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Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchantedby Annie Hawes
Synopses & Reviews
Glamour, we soon spotted, was not the outstanding feature of the village of Diano San Pietro. As far as the crusty olive-farming inhabitants of this crumbling backwater were concerned, the Riviera, a mere two miles away, might as well be on another planet. Down on the coast, Diano Marina has palm-shaded piazzas and an elegant marble-paved promenade along a wide blue sandy bay. Diano San Pietro, on the other hand, straggles up the steep foothills of the Mediterranean hinterland, its warped green shutters leaning into decrepit cobbled alleys overrun with leathery old men on erratic Vespas who call irately upon the Madonna as they narrowly miss mowing you down; with yowling feral cats and rusty tin cans full of improbably healthy geraniums.
The lodgings in which we are doomed to spend the next ten weeks — courtesy of Luigi, walrus-mustached landlord of the village's only hostelry and liveliest spot in town — have turned out to be a tiny pair of echoing tiled rooms above a barful of peasants who take thriftily to their beds at about ten-thirty. Our own beds are made of some kind of weird hammocky chainmail that droops horribly under your mattress, squeaks and gibbers at your slightest movement, and are only yards from the village "campanile," whose great wheezing bell rings each and every hour, each and every half-hour, shaking the whole building to its roots. Only a masochist, or someone who was born and bred here and had been heaving sacks of olives since daybreak, would try getting to sleep before the 12:30 A.M. extravaganza was over. Twelve long-drawn-out gut-vibrating bongs and, after a short pause, a rusty, breathless bing. One A.M. is music to our ears.
Down bythe sea Diano Marina folk have consorted openly with visiting strangers ever since the elegant days of Wintering on the Riviera. No terrible retribution seems to have fallen upon them: in fact a century or so of this wanton behavior has left them looking rather sleek and prosperous. Up on the mountain, the grimly fascinating folk of Diano San Pietro prefer to meet the eccentric behavior of strangers with a united front of appalled incomprehension. In San Pietro a woman does not wear shorts and a T-shirt. Not unless she wants to face a barful of seriously quelling looks over her cappuccino. No: she wears an apron, a calf-length tube, ankle socks, and slippers. Her menfolk go for the faded blue trouser held up with string, the aged singlet vest that is not removed in the midday heat — certainly not, we're not in Diano Marina here — but rolled up sausagewise into a stylish underarm sweatband, leaving the nipple area modestly covered while the solid pasta-filled midriff is exposed to the pleasantly cooling effect of any chance bit of "aria" that may waft by. Naturally, a large and well-worn handkerchief always protects the head during daylight hours; knotted at the corners for men, tied at the nape for ladies. Our slinky holiday gear languishes in our bags, untouched. Still, since barefaced lying has brought me here, board and lodging paid for, wages (barring detection as an impostor) in the offing, there is perhaps a certain poetic justice in the severe lack, in my immediate vicinity of bright cosmopolitan life, of frivolity of any kind, or indeed, of anyone under forty apart from the occasional babe-in-arms. Maybe also in the fact that my ten-week stay in Diano San Pietro will end upstretching on into infinity.
Ten weeks' work on the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included, said my sister, waving the job description at me. Mediterranean fleshpots, sparkling seas, bronzed suitors with unbearably sexy accents, wild nightlife... Why didn't I come too?
What about the bit about being able to graft roses To Commercial Standard, I asked, examining the document. Was this not of some importance to my putative employer? Would I not find it hard to conceal my ignorance of such matters?
Of course I wouldn't, said Lucy. Not with her at my side to coach and camouflage.
After a long and gloomy winter of angst and form-filling I'd firmly established that I had absolutely no chance of getting a loan to buy the home of my dreams. I was, I now knew, a Bad Risk. The sister was doing her best to save me from despair. Enough lurking in the London gloom, skidding home exhausted through greasy city dark and drizzle. What did I care about a career? Or real estate, for that matter? Freelance horticulture would do very nicely. So here I am, middle of February, in Italy and ready to graft. San Pietro may correspond hardly at all to any idea I have previously formed of the Italian Riviera, but it is undeniably a great improvement on London. No more miserly damp horizons stopping twenty feet away at the nearest office block. Here they stretch up into the misty foothills of the Maritime Alps on the one hand, on the other down into the intense blue vastness of the Mediterranean. The sun shines warmly even at this unlikely time of year; the sky is blue; and I am seeing plenty of both.
Moreover, the board makes up twice over for any small defects in the lodging chosen for us by ourboss-to-be, Signor Patrucco, whose rose nurseries lie a couple of hundred yards away, just past the olive mill. In under a week the lugubrious Luigi and his statuesque wife Maria have transformed us from just-give-us-a-sandwich philistines into budding gourmets, agog to meet whatever they'll be putting on our plates tonight. Or more accurately, into budding connoisseurs of antipasti. It has taken us some time to learn that you're meant to start with a few of these delectable antipasti-things, then move onto your "primo piatto" of pasta. Next, the focal...
Part novel, part memoir, "Extra Virgin" is the story of two painfully pale English sisters who find themselves reveling amongst the sun-drenched olive groves and earthy inhabitants of a small Italian village. Hired to work for ten weeks to graft roses near the Riviera, board and lodging included, little does either of them know that their brief stay will stretch into infinity.
Extra Virgin introduces a major new voice in this delicious tale of two sisters who find unexpected joy in the isolated village of Diano San Pietro, Italy.
How could anyone leave such a lovely place to go to rack and ruin? It looks as if no one has ever been near it for decades, its land's untended and its olive tress unkept. I want it every badly. It ought to be mine.
In 1983 a pale Annie Hawes and her equally pale sister decide to leave England for the sun-drenched olive groves of a small Italian town in Liguria. With fantasies of handsome tanned men and swimming in the sea urging them on, they sign up to graft roses-something they know nothing about, but as it is a bad year for olives, they figure they can fake a knowledge of roses for ten weeks. What they don't count on is falling in love with Italy-and with one old farmhouse in particular.
Although they quickly realize that Liguria is not Tuscany — it is undiscovered by tourists, and its inhabitants (none of whom appear to be handsome, and none of whom seem to be under forty) have strict ideas about what young Englishwomen should and shouldn't be doing("to go swimming in seawater outside the month of July or August is even worse for your health than drinking cappuccino after twelve noon!") they simply cannot resist the charm exuded by the little town. Annie, who has never wanted to settle down anywhere, now doesn't want to leave. How will she find a way to make this old derelict farmhouse her own? What will the Ligurians think about their wild new neighbor with her strange ways staying on for good?
Extra Virgin is a wonderful memoir, written with irresistible verve and humor. Annie Hawe's adventures will captivate readers who have wondered what happens when you fall in love with a certain house, on a certain hill, near a certain village. After eighteen years living as a Ligurian, Annie tells a story that is much more realistic than nay other book on Italy, and Extra Virgin is sure to put Liguria in the minds of travelers, armchair and real alike.
About the Author
Anne Hawes has worked for the past fifteen years as a freelance film editor. She has lived in France and Africa as well as her native England. She now lives most contentedly in Liguria, Italy.
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