The XX Factor

La Dolce Vita?

Six months ago, I was living in New York City with my husband and two kids, toiling alongside my tribe of New York media working women. I had an amusing job that paid for various indulgences, and deflected the indignities of subway rides and wartime urban anxiety with regular acupuncture, pedicures, and moderately priced wine. Then I was offered a contract to write a book in Italy about the notorious trial of exchange student Amanda Knox, accused along with two young men of murdering her British roommate, in what Italian authorities have called a drug-fueled orgy.

Hard as I tried, I couldn’t convince my bosses at People magazine that I deserved a six-month leave to hang out in Italy, in the middle of the worst economic season in our lifetimes. Before I packed my office in May, one of my editors opined that it must have been a pretty easy decision to make, leaving Rockefeller Center for Italy and all, but in fact, I spent the spring months coiled in a knot of acid reflux and mortal dread, arguing with myself, my husband, and friends about the merits of shucking the golden handcuffs. In the end, choosing security felt too much like a concession to my irreversible march into middle age.

We packed the kids and the puppy and arrived in Umbria in July. The idea was to soak up Italian life and culture for the book’s setting, interview the trial players, and give the kids a chance to learn Italian. Notions of roasted figs drizzled with gorgonzola and sunset Prosecco toasts also beckoned, confirmed the day before we got on the plane, when New York Times writer Helene Cooper penned a piece about her annual summer vacation in Umbria, replete with precisely those images. Clearly, we were the winners of the summer-in-Italy lottery. Our friends were green with envy.

We have been here almost three months. We’ve tramped through dozens of churches and more Roman and Etruscan ruins than many an archaeologist, daily going up and down flights of steps and steep cobbled hills in the rust- and ochre-colored town of Perugia, where we live. We have been to Rome, Venice, Florence, Bari, even a bump on the rocky heel of the Italian boot where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas collide. We’ve tried to roast figs, with varying success, in the alien Italian electric oven, but we’ve tended more towards pizza, as that’s pretty much what the children want to eat.

We live in a little stone duplex with a gravelly garden, covered with vines, at Via Beato Egidio, alongside the ancient city walls. (I’m still trying to figure out who the beatified Egidio is.) A medieval tower and paleo-Christian church are the nearest play spaces. There are more charming houses than ours for rent in this college town, but we chose this place mainly because of its proximity to a little school down a long flight of steps. As any parent will know, it is crucial, when dragging children out of the house in the morning, that the steps lead down. Ease of delivery hasn’t made the experience any easier for Felix, 10, and Lulu, 6. Apparently you can’t just drop children into a new language and have them quickly “soak it up” as I had imagined. On the contrary, it feels like I am committing a form of child abuse. They mutinied after one week, and refused to go. Lulu, who can now adorably pronounce “bellissima” just as I had once imagined, writes in first grade scrawl, “I HATE ITLE.” Felix is slightly, but not much better off. The mothers of his classmates mobbed me for play dates after the parent meeting last week. At Enzo Valentino Scuola, the fifth grade class and parents are beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of the class trip to meet a class of pen pals in Grand Rapids, Mich., in April. It turns out they desperately want their kids to learn English before that voyage, and here, in their midst, is a boy who speaks not just English, but American. That is, to the Italian kids, supercool. Through the Hannah Montana, Hollywood lens, America remains as shining a beacon here as ever.

My friends in New York City think I am living the glam expat dream, the one that so many of us writers really do share: Let’s pick up stakes and move to a Mediterranean paradise, right? We did, and it is indeed beautiful. But, there is a lot more to making this kind of decision than meets the touristical eye or the imaginative mind. The dollar has plummeted; we don’t have a car; Italian houses have washing machines but no dryers, so our clothes are starting to mold as winter sets in. We haven’t figured out the Italian pediatrician; swine flu looms in all the Italian newspaper headlines; we don’t have a tutor lined up yet; and Lulu isn’t learning to read. On the other hand there are new friends with pet donkeys at their villas, and Giotto, Pinturichio, and Etruscan arches everywhere we look.

Our challenge now is to decide-and fast-whether to really bite this fig, as it were, and stay here until June, so the kids truly learn some Italian, deepening the gulf between ourselves and New York life, or to use the plane tickets we have that will fly us back to NYC and familiar shores before Thanksgiving. On sunny mornings in the garden, after a cappuccino and a chat in my amateur Italian at the coffee bar near the scuola, I am inclined to try to stay. On dark, rainy mornings, when the kids complain about their sense of confusion, and I dare not look at the bank account, I long for home.