“He paused half-way, putting the suitcases down for a few minutes while he recovered his breath and looked down the hillside. He saw olive trees. He saw more hills, blue and distant, and a line of cypresses on the horizon. He looked up at the sky, empty and filled with a lambent blue. He wanted to break into song,” wrote Alexander McCall Smith, of Paul, his principal character’s response to Tuscany, in My Italian Bulldozer. I too have felt like I might break into song if I ever set foot there.
For years, in fact, I have harboured a deep desire to tangle with Tuscany, based entirely on descriptions of its salubrious beauty in books. This (one-sided) love affair began when I read EM Forster’s Room with A View many years ago, and it was reinforced by my happy discovery of Mark Mill’s The Savage Garden more recently. Each time, I was overcome with the same yearning for a tryst with Tuscany.
So, when I put down the heart-warming Italian Bulldozer, I made like a bulldozer and announced, “This summer, it’s Tuscany or bust, buster,” to my long-suffering husband. How seriously he took it will become evident soon. But this summer or not, my track record of succumbing to the siren song of book settings is not to be taken lightly.
Entering the book
I have, for as long as I can remember, taken books to my bosom, to the extent I have felt the need to actually inhabit the world of its characters. I have ached to follow in the footsteps of Isabel Allende’s complex women through magical Chilean causeways. Or join Judy Blume’s American middle-school nothings in their wholesome white-picket-fenced homes. Or even luxuriate in the dangerous lethargy of Han Suyin’s imagined East. Yet the books that stir me this way are rarely proper travel books.
Travelogues can sometimes be too prescriptive. Go see Siberia, they command, or you’ll adore Angola, they insist. “Visitors to India either absolutely love it, or absolutely hate it. Often at the exact same time. There is no middle ground here, India is a land of extreme polarity that throws everything at you all at once”. As do travel guides of this ilk. But a book (much like a man), with a subtler seduction plan, is far more likely to worm its way into my heart. And before I’ve realised how at home it’s made itself in my imagination, I have put down roots at the mise en scène.
I started reading James Herriot in my early teens, because I found the characters endearing and the situations funny. AND I needed a respite from the grim Russian tomes I was ploughing through at the time. “In the streets, through the windows of the houses,” I read in All Creatures Great and Small:
“…you could see the Fell rearing its calm, green bulk more than two thousand feet above the huddled roofs. There was a clarity in the air, a sense of space and airiness that made me feel I had shed something on the plain, twenty miles behind.”
I didn’t know then how deeply in love I would fall with the idyllic Yorkshire setting of Herriot’s books. But eeh by gum, a decade later I had moved lock, stock and hope-filled barrel to that very part of the world. It had everything to do with the rolling green meadows, big blue skies and bracing air in those veterinarian volumes, and much less with the marriage proposal I received from a son of that fertile soil, who got down on bended knee, to become my first husband.
I may have divorced him five years later, but I never fell out of love with Yorkshire. “I could find other excuses to get out and sit on the crisp grass and look out over the airy roof of Yorkshire. It was like taking time out of life. Time to get things into perspective.” I regained perspective in those pea-green dales as well. I recognised it was time to move on to Byron’s magnificent Midlands.
While no other book-instigated trip has been quite so momentous (or as disastrous), the list of reads that have had me packing my bags is endless. Growing up entranced by Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of Corfu, I knew I’d get there some day.
“Riding side-saddle on their slouching, drooping-eared donkeys, they were shrill and colourful as parrots, and their chatter and laughter echoed amongst the olive trees. In the mornings they would smile and shout greetings as their donkeys pattered past, and in the evenings they would lean over the fuchsia hedge, balancing precariously on their steeds’ backs, to hold out gifts for me – a bunch of amber grapes still sun-warmed, some figs black as tar, striped with pink where they’d burst their seams with ripeness”.
Exploring Corfu one languorous summer’s week with my second husband (I solemnly swear I’ve known more books than husbands), I discovered it was every bit as gorgeous as Gerald had said it would be. Beyond the dazzling azure sea, chirping cicadas and fragrant lemon groves, there was for us too, a strawberry pink villa, with its rooms and rafters bursting with light and life. Life that was catching apparently, because it wasn’t long after our return to Blighty that we found ourselves in the My Family and Other Animals way.
A dynamic daughter followed a lively little boy into our lives and the haring off to see the sights from books only intensified with them in tow. But now their books had as much to do with our preferred destinations as our own reading. In recent years, we have scoured coastal England for the castles, beaches and honeysuckle-smothered villages of Enid Blyton. We have kept our eyes peeled for bears from “darkest Peru” on journeys in to London. On those passages through Paddington, we have stumbled upon the places that bear magical traces of Harry Potter’s adventures too.
“The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky as Harry and Hagrid made their way back down Diagon Alley, back through the wall, back through the Leaky Cauldron, now empty. Harry didn’t speak at all as they walked down the road; he didn’t even notice how much people were gawking at them on the Underground, laden as they were with all their funny-shaped packages, with the snowy owl asleep in its cage on Harry’s lap. Up another escalator, and they were out into Paddington station”.
Farther afield, in the Alps, we have lost ourselves in the lowering clouds looking for Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (making up for that icy interlude with pure molten Swiss chocolate after). And in Paris, we have rung the bells of Notre Dame in the spirit of Quasimodo, promenaded down the Champs Elysees in tribute to the Musketeers, and surveyed the city from the Eiffel Tower’s eyrie as the Count of Monte Cristo must once have.
Not every book-spurred sortie has gone swimmingly of course. The sheer inadvisability of visiting a place at a particularly bad time has never got in the way of my need to see them, however. So, when the companion of my adolescent years, Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye, summoned me to New York (via a cheap flights website) on that first fraught anniversary of 9/11, I answered his call. Not the cleverest thing I’ve done, but on par with some of Holden’s own misadventures, I consoled myself later.
“It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road”.
New York that year was in a step-motherly mood towards people of my persuasion – the brown-skinned. Though I had neither Jihadi beard nor handy Kalashnikov on my person (for which they searched repeatedly, interminably and minutely, as I went through every security check known to man), I was clearly not going to become their blue-eyed girl that visit. Almost rugby-tackled at Newark Airport, harassed on the subway and shoved aside on the Staten Island ferry, I was also scolded for asking too many questions at the Rat Pack’s favourite diner, and nearly ended up sitting on a used hypodermic needle in Central Park.
And yet The Big Apple managed to redeem itself before my trip was over. Reconnoitring Wall Street, Harlem, and the blistering barrios during the day, and glittering Broadway, soaring bridges and dizzying skyscrapers by night, I found that fabled energy, the riveting restlessness, read about in the tales of Teju Cole, Edith Wharton, and EL Doctorow, to be as real and alluring as promised.
“Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”— "Open City", Teju Cole
So, nothing, but nothing, you see, can put me off landing up at locales I have learned to love through books. I’d do them all again. AND that unending wish-list of destinations as long as my arm. But first – Tuscany awaits.