Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has won acclaim for everything she has written. She's a distinguished journalist, appearing in a wide variety of magazines. Her novel, Foreign Bodies, has been widely praised and just as widely read. Her nonfiction books include Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School, Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses, An Accidental Autobiography, and a collection of essays, Off Center. One of her short stories also won an O. Henry Award.
But readers of serious travel literature know her primarily as the author of Italian Days. When Italian Days was first published ten years ago, it was immediately recognized as a modern classic of travel writing. Just reissued in paperback by Atlantic Monthly Press, it still has the look of a timeless classic.
Early in 1985, Harrison headed off to Italy. Her plan was to settle in, for an extended period, in several different locales, spending enough time to get to know, really to understand, the life of the place.
Armed with a broad-ranging knowledge of Italian history and contemporary politics and of the literature, art, and architecture of Italy, and of course a love for the food, she focused on the cities you'd expect Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Naples with some side trips to Bergamo, Stresa, Amalfi, and elsewhere and then ventured off into the more remote countryside of the Abruzzi, Puglia, and Calabria.
I could tell you that no one has written so well about Calabria since Norman Douglas wroteOldCalabria; no one has so caught the sense of place in Venice since Jan Morris wrote The World of Venice; no one has captured the feel and texture of Florence so vividly since Mary McCarthy wrote The Stones of Florence; and Harrison on Rome would bear comparison with any number of writers.
But books such as these are all classics in their own right, Harrison's among them, and beyond comparison with one another. Suffice it to say that Harrison's Italian Days lets you feel the stones beneath her feet, hear the voices in the shops, and smell the aromas of cooking from the doorways.
Here are some samples:
"To overstay a visit to Venice is like staying too long at the ball in the company of someone of whose sexual identity you are not sure. Milan, aggressive and withdrawn, is male."
"My efficient pullman kitchen...is minimally equipped; but there are colanders of two sizes, there is a spare bottle opener, there is a cruet for olive oil, and there is a cheese grater. This is proof to me that Milan is part of Italy, and that Italians have a sure instinct for life's necessities."
"It is impossible for anyone to be as fastidiously dressed as a Milanese matron with the means to regard convention (shoving toward the prosciutto crudo, never a hair out of place). It is possible to tell how old the average Milanese woman is from her back: By the time she is of a certain age, she is doomed to silk foulard and pearls forever."
Smart, lively, well-informed, and profoundly personal, like all the best travel literature, Italian Days is a genuine classic, a book to be read and reread and to live with for years.