Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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*****= An all-time favorite
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****As the Romans Do

An American Family's Italian Odyssey

by Alan Epstein

Reviewed April 22, 2005.
Perennial (HarperCollins), New York, 2000.  287 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#2, Cross-Cultural)

This was the perfect book to read on the train on our way to Rome.  Alan Epstein and his family decided to move to Rome.  As the Romans Do tells about their reasons for that and the wonderful adventure they ended up with.  He even sent his children to Roman schools and built a great life in Rome.  I like the way he puts his finger on some of the essential differences between life in the United States and life in Rome.

He also tells about Rome from the perspective of one who loves it, making a nice introduction for me.  “Other cities may be older, but Rome still lives its past.  Walk anywhere in the city or the areas surrounding it, and within minutes you are confronted with the remains of something that could be up to twenty-five hundred years old, that functioned and was vital to the daily life of the romani.

“The result is a strange anomaly, a sprawling metropolis that feels like a small town, simply because it no longer has any illusions of greatness.  ‘Been there, done that’ could be the motto of SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the name of the city government.  Romans feel no need to prove themselves, to demonstrate to the world that they still have the ability to command respect, enact their wills, determine the course of history.  Nobody cares about that any longer.  The city’s place in history is indelible, and now its inhabitants want to enjoy Rome’s advanced age in a manner that befits someone who is three thousand years old.  It’s as if, had you lived to reach this age and had you realized every one of your dreams of your youth, you had no more worlds to conquer; that your drive, your ambition, your desire to impress had long since been satisfied, and now you were unabashedly devoted to the enjoyment of life’s everyday pleasures—eating well, looking good, devoting time to your family, and accepting the inevitable ups and downs that human existence has no choice but to offer.”

On an earlier trip to Italy, we’d noticed that drivers like to use their horns.  My husband said at first it made him angry, until he decided that it was simply a celebration:  “The light is green!  We get to go!  Honk!  Honk!”  I also like Alan Epstein’s explanation:

“What gives Rome this character, what makes Rome, Rome, is a sense of drama, of the theatrical, the exaggerated, a quality that pervades everyday life and distinguishes the city from most places one would find in the United States, Canada, England, and the other countries in the English-speaking world, as well as northern Europe.  People live in these places precisely for the reason that nothing much happens, that nothing much should happen, at least not in a way that creates public spectacle.  Rome is not like that.  Every ounce of its soul is devoted to the art of being seen, to the show, to a way of being that opts for dramatization at the expense of understatement, histrionics that push aside silence.  The ethos of Rome partakes of another culture—the Levantine, the Latin—rather than the European.  The first thing I noticed on the way to my hotel after landing at Cairo, another Mediterranean capital, other than the fact that I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t make it there alive, is that every driver, for no apparent reason, is leaning on his horn, creating a maddening cacophony that has only one purpose—to create a disturbance, to liven up the moment, to add a stupefying sense of dislocation in order to cancel out the reality that nothing much is really happening.”

Alan Epstein doesn’t just talk about the events that have happened to him and his family as they moved to Rome.  He explores ideas, things he noticed from living in a foreign culture.  Different ways of looking at the world and at themselves.  This exploration of ideas is what made the book a lot of fun.

You don’t even have to go to Rome to enjoy it.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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