In this lighthearted memoir by television's former L.A. Lawstar, Tucker delve graciously into the rich lifestyle, cuisine and local wine of central Italy when he and his wife, actress Jill Eikenberry, make an impromptu purchase of a 350-year-old stone cottage in the Umbrian countryside. The Tuckers break away from the Bay Area to acquaint themselves with the Rustico, their new second home. Despite speaking limited Italian, they quickly befriend their expatriate and Italian neighbors and with them set out to celebrate the regional cuisine found in local trattorias, tavernas and the aromatic kitchens of new acquaintances. Language gaffes and the occasional couple's spat is to be expected, as the Tuckers begin to re-evaluate their lives. The simplicity and heartiness of Umbria begins to feel more like home for them, and little by little the Tuckers let go of their more career-ambitious lives in the U.S. Jill's revitalization of her theater career in New York becomes as much of an accomplishment as her taking art classes with 16 non-English-speaking Italian housewives. Tucker simply appreciates his relationships forged with Gloria, the owner of the local orta-fruttashop and the town's butchers. Guileless narrative intertwined with generous descriptions of Italian fare make Tucker's food memoir and travelogue a satisfying look into the good life. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italyby Michael Tucker, Kristine Walsh (Photographer)
The actor Michael Tucker and his wife, the actress Jill Eikenberry, having sent their last child off to college, were vacationing in Italy when they happened upon a small cottage nestled in the Umbrian countryside. The three-hundred-fifty-year-old rustico sat perched on a hill in the verdant Spoleto valley amid an olive grove and fruit trees of every kind. For the
The actor Michael Tucker and his wife, the actress Jill Eikenberry, having sent their last child off to college, were vacationing in Italy when they happened upon a small cottage nestled in the Umbrian countryside. The three-hundred-fifty-year-old rustico sat perched on a hill in the verdant Spoleto valley amid an olive grove and fruit trees of every kind. For the Tuckers, it was literally love at first sight, and the couple purchased the house without testing the water pressure or checking for signs of termites. Shedding the vestiges of their American life, Michael and Jill endeavored to learn the language, understand the nuances of Italian culture, and build a home in this new chapter of their lives. Both a celebration of a good marriage and a careful study of the nature of home, Living in a Foreign Language is a gorgeous, organic travelogue written with an epicurean’s delight in detail and a gourmand’s appreciation for all things fine.
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Living in a Foreign LanguageA Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy
By Michael Tucker
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2007 Michael Tucker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere's a hill covered with olive trees that nestles around our house like the strong, safe lap of an infinitely patient grandfather. We called it a mountain until we hiked up to the top one day and saw the snowcapped Sibillini stretching out across the horizon. No, it's a hill-one of many colline that climb to the east of us and roll out to the north and south, shimmering with silver-green olive leaves as far as you can see. The tiny stone house sits tucked into the side of the hill so that our bedroom window isn't exposed to the early rays of the sun, but that morning I was up with the first soft light in the sky. I had slept the sleep of the sated. Perhaps the three glasses of grappa at the end of dinner had helped a bit with that. Along with the bottomless pitcher of the local red wine that went down so easily with the wood-grilled lamb and the fried potatoes. God, those potatoes. Maybe it was all a dream; I never eat potatoes after a big bowl of pasta. Not in the same meal. Not in real life. The pasta, by the way, had been simple-just noodles in olive oil with about a half-pound of fresh truffles shaved over the top. Truffles pop out of the ground like weedsaround here.
The sky did a cross-fade from gray to light blue and one by one the birds started to sing. I had nowhere to go for a couple of hours; I just lay there and listened to them. I had flown over two days earlier to close the deal on this farmhouse in the hills of Umbria and I was heading back to California later that afternoon. My inner clock was totally confused at this point, but sleep wasn't really the issue; I could sleep some other time.
The Rustico-that's its name-has been standing on this hill looking west out onto the vast and verdant Spoleto valley for over 350 years. "Rustico" means a farm workers' cottage, a place where migrant workers slept when they came every year to harvest the olives. Now it was going to shelter two migrant actors.
I went down to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. I sat at the table under the pergola just outside the kitchen door and watched a bird with black and white striped plumage and a smart-ass Woody Woodpecker look on his face squawk and swoop down from the trees, strafe the vegetable garden and then soar up for a couple of laps around the chimney. You could already tell it was going to be a hot day. But inside the Rustico, with its three-foot- thick stone walls-which make it look considerably larger on the outside than it feels inside-it was as cool as a wine cellar.
I called Jill in California, where it was nine o'clock the evening before. Totally confusing. I told her all about yesterday's meeting at the notaio's office, where I signed the papers and passed over the certified checks-one above the table, one below. I told her how the notaio solemnly intoned the whole contract, pausing after every line for the English translation. It all felt quite official. I told her how Bruno and Mayes, who sold us the house, and JoJo, who brokered the deal, took me out to lunch afterward at Fontanelle, a restaurant a few miles up the hill from our new house.
I told Jill how I was feeling at that moment, sitting next to the garden watching the birds; about the pull this place has for me, how the rhythm of the land dictates the pace for everything and everyone, I'm not a particularly patient person-I don't usually do the stillness thing well-but I thought that living in this house, in this valley, might change that some.
The year we met-1969 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.-I was already married with a one-year-old little girl, and Jill was engaged to an actor who was working up in Montreal. We caught each other's eve in the read-through of that season's opening play and by the time we got to dress rehearsal, we were waist-deep in a love affair that's lasted for thirty-five years and counting. A few days after the closing play of the season, I left my marriage, and a month after that Jill and I took custody of Alison, my daughter. Then we left for New York to try our luck on Broadway, off-Broadway and-mostly-the unemployment office. That was the first time we stepped off the edge together, and it's become a way of life with us.
We have nine-year cycles. At least, looking back, that seems to be the way it works out. New York, however, was a doubleheader-almost eighteen years in the trenches, carving out our careers, learning to live with long periods of separation and falling prey to the pitfalls and temptations of life on location. Alison grew up there. I took her to school-every day on the back of my bicycle, rain or shine-and when we left, she stayed on in the apartment and went to college there. Max, our son, was born in Lenox Hill Hospital and went-every day on the back of my bicycle-to the Montessori School on West 99th Street. New York was our nest. We met our dearest friends there, the kind of friends that even if we don't see them for ten years are still our dearest friends. Our personalities took shape there-individually, as a family and as a couple.
Then in 1986, we got a call from Steven Bochco, an old friend of mine from all the way back to college days, with an offer to do his new TV series. He had written the roles for us, he said. Jill got on the phone, thanked him graciously but told him that she was really a theater actress and didn't want to leave New York. Her kids were in good schools; she was a nester; she didn't want to be on TV. I was across the room screaming at her to sell out-sell out at any price!
But I needn't have worried. Bochco calmed her and said she didn't have to play the part, but was it okay with her if he kept her in mind-just to help him write it? She-again graciously-deigned to allow him to do this.
When the script showed up, Jill started to leaf through it and, after a few pages, started learning the lines. No way was she going to let anyone else play that part.
We flew out to L.A. for three weeks in May to shoot the pilot. It was a high time-first-class parts in a first-class pilot, custom-made clothes, studio flacks and agents hovering around us; it was like a scene in a movie. And we were doing it together. After years of one of us being up while the other was out of work, here we were taking our first stroll down the sidewalk of fame together, arm in arm, both winners, no loser.
We came back to New York after we shot the pilot to get our kids together, our things together, so that we could move out to L.A. in August to shoot the rest of the first season. We went to St. Martin in the Caribbean to celebrate and on the day we got back to New York, Jill reached up and felt a lump in her breast.
It was cancer. We lay down on our bed on West Eighty-ninth Street, pulled the shades and held hands in the dark. Jill was looking at the end of her life. I was looking at life without her. Like a drowning man, I watched all the scenes of our life together and realized how much of my identity had been tied up with this exquisite woman. Just standing next to her elevated what other people thought of me, what I thought of myself. I had cashed a lot of checks on that account. Not a pretty thought, but there it was.
Jill had her operation at Mt. Sinai in New York. Two weeks later she would have her first radiation appointment at UCLA-on the very same day L.A. Law went into production. We packed up, calmed our terrified children and got on the plane for L.A. This time we weren't only changing coasts, jobs, schools, lifestyles and friends; we were also taking on a new life partner: cancer. This partner would radically change the way we looked at ourselves, our relationship, our future together-everything. Eventually-once we accepted it-cancer taught us how to live.
The sun appeared over the top of the mountain a little after eight and I got in the car and went down to our little village. I had an espresso at the bar; then I had another. I was too shy to start a conversation with the barista, so I pretended to read a local newspaper in which every fifth or sixth word made sense. After the morning crowd thinned out a bit I summoned up the courage to talk. I opened with my well-practiced phrase of self-abasement: "I'm so sorry, I'm an American, I don't speak very well in Italian...." This always worked. The barman lit up and we had a third-grade-level conversation in Italian in which I asked him if he could tell me where to buy the best local olive oil. He launched into a vivid description, with maps drawn on paper napkins, of where he thought I should go.
I wanted to take as much of Umbria back with me to California as I could fit into my suitcase. I found the olive oil outlet, where they also had some chestnut honey the region is known for and some cellophane bags of strangozzi, the local pasta. Then I stopped at a house-right on our road-that had a sign out front advertising fresh truffles. It turned out to be quite a serious operation-aluminum bins of truffles with the earth still clinging to them, scales to calculate their worth down to the smallest gram and a shrink-wrap machine so that people like me could travel without creating too much of a stink. I bought six beautiful specimens, each about the size of a billiard ball, to smuggle through customs. I went to the wine store to pick up six bottles of Montefalco Rosso. It's a wonderful wine, which I hoped would taste as good when I got it back to California.
I went back to the house with my booty and stuffed it all into the suitcase, among the few clothes I had with me. I locked up, closed the shutters and drove off to the airport in Rome, bidding arrivederci to our little Rustico until we'd be back in September.
Chapter TwoLos Angeles, eight years earlier.
We had two events scheduled within a day of each other that summed up the chaos that was our last year in Los Angeles. Friday night was a party held for a few thousand network affiliates that NBC hosted every year, and the night before was a small gathering at a friend's house-she's a TV producer and budding New Ager who'd just shared with us that she was channeling Jesus Christ on a regular basis. The idea was that we would go to her place for a little dinner, and then afterward-in the media room-we'd have a séance with the Son of God.
"Bring questions!" she'd reminded us.
The Friday night party turned out to he a religious experience in its own right. It's the event that NBC annually lavishes on its station managers from all over the country-a week of boozing and schmoozing and informational meetings where NBC gets the chance to trot out its plans for the new season. The party is a peak event where all the network stars come out to play and rub shoulders for a couple of hours with the "flyover people"-a charming Hollywood term for everyone who doesn't live in New York or L.A.
We'd been doing this gig for eight years and had the drill down pat. Our limo pulled up to the Beverly Hilton at six-thirty-a little early to be stylishly late but not bad. We were glowing, like the stars we had become-tanned, coifed, ready to shoot the gauntlet of photographers, reporters, Entertainment Tonight and E! network interviewers, tossing off bon roots as we moved briskly toward the bar.
"Ah, Mike and Jill, the wittiest couple in Hollywood" they'd all probably say.
But as we disembarked our limo, there were no photographers to snap us, no gauntlet to run and no reporters shouting our names. A small drop of sweat trickled down the inside of my Valentino shirt. Could it be the wrong night? Or the wrong hotel? Was it the Beverly Wilshire? Or worse, the Sheraton Universal, all the way over on the other side of the hill?
The lobby was empty, too. Of celebrities, that is. There were other people-regular people-but you can't imagine how easy it is to tell the difference. I looked back at the curb but the limo had already pulled away-to go to that place where limos go when they, too, are empty of celebrities. Then we saw a face we recognized-a girl from the network publicity department whom we'd worked with many times.
"Why are you guys here?" she asked with genuine alarm. "The party starts at eight! The affiliates are all in a meeting in the other ballroom that doesn't break for at least another hour."
Eight? Oh, Christ. There was little hope we could be stylishly late unless we somehow found our limo and went back home for a while. We stood there in the lobby and tried to pinpoint the blame for this debacle. Was it her department or our publicist who'd gotten it wrong? Probably our guy-he'd been phoning it in ever since we turned down the cover for the Good Housekeeping sweater issue.
Blame aside, we didn't want to go back to the house. Once you've got your look together, it's depressing to watch your kids eat Chinese takeout. It takes the glow away.
"You know, we've got a little pressroom-God knows it's not very fancy, but that's where we're all hanging out until the party starts. At least you can relax for a while, have a glass of wine."
Wine. Okay. I was trying to maintain a balance between the huffy, put-out star and the down-to-earth good guy that I had become famous for, but it wasn't easy. She led us off to a room that had been set up with tables and chairs, phones and a few TV monitors that carried the meeting from the other ballroom on closed circuit. We sat at our own little table, and all the other people in the room-PR folk, network flunkies, reporters waiting for a tidbit, photographers cooling their heels until the big stars arrived-made a space around us as if we were an alien species.
I downed my wine and started on Jill's. I wasn't feeling comfortable in this room. These were the very same people who would have been fawning over us-calling out our names, begging us to pose for photos, reminding us how wonderful and unique we were-if we had just come an hour later and made a proper star's entrance. Now, they were eyeing us from across the room like we were bad meat.
I started stewing. Our publicist had clone this on purpose. He was tired of trying to pump life into our fading careers so he decided to humiliate us in front of the press. To stab us in the back. I mean it's hard enough being a star, but when there's nobody there to worship you, it's damn near impossible.
And then it occurred to me that this was a situation that would have been fully, appreciated by Jesus, whom-via our friend's channeling-we'd had dinner with the night before. He knew the drill. He'd felt the adulation and then had it taken away. He'd felt the betrayal. I sat there nursing my wounds, identifying with Jesus Christ-and I won't deny it made me feel a lot better.
Jesus, by the way, had been totally delightful. This wasn't the Jesus stuck up there on the cross with that "I died for your sins" look in his eye. This was the young visionary Jesus: charming, soft-spoken, quite funny-not Henny Youngman or anything, but with a nice sense of irony, gave you the feeling that he understood the way of the world. I thought about telling him the one about Moses and Jesus playing golf. I should have; he would have enjoyed it. Bottom line I really liked him. Actually a lot more than our friend who was channeling him. She should maybe think about being him on a more permanent basis.
We'd arrived at her house with high expectations. Not that we thought we were actually going to meet Christ-we weren't that far gone-but curious as to how she would try to pull this off. During dinner, she gave us the setup, about how she was as amazed by the phenomenon as we were, that she didn't understand how it worked-the standard channeling trap.
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