Review – Journey to the South – A Calabrian Homecoming by Annie Hawes

What better way to brighten up a dreary, rainy Autumn day than a bit of armchair travel, the opportunity to transport yourself to warmer, sunnier climes.  In this respect Journey to the South ticks all the right boxes.

This is the third of Annie Hawes’ travel memoirs set in Italy, the first two focus on her life in Liguria as an English “blow-in” trying to fit into Italian rural life.  At this stage she is engaged to Ciccio di Gilio who lives in Liguria but is considered Calabrian as his family hail from Calabria, the toe on the boot of Italy.  This volume details their trip to the deepest South to seek out the de Gilio roots, meet up with extended family and get a feel for Ciccio’s “homeland”.  What ensues is an, at times, comic and frequently chaotic pilgrimage as they are accompanied by Ciccio’s mother, sister and nephew, all of whom have very different impressions/preconceptions of Calabria.

I love all things Italian (despite being a pale, freckled Celt) and this book is an absolute joy, giving the reader an insight into the idiosyncrasies of life in the Mezzogiorno.  Calabria is like another country when compared with the “sophisticated” North.  We hear of dodgy dealings, sinister Mafioso intrigue, government scams but you really feel that the Calabresi are true survivors with a strength of character stemming from the constant struggle to subsist despite an inhospitable environment, lack of industry, extreme poverty and a seemingly indifferent government.

However it’s not all doom and gloom as Annie Hawes is a very gifted writer and an excellent people watcher.  Ciccio’s Calabrian relations literally jump from the page and the descriptions of mealtimes are mouthwatering (although I think I’ll pass on the goat’s head…)  Some travel writers can occasionally drift into condescending mode, reducing people to stereotypes and presenting a series of anecdotes but Annie paints a very vivid picture with well rounded characters.  In just 350 pages you experience a real flavour of the South complete with traditions, agriculture, festivals, superstitions, local dialect as well as a potted history going right back to the Normans – it’s a veritable feast for the senses and the mind – enjoy this taste of Italy!

If you are interested in reading further about Southern Italy, I would highly recommend Christ Stopped at Eboli, an autobiographical novel by Carlo Levi whose anti-fascist stance led to his being banished to Lucania (now known as Basilicata) for a year in 1935.

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  1. Stephanie says:

    I wish I had known about Hawes’s Italian memoirs before I went to Italy earlier in the year. They sound great!

  2. Iris says:

    I like the fact that this doesn’t just portray sunny Italy. So many books on Italy seem to go no further than “sunny weather, culture, delicious food” which gets on my nerves.

  3. admin says:

    She’s a very witty writer, Iris, and very insightful too.

  4. admin says:

    I only read them “after” I’d spent time in Italy, Stephanie – my degree was in French and Italian ( which I don’t get much opportunity to use!)

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