Works (City of Illusions, 2014), a former United Nations employee posted overseas, shares her memories of a delicious life abroad.
You don’t need Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck to enjoy this delightful Roman holiday. Works was lucky enough to have two different tours of duty in the Eternal City, working as a humanitarian aid worker for the U.N. She portrays traffic there as a nightmare and their living conditions as a bit primitive compared to what they were used to (no air conditioning, no clothes dryer, no dishwasher), but these were minor inconveniences compared to the incomparable feast that was Rome. She saw snow falling on the Coliseum; the local grocery carried more than 200 kinds of pasta, with 29 varieties of one brand alone; and the restaurants were beyond fantastic. Works engagingly relates all of this, and her sphere of reference is enormous, encompassing sayings from Dante Alighieri, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Pliny the Younger, Benito Mussolini, and Federico Fellini, among many others. She even quotes Sophia Loren as allegedly saying, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti,” and wryly adds, “I, too, ate a lot of pasta, but unfortunately didn’t get the same results.” Her sense of humor is nicely threaded throughout the book, as is her knack for telling observations, whether she’s speaking of a cathedral, a Roman ruin, or local prostitutes: “Campfire girls,” she explains, was the term for some middle-aged sex workers because they tended to huddle around small fires to keep warm. The author often took trips outside the city, and she’s equally good at describing the wonder (and weirdness) of the Italian countryside. She was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Chapel of the Crucified Christ and a bit tickled by a life-size statue of Rudolf Valentino outside his hometown, a tiny dot called Castellaneta located in the heel of Italy, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet. Her descriptions are so impressively detailed that one wonders if she took notes on her travels. Such density may tire some readers out, but others won’t complain, as it’s all conveyed in such an immersive, inviting manner. Overall, what the writer wishes to share is achingly simple: “We ate, we traveled, we befriended and we learned to manage the demands in another country.” In other words, she had a blast—and readers probably will, too.
Armchair-travel books are rarely as good as this one.