Insider Outsiders: How to Write About Greece and Italy
Alex Aciman on two new memoirs of life in Greece and Italy and the tricks that expatriate life can play.
There’s a bridge I like to sit on during summer evenings in Paris. There are no benches, and I don’t know its name, even though I can name in order all the others; it isn’t cobbled like the Pont Neuf or gilded like Alexandre III. It’s paved like a modern highway and floats quietly between Île de la Cité and Île St-Louis.
When I think of Paris, I think of that bridge, and when Paris comes up in conversation, I always want to bring up that little pocket of the world, because even though I’ve spent only a small amount of time there, I’ve learned that in Paris the smallest bridges can give you a backside view of Notre Dame or of the right bank cinematically lit by a series of indolent street lamps. I’ve found a strange sort of second home on that bridge—a home that exists only in the way I imagine it exists when I must be elsewhere. Gertrude Stein describe this symptom in her Parisian memoir, Paris France: “Writers have two countries,” she writes, “the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic ... It is not real but it is really there.”
Perhaps what Stein means is that that writers long for a fabled elsewhere and as a result never truly live in their second homes even if they are indeed there.
In his new travel memoir, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo, Tim Parks takes this aphorism rather seriously; Parks lives in Italy but seems to spend his time observing the country. Italian Ways is a detailed study of the Italian mind in action, of Italy as a nation and the way its gears turn, and if there is one thing Parks makes abundantly clear in his new book, it is that Italy is almost a Third World country masquerading as a First World country. Parks lives in the ironic inferno of Italian bureaucracy as he commutes by train between Verona and Milan, the town where he lives and the one where teaches. Already to live in one city and teach at a university in another Parks had to brave a River Styx of cumbersome paperwork.
Anybody who has ever traveled in Italy knows that Parks’s account is, if anything, an understatement: instead of two ticket booths open, there is often only one or none. Instead of four varying railway ticket prices, there are a dozen. This is perhaps because in Italy, Park suggests, it seems counterintuitive to work at making life easier. By virtue of the fact that one has to work for it at all, things have, if anything, been complicated and have been made more difficult. Parks encounters this mode of thinking whenever he has to talk to any officials, who would rather make empty threats, hoping that commuters will comply, so that they can avoid actually enforcing the rules of the railway company; for railway workers the idea of being “on duty” is nonexistent. Why would anyone ever choose to live there? Parks tacitly offers an answer: cut through the mess, and there is beauty in the inescapable Italian menefreghismo.
In his opening chapter Parks incisively examines a keystone of the Italian way of life: conducting business and living life on their own set of terms and principles with disregard for what the European Union—or the rest of the world, for that matter—might think. Parks discusses the use of pseudo-Anglicisms in Italian slogans; he writes about the FastTicket signposts in train stations and the “habit of offering a translation that is not really a translation but as it were an Italian fantasy of how English works directed more at an Italian public, as a marketing operation, than at an English-speaking public.” Italians adopt English, reinventing the language as they please rather than learning how it actually works. Later in that same segment he even further analyzes what seems to be a pervading philosophy: Italy refuses to see itself even as an earnest member of the EU; the country’s mantra is not only something along the lines of “we are different,” but more accurately “who are we kidding?” As a result, Parks suggests that everything in Italy is done with a shroud of irony and in the name of an ongoing battle against ever letting go of that irony, especially with regard to trains: “To make the trains run on time would be proof that Fascism had achieved this [reform] ... A compromise is sought in image. Italy will be made to look fast and modern. There will be FastTicket windows even if they make the process of buying tickets more complex and anxiety-ridden than before.” These very observations cannot be made by oblivious railway workers or even by Italian commuters; observations such as these are made by someone who almost belongs and who is almost a native—one who knows the country well enough to understand its functions, one who loves a country for it all the same, and yet one who cannot, in good faith, say call it their one true home. Parks can navigate the stations, he knows the various prices and the stops, but could an Italian archaeologically investigate the aftereffect of a fundamental recalcitrance to the fascist efficiency that took over the nation for a short period of time? To anyone who has dealt with Italy, these observations begin to seem callously hilarious.
More like Parks than Stein is Christian Brechneff, whose new memoir, The Greek House, catalogs an adventure and love affair with a small Greek island that began more than 40 years ago. Brechneff opens by describing an erstwhile small-town Greek island where everybody knew everybody and which has now become a tourist destination. He recalls his first visit: the heat, the lines, the confusion upon first arriving, and the ever-so-Western travel tradition of making friends with other Westerners whom you probably wouldn’t be able to stand back home. Despite that this book is a “Childe Harold”–like reverie in which the storyteller seems to lose interest in writing the book altogether, The Greek House, like Italian Ways, lives Stein’s principle of engaging in a second reality that is ultimately only a romance.
Both Parks and Brechneff tussle with the idea of being almost insiders. In a true expatriate fashion, the authors have aggressively and eagerly adopted new homes without completely giving themselves to them. Brechneff takes pride in the idea that in Greece a second version of himself was born; on the island of Sifnos, he is not Christian, but instead he is called Christo. And yet, as adored as this new identity is, it remains only a mask he wears on occasion when he is reminded that it exists.
More than just living like Greeks or Italians, these writers peer into the way their respective adoptive countries function; they are able to track changes over months or even decades and yet are only able to do so because they are, as Stein describes, still denizens of elsewhere, only living in a Greek or Italian romance. They are, in short, writing books about being insiders as outsiders.
When we travel to new places, we begin to take note of things that locals would overlook: trains run 15 minutes late; the ship to an island is eerily rickety. The way Parks and Brechneff fall in love with their adoptive homes is profoundly characteristic of expatriation altogether. Cultural or national idiosyncrasies charm us as visitors and shape our understanding of a country perhaps only because they are novel, and so both Parks and Brechneff find something lovable in things that are inherently inconvenient. But as they stay in these new countries and develop a way of life in them, they no longer make much of these charming inconveniences—Parks soon enough doesn’t dwell on the lines or on the sly Italian who decided to push in and buy his ticket without waiting his turn. But he still notices them. This is perhaps the second phase of finding a new home: slowly realizing that we sometimes no longer notice what natives still do not notice.
Both Parks and Brechneff take great pleasure in remaining only almost insiders for this reason. They take pleasure in feeling almost numb to the things that would freak tourists out. And yet, to ever be anything but almost insiders would rob them of the ability both to remain constantly critical of their surroundings, its habits and functionaries, but also of the ability to watch themselves slowly becoming accustomed to these once jarring things. In short, by becoming Greek or Italian, they would ultimately lose the ability to watch themselves and enjoy becoming slowly more Greek or Italian. When we find new homes, we take pleasure in getting used to a discomfort, because it means that we are finally not only starting to fit in and that we are better than other tourists who do not know the ins and outs, but we are better than the versions of ourselves who arrived years or months earlier as clueless tourists. Our desire to feel like a local dies when we no longer take pleasure realizing how deftly we have adopted local customs.
As Parks and Brechneff, and even Stein, demonstrate, there is a difference between traveling and setting up a seemingly permanent campsite in another land. There is something about relocating that makes one even more of a local than the locals themselves. Natives do not take a certain pleasure in taking note of the peculiarities of life in their homeland, nor do they take as much pleasure in being Greek or Italian as expatriates take in slowly realizing that they have become infinitely more Greek or Italian than they could have ever pictured themselves becoming. The three authors offer us portraits of lives faced with other possible permutations of themselves—lives forced to consider where they actually belong. We cannot finish these books without considering whether we too maybe almost belong elsewhere; which customs would we examine, the railways, perhaps, or the slow introduction of espadrilles into a Greek island community? Is there really a place that is so right for us that we would rather admire it than become part of it? Does this place even exist for any of us? Yes, as Stein should have said, it is real, but we are not really there.