Cover image for Botticelli blue skies : an American in Florence
Botticelli blue skies : an American in Florence
Gerber, Merrill Joan.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 288 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DG734.23 .G47 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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When writer Merrill Joan Gerber is invited to join her husband, a history professor, as he takes a class of American college students to study in Florence, Italy, she feels terrified at the idea of leaving her comforts, her friends, and her aged mother in California. Her husband tries to assure her that her fear of Italy--and her lack of knowledge of the Italian language--will be offset by the discoveries of travel. "I can't tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and interesting." Botticelli Blue Skies is the tale of a woman who readily admits to fear of travel, a fear that many experience but are embarrassed to admit. When finally she plunges into the new adventure, she describes her experiences in Florence with wit, humor, and energy.
Instead of sticking to the conventional tourist path, Gerber follows her instincts. She makes discoveries without tour guides droning in her ear and reclaims the travel experience as her own, taking time to shop in a thrift shop, eat in a Chinese restaurant that serves "Dragon chips," make friends with her landlady who turns out to be a Countess, and visit the class of a professor at the university. She discovers a Florence that is not all museums and wine. With newfound patience and growing confidence, Gerber makes her way around Florence, Venice, and  Rome. She visits famous places and discovers obscure ones--in the end embracing all that is Italian. Botticelli Blue Skies (accompanied by the author's own photographs) is an honest, lyrical, touching account of the sometimes exhausting, often threatening, but always enriching physical and emotional challenge that is travel.

Author Notes

Merrill Joan Gerber teaches creative writing at the California Institute of Technology.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Novelist and short story writer Gerber presents an absolutely delightful travel memoir. Reluctantly accompanying her professor husband and a group of college students for a semester of study in Florence, the author joins the burgeoning ranks of Americans chronicling their experiences abroad. Though she initially struggles with language and cultural issues, she soon surrenders to the irresistible beauty and sweetness of the Italian way of life. Refusing to adopt a tourist mind-set, she travels off the beaten path, approaching each new day and each new discovery as an adventure of the soul. With a writer's eye for detail and a keen sense of appreciation for unexpected gifts and pleasures, she records her daily impressions with grace, wit, and humor. This charming travelogue will draw readers into the leisurely rhythms of daily life in Florence. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

There's a subgroup in the memoir category in which Americans open themselves to the thrills and minor discomforts of unfamiliar countries, and sometimes pen insightful riffs on what it means to travel. Gerber, a creative writing professor at the California Institute of Technology, here adds her experiences to this genre, but doesn't find new ground on which to tread. She does stand out in one way: she's a reluctant traveler, following her professor husband, who's taken on an assignment in Florence. After a long discussion of how she hates to leave her home's comforts, Gerber finally arrives in Italy. She details her activities, including eating at a Chinese restaurant, buying milk in boxes and getting her geographic bearings. Although one can imagine how difficult this must be and therefore gain some sympathy for her at every wrong turn and misjudged grocery purchase, Gerber's "poor me" attitude wears thin. She doesn't learn any Italian before the trip, and in fact barely prepares herself for the journey. Prosaic happenings, such as a student accused of taking a hotel towel, are common and lead to other, similar moments that, when added together, seem like a neighbor's long vacation slide show. Gerber's lightness does lend itself well to funnier moments, and her memoir will comfort those who find themselves having to live in Europe briefly. However, the lack of emotional depth and unwillingness to fully examine a foreign locale prevent the book from rising in the expatriate canon. Photos. (Nov. 18) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Gerber (creative writing, California Inst. of Technology), an author of seven novels and four volumes of short stories, was not pleased when her husband was invited to teach in Florence, Italy, for three months. She feared leaving behind her family, friends, and home. Filled with humor and honest emotion, this lively tale describes Gerber's initial reluctance to move to a country whose language she did not speak, her eventual acceptance of her fear of travel, and her varied adventures in Florence, which ranged from losing her underwear over the balcony to the surprises of her first grocery shopping trip. Gerber, no traditional traveler, does not shy away from describing her exhaustion during sightseeing trips and her boredom with tour guides. She often seeks out the familiar, purchasing American peanut butter and celebrating the Jewish New Year with an Italian family. The American students studying with her husband also add color to the narrative, with convoluted romantic involvements and relationship angst. An absorbing account of life in another country; recommended for larger public libraries.-Alison Hopkins, Brantford P.L., Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I Can't Go to Italy There is no possibility on earth that I can go to Italy with my husband in the fall. I am too firmly rooted in my California life to pick up and move to a different continent, though he promises me we will have a fine adventure. "I can't tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and interesting." I explain to him patiently that Italy is irrelevant to the center of my life, which-as he knows-is my mother's endless dying. I can't be across the world when she dies. Joe points out that my mother has been dying for an extremely long time, more than five years. We are moving along ourselves-if we want to travel, the time for us is now. To each of my arguments he offers a solution. My sister will be here to look after my mother. Our daughters are grown and independent; perhaps one or all three of them can come to visit us in Italy. The cat? We will hire someone to feed him. My writing? I can do my work in Italy as well as here; we'll take along my laptop computer. He points out the many virtues of this opportunity for him to teach a group of students in Florence for next year's fall term. "We'll have three months in Tuscany, with an apartment provided and my regular salary to live on. How else could we ever afford to live in Italy for three months! I think we should definitely do this," he says. "It's our chance." The next day I go to my mother's bedside at the nursing home, where she lies paralyzed and on a feeding tube. I ask her what she thinks about my going to Italy for three months. "You can't wait for me, I could live to be a hundred. Go and do what you have to do. I'll just be here. And if something happens ... don't come back." "Meaning?" "Meaning if I die, don't come back." Even with her permission, I am resistant. Do I really want to leave my friends, my comfortable life, my familiar surroundings? Do I want to leave my kitchen appliances, my computer, my down comforter? Each evening at dinner, as the deadline for Joe's decision approaches, he and I debate at the kitchen table, he using words like "adventure" and "travel" and "new things to think about" while I counter with "comfort, obligations, our life here." Who will water the plants? Who will take care of the house? I remind him of the scene in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse , where-after the mother dies and the family abandons the summer house-the place is invaded by the elements, by wind and rain, by rats and mice, and goes to ruin. Joe seems incredulous that I am worried about the grass in the yard, and a few scraggly houseplants. The problem is, he's not a worrier. He doesn't have my highly developed skill of being able to imagine catastrophes. In secret I invent private, infantile arguments I can't bring myself to say to his face: "I'll just be a tag-along teacher's wife. I'll be a third wheel. You and the Italian teacher will be a team, and I'll have nothing to do. The students won't be interested in me; you'll be too busy to pay attention to me. I'll be bored." Bored in Italy? I'd have to be in a coma, I assure myself. One day I am talking to the clerk at the Post Office and remark: "I may have to go to Italy for three months." He replies: "My heart is breaking for you. You really have my sympathy." He hands me a roll of stamps. "Could I come and carry your bags?" "Okay," I tell my husband at dinnertime one night. "Okay, I'll go to Italy." My tone of voice suggests I have been coerced, have no choice, that I must give in, go to this foreign country and possibly lose my mind there, maybe even my life. "Good," Joe says cheerfully. "I'll tell the director of the study-abroad program that we accept the offer." He gets up from his chair and kisses the top of my head. "Thank you," he adds. With the trip still months away, I begin making my "Trip List." Errands to do, items to take, bills to pay in advance, things to be sure not to forget. I will have to interview candidates to feed my cat. I will have to ask my doctor for medicines for every possible disease. (I check the Merck Manual and begin to make lists of what diseases might befall us in Italy.) I will have to buy walking shoes, reinforced and padded, to prepare for the cobblestones of Florence. I will have to get travelers' checks, put my checking account in order, exchange dollars for lire. I start looking through my wardrobe and find it totally lacking. I do not own one article of clothing I could take on a trip. I am exhausted already. In the meantime, Joe gets busy improving his Italian. "Buona sera, signora," says the tape player at breakfast. "Dov'è il gabinetto? Quanto costa un biglietto turistico? Vorrei una birra." "Don't you want to practice?" Joe asks me. "And learn to talk like a two-year-old? No, thank you. Arrivederci. Ciao. " I'm Going to Italy When you have a major shock in life, the kind you first refuse, then resist, then deny, you must finally take it in and make a space for it. I am going to Italy in September, and that is that. What will I do there? I don't know yet. I hold in my mind, as a kind of mantra, what Joe said to me: "I can't tell you exactly what will happen, but something will." Taking this trip will be a matter of faith. What is the game children play in school to help them learn to trust others? They fall backward and let others catch them. So I must fall backward into the arms of Italy and hope to be embraced and treated gently. Still, should the arms of Italy be slightly out of position when I land, I have to make some preparations for my being dropped there for three months. Will I go to the famous museums? Of course, but not too many. Will I go to the great churches? Of course, but not every day. Like a newborn, I will discover life and language at my own pace in this new world. For the past year or two, my three daughters have communicated with me daily from their various places in the world by e-mail. If I can continue to connect to them from Italy, I will be happy. However, no computer expert to whom I turn for advice seems quite sure how this will work or whether it will work; I am cautioned by everyone that Italy is famous for how nothing works as expected. The Italian phone lines are different, equipment from the United States may not recognize Italian dial tones. But slowly I put together a plan: I buy a modem, a voltage regulator, an Italian phone jack, plug adapters, surge protectors, even a portable printer. I subscribe to an internet server that promises a connection in Florence but cautions me: there are no guarantees. The moment of truth will come the day I try to log on. I begin to hear from friends who learn of my travel plans: one will give me the address of a woman she knew in Rome thirty years ago and who now lives in Florence in a five-hundred-year-old farmhouse. Another will put me in touch with a professor at the University of Florence. I might look into the Jewish Community Center, or the American Church. The more I do in preparation, the more confident I feel. My spirit is lighter, my heart happier. When I find a neighbor boy to feed my cat and discover that they actually enjoy each other's company, I am filled with relief and pleasure. I attack my desk with zeal: I pay $200 in advance to every service I can think of: the phone company, the gas and electric companies, the water department, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the car and home owners' insurance company, the gardener, even the plumber-in case a pipe bursts. I pay estimated taxes up to the next century, it seems. I arrange for my sister to take care of our mail. I plot to use up all my perishable food before we leave. My blood is up. An adventure lies ahead. At my time of life, this is no small matter! Gli Studenti Today, Nicoletta, the Italian teacher who will be teaching with Joe, is holding a reception for the "Semester in Florence" students at her home, a mixer where they will get to know one another better and choose roommates for the stay in Italy. Nicoletta and Joe have interviewed and accepted thirty-eight students for the trip; each one has been told of the rigors of travel and warned of the culture shock they will face. A special admonition is offered about the quantity of wine that is available in Italy-and how everyone is counting on their good sense in dealing with it. The course of study is settled: Joe will teach humanities and history, Nicoletta will teach Italian language. That Nicoletta resembles Sophia Loren is of no small interest to me, though Joe has protested that he hadn't noticed. Nicoletta has an easy laugh, a happy nature; I can tell at once that she is counting the moments till she is in Italy. She was born in Rome and is anxious to demonstrate its beauties and glories to the students. I admire her energy, her large dark eyes, her sensual Italian mouth. (Well, it is a good thing I have decided to go along, isn't it?) Her husband, an American, is a handsome, cheery fellow and is busy setting out refreshments for the students when we arrive. He won't be with us on the trip-he has his business to attend to at home. The students arrive one by one. Joe has prepared me for some of them: Marta, the cabaret singer who wears great dangling music-note earrings; Robin, the boy with the silver stud in the middle of his tongue; Rosanna, the tall blonde young woman who is a hairdresser and has offered to bring her scissors to Italy in order to serve as official haircutter for the students. There will be thirty-two young women going, and only six men. (Or are they girls and boys? For the most part, they are in their early twenties-except for Mrs. Pedrini, the seventy-two-year-old student.) Even as I am wondering which of these young women will want to room with a seventy-two-year-old, the woman in question enters Nicoletta's front door. With short dark hair and elegantly applied makeup, Mrs. Pedrini sails in, wearing a glittery skirt and backless lucite high heels. A silver beret perches on her head. She is carrying a basket full of colored wool pompoms and sets out at once distributing them to all of us-students and teachers alike. She says we must attach them to our suitcases-since then they will be easier to identify at the airport. She is all bounce, energy, and good will. Many of the students are from Hispanic backgrounds. They think their knowledge of Spanish will make it simple to use the Italian language. Also, since Italy is the home of the Pope, their families are thrilled for them to have this opportunity. Most students will be getting financial aid and loans from the college to make this trip. Nicoletta makes her prepared announcements-that everyone should pack warm pajamas since the heat is not turned on in Italy-legally-till November 1. That we should all bring towels, since they are not provided in the apartments. That we must remember we will have no TVs, no VCRs, no microwaves, and no luxuries. That living in Italy is expensive . That we will all have to learn to get around the city by bus, learn to use the currency, to buy food, and to live among Italians. That the buildings are very old, that those in centro generally have no elevators. Some of the apartments may be four or five flights up. "It may be tough at first," Nicoletta tells us all. "But be flexible and creative. And, remember, this is only for three months, it isn't your Life." I suffer a little pang of terror at that moment. It seems to me it will be my life. What if we get a tenth-floor walkup, without a shower, with beds made of concrete? My knees feel weak-what if we end up living in a dungeon? But Mrs. Pedrini is passing around a tray of pizza slices and presses us each to take a piece. "Molto delizioso!" she says as the scent of basil and oregano swirls through the air. She urges us to breathe in-deeply-the aroma of Italy. "I'm already packed!" she assures us all. "I can't wait to set foot in Bella Italia!" A Flat Full of Sun E-MAIL FROM CENTRO LINGUISTICO ITALIANO DANTE ALIGHIERI: Signora, herewith we give you the address of your apartment, which is Via Visconti Venosta, 66, 50136 Firenze, ITALIA This flat that we have reserved for you and the Professor is very nice it is on the fourth floor and is composed of: two bedrooms, one with two beds (for married couple), and a smaller room with just one bed. This small room is with a terrace, there is also an other terrace on the kitchen overlooking the Arno River, from where you can see Florentine hills. Then a big kitchen with washing machine, a bathroom with shower and bath, and very spacious living room. There is also a roof terrace from which you can really see all Florence and Fiesole. I repeat that the apt is really nice, maybe one of the biggest that we have, there is a lift, but the flat is not close to school. It is 45 minute nice walking along the river, but there is also a good bus no. 14 which in 10/15 minutes takes you to the centre. Continue... Excerpted from Botticelli Blue Skies by Merrill Joan Gerber Copyright © 2002 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. I Can't Go to Italyp. 1
2. I'm Going to Italyp. 4
3. Gli Studentip. 6
4. A Flat Full of Sunp. 9
5. Siamo Arrivati!p. 11
6. Via Visconti Venostap. 16
7. All Florence and Fiesolep. 19
8. Postcards and E-Mail (One)p. 24
9. Mosquitoes (Zanzare)p. 27
10. First Lessonsp. 30
11. Reserved for the Mutilatedp. 34
12. A Piece of Laundry (Un Pezzo del Bucato)p. 41
13. Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashonah)p. 45
14. In the Bosom of My Peoplep. 50
15. Florentine Hospitalityp. 56
16. The Mystery of Marriagep. 60
17. Fiesole and the Etruscan Sighp. 64
18. Postcards and E-Mail (Two)p. 70
19. Italian Trains, Italian Menp. 73
20. Seashells from the Adriatic and Roast Sardinesp. 77
21. The Fire, the Wedding, the Gondoliersp. 84
22. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Losses, and Other Theftsp. 90
23. The Movie Sets of Venice and Florencep. 99
24. Botticelli Women, Italian Wivesp. 103