Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence


When writer Merrill Joan Gerber is invited to join her husband, a history professor, as he takes a class of American college students to study in Florence, Italy, she feels terrified at the idea of leaving her comforts, her friends, and her aged mother in California. Her husband tries to assure her that her fear of Italy—and her lack of knowledge of the Italian language—will be offset by the discoveries of travel. "I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and ...

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Botticelli Blue Skies

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When writer Merrill Joan Gerber is invited to join her husband, a history professor, as he takes a class of American college students to study in Florence, Italy, she feels terrified at the idea of leaving her comforts, her friends, and her aged mother in California. Her husband tries to assure her that her fear of Italy—and her lack of knowledge of the Italian language—will be offset by the discoveries of travel. "I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and interesting." Botticelli Blue Skies is the tale of a woman who readily admits to fear of travel, a fear that many experience but are embarrassed to admit. When finally she plunges into the new adventure, she describes her experiences in Florence with wit, humor, and energy.
Instead of sticking to the conventional tourist path, Gerber follows her instincts. She makes discoveries without tour guides droning in her ear and reclaims the travel experience as her own, taking time to shop in a thrift shop, eat in a Chinese restaurant that serves "Dragon chips," make friends with her landlady who turns out to be a Countess, and visit the class of a professor at the university. She discovers a Florence that is not all museums and wine. With newfound patience and growing confidence, Gerber makes her way around Florence, Venice, and  Rome. She visits famous places and discovers obscure ones—in the end embracing all that is Italian. Botticelli Blue Skies (accompanied by the author’s own photographs) is an honest, lyrical, touching account of the sometimes exhausting, often threatening, but always enriching physical and emotional challenge that is travel.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
Merrill Joan Gerber, who teaches creative writing at Caltech in Pasadena, is the quintessential reluctant traveler: one for whom the prospect of roaming translates not into visions of adventure and frolicking good times but into anxiety of the unknown and a longing for life's daily rhythms. Yet, as she recounts in her delightful travel memoir, "Botticelli Blue Skies," she is prepared to relinquish her distaste of roving as she embarks on what turns out to be a life-altering three-month sojourn accompanying her history-professor husband and his group of 38 college students who have signed up for a semester in Florence, Italy. The entourage arrives in Tuscany, sets up housekeeping, figures out the bus system and does its best to see the important tourist sites while learning to live as Italians do. For these transplanted Americans, even the simplest tasks -- navigating the grocery store, figuring out the money, lighting the stove -- become both precarious and funny. Detailing the day-to-day happenings of their stay, Gerber illustrates how she eventually makes peace with the exotic, learns to see beauty in that which initially frightens and uncovers the dogged resourcefulness all good travelers must have, enthusiastic at heart or not.
Most enjoyable are the scenes of quotidian Italian life, like the chore of washing clothes: "Unlike my American washing machine, which agitates in pit-bull furor, shaking the dirt out of the clothes, then spinning them wildly as if wringing their necks in revenge, this Italian version gives our clothes a gentle half-turn and then pauses for what seems three minutes before it gently shimmies them about again for a few seconds," she writes. "A cluster of soap bubbles appears in the round glass window and then vanishes while the clothes rest or gather strength for the next little jiggle." The predicaments are never-ending: Once the clothes are washed, how to hang them out on a clothesline that's five stories high? And then, what to do when a piece of purple underwear flies free and lands on a lower line, accessible only through another tenant's apartment? Depicted with keen perception, the tale illustrates the way travel wakes us up from our daily lives and compels us to see existence anew. Having failed to study her Italian diligently before the trip, Gerber is hampered by her inability to communicate verbally, but is ingenious in surmounting this obstacle. Trying to buy baking powder at the grocery store, she leads a clerk to the packaged cake section and tries to indicate that she wants something to make a cake rise. "To do this, I lift a cake over my head. This is becoming a little like a game show. He cocks his head as if trying to think of an answer. Then: the light bulb smile. Does he have the answer?" (He does.) There are moments of human connection despite language and cultural differences, as well as times when the emotional edge of travel and discomfort have rubbed raw any sense of openness for new experiences. In the Vatican Museum, for example, Gerber hears "the thunderous hoof beats of thousands of tourists behind me" and after a grueling day of museum madness, she declares she's suffering from "Overload Art Syndrome," a condition that makes "the victim want to hop on a plane and go home." When frustrated by the Florentine lack of efficiency, she indulges in arrogant Americanisms, redesigning the laws of Italy: "Bus drivers will be permitted to sell tickets on the bus to confused tourists .... Banks and museums will never close their doors upon a whim .... Flu shots will be made available in a logical manner so that a person does not have to buy the vaccine and go in search of a needle. Sidewalks shall be designed larger than ten inches wide." Yet she retains her ability to be dazzled by the at-times contrary, often resplendent and even mundane aspects of Italian life. Handled with subtle humor and disarming honesty, Gerber's narrative ultimately uncovers a core truth about travel: To surrender to a place, not the version from one's fantasies but as it really exists, is the only way to experience it. (In Italy that means uneven cobblestones, odd rhythms and quaint customs, frustrations and breathtaking splendor.) And though the adventure may not always be a comfortable one, even reluctant travelers are welcome to join in.
Publishers Weekly
There's a subgroup in the memoir category in which Americans open themselves to the thrills and minor discomforts of unfamiliar countries, and sometimes pen insightful riffs on what it means to travel. Gerber, a creative writing professor at the California Institute of Technology, here adds her experiences to this genre, but doesn't find new ground on which to tread. She does stand out in one way: she's a reluctant traveler, following her professor husband, who's taken on an assignment in Florence. After a long discussion of how she hates to leave her home's comforts, Gerber finally arrives in Italy. She details her activities, including eating at a Chinese restaurant, buying milk in boxes and getting her geographic bearings. Although one can imagine how difficult this must be and therefore gain some sympathy for her at every wrong turn and misjudged grocery purchase, Gerber's "poor me" attitude wears thin. She doesn't learn any Italian before the trip, and in fact barely prepares herself for the journey. Prosaic happenings, such as a student accused of taking a hotel towel, are common and lead to other, similar moments that, when added together, seem like a neighbor's long vacation slide show. Gerber's lightness does lend itself well to funnier moments, and her memoir will comfort those who find themselves having to live in Europe briefly. However, the lack of emotional depth and unwillingness to fully examine a foreign locale prevent the book from rising in the expatriate canon. Photos. (Nov. 18) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Gerber (creative writing, California Inst. of Technology), an author of seven novels and four volumes of short stories, was not pleased when her husband was invited to teach in Florence, Italy, for three months. She feared leaving behind her family, friends, and home. Filled with humor and honest emotion, this lively tale describes Gerber's initial reluctance to move to a country whose language she did not speak, her eventual acceptance of her fear of travel, and her varied adventures in Florence, which ranged from losing her underwear over the balcony to the surprises of her first grocery shopping trip. Gerber, no traditional traveler, does not shy away from describing her exhaustion during sightseeing trips and her boredom with tour guides. She often seeks out the familiar, purchasing American peanut butter and celebrating the Jewish New Year with an Italian family. The American students studying with her husband also add color to the narrative, with convoluted romantic involvements and relationship angst. An absorbing account of life in another country; recommended for larger public libraries.-Alison Hopkins, Brantford P.L., Ont. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299180201
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 9/24/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

1. I Can't Go to Italy 1
2. I'm Going to Italy 4
3. Gli Studenti 6
4. A Flat Full of Sun 9
5. Siamo Arrivati! 11
6. Via Visconti Venosta 16
7. All Florence and Fiesole 19
8. Postcards and E-Mail (One) 24
9. Mosquitoes (Zanzare) 27
10. First Lessons 30
11. Reserved for the Mutilated 34
12. A Piece of Laundry (Un Pezzo del Bucato) 41
13. Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashonah) 45
14. In the Bosom of My People 50
15. Florentine Hospitality 56
16. The Mystery of Marriage 60
17. Fiesole and the Etruscan Sigh 64
18. Postcards and E-Mail (Two) 70
19. Italian Trains, Italian Men 73
20. Seashells from the Adriatic and Roast Sardines 77
21. The Fire, the Wedding, the Gondoliers 84
22. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Losses, and Other Thefts 90
23. The Movie Sets of Venice and Florence 99
24. Botticelli Women, Italian Wives 103
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