Reading Like A Local: Three Ways To Get To Know A Place Through Its Words

February 20th, 2019

You’ve booked your dream trip to a faraway place for later in the year - and it has filled you with a restless energy. The departure date is months away, but you’re feeling the excitement of it now. So - what’s next?

Well, you could spend the time watching travel videos, gazing at gorgeous photos on Instagram, and generally trying to get a feel for the place by vicariously perching on the shoulders of people who have been there.

But really, that’s just skimming the surface, nibbling at the edges, when what your heart and mind is crying out for is a big, delicious bite of the place.

So here’s one way to do that. We call it “Reading Like A Local” - and it comes in three courses.

A restaurant overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea

A restaurant overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Appetizer

Unless you’re heading to somewhere spectacularly remote, the internet is brimming with travel articles on your chosen destination.

Some of them, as I’m sure you’re aware, will be...not terribly engaging. They may be glorified postcards, or far-too-breezy lists of things to do that fail to explain why you should do them, and might be missing critical information about how you do them as well. Plus, no sense of place. You need that sense of place - or it’s just junk food for the brain, and tomorrow it’ll be hungrier than ever.

Luckily, the world is also filled with skilled journalists, travel writers, tour guides and destination experts who really, really know what they’re talking about. It’s your job to find them.

Let’s say you’re planning a trip down the length of Italy, north to south. You’re on the hunt for the best visitor’s-eye writing, preferably with a strong focus on the food and drink (this is Italy, after all).

Two wineglasses at lake Como, Italy

Two wineglasses at lake Como, Italy

A good place to start is always the New York Times, which arranges its news coverage by country (here’s the page for Italy), or perhaps some of the other top-quality online newspapers. You could dive into a site dedicated to curating the best lengthy writing, such as Longform or Longreads (which also has a page dedicated to writing about Italy).

But maybe you remember that the late, great travel writer Anthony Bourdain had a passion for The Beautiful Country, so you go in search of his work on the place. You might find that episode of “Parts Unknown” where he lunches with Francis Ford Coppola in southern Italy - or read his wonderful field notes on making that TV show.

However, your best click is over to the stellar Roads & Kingdoms, founded by professional journalists and the winner of a 2018 Primetime Emmy for a show they made with Bourdain (who turned from a fan to an investor in the site in 2018). From here, you can pick up a copy of their award winning Pasta, Pane, Vino - “a travelogue, a patient investigation of Italy’s cuisine, a loving profile of the everyday heroes who bring Italy to the table.” (Here’s the fun story of how it came about.)

That should whet your appetite nicely.

The Main Course

Most foreign writing about places is of the “parachute journalism” variety: a writer is commissioned to visit and give they thoughts, they drop by for a few weeks, they go home, write it up, make sure their research is accurate, send it off to their editor - and on they go to their next assignment.

For something deeper-lived and arguably truer, you can turn to the field of travelogue known as ex-pat writing. You’ll find the most popular examples of it on shelves of their own in airport bookstores (since it’s perfect beach reading material) - but some of it may require a little detective-work to find.

Many of these books follow a similar story line: someone with a dream of experiencing local life moves to a romantically beautiful corner of the world, perhaps buying a farmhouse or an abandoned cottage. Naturally, in the best Bill Bryson style, they soon find they are hilariously out of their depth, and a string of hilarious misunderstandings with the locals ensue before a respectful balance is reached.

Italy is the mother-lode of these kinds of memoirs (and blogs that seek to copy them). It seems just about everyone harbours a secret desire to buy a vineyard or olive-oil farm in Tuscany and settle into the sleepy rhythms of the rolling Italian countryside, breakfasting in the open in the golden morning light, sipping black coffee and mopping up Mediterranean liquid gold with torn-off chunks of fresh crusty bread…

Olive oil on a dinner table

Olive oil on a dinner table

Recent examples of this genre include Jennifer Criswell’s At Least You’re In Tuscany, Michelle Damiani’s Il Be Centro,  Extra Virgin: Among The Olive Groves Of Liguria by Annie Hawes, and A Small Place In Italy by legendary travel writer Eric Newby.

(Less common is the urban perspective on ex-pat life abroad - of which Eurydice Street: A Place In Athens is a terrific example.)

The Dessert

You’ve explored the place as a foreigner from every angle you can find - and now it’s time to see the place through the eyes of those who know it best.

Old town with restaurants in Ostuni, Italy

Old town with restaurants in Ostuni, Italy

If you haven’t learned the language yet, you need to find works that are internationally popular enough to attract English translations - and ruling supreme over them all is Italy’s Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend (2012).

It’s hard to overestimate how profoundly Ferrante’s work - and Ferrante herself - has captured the world’s imagination. Her anonymity is part of it: despite a wish to remain unidentified and unphotographed, investigative journalists have spent years tracking her down, sparking outcry about violations of privacy.

My Brilliant Friend, a novel about a childhood friendship based in Naples, has also become so popular that beyond its book sales (2 million copies in the US alone) it’s been turned into stage shows, into increasingly popular walking tours of the Italian city - and beginning in 2018, a TV adaptation airing on HBO. It has also turned its English translator, Ann Goldstein, into a celebrity in her own right.

Elene Ferrante’s work is a phenomenon - and so beautifully written that it’s a terrific starting point for reading about Italy from the Italian perspective. It’s also a fine pace to sharpen your Italian skills - and to get the full experience of thinking like a local, and to catch all the subtleties of wordplay, you need to read literature in its original language.

That’s the end game for you here. It may take you a lot longer than the few months you have before you set foot in the country.

But why would you want to rob yourself of one of travel’s greatest pleasures - sitting breathing the air of a place, with the best of its food overwhelming all your senses, while your mind is filled with the intricacies of a local tongue you’re just starting to understand at last (perhaps because you’re here, right now, in the place, surrounded by it all).

It’s an unforgettable way to know a place. I’d recommend it to anyone.   

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