in 2003. Adding a distinct (and thankfully) realistic voice is Jennifer Criswell with her excellent At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life. The memoir is a sharp rebuke to the hazy, soft-focus fluff that dominates travel memoirs – especially those about Tuscany. Criswell’s refreshingly honest about her experience; she writes of an arduous time that ultimately was rewarding, but was still trying.
Criswell’s title refers to a popular refrain she repeated to herself like a mantra when something went wrong: at least you’re in Tuscany. If you’re broke, at least you’re broke in Tuscany. You’re lonely, well, at least you’re lonely in Tuscany. The chant came in handy when Criswell watched in dismay as her nest egg shrunk because she couldn’t get a job; or found herself sitting home alone on important events because she was still seen as an outsider among her fellow villagers; or when her citizenship process took more hits than a target at a shooting range.
What is great about Criswell’s book is that she’s obviously in love with Montepulciano, but it isn’t a blind love. She’s charmed by the beautiful landscapes, the sumptuous food, and the interesting people. But thankfully she doesn’t reduce the locals to adorable caricatures – you’ll be glad to know there are no wizened vecchia who was an amateur sage, dispensing nuggets of wisdom; and there are a few men in the book that could double as central casting for the Italian romantic leading man, but Criswell gives them more shading, making them human, even if they appear intermittently.
With her trusty Weimaraner Cinder, in tow, Criswell writes of a complex journey that she takes when leaving everything she knew behind in New York to make a new life in Italy. It’s not an easy decision and readers will wonder outloud along with the author whether she made a wise decision.
But it isn’t all hardship and struggle. Criswell’s careful to ensure that her readers get the beauty of Montepulciano. Her description of local cuisine is especially strong – I could actually taste the various cheeses she ran across, especially the pecorino con pepe nero – a particular favorite of Criswell’s, a sheep’s milk cheese studded with black peppercorns. The author is also an accomplished baker, and was able to pay back her friends for their kindness with baked goods – especially fun is her description of making do with the ingredients she had at hand – a fun tip: adding lemon to milk will do in a snap if you can’t get your hands on some buttermilk.
There are also great doses of humor – a lot of it at Criswell’s expense (though she’s always in on the joke and maintains a dignity, even when she was pushed to some dire straights due to her financial situation); one great example was when she hung her laundry to dry, but forgot about it, only to discover her cover frozen solid on the laundry line. You can actually hear the crunch of the frozen duvet as Criswell writes, “I … stretched out to grab the duvet and heard a cracking sound, like a tree branch splintering…I continued to tug furiously at the duvet, the cracking noises seeming to echo accusingly throughout the valley.”
As tough as Criswell had it, it’s undeniable that once settled, she put together an enviable life. She’s smart because even though she’s at home in her Tuscan village, she understands that she’ll never be one of the community, she was still accepted. She created a wonderful family of friends – some expats, some locals. Criswell’s memoir is head and shoulders above the other kinds of travel books, because it’s inspirational and uplifting, but not condescending or pie-in-the-sky. A highly recommended read.
Click here to buy At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life by Jennifer Criswell on amazon.com.