Most tourists see a certain side of Italy. There are the rolling hills of Tuscany, fascinating cities and idyllic coastal towns, topped off by warm and friendly locals and some of the best food in the world. But few visitors really get to know the real Italy, complete with its countless daily challenges and frustrations.
This is the Italy that Chris Harrison reveals in Head Over Heels, his account of falling in love with an Italian woman, Daniela, and moving his life from Sydney to a small fishing village in Southern Italy.
Before meeting Daniela, Harrison had visited the country as a tourist, believing that he knew something of the place. He was to learn much more when he arrived to live and work there.
In the book, Harrison writes with humour (and a level of despair) of his battles with the Italian bureaucracy, at one stage struggling to contain himself when he comes face-to-face with the shortcomings of the local police force when trying to report a lost bag.
In the beginning, he is surprised by the disrespect Italians show for the law, looking on aghast as they flout rules or bend them to their own needs. Eventually, he comes to recognise the dubious nature of some of the laws and lawmakers, and like a true Italian, resignedly flouts them himself. Alongside navigating a complex and sometimes nonsensical bureaucracy, he attempts to learn a new language and adapt to life in a small community of families that have known each other for centuries.
It was interesting to read about challenges I had only glimpsed when I stayed in Italy for a few months just under a decade ago. While my fiance and I shook our heads at some of the bureaucratic obstacles we faced and quickly admitted defeat, Harrison tackled them head on, sometimes overcoming them, and other times, waving the white flag.
The book is at times hilarious, and at other times heartbreaking, and Harrison’s account of a family coping with Daniela’s father’s Alzheimer’s disease is handled with gentleness and empathy.
Somehow, Harrison moves easily between the lightness of days spent basking in the sun by the Mediterranean and the more serious problems facing Italy, never missing an opportunity to marvel at the absurdities he encounters, while also appreciating the pleasures and poignancy of life in a village where little has essentially changed in a hundred years.
Despite offering a more balanced view of Italy than the casual tourist might see, in Harrison’s account of Italy the sun continues to shine just as brightly, the Italians retain their warmth and gusto and the gelato remains as sweet as a first-time visitor might encounter, just set against a more complex backdrop. Ultimately, beyond Harrison’s struggles to navigate some of the contradictions and absurdities of his new home, his love of Daniela and her country triumph, making for a thoroughly enjoyable ride for the reader.