Living in a Foreign Language


Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy details the adventures of Michael Tucker and wife Jill Eickenberry in Umbria.  This book has so many parallels to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun.  They both chronicle a year of fixing up a rustic farmhouse in Italy from an American’s perspective. 

Michael Tucker is a funny guy.  He’s the guy that keeps the party going, full of stories and jokes.  His story has more for purveyors of pop-culture.  Most of his Italian friends and experiences are within the ex-patriot community.  He loves good food, but at the heart he is an entertainer.  Each chapter is framed and paced to tell a charming or funny story.  His language is salty, peppered too strongly with profanity for my tastes.  

Frances Mayes’ style is quite different.  Her book comes with recipes, thoughtful reflection about the cultural differences (particularly the pace of life), and a cast of Italian neighbors and workers.  I would recommend her take on Tuscan life over Michael Tucker’s tale of Umbria.

Here are several tidbits that tickled or tugged me from Tucker’s book:

Suddenly the cold wind of doubt blew up my pant leg.  I shivered.  It was at least 90 degrees outside.  (p.57)

It seems we never had time to get things done because our days were filled to the brim with lingering.  Breakfast became a longer and longer linger.  Not mine, which is just coffee and a crossword puzzle.  But Jill and Caroline have a way of making breakfast into a full-act play which unfolds in long, slow, Chekhovian acts–from the yogurt and peaches, into the cheese, prosciutto, tomatotes and panini, into the biscotti dipped in chesnut honey, all washed down with tea. (p.95)

The ricotta–literally “recooked” cheese–had a freshness that connected it in taste and smell to the milk of the animal it had just come from.

[on his marriage]  For better or worse, we cultivate this closeness.  The better is obvious, I suppose.  The worse is that one of us will die first and the other will be left alone.  Some couples we know hedge against this eventuality by maintaining a distance, by emphasizing their individuality.  But that’s not for us. (p.158)

[dancing with his wife]  On one anniversary, back in the New York days, Jill surprised me with ballroom dancing lessons, while I had gotten her an evening of dancing at the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center–all unbeknownst to each other.  It was like our own little O’Henry story.

[dancing with another woman] JoJo and I were not doing so well, either.  First of all, there was the question of who was leading. […] I tried following as best I could, but moving backward with my right foot was a very odd way to begin a dance; I couldn’t get the hang of it.  Not that it mattered — Benny Goodman and JoJo were not in any way marching to the same drummer.  But by God she had enthusism!  At one point — she was coming at me out of a spin at seventy miles an hour, minimum — I frankly didn’t know what to do with it.  My whole life flashed in front of my eyes.  Just standing my ground — or God forbid trying to catch her in some way — would have been to commit suicide.  I held out my arms wide, running back and forth like a shepherd, somehow herding her toward the center of the room.  We needed space. Help me, Jesus, we needed space. (p. 173)



4 thoughts on “Living in a Foreign Language

  1. I remember liking Jill Eickenberry as an actress, but havent seen her in anything recently.  I guess this is why :)This type of venture is not even on my radar screen.  Do you have an itch to live/work abroad?

  2. @hiddenart – My default answer is no, but in certain circumstances or conditions I think it would be a lark.  In both books they really had extended vacations: three months here, two weeks there.  I love cross-cultural exchanges and learning about life elsewhere.  According to the book, Jill is working on Broadway in NYC.

  3. I always liked Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry when they were a married couple of the TV show, “L.A. Law.” I think it was very true to the way their relationship was in real life, if I remember correctly. I always wondered how they met and were attracted to each other, they seem so different. Nice commentary.

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