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Memoir set in Rome, plus Talking Location With… author Judith Works

18th November 2016

Coins in the Fountain by Judith Works, memoir set in Rome.

How does a North American woman, stationed in Rome for the UN, acclimatise to the weird and wonderful world that is Rome? Armed with an Italian Dictionary, the biography of the Borgias and a Michelin Guide for the city (printed for the first time way back in 1959 apparently) she was ready to embrace the Eternal City.

memoir set in rome

Judith Works is offered a work-posting to the city and with affable husband Glenn in tow, the two set up home in the EUR District of the city (the letters standing for Espozione Universale Roma). This is not the Rome of ruins but the brainchild of  Mussolini, the area earmarked to celebrate 20 years of Fascism in 1942; but the war came along and put significant dampers on his megalomaniac plans.

Castello Sant' Angelo

Castello Sant’ Angelo

At first her Anglo Saxon reticence to engage in full-on life in the city is utterly palpable. She observes the  chaos from the sidelines, lamenting the poor kitchen and bathroom facilities and colourful disorder that makes Rome what it is. But – whilst mild-mannered Glenn is in the background getting stuck into experimental Italian cooking – she begins to mellow as the city works its magic on her. For sure, it remains at heart frustrating in many bureaucratic ways, but the complex edifice that is the city of Rome and its history is soon there for the taking and absorbing. And absorb and wonder she does, Rome, she determines is much like living in an opera.

All things atrocious and shameless flock from everywhere to Rome (Tacitus). “Not much has changed in that regard from the turn of the second century AD”, she writes.

They spend a couple of years there and then return to North America. But she must have thrown several coins into the Trevi Fountain (doing this means you will return to the city) and they return once again, still charmed and addicted to the city. Her wonderment grows and with it the reader embarks with her on adventures, enthralled by her discoveries and simple pleasures – mainly food it has to be said (and what’s not to like about that!), as she fills her book with a rich pot of interesting observations and facts, peppered with useful tips. She herself masters the art of sprezzatura (or as much as someone who is not born in Rome can) – the art of making the difficult look effortless.

Oh those tomatoes!

Oh those tomatoes!

Her descriptions of the food markets are sumptuous and she muses how many other countries, including her own, have disappeared into a culture of clingfilm and ready-made meals, and what a loss to the senses that really is. She ponders the observation that many food markets also feature stalls of shoes… perhaps the two somehow go hand-in-hand, but hers is not to question the apparently tenuous connection.

More Food!

More Food!

And Christmas, what joy. The build-up starts so much later in the calendar, early December, when it’s time to set up the ubiquitous presepi: figures are collected year in, year out to build up a delightful and unique nativity scene to create the presepio. She delights in the stalls on the Piazza Navona but as this memoir was written when the lira was still the currency of Italy, I am sad to report that the Christmas market no longer takes place (it stopped a couple of years ago). But you can still enjoy her recommended visits to Volpetti for all your deli needs, purchase you confetti (the common nuptial sweets) in Sulmona (just feast your eyes on the vast arrays on this website) and head over to the Taverna dei Barbi in Montalcino.

As the Kirkus Review of this book says: “Armchair-travel books are rarely as good as this one”

Tina for the TripFiction Team

Over to Judith in our #TalkingLocationWith … feature:

Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona

Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona

One of the more difficult aspects of writing a novel or a memoir that has a strong sense of place is describing the setting. Not just a general description of the location, but the location that matters to the story. I often write about Rome, where I lived for ten years. As anyone who has visited the city knows, it is complex and chaotic, full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and even touch – the feel of a melted copper coin embedded in marble when the Forum was sacked by barbarians, the worn ruts in the Appia Antica, the soft moss in courtyard fountains. It begs to be described.

When I decided to write my memoir, Coins in the Fountain, I’d been away from Rome for two years. I woke up one dark and rainy morning in February and looked at the clock. Six a.m. in the darkest time of the year. I live on the west coast of the US, so Rome is nine hours ahead – it would have been the end of the long lunch hour if I’d been there. But I wasn’t anymore. How to capture that feeling of regret mixed with the pleasure of the years we spent as expatriates? I grabbed a cup of coffee, and when the caffeine began to work I began to make notes.

Unlike novels, memoirs have to be accurate. I needed to recapture, not only the adventures and misadventures (and there were many), but I also wanted to tell readers what it is really like to live in the city, to travel in Italy and elsewhere.

On the Aventine Hill

On the Aventine Hill

How to do that? I stated with a list of the places and events I wanted to write about. I searched my memory, my computer, and my bookshelves to capture the ambience. Although I don’t keep a diary, I have hundreds, if not thousands, of photos both the old-fashioned “hard” copies and on-line. I also have accumulated a large number of guidebooks about Rome and Italy – a great resource when I puzzled over what some monument actually looked like and where it is. A box of maps I’d saved was helpful. And I have a number of Italian cookbooks with great photographs of food. Google street view was a good resource when I couldn’t remember exactly what a building looked like, along with photographs on photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Pinterest.

dsc00461-001I began to write, and as I wrote I had to check – was my memory accurate, did the photos capture the essence of the place? I’m fortunate because I had not only my own memory, but that of my husband, as well as our daughter and son-in-law who visited us frequently. We sometimes clashed on who had the most accurate recollection to the experience. I have to admit, sometimes they convinced me that I’d remembered wrongly or had forgotten some aspect. But only I knew how the experience affected me, how the food tasted, what it was like when I traced my fingers over some ancient inscription, fell between the subway train and the platform, or ended up in surgery.

dsc00560-001I wrote and rewrote, and I had my critique group go over the manuscript chapter by chapter. They asked questions, lots of questions. They wanted to know where something was and what it looked like. I researched and rewrote. Then I had a chance to return to Rome on a holiday. It was an opportunity to fact check. Of course, I had misremembered some of the settings. I took notes to make corrections and more photos, and asked my friends whether the setting was accurate.

And I realized how much I missed Rome.

Thank you so much to Judith for sharing “her” city.

You can follow Judith on Twitter, Facebook and via her website and buy her book here

And do come and connect with Team TripFiction via Twitter (@tripfiction), Facebook (TripFiction), Instagram (TripFiction) and Pinterest (TripFiction)… and now YouTube

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  1. User: Judith Works

    Posted on: 20/12/2016 at 3:29 pm

    Happy holidays to everyone at Trip Fiction and their readers!!