When I first stumbled across Olga Vannucci’s memoir, Travels with George, I wondered whether the title alluded to John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley, about his road trip across America in the company of his French standard poodle, Charley.
Turns out, I got it right. Born in Italy, Olga went to Brown University and currently lives in rural New Jersey. As she tells it, she was driving through Doylestown, Pennsylvania, one day when Steinbeck’s travelogue popped into her head, and she knew she wanted to call her book “Travels with George.” When she announced this to her son (the “George” of the title), he said: “So I’m the dog?”
As you can gather from this story, mother and son make quite a pair.
Olga says she’s no Steinbeck, though she does prefer a plain and honest writing style. Also like Steinbeck, she had the desire to see her native land again.
So, how did she find the Italy of today: did she still fit in? And what did her sidekick, George, the blonde all-American kid, make of his mammina‘s homeland? Did he enjoy these escapades or feel puzzled by his mother’s motives? Perhaps the story he saw himself in wasn’t Steinbeck’s at all, but a modern Italian version of Don Quixote, in which he occupied the role of a skeptical Sancho Panza?
Olga has kindly agreed to give away one copy of the book to the reader who is keenest to find out the answers to these questions (see giveaway details below).
But before we get into that, let’s talk to Olga and hear some more about the travels that inspired her to put pen to paper…
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Ciao, Olga! Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us more about your decision to take a trip to Italy with your young son and write about it.
I was born in Italy (Milano), lived in Brazil two different times as a child, and came to the United States to attend college. I’ve been here ever since. When my son was seven years old, I realized suddenly that I hadn’t been back to Italy in ten years, and I went, taking him along. I thought he would learn about Italy and acquire a feel for what it’s like. I also hoped he would learn some Italian. I don’t know how much of that was accomplished, but I loved showing him around. We went back four more times over the course of six years (he is now 14). I wrote the book about those trips: a mix of travelogue, personal history, and little anecdotes, with some humor.
What impact did writing about the experience have on you—did it help you process your childhood memories?
It was wonderful to see the locales of my childhood again. At this point, my memories are either indelibly fixed or just gone—for instance, I can remember clearly sitting on the steps with my friends Sassello, in Ligurio, as I recount here:
[My sister and I] had two friends in Sassello, two girls the same age as [us]—Paola and Maria Elena. They spent their summers thirty meters from where we spent ours, and we spent hours and hours of every day together.
[George and I] walk by the steps where we used to sit. I expect to see them, I expect them to be there, but they’re not. No one is. It’s all the same, but it isn’t.
Did you also learn something about yourself, in taking these excursions down Memory Lane?
I did find out about my current self through the book, but primarily from what others told me my words said about me—for example that I’m kind, funny, and honest. It was also interesting to hear from others about the things that they could relate to in the book, ranging from the more profound to the totally mundane situations. That was amazing, to realize that what I wrote spoke to others.
Do you think it will help George someday, in understanding part of his heritage that might not otherwise be accessible?
George has not read the book because, he says, “I was there, I don’t need to read about it.” I do hope and trust that both the experience and the writing will be a part of him, that he will consider the book a gift.
What was your most displaced moment when you & George were touring Italy, when you thought of yourself as a stranger within your homeland?
I always struggle with whether I am Italian or, at this point, American, or, more likely, not really either one. What makes me feel at home in Italy is the fact that it’s largely so unchanged. What makes me feel displaced is that the people of the older generation, my parents’ generation, who are the people I particularly associate with Italy, are passing. They’re my biggest connection with Italy, and they will soon be gone. After that, I may feel displaced…
I gather you don’t feel nearly as comfortable with younger generations of Italians?
Yes. I’m not sure why not. Possibly because the younger generation is doing its own thing and is more all over the place, unlike the older, which has stayed put.
What was your least displaced moment, when it all seemed to make sense for you and George to be there—that you fit right in?
On all the trips we visited my aunt, my mother’s sister, and stayed at her house, where we slipped naturally into being part of the family. I had coffee with her in the morning, we planned meals, I helped her water her garden, George fed her goldfish, and we watched television in the evening. There was not an ocean or even a smidge of formality between us.
I love the description you provide of your aunt in the book:
My aunt is a lovely person, she’s beautiful and she likes to dress well. She’s 80 now, and she still looks good in her clothes, she wears fashionable clothes. She is cheerful and tells funny stories. She loves to do stuff and see people, she’s chatty. She’s fun to be around.
In that same passage, you mention the “recurring nightmare” of finding food that George likes to eat. What was the most challenging thing about traveling with a young child?
I did not realize how jarring the experience would be for George. To me, Italy is pleasant, and while I knew it would all be new to him, I didn’t realize how different it really was. Being in a completely unrecognizable place where he didn’t understand the language was way outside his comfort zone. I also probably didn’t verbalize things enough. I could have prepared him more and explained things better.
The other thing about traveling with a small child is that I, as the adult, had to be “on” 100% of the time. Not only did I have to plan and handle everything, but I also had to manage him and make sure I didn’t lose him, which was something I actually worried about, and when I became stressed I had to try to hide it so he wouldn’t become stressed, which I didn’t do very well. He’s very perceptive.
What do you think he took from the experience?
The knowledge that he can survive a terrible ordeal… Possibly I took him on a few too many hikes up hills. It wasn’t always fun and idyllic. I do believe that the trips will serve as a foundation for him to understand that the world is large and diverse and for him to appreciate differences.
The potential perils of writing about one’s offspring
What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
It was hard to write about others and protect their privacy at the same time, particularly with my son. I find him very amusing, but he doesn’t intend to amuse me, and he is sensitive to it. He thinks I’m making fun of him, basically. So I’m always walking that line, writing about him, but trying to be respectful of him.
I understand you decided to self-publish the book. Why is that, and do you have any advice for other writers who opt for self-publishing?
I made some attempts to get an agent but ultimately I went with self-publishing because I didn’t have the patience to wait. What I like about self-publishing is that it’s all mine, I created the book cover, I chose the font, I decided to favor the comma over all other punctuation, and it’s been incredibly fun and very rewarding.
There are so many options today to publish and distribute and get the word out, and it can be done without a big financial investment. All you need is the investment of time. Given that this is your passion, you want to spend your time on it anyway. And there are so many people who are open to help. I would encourage other writers not to be afraid to ask. Putting your thoughts out there to share with others is a gift, and people respond very kindly.
What audience did you intend for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
I thought it was a mother/son book, which it is, but it’s very much a book for people who love Italy, who have been there, or who plan to go. My writing is very direct and the book is written in the present tense, so readers feel like they’re there along with me. It combines some very personal time in Italy–with family or revisiting places of personal significance—with visits to the big tourist destinations like Venice and Rome.
Are you working on any other ambitious writing projects?
I am working on a book about traveling with George in America. It’s not an organized itinerary, it’s just places we’ve been or will go to. Mostly in the northeast, plus San Fran and Arizona. It’s still in the infant stages, this project. But I promise it will be extra funny!
10 questions for Olga Vannucci
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, about growing up in Africa.
2. Favorite literary genre: Definitely travel!
3. Reading habits on a plane: I don’t like to fly so I bring an easy-reading book that I know will keep me engaged, and paperback so it’s lightweight.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: He has such a tough job. I would wish, not require exactly but only wish, for him to read a book that his daughters like, so he can have a topic of conversation that they can share and enjoy. He will then tackle his job rejuvenated.
5. Favorite book as a child: Mary Poppins—the P.L. Travers book and the Disney movie, too. I think I had it in both languages. It was just magical, different, not at all like my daily life with my mother and sister.
6. Favorite heroine: Martha Gellhorn, who was a great journalist and writer. She was married to the literary giant Ernest Hemingway yet always retained a strong sense of herself.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I would like Calvin Trillin to take me out to eat in New York, in the Village, to all his favorite eating places. It might take several days because he has a lot of favorite eateries. I would like to hear all about Alice, about his daughters, and about his long and brilliant career.
8. Your reading habits: I read in bed every single night, and I have been reading more during the day recently. I’ve been deliberate about carving out more time in the day, when it’s otherwise easy to get caught up in other activities.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Any book that takes place overseas, so I can see the place in which the events take place.
10. The book you plan to read next: Hard to tell… I have a stack of some thirty books in my bedroom, and I’m not sure which one is next. I may need to devise a lottery system to determine the reading order…
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Grazie tanto, Olga! Your story certainly sounds amusing while also saying something profound about parent-child relationships and the quest to go home again. Something to rival the wisdom of Steinbeck or Miguel de Cervantes, for sure.
Readers, it’s time for you to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Olga Vannucci’s book, by entering a comment below. Olga says she will favor comments that tell her why you’d like to read about her and George’s adventures.
Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on September 28, 2013.
To read more excerpts from Travels with George, go to Olga Vannucci’s author site. You can also keep up with her on the book’s very active Facebook page. Also feel free to order the book from Amazon.com.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s quota of Global Food Gossip. Rumor has it, Joanna Masters-Maggs has something particularly tasty in store for us!
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Images: Olga Vannucci and George, interspersed with Italian scenery. Of the George photos, Olga writes:
Let me provide the audio from George: “Where are we going? How much longer? I have something in my shoe. I want to go back. Why are we doing this? Do you know where we are? Do you know where we’re going? Mammaaaaaaa!”