All Things Italy March 2022

March 25, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Visions of gardens like this one in Fiesole entice many to travel to Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy

Dear Friends: 

I’ve finally done it. I’ve booked my first flight to Italy since before Covid shut down the airlines three years ago. The deed is done and the departure day draws nearer by the week. Yet I face the future with some fear and trepidation as well as excitement. 

Russia’s war on Ukraine is, of course, one reason for the mixed emotions. What might happen in the rest of Europe? What right do I have to travel for self-interest, when others are losing their lives or most all they hold dear? The questions of “mights” and “rights” can be enough to paralyze a person. But I have not stopped my plans.

A social media post from November 2020–I was “Keeping the Faith” in future travel & renewed my passport.

But the plans are uncertain. As I learned from Covid, anything might happen to change the travel industry. Nonetheless, I am moving forward, even with the uncertainties. That said, beyond the ticket purchase, I have not solidified any itinerary. Instead, I’m attempting to savor every moment of the planning. Will I stay in Rome, making it a “home base”?  Or will I choose somewhere further south?  AirBnB searches ensue. I select the heart icon, saving several gems for a future look. Should I try to avoid the summer heat and stay further north, in the Piedmont, or Lombardy, perhaps? How many of the “saved” lodgings which entice me now will be available later?  

Despite such niggling (anxiety provoking?) questions, there are some clear certainties: I am NOT leading a small group, I am NOT attending a conference (at least, not right now), and I AM beginning a sabbatical leave from Missouri State in mid-May, as soon as spring grades are submitted. I DO have a list of friends I want to see again. And I DO also have a list (almost as long) of places in Italy I have never seen, a few of which I hope to visit.  

As I chat with friends about the future (as I did over meals this past weekend), and I mention all the unknowns, they ask, “well, what are you going to do?” and “what do you want to do?” I quickly turn to rattling off some of the certainties. And I add that I am trying to trust my gut and lean in to what I know about myself: I usually don’t have a problem figuring out how to spend my time. And there is always at least one writing project in the works . . . .

Why share all this info with you here? It is connected to “All Things Italy,” of course. My book Engaging Italy is due out in less than two weeks, and it’s the primary reason I began this newsletter. What’s next, I’ve been asking myself? What follows the post-partum period of book production? And how are future projects connected to my love for Italy?  Rather than answer those questions completely now (I don’t have the answers!), I am simply sharing a bit more of what’s on my mind: a new blog on “trailing spouses,” a review of a romance by Frances Mayes, and an appeal.  

Trailing Spouse or Career Carver?  

Are you a “trailing spouse”–or have you known any? Are you part of a dual career couple? Have you had to “carve” a career when awoke to find yourself in a new situation? These questions drove the blog I wrote for SUNY Press as part of their women’s history month series.

A woman in black dress and hat sits with young boy in her lap and girl at her side
Emily Bliss Gould (1825-1875) with Venetian Bartoli children, from Italo-American Schools at Rome [1874], New-York Historical Society.

In the blog I reference 19th-century women writers: activist Emily Bliss Gould and translator Caroline Crane Marsh (both featured in Engaging Italy). And I mention recent bios about 20th c. women Charmian Kittridge London and Frida Kahlo (thank you Iris Dunkle & Celia Stahr).  Here’s the first part of the blog:

 In the era of dual-career couples, the phrase “trailing spouse” seems anachronistic. It is a throwback to an age when the spouse—a woman—simply stopped whatever formal education or professional development she had achieved to follow the husband’s career, wherever it might lead. The moniker conjures an image less flattering than an RV trailing a Dodge Ram. 

In the worst case, the trailing spouse is merely an appendage—an unwanted tail, wagging behind as a vestige of some lower evolutionary status. In a slightly better view, she may be deemed supportive “helpmeet,” the important “woman behind the man.” Her life in the shadows of his calling is considered “lesser than,” no matter how supportive and important.  When we employ contemporary experiences with committed relationships and careers to approach the stereotype, however, we may begin to rethink the metaphors and see exceptions which break the type. 

Follow the link to read the rest . . . .  And then consider how Frances Mayes’s novel Women in Sunlight carries on this theme. 

Women in Sunlight: A Dreamy (and Inspiring?) Romance 

I’m not sure that I would call Frances Mayes’s 2019 novel, Women in Sunlight, a “beach read,” but it’s definitely one for an escape from the everyday doldrums in the dreary darker months. The title calls to us to hearken to the light. And the cover image drew me, a lover of water, with more than its splash of yellow gold. I saw the back of a female body, in a bathing suit (as they were once called), lunging into aqua blue waters, and I felt myself leaping as well—off the bluffs or granite boulders of an Ozarks or New Hampshire lake. I recall the feeling of flight, or free fall, the splash, the surge downward with gravitational force, and then the popping to the surface—all feelings of grand release and power, wrapped up in a few brief moments.

A copy of Women in Sunlight, loaned to me by a friend

When we’re young and first learn to jump into deep water, the feeling is so exhilarating that we do it again, and again, and again. Just for the momentary thrill. And then something happens to many of us. We lose the excitement of taking the leap and the plunge. 

Frances Mayes took the leap and the plunge years ago—when she bought property in Italy and eventually left a US position as an English professor. She turned to writing about that life, in her well-known works of non-fiction, Under the Tuscan Sun (1997) and Every Day in Tuscany (2011). This fictional romance, Women in Sunlight, draws from the same experiences.

The autobiographical novel takes the view of the expat US writer Kit Raines, living in Tuscany now for many years. But Mayes’s intensifies the perspective (and her non-fictional accounts) with age and number. Three other women, all over fifty, take off to Italy together to search and discover their identities while entering a new phase of life. Their perspectives add to those of Raines, the writer.

Yes, art, artistic passion, and romance are a part of the tale (as are ex-husbands, widowhood, and troubled adult “children”).  Mayes captures adroitly the myriad emotions of later life. She makes many readers believe, at least momentarily, all things are possible to her who believes. Yet, as my friend Leslie Basham responded when I shared a few comments about Women in Sunlight on social media: “I wish starting over could be that simple.”   

 “I wish starting over could be so simple.”


Read the romance and see what you think. I found quite engaging the literary allusions winding through Raines’s (and Mayes’s) writing. Raines is composing a biography of a literary friend and colleague, recently deceased. The other characters’ artistic desires–met through gardening, mixed media visual arts, and selling antiques–I found equally inspiring. And the insights to the struggles with parenting (and marriage) capture the complexities true to life.  It is definitely a woman’s book and is—as most romances are—neatly tied up with happy endings. Perhaps you will “wish that starting over could be that simple.”

“Off the Beaten Track” and “Italy by Design” 

Since last month’s newsletter went out, three friends have contacted me to ask advice about upcoming trips to Italy and their desires to “hang out with the locals.” As usual, I was delighted to be asked and likely responded with (also the usual) TMI! Two of these asked about Naples and the Amalfi coast—one of my favorite areas. But what could I say other than “get ready for crowds of tourists”?

I shared that reality, perhaps breaking some bubbles of their constructed dream worlds. But I couldn’t exactly say “there is no ‘off the beaten track’ on the Amalfi Coast.” Instead, I explained how under-visited and how rich in history Naples is—for those who have time and inclination to climb its steep hills, to see its gritty underside, to risk more than “the beautiful” picturesque and gentrified scenes of its surrounding coastline.  I shared a list of sites and suggested day trips.  

Brochure for small group trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast recently arrived in my mailbox . . .

Two days later (no lie!) a brochure for an alumni trip arrived in our mailbox. Ten days on the Amalfi Coast. I scanned the itinerary. It almost exactly matched my suggestions. I admit, I was quite pleased.  The experience reminds me that for some time I’ve considered creating “Italy by Design” consulting. For years I’ve offered advice to friends traveling to Italy. So much information is out there on the Internet, and yet people seem to want to talk to people they know. Does it make sense to offer specialized consulting without being a travel agent? What do you think?  

Some Appeals 

Will you be in Italy this summer? Do you have questions about your plans? Would you like to meet up? Or, would you like to be part of a fall trip (think late October or early November)? 

Are you part of a group or organization—a book club, a historical society, etc.–who looks for speakers? (See my Events–future & past–for some ideas.) 

Feel free to reach out, as I am looking ahead to the summer and fall months and would love to have your assistance!  

The spring is solidly booked, and I have writing projects and deadlines for summer. But I would be happy to work with you, as your needs and my time allows. 

Since the paperback edition of Engaging Italy will be out October 1 (with pre-orders in August), I’m especially planning for events to coincide with that availability. Between now and then, consider asking your library to order a hardcover edition, for 30% at SUNY Press for the rest of March for Women’s History Month with the code XWHM22.  Or, consider writing a review . . .

Want to write a review? Request a review copy of Engaging Italy here.

Meanwhile, I hope you keep enjoying your engagement with All Things Italy, If you’re so inclined, use the buttons below to share it with a friend.

Upcoming Events

Utopian Visions of Food 
April 21 @ 9:30 – 10:30 am CDT 

Part of this year’s Missouri Humanities Symposium, Sustenance and Sustainability, at Drury University. I will provide an historical overview of utopian foodways. The talk highlights dreams individuals and communities have shared about food. From dreams of Edenic abundance to the contemporary explosion of urban gardens, people through the centuries have centered their lives upon desires to eat better. What “better” means varies from person to person and group to group: having plenty, having healthy habits, eating with others, or eating less.

This presentation draws from Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias as well as my “Food” essay in The Palgrave Handbook of Utopian and Dystopian Literatures (2022).

Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions 
April 22 @ 9:00 am – 10:00 am CDT

An overview of my book provided to colleagues at Missouri State University as part of the English Department’s research forum. A Zoom link will be available to any interested in watching. Contact me directly for the link.

Etta Madden