There are a lot of memoirs out there about women ‘finding themselves’ through travel and new experiences, and sometimes they all seem to blend into one big ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ combination. So it is very refreshing to read a memoir that is sharply observant, touchingly poignant and self-deprecatingly witty. One Italian Summer (Affirm Press 2017) is the story written by Pip Williams about her family’s search – halfway around the world – for ‘the good life’. Unlike many such books, it is not a holy grail of ‘finding ourselves’ or some great epiphany about the meaning of life. Rather, it is an honest and warm account of one family’s experience: that unsettling feeling of not being entirely satisfied with life but unsure of how or what to do to change it; the doubts and insecurities of taking a risk; the pleasure to be found in the simple things. It is a ‘warts and all’ expose of ‘the good life’ that demonstrates that the grass is not always greener, but it is also an encouragement to those who feel stuck, or who yearn for something more, an encouragement to take the plunge and have a go.
Pip and her partner Shannon, and their two sons Aidan and Riley, are attempting to live ‘the good life’ in the Adelaide Hills. They have a small landholding, an orchard, they grow vegetables and raise chickens. Pip bakes bread and plans to spin her own wool. It is a welcome step from their city Sydney lifestyle. But Pip is working to pay for their subsistence lifestyle (oh, the irony!), as they are not nearly as capable or as productive as they had hoped. Then they make a radical decision: they quit their jobs, pull the kids out of school for four months, and travel to Italy to work as WWOOFers – Willing Workers On Organic Farms. They would provide their labour in exchange for accommodation and food for themselves and their boys on a series of farms around Italy. They would learn vital skills that they could transport back onto their own life in Australia, and gain experience in a variety of micro-industries (cheese-making? wine-making? preserving? soap-making?) They would spend quality time together as a family, and share the priceless experience of travel with their young sons. They would learn, and grow, and decide if this organic life was really what they desired, and whether or not they could manage it on their own.
And so they set forth. The book chronicles their journey from the cities of Rome and Venice, where they relax as tourists and enjoy brief but welcome respite from their agricultural labour, and takes us into the homes and countryside of the locals who welcome WWOOFers. From Tuscany to the Amalfi Coast, from Lucca to Piedmont, the family stay in an assortment of accommodation ranging from the delightfully comfortable to the decidedly rustic. They mostly stay with families that welcome them as family. They eat long lunches at tables groaning with homegrown produce. They wake early and toil until their backs ache, their fingers grimy with soil. They survive on a shoestring budget, but always with a ‘gelato fund’ for the boys. They share moments of hilarity, of tragic language misunderstandings, and of love. They learn to time the rhythm of their days with the rising and setting of the sun rather than an alarm clock, to eat when they’re hungry and rest during the heat of the day. They realise how much stuff they have amassed back home, and how little of it they really need. They befriend a pig and learn to make great pasta and revel in the joy of baking really good bread.
When I met Pip recently at the Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival, she was running a workshop on Writing Memoir. She explained to me that she wrote One Italian Summer for herself, as a book of memories for her family – especially her children – so that they would always recall every small detail of their trip. And this personal retelling shows in the story. This is not a self-help book, or a tome that shouts ‘look at us and the great and adventurous thing we did!’ This is a down-to-earth and humble book that recounts all of their doubts and misgivings as well as their dreams and hopes. Pip is frank and open about her capabilities (or lack of them). She is keenly observant, and paints a picture that we all can share. She is candid of her uncertainties about the life they think they want to lead, and gently remonstrative and critical of her own motivations. The result is a tale that is easy to read and informative, appealing and engaging. And it is written with such wit and humour, in such a distinctive voice, that we almost feel we have travelled to Tuscany ourselves.