In Jennifer Criswell's At Least You're In Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life, she describes her first year as an expat in the small town of Montepulciano. Her mantra when things go wrong is "At least you're in Tuscany, at least you're in Tuscany." There are many "Lucy Ricardo" moments from her antics while joining the annual Sangiovese grape harvest in Tuscany, to hanging her laundry in the winter outside and her day turning into an episode called "The Day the Laundry Froze." Leaving her former life as a lawyer in America, she chose to be a writer to deal with the distance between the dream in her brain and the reality of small town life.
"I wanted a life in which I didn't have to battle with attorneys who delighted in being antagonistic just for the hell of it. I wanted a life in which I didn't make people cry when I took their depositions," Criswell said. The career change made her wonder about others in her life: "Will they think I'm a failure?" She decides to make herself happy by moving to another continent but it is not an easy path. At one point she says: "Soon they would have to rename the corso 'La Via delle Lacrime Americane,' the Street of American Tears."
Criswell recounts, "I learned quickly enough, living a dream is very different from having a dream -- and I was about to meet a whole different me along the way." While many issues are unfinished upon her arrival such as her ability to work in Italy, she moves and continues in her quest for dual Italian/American citizenship.
Criswell is unaccustomed to being the main subject of small town gossip and judgment for her 38 years ("troppo vecchia" too old), for her crying ("Sta sclerando," which meant "She's freaking out"), and for her relationships. As she recounts, "The whole town knew about my affair with Salvatore -- heck, they probably knew before we did. " While she is drawn to the beauty and authenticity of the town, learning to live among the locals is challenging. At one point, she gains status on the stoop when Antonella dubs her "Italiana in prova" (An Italian-in-training).
With her dog, Cinder, by her side, she learns to respond to advances from older men, saying: "Normally I don't go out with men who are older than my dad. He's sixty. You understand; it would just be strange." To adjust to her new country, she must make friends, deal with bureaucracy, find work and learn Italian. Due to delays in paperwork, it is nearly impossible to find paying work and with her savings dwindling, she realizes she may have to give up on her dream and return to America.
Just when it seems all is lost, one part of her dream does come true. Invited to join friends, she says: "This is what I'd hoped my first Christmas in Italy would be like. It was the Christmas of my imagination." As Criswell's journey continues, she remarks, "I hadn't exactly soared, but I hadn't hit the ground with a thud either." She survives the first winter and finds a new place to live and little bit of work. As time passes, she says, life "filled me with contentment, waking to church bells and birds, the taste and scent of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables, the olive oil, the wine, the history. And the people. I'd developed a new sense of appreciation for the Tuscan people."
Criswell does question if she made the right choice, moving from "Dalla Grande Mela alla Grande Uva, from the Big Apple to the Big Grape. At times I felt as if I'd moved back in time as well as to another country, but there was something very comforting in the rituals of small town life."
Her insights about herself and her adopted town show that the hardships of the first year inspired her to grow in new ways she never imagined. "I was beginning to feel a part of this community now. I'd never be one of them -- our views on the world were too different -- but they'd accepted me even with my strange city ideas, bursts of emotion, foreign desserts, and lack of precision." In reality, wherever we live, we all want to feel loved and accepted for who we are especially during moments that challenge us. Let Criswell's tenacity inspire you to follow your dreams and know that in the rollercoaster moments there is always a hill and a descent and the thrill of the ride but only if you choose to participate.
Reviewed by: Lisa and George Rajna (both of whom are members of the Traveler's Century Club) met online in 2007 and started traveling together internationally almost immediately. By 2008, they had quit their jobs, rented their condo and left for a year on the road. They are currently spending their time in Southeast Asia, exploring Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, India and Nepal.