Soul of the Heel
Scott Bergstein: “Soul of the Heel. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Puglia”, 2017, Amazon, UK, 287 pages. ISBN 9781543044140
Having considered various scenarios regarding the next stage of their new life together, Scott Bergstein and his wife Jessica Coup, former residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made the relatively impetuous decision to move to Italy. Puglia, a region they had never, in fact, actually visited, topped their list of promising places. They were drawn to Puglia, Bergstein recounts, probably “just as a function of my lack of skill at internet searches”. Advertisements for properties in Puglia popped up first; the couple learned about the mild climate and comparatively low cost of living from real estate announcements. Relocation to Puglia also enabled the couple to sidestep well-known foreigner enclaves where “speaking Italian was a hobby and cheeseburgers and bangers were routine fare”. Their quest to “find a life in the heel of the boot” led them to renovate a property in Marinelli, near Cisternino. Bergstein’s migration memoir, Soul of the Heel, is a highly readable -- and for some audiences, decidedly relatable -- account of a situation that “devolved” from that of “a husband and wife discussing retirement plans” into a “flurry of activity that bore no resemblance either to retirement or to plans”. To ready readers for the frenzy of goings-on and emotions to follow, the author cites the Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs”. Bergstein, too, keeps his audience smiling. But there is substance to his story. Expatriate and Italian readers alike will find much to ponder in Bernstein’s engaging tale of navigating cultural differences and finding home.
“Soul of the Heel” is a new addition to so-called sojourner or expatriate literature set in Italy. Dozens of examples can be easily named, but relatively few are set in Puglia. Bergstein is one of an even smaller number of Americans who write about the region. He notes that Pugliese real estate agents kept assuming he was British and therefore that he wanted to buy a trullo. But it is not only his nationality that sets this book apart: it is his humility. Bergstein admits that he and his wife were compelled quickly to replace romanticized notions of la dolce vita with “the abiding feeling of being a child in an adult world”. Their first months in Puglia were “a frantic skirmish to attain life’s basic necessities and to find the correct Italian word under stage fright conditions”. This unpretentious narrative is rich with self-deprecating humor. For example, Bergstein was immediately appalled to realize that he could not make himself understood in Italian to a six-year-old child. He was afraid to ask to have a copy key made lest he involuntarily produce a similar word that refers to a sexual act. To his credit, Bergstein deems learning Italian a “priority”, even as he cheerfully reveals other shortcomings. He orders a kilo of orecchiette from a shop near his hotel but, unused to the metric system and without the slightest notion of what a kilo might look like, returns to his kitchen-less room with an enormous sack of pasta. He becomes embarrassed by his poor grasp of geography -- a common stereotype of Americans -- when he tries to guess the location of Malta. Everything the author knew about olive harvesting came from a YouTube video: turns out later that there was more to it than he thought. At the same time, Bergstein does not present Puglia as seen through rose-tinted glasses. He notes that he and his wife were dismayed to discover makeshift garbage dumps alongside highways or to step inside poorly maintained, overly-rented second homes that some other foreigners had put on offer. He vents his frustration with Italian bureaucracy (on both sides of the Atlantic). He confesses that it was not easy to find an affordable place that satisfied his American “consumption loving, excessive-personal-space inclinations” or “had central heat”.
Throughout it all, the couple remain generally optimistic, another characteristic often ascribed to Americans. Optimism was fundamental to the entire enterprise: they had allotted just five days for viewing thirty-three properties with eleven agents and confirming for themselves that they would enjoy living in Puglia. Their adventure propelled them into more than new geography, however. It opened a new social world. Bergstein writes that they became more trusting of near strangers, watched business relationships blossom into friendships, and found the international diversity inherent to Italo-expat events “surprisingly enjoyable”.
Expatriate readers may relish Bergstein’s metaphors grounded in American and British popular culture. He sprinkles references to media throughout the book (the subtitle, “A funny thing happened on the way to Puglia”, recalls a hilarious 1960s British-American film set in ancient Rome). Readers wanting full-on Puglia may feel distracted by discussions about side visits or wine production elsewhere, but this volume is not a travel guide. Appreciation for good wine, in fact, was among the considerations that led the couple to Italy.
Bergstein and his wife did not relocate to Puglia because they were unhappy with the United States. As the author says, “We had a wonderful life and we knew it. We were simply ready for something else…Something like what a life in Italy represented to us”. They got it. They named their new home Villa Tutto -- Villa Everything -- having realized, as have many other native and non-native residents, that Puglia had given them everything they needed. Life in the heel of the boot had surpassed their expectations, and even stirred new dreams.