Italy in Books - The Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones

The Dark Heart of Italy, coming in at 253 pages, concisely describes an Englishman's view of the contradictions and deep historical divisions that riddle and confuse the heart of Italy. First published in 2003, it is part-autobiography, part history lesson, and part politicial dissection. For such a short book, it packs in a great deal of information and history. It's not a book about art, or upping sticks and living the country life in Italy. It's about trying to understand the fabric of life in a country in a young country with a long memory. I genuinely think this book should be compulsive reading for any expat, wannabe expat, or someone with a 'more than passing' interest in Italy, or indeed politics.

"I realized that it was, as Pirandello wrote, impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. The words history and story are the same in Italian (storia). Unless it's defined, or given a definite article, storia could be a tale from true life or simply make-believe."

The ten chapters of the book introduce various aspects of Italian culture, starting with the language, touching on calcio (and the inevitable comment on match-fixing and double-dealings), the impact of the Church on society, and finally, the bulk of the book, on Mani Pulite, or 'clean hands', and the rise of one Silvio Berlusconi. Tobias Jones attempts to place these events in a historical context.

What comes over throughout the book is the fascination and love that Tobias Jones has for his adopted country. I know it sounds strange. He lays bare the moral bankruptcy throughout the Italian political system, blames it on a wider corrupt society, even blames it on ambiguities in the Italian language itself, but it still comes across like a lover chiding his beloved over their cute idiosyncrasies.

Looking at other reviews on Amazon and the wider internet, it's obvious this book divides opinion. Inevitably, this is owing to the author giving his opinion on a country, its politics, and its people. This is always a divisive thing to do. Depending on your politics, and your personal experience and opinion of Italy, you'll either understand and agree with a lot of what Tobias Jones writes, or you'll find him arrogant, biased and unfair in his views.

However, for me, approaching the book naively many years ago, I enjoyed it. It worked as a primer for Italian culture and politics and allowed me to hit the ground running when talking politics with Italians or watching historical movies (such as the excellent Romanzo Criminale). For that reason alone, I urge you to put aside your personal politics and opinions of Italy and read this book.

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones is published by Faber and is available in all good bookshops and on Amazon.

My ABCs of Travel

I'm not too bothered with lists, especially those that try to distill a lifetime of travelling into 26 answers. However, as Francesca, of 'A Saucepan and a Suitcase' food and travel blog fame has directly asked me (and bugged me!), here, for one time only, is my list, distilled into 26 (ish) answers. Here's my ABC of Travel...

A: Age you went on your first international trip:

I guess I must have been 13 or 14, when I went to Carantec in Northern France. I don't remember much, other than the 7 hour ferry across a stormy English channel, where I won an award for the best (?) vomiting skills. Apparently they made the award just for me. I was that good.

B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where:

Hmmm... that's tricky, as I do like my beer. I would have to say Sierra Nevada from the US or Montejo from the Yucatan, but there is always space in my heart for a trusty Peroni Rosso - I genuinely like the taste and I can't understand when Italians eschew it for a Becks or Bavaria.

C: Cuisine (favourite):

It's probably easier to say a cuisine I don't like! My top three would be Japanese, Mexican and, of course, Italian!

D: Destinations, favourite, least favourite and why:

Favourite - Italy, as there is always something more to discover. The land, the people, the culture. It's a cliche, but there are so many layers and contradictions that it fascinates me. There's a reason why this blog is called Lazio Explorer.

Least favourite destination - At the risk of upsetting people, I'd probably say San Diego. It simply didn't do anything for me. Honestly, I preferred Tijuana.

E: Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”:  

OK, this one is really hard. There are so many. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (in fact, most things in Istanbul), or visiting the Mayan ruins in Mexico were both experiences that made me say 'wow'. I guess a lot of the pleasure of travel, for me, is revelling in the simplicity of the everyday, but by doing it in strange surroundings. So, for my 'wow' experience, I'm going for when I walked out about 100m onto a frozen solid Lake Michigan from the Chicago shoreline. That was unforgettable.

F: Favourite mode of transportation: 
The train. I love trains so much it's tragic. Give me a nice, superfast train over anything. Pulling into stations I've never heard of, being in the middle of the countryside miles away from roads, I love it. Plus, entering a city by train often feels like sneaking into it via the back door, rather than by road where everything is signposted.

G: Greatest feeling while travelling:

The feeling that something amazing is just around the next corner.

H: Hottest place you’ve travelled to:

Probably Houston, Texas. It was seriously hot and humid at night.

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where:

We've been lucky and had great service in loads of places. I guess one that I always remember is from Istanbul, in a small pide place near the Grand Bazaar. The owner was away and the chef handled everything, from taking our order, making sure we had fresh bread and a side salad, all for free, to leaving the stall to get some elma chai for us. He simply wanted to do a good job.

J: Journey that took the longest:

From San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas to Tulum in the Yucatan, by bus. It took 18 hours. Just less than that, from Paris to Rome by rail. That one took 17.5 hours and was awful.

K: Keepsake from your travels:

My wife.

OK, seriously, for some reason I collect metro tickets. See, told you I liked trains.

L: Let-down sight, why and where:

I'm easily pleased, so I can't really think of any! If I do, I'll add something here.

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel:

When I was in Alicante, Spain for a work conference and I realised I was drunk, in a strange town, in a strange country, I couldn't understand a word of the language and I loved it. Loved it.

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in:

We're not the type to be often found in expensive hotels, especially when we're paying, but the nicest hotel we've been in was on our honeymoon in Mexico, the Hacienda Chichen, just outside Chichen Itza. We had our own little room with veranda and hammock, plus they served great food in the main building of the hotel, which was an old colonial mansion. It was perfect.

O: Obsession—what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?

Streets. I love streets. Especially if they're on a hill. I have so many photos of random streets.

The only street in Istanbul that isn't on a hill

P: Passport stamps, how many and from where?

I'm not sure, probably around 20-25? Mainly from the US (since Europe doesn't really do them anymore for a UK passport).

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where:

The glass flower exhibit in the Peabody museum in Harvard. It's art that looks like science. Glass blowing made into botany.

R: Recommended sight, event or experience:

OK, I'm going to cheat and break this down into three:

Sight - The museum of terror in Berlin. You learn more in 5 minutes than in 5 hours at any other museum.

Event - Watch Barcelona play at the Camp nou. Whatever the game, it's a spectacle, plus, they are the best team in the world (or at least, Barcelona ;).

Experience - Have lobster in Cape Cod, it's amazing. Actually, just have any seafood on the Eastern seaboard anywhere north of New York.

S: Splurge; something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:

Coffee. Good coffee, not the type of coffee that you can buy a pint of. Coffee that's medicinal.

T: Touristy thing you’ve done:

A gondola in Venice. Sorry to say (and I'm going to be controversial here), it was rubbish and very expensive (although I would say that as I'm from Cambridge, home of the punt).

U: Unforgettable travel memory:

The second day in Mexico, we got up early to go to Chichen Itza and ended up unlocking the entrance gate and being the first people in. We had about 3 hours where we had the entire site to ourselves, save a few locals, guides, and Iguanas.
This chap was king of Tulum, another Mayan site

V: Visas, how many and for where?

1 - for Turkey, unless you count all the VISA-waiver things for the US.

W: Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?

The best glass of wine I had was in Paris, and it wasn't even French. We had spent a couple of hours walking around Montmartre with my sister's family and we were desperate for somewhere to escape the chill of a January day. We tried a few places and found the waiters to be quite sniffy about our tourist French and quite difficult. Eventually, we found this little quirky bar, up Rue Lepic, where the Montenegrin owner gave us a fantastic wine, olives, and some excellent charcuterie and really made our day. We've never been able to find it since.

X: eXcellent view and from where?

This one is a toughie. The top of the Empire state building? Too obvious. Cape Cod? There were lots of lovely views there (including the one below). Italy? Well, that would be too easy, given my bias.
Cape Cod

So, I'm going for Istanbul (despite the shot above), as there were so many stunning views there I could fill a photo album (and essentially, have). From all the photos I have, I've picked the most simple, but for me, most evocative.
The view over the Bosphorus from our hotel

Y: Years spent travelling?

If by traveling we mean outside of our own country, then ever since I was four, when I went to Scotland. My travelling really took off (quite literally!) when I started my PhD and Ryanair started flying from Stansted Airport in the UK (which is only 30mins away by train).

Z: Zealous sports fans and where?

I would have to say my own country! Football (soccer) fans in the UK can really get into it, especially if it's a derby game. Having watched football all over Europe, I can safely say that I haven't experienced an atmosphere as good as an English football stadium.

That was actually really hard to do! I have so many good memories from travelling and I've been lucky to go to so many places that I could have done this list about 30 times and still come up with different answers. I feel bad for not mentioning Scotland, where I spent most of my childhood, or Barcelona, my favourite city, but hey, it's a list right. Told you I didn't like them. Feel you could do any better?

At some point I'd love to see the Travel ABCs of:

Anna, who writes the excellent ItaliAnna blog on wine and food from Piedmont, Italy.
Erica, who, among other things, writes her Moscerina blog about art, culture and travel from Rome, Italy.

All photos except the Montejo one are copyright