Q: AN ITALIAN AFFAIR begins with the potentially devastating news that your husband of one-year is leaving you for his high school sweetheart. You respond by heading to Italy. First, why Italy? And second, did it live up to your expectations?
A: After my husband left me abruptly, nothing seemed real. Everything—our marriage, home, mutual friends, plans for the future—suddenly vanished. I was depressed and disoriented, and I realized I needed to escape to some place far away from our home. I’d spent some time in Italy, always felt cheerful there, and I spoke the language fairly well. So I made a plane reservation one day, impulsively, hoping I could outdistance my pain.
It worked for awhile. The sense of movement, excitement and wonder that comes when you’re traveling in a gorgeous place like Italy did let me forget my troubles for a time. But those things have a way of sneaking up on you again. There I was—surrounded by great art, lively Italian friends, incomparable food—and still, my husband was gone. I was as depressed in Italy as I had been home—which, in some ways, is worse. So I kept traveling, to an island, Ischia. It wasn’t until I met the professor there that I had my first glimmer that life could be sweet again.
Q: I’ve been amazed by how many women, upon reading your book, have admitted to having a secret fantasy about Italy themselves. Do women in other cultures see it in this same way, or is our fascination with the Mediterranean an American one?
A: Americans definitely romanticize Italy. We have an idea that the place is one big, lush Merchant-Ivory production, filled with Tuscan villas, potted lemon trees, grape trellises, lavish meals, and people wandering around wearing perfect shoes and talking about Michelangelo. As wonderful as it can be, Italy is incredibly diverse and, like anywhere, has its problems. But what draws women in particular to Italy—besides its obvious artistic and culinary splendors—is its everyday sensuality. There is a palpable sense of flirtation in the air, which is harmless, flattering, and friendly. There is a courtliness that accompanies public interactions, even just buying pears at the produce market or ordering coffee at a bar. When you go to Italy, you feel like a woman, even if at home you don’t come close to matching the leggy, 23-year-old American magazine ideal. It seems to me that women from other western cultures that are both puritanical about sexuality and exacting in their feminine ideals—like the U.K., or Germany—are also often relieved to find themselves in Italy. Suddenly, they feel softer, more appreciated, more sensuous, more alive.
Q: Your book has been described as “every woman’s nightmare—desertion—and every woman’s fantasy—recovery by means of a sexy affair.” Is this description fair?
A: I don’t know—it was certainly my nightmare and fantasy-come-true. But I think many women can relate to the story because they’ve experienced a similar loss that has irrevocably changed their lives, and they, too, have eventually become stronger for it, and even happier. Many women I know, after a divorce or another loss, spent time feeling like they were in a hopelessly big black hole, where they’d be forever. But after a while, they summoned up their resources and started figuring out how to climb up out of their depressed state. People cope in different way: some join support groups, some visit old friends or family, some move to a new place and a new job, and I went to Italy. In my case, it wasn’t just going to Italy and having an affair that eventually made me feel better (although that didn’t hurt!). It was that I proved to myself that life goes on without a husband, that even though the script was suddenly rewritten, the plot completely changed, and things were not proceeding the way I had always expected or dreamed, I could cope. I could eventually turn the situation around so that I was much better off. Living well really is the best revenge.
Q: What made you decide to write from the second person’s perspective?
A: When I first came back from Ischia, I started writing a story about the trip, a diary to myself, and it just came out in the second person. I never thought about it at all. The whole experience seemed like a dream, and I felt like I was observing myself in that dream. So the second person gave me the sense of seeing myself from the outside, as a “you.” I suppose a psychologist would say that the second person voice gave me the psychological distance I needed to be able to put the experience down on paper. When my story turned into a book, several people were skeptical about the second person—which is unusual, particularly for a memoir. So I rewrote the entire book in the first person. I just didn’t like it as well. I decided to go back to my first impulse.
Q: How does “the professor” feel about your book? Does he feel you paint an accurate picture of your relationship?
A: Well, the professor doesn’t really read English all that well—our whole affair was conducted in Italian—so I’m not sure. I think he was flattered that I wrote a book about our affair. He was surprised at how much I remembered about our trips. He said reading the book felt like watching a film, where events from his life were replayed as they had happened, and the details he had forgotten came back clearly. The professor was very funny about it: when I asked him how much he wanted to be disguised in the book, he wrote back, joking that if he was going to be the romantic hero in a love story that thousands of American women—divorced or not—were going to read, he definitely wanted to be disguised—“very thinly.” So all in all, I’d say he was amused.
Q: And how do you feel about having your personal life read by strangers? Better yet, how do your parents feel?
A: I suppose that’s the kind of thing one ought to think about before one goes ahead and writes a book like this. I am always jumping into things without realizing all the implications—going to Italy, having an affair, writing a book about it. If I’d thought it through, I probably never would’ve written the book. Take the sex scenes, for example. I needed to write about those intimate moments because they were key to the story, to my sense of sensual awakening. But I am so fundamentally shy about sex—I come from a long line of Puritans—that I practically had to close my eyes and type when it came to those parts. I guess I thought maybe people would close their eyes when they started reading those parts.
When I finished the book, and began worrying about people reading about my personal life, I spoke with an aunt of mine who has uncommonly good sense. She told me not to fret: the only people who are surprised to read about people having sex are their parents; the rest of the world just assumes it happens. As for my parents, they’re good sports, and they’ll definitely close their eyes when they come to the sexy parts.
Q: The European landscapes and foods you describe sound heavenly. How did you adjust to “normal” life back home in San Francisco after each rendezvous with the professor?
A: Well, San Francisco is not a bad place to live. We have our share of scenery and good food. What was difficult when I returned to San Francisco after seeing the professor was the sudden sense that I was alone. When you’re single for awhile, you get used to it. But when you spend time here and there with someone you care about, you feel his absence when you return home to your own bed. I’m lucky in San Francisco that I have good friends who live nearby, and I work in a collective office with a lively group of writers, so I have a lot of support. But it’s a tough place to be a single woman nearing forty. It helped to know that I had a lover I would see again. I didn’t feel so alone, but sometimes it made me ache.
Q: One of the pivotal moments in the book comes when the professor tells you his wife, also, is having an affair. How did you respond to this news?
A: The professor was extremely discreet and almost never said anything about his wife. He was always so carefree about other matters of the heart that I never thought that he could feel hurt about love, but it became clear to me that he had—and that, in some way, our encounters meant as much to him as they did to me. I guess I was also somewhat relieved to know that if they had a rather open, very French kind of marriage, it went both ways.
Q: Can you speak to the emotions and rationale in having an affair with a married man, when it was your husband’s infidelities that led to the breakup of your marriage?
A: It is difficult to answer, but I would have to say that relationships are always more complicated than they seem. Nor are they very rational. In a perfect world, no one would ever cheat on their spouse, but we all know that it happens all the time. I think the circumstances are different in every relationship. In the case of my marriage, it wasn’t the other woman that broke us up; it was more that my husband used her as an escape route out of a marriage he was ambivalent about from the beginning.
When adultery occurs in marriages, there are little flings, and then there are grand passions that threaten the whole marriage. I think most marriages can, and do, survive a fling now and then. That’s human nature. One thing I admire about Europeans is that they tend to have discretion about those flings, and never hurt their spouse with information they can gladly live without. The grand passions are the ones to worry about, and I think people have to be clear when something is undermining a whole life together. This isn’t to say that adultery is fine; I think it is probably always a warning light that something is wrong with the relationship that needs to be attended to. But people are different, people make arrangements, and it’s hard to judge every incidence of adultery as immoral. With the professor, clearly he and his wife had come to an understanding, and my occasional rendez-vous with him was not something that affected their marriage one way or another.
Of course, if I got married again, I might feel completely different. We human beings are so complicated in love!
Q: At one point you say to the professor, “Maybe we can relax with each other because we don’t speak each other’s native language.” What impact—good or bad—did the language barriers have?
A: There was something very liberating about conducting an affair entirely in a second language. It brought everything down to the essentials—hunger, pleasure, appreciation of the immediate sensual world around us. Things are simpler, and funnier, and easier in a second language. All the complicated negotiations and power games that usually go on in a relationship had to be simplified, each of us giving way, and nothing was ever too serious. We had to be nice to each other: neither of us could speak Italian well enough to be subtly cutting, hint at expectations or grievances, or infuse remarks with shades of meaning that might or might not be nasty, as too often happens in relationships. It was all easy, relaxed. It took awhile for us to understand each other better intellectually, but we came to common terms. Having an affair, by the way, really is the best way to learn a foreign language. . . .
Q: Your affair is so open, so European, shall we say, in nature. No strings attached, no pressure for the future. . . . It seems so perfect, and yet, do you think an affair like yours could have happened had you both lived in the same country?
A: M. once asked me what would happen if he lived in San Francisco. I told him, “you wouldn’t be you.” I was too fragile and scared after my divorce to get involved with someone who was nearby, much less available. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, because I just didn’t trust men or relationships yet. A far-away affair was perfect, because it helped me feel desirable again, and hopeful about romance. Our affair was a fantasy—we never had a chance to get tired of each other, to worry about schedules, to dislike each other’s friends, to fight over the dishes, to fit each other into our busy lives. We just had simple, romantic times together, and then we parted.
Q: Along the same lines, you write: “You think about American men who jump into sexual intimacy, then panic, afraid you’ll want to get married.” What does this say about our cultures? The expectations of relationships? Men in general?
A: The happily-ever-after expectations that we tend to have about relationships in the United States can be very oppressive. We believe that there is one perfect person out there for us. Women spend a lot of time worrying about how they can be more perfect, accommodating the man they’re with even at the expense of their own happiness and self-esteem. Men often worry that there’s always the chance they’ll meet someone even more perfect than the one they’re with. That starts a tug-of-war over commitment, which is really more about validating a sense of self than living together forever. You have to take forever day by day. The stakes are very high in relationships, very all-or-nothing. It’s hard to just date without constantly judging whether someone measures up to what is almost always an impossible ideal. One of the things I learned from the professor is to be less judgmental, and to better appreciate people in the moment. I realized that if I were thinking of him as a potential lifetime mate, I’d be constantly critical of him—he smokes, he isn’t very athletic, he can be a little cheap. But I learned how lovely it can be if you just accept people as they are, and not worry about expectations.
Q: The professor brought so many pleasures back into your life. One of the sweetest moments is when you rediscover San Francisco through his eyes. Do you still see the city differently? Do you think you see life differently?
A: The professor takes an almost childlike joy in exploring the world around him. He was delighted with San Francisco. The city has changed dramatically in the past few years—the influx of dot-com money has pushed out a lot of artists and creative people who give the city its character—but it’s still, in many ways, a magical place. The professor helped me remember that. After spending time with him, I carry some of his sense of wonder with me. There is humor and art and deliciousness to be found all around us in our everyday lives, it’s just a matter of being willing to focus on it at times, to take it in.
Q: This book is very different from your last book, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry (Plume), which was a journalistic expose of America’s diet culture. Do the two books have anything in common?
A: The books are very different—Losing It was a work of investigative journalism, and I suppose you could call An Italian Affair an investigative vacation. Losing It explored why women in this culture are so obsessed with their weight, and how the diet industry exploits their worries. Women will go to extremes, depriving themselves, feeling miserable, to try, and often fail, to fit into an unnatural physical ideal. Both of the books speak to self-acceptance, and to women finding more pleasure in a culture that has told us that indulging in pleasure, whether eating, drinking, vacationing, or having sex with real gusto, is wrong. If women would stop worrying so much about food, and eat more like Italians—with real satisfaction, and not snacking between meals or eating fast food—they would have fewer problems with weight. Both my books also explore questions of body image. In An Italian Affair, one of the ways I expressed my insecurities following my divorce was by feeling self-conscious about my weight. By the end of the book, I was feeling quite cheerful in my body.
Q: What’s next for you and the professor?
A: The professor always said that we’d see each other again—he wasn’t sure where or how, but we would see each other again. I’m not so sure. I sometimes imagine having tea with him in a Paris café in about ten years, telling stories to each other. I don’t know what’s next for him. I suppose he will continue to teach, write, travel, smoke cigars, and flirt. I don’t know what’s next for me, either. Maybe I’ll fall in love. Maybe I’ll write another book. Probably I’ll learn French.