Nicolette S. James: ‘From Sussex to Salento, Lecce, late 1900s’, 2016, Lupo Editore, Copertino, 271 pages, with a complete Italian translation of 288 pages.
Nicky James came from Brighton on the English Channel that the French call ‘la Manche’. The daughter of an Anglican priest and anchored in family, coddled she was not and early learned to shift for herself. Her mother was French-speaking Swiss, a fact that amid the contradictions of adolescence inclined her to a lifelong fascination with language. The thrill of the times was to go abroad as an au-pair, and she got to know Paris and Rome. After a degree at Exeter University and graduate work in teaching methods she landed a job in a language school in the toe of Italy at Lecce. It was 1974 and ‘Alea iacta est’, as the one language she hadn’t savoured in school had it.
Looking back from the first decades of the 21st century, author James is struck by the dramatic storyline of the last forty-some years. Her own adventure is naturally closest to her thoughts. She not only worked as a teacher for a lifetime in a very foreign land but married a local worthy and raised a family there. Expatriation and ‘re-planting’, as it were, could go no further. Readers, however, will soon conclude that James’ eyes aren’t fixed on her belly-button--which she doubtless had to translate for her Italian students as the less picturesque and more somber Latinate ‘ombelico’. Inwardness hasn’t a chance against her outlook that is vigorously, sometimes sternly, fixed on the world around her.
‘From Sussex to Salento’ is a great sweep of the memory broom. The announced aim is to show how things were back then in Lecce and environs. They have changed in a way that a local feels in his bones when he thinks of his grandmother. But they have changed everywhere. For example, I ought to have written ‘he and she’ just now. The Brighton-London axis today would startle prime minister Harold Macmillan,1st Earl of Stockton, and curl his old-world moustache. Likewise James’ first Lecce employer, “a small man very like Peter Sellers,” would be astonished to see the country town in 2017 tarted up for international tourists. The essential difference is that the backwardness of southeast England would be a step or two above that of a remote corner of southern Italy.
The Lecce then-and-now theme renders some striking detail. The author has a store of personal anecdotes that she wields with skill, touching briefly, rarely losing her perky momentum with ‘in-my-day’ longueurs. Very often her perspective changes to what is in fact a contrast between Italian and English life not limited to past and present differences but timeless. Her rich chapters on “Schools, from Both Sides of the Desk” and “Food” would be invaluable to today’s au-pairs making the Channel crossing in either direction.
There are tidbits enough for a meal of thoughtful laughs. Curious that her father-in-law spoke little at table, James asked about his silence. He replied that sharp focus was needed while eating because it was a duel with mortality: “Quando si mangia si combatte con la morte.” When she remarked that visitors always brought gifts, she was told that of course their arms were full of treats and they had to knock on the front door with their feet: “Bussa con i piedi”. As often, good humor had a dark shadow. The expression had come to signify taking bribes to politicians.
But little escapes getting swept up in the author’s capacious dustpan: Piquant notations on family mores, ‘la bella figura’ and the off-shore islanders’ absent-minded informality, clothes, hospitals--where the drift of progress is reversed, the British National Health Service sinking and the Salento equivalent rising in cleanliness, competence and smiles. All of which underlines what we might call the author’s position.
She’s on a tightrope between two points on the map, and it’s her struggle for balance that holds the reader’s interest. On her last page, she asks, “Am I being fair?....” A slap on the wrist here, a pat on the back there, and we’ve read on. It almost makes us want to be back in her classroom having our punctuation corrected--almost.
There’s one tradition in Europe and beyond, strongly nationalistic, that sees the expatriate as somehow depleted. My own mother, frightened by my youthful nomadism, was haunted by a short story of the American writer Edward Everett Hale, ‘The Man Without a Country’. The old foggy didn’t scare me. My eyes, like Nicolette S. James’, were on the treasures of elsewhere, the inexhaustible world.