Book review: Penelope Green chases la dolce vita in Italy

Front cover pictures of 3 books on her life in Italy by Australian journalist Penelope Green

What made a successful career girl abandon her comfortable life in Australia to follow a dream?

Penelope Green is an Aussie journalist in her late 20s with a glamorous job, her own flat in a leafy Sydney suburb and a loving family. On the face of it, therefore, she has almost everything that any young woman would want. Yet she is overworked, unfulfilled and a little bit bored. And tired of failed romances. Maybe ‘Mr Right’ really is just a figment of the imagination.

A relationship break-up and a visit to a fortune-teller are the catalysts for Penny to take action. She decides to ditch everything and fly off to Italy in search of adventure and change. Why Italy? Previous travels in the country have excited her interest and left her with a long-held dream to return.

I heard Penny say in an interview, several years later, that she had never planned to write a book about her experience. Rather, it was an idea pitched to her some time after her arrival in Italy. But having written the first book, she was more open to, and prepared for, writing the others.

Note: I have included links to the 3 books on Amazon for the convenience of readers who might be interested in purchasing them. These are not paid affiliate links.

“WHEN IN ROME: CHASING LA DOLCE VITA” (book 1)

Penny’s first stop in Italy is Perugia, where she has enrolled for a language course. She doesn’t speak any Italian and has decided that fluency has to be a top priority. This makes sense, because you can’t begin to get under the skin of a country and its culture without speaking its language. Nor can you easily find decent work.

The historic centre of Perugia, Italy
Historic centre, Perugia

After an enthusiastic start, Penny eventually gives up on academic language study and decides she can learn Italian ‘on the hoof’. Relocating to the eternal city of Rome, she manages to find a room in a shared flat in Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, bang in the historic centre of the city. Determined to resist the company of fellow expats and spend as much time as possible with Italians, she sets about looking for waitressing work.

As the book progresses we follow her through a series of casual jobs, flatmates, friends and boyfriends, all the while battling culture shock and linguistic isolation. Her one refuge is the home of her uncle, who is married to an Italian and lives in Tuscany. He and his family are a much-needed source of encouragement and reassurance.

All of this happens against the seductive background of Rome itself. We accompany Penny around neighbourhoods dripping with incredible history and architecture, and delicious aromas wafting out from bars and restaurants. Riding home on the back of a friend’s Vespa one evening, not long after arriving in Rome, she spies the floodlit Colosseum – located at the end of her street – for the first time after dark:

…nude and proud, it’s lit up like a birthday cake in a darkened room. Reality check number 325: it’s stupendously beautiful, it’s almost 2,000 years old and it’s on my doorstep.”

Don’t you just identify with that ‘pinch me’ moment? Doesn’t it make you reflect on some of your own?

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Like a birthday cake in a darkened room

The book is written with the sharp wit and perceptiveness of a seasoned journalist, capturing every sight, smell and quirky event or street scene. But this is not a rose-tinted account; Penny also describes the struggle and desperation of the poor, many of them immigrants, trying to make a living on the streets. We’ve all felt that discomfort at finding poverty and inequality on our own doorsteps – even in the developed world.

For anyone who has experienced being far from home for a long time, this book will strike a chord. Those moments of joy and pride when cultural obstacles are overcome, or little victories are gained. The periods of deep homesickness and longing for the loved ones you left behind. The frustrations, confusions and challenges of living in a new country that does everything differently. All of these are portrayed through stories and anecdotes, told with humour, emotion, and humility – and at times, with the uncompromising frankness that Australians are famous for.

By the end of the book, Penny has found her feet and is feeling more confident. Of course, for the restless traveller, feeling comfortable is usually a sign that it’s time to move on! And up comes that vexing question of how long to stay, or whether you feel it’s time to go home. It’s a real dilemma, because on one hand you’ve invested so much time and effort in your new life, that giving it up feels like a waste and a loss. But the call of home is sometimes loud. So, as the book ends, what will Penny do next?

Naples and Mount Vesuvius seen from a rooftop
Naples and Mount Vesuvius

“SEE NAPLES AND DIE: THE CRIMES AND PASSIONS OF ITALY’S DARKEST JEWEL” (book 2)

Answer: she moves to Naples! The offer of a journalism job with news network ANSAmed – and the chance of solid, gainful employment in a new and edgy location – arrive just at the right moment for Penny. Despite the allure of Rome, she’s ready for a new challenge. She also misses being near the sea, and the prospect of morning walks by the Gulf of Naples is an enticing one.

Nevertheless, leaving the familiar comforts of the city that has been her home for 2 years is not easy. But somehow, with the help of friends, contacts and her new colleagues, Penny manages to set herself up and find her way in edgy, dangerous but beautiful Naples.

After starting off in the family home of a friend, in an affluent outer suburb, Penny ends up sharing an apartment in the Quartieri Spagnoli or Spanish quarter, in the city centre. It’s not the roughest neighbourhood by any means, but certainly not the best either – and it couldn’t be more different from elegant, classy Rome. “The first thing you learn in Naples is to flatten yourself against walls and turn around every time you hear a motorbike behind you”, advises one of her friends. Nice.

The Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples where Penelope Green lived and wrote her book 'See Naples and die'
The atmospheric, edgy Spanish quarter

Penny admits that she is fascinated by ‘true crime’ and especially, serial killers. Being the murder capital of Italy, Naples is therefore the perfect place for her to delve into the psyche of the city’s criminal underbelly. The most notorious element of this is the Camorra, a mafia-style network of criminal gangs who rule the roost.

The book follows Penny as she tries hard to get under the skin of Naples and to understand it. She reads many books and articles and familiarises herself with local culture. Grappling with the local dialect, she interviews city officials, artists, musicians, community and religious leaders, the father of a young girl murdered by the Camorra and some of the brave citizens who have risked their lives by speaking out against the criminals.

As she listens to the different points of view – some of them heartbreaking, others full of optimism and hope – she is at times uplifted, at other times angry and frustrated. No matter how many well-meaning projects are devised and solutions proposed, the city’s crime and infrastructure problems never seem to improve.

The Pozzuoli coastline seen across the Bay of Naples, Italy
The Pozzuoli coastline across the Bay of Naples

Nevertheless, despite the rubbish-filled streets and constant threat of violence, Penny loves her new city and ends up feeling more at home there than in Rome. She soon establishes her routines, makes new friends, settles into her workplace and finds her new favourite cafes, bars and shops. Like the first book, these pages are full of delectable descriptions of food and aromas – especially of coffee, freshly-cooked Neapolitan dishes and, most of all, pizza.

This is a very different book from When in Rome. It’s written more from the journalist or sociologist’s perspective, whereas the earlier book was from a traveller’s perspective and was much more revealingly personal. I therefore didn’t enjoy this second one quite as much, perhaps because I found less in it to identify with. Though I did find myself admiring Penny’s stamina! How she could be out in bars and nightclubs half the night, then turn up for work a few hours later, is beyond me. Even at her age, I couldn’t have managed that.

Like in Rome, true love seems to elude Penny in Naples, but this book ends on a tantalising note as a promising new romantic prospect enters her life.

The island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, Italy

“GIRL BY SEA: LIFE, LOVE AND FOOD ON AN ITALIAN ISLAND” (book 3)

This third book is different again from the previous two, and is probably my favourite. It’s the perfect travel book – revealing just enough about the writer herself to keep you empathetic and interested in her, and just enough travel detail to whet your sense of longing to be there with her.

One thing we have learned about Penny is how much she loves the sea. It’s in her blood. “A bush kid, my happiest memories are of days spent by the sea, from childhood holidays on the north New South Wales coast to living near Sydney’s Bondi Beach and swimming regularly,” she sighs. If seaside Naples is closer to her heart than landlocked Rome, then her next stop – Procida – must be a dream destination.

The book opens with the excitement and romance of new love. Musician Alfonso has stolen Penny’s heart and seduced her with his incredible cooking skills. She admits that her passion for Italian cuisine has ‘grown alongside my belly’ during her 5 years in Italy. Being an un-confident cook herself, she is naturally bowled over by Alfonso’s ability to whip up a bruschetta or spaghetti alle vongole with little apparent effort.

Warning: this book will make you very hungry. There’s even a recipe at the end of every chapter!

A picturesque street on the island of Procida Italy where Penelope Green lived for a year

After a mere 2 months of courtship, Penny and Alfonso decide to move in together. Finding the choice of apartments in Naples somewhat lacking in appeal, they end up renting a flat with a sea view in nearby Procida. After a brief moment of panic on the ferry, thinking about the considerable leap of faith she is taking, Penny begins to look forward to her new life with excitement as the beautiful island comes into view.

What follows is a tale of new friendships and food – lots of it – largely based around the Bar Capriccio which becomes the new centre of Penny and Alfonso’s social scene. Adjusting to island life turns out to be both rewarding and frustrating, with its delights, quirks, isolation and limitations.

We learn a lot about the culture and traditions of Procida, which are colourful and fascinating. The community seems fairly affluent, thanks to its economy based largely on the lucrative fishing and seafaring industries. This has come at a price, however, particularly for the women left behind for long periods of time while their husbands are at sea.

Colourful houses on the island of Procida, Italy

Ironically, Penny gets a taste of this when Alfonso heads off for 3 months on an overseas tour with his band. She uses the time to get to know some of the locals and to learn some of their culinary skills. She also finds time for her other passions – swimming in the ocean and walking around the island, delighting in discovering new sights and corners.

At first, the locals appear to be much more reserved than the Italians Penny is used to. Their homes are hidden behind high walls and they are less immediately friendly to tourists and visitors, fearing that Procida might end up overrun with them like the neighbouring islands of Capri and Ischia. Fortunately, it turns out that when the Procidans get to know you, they are just as warm and welcoming as Neapolitans and Romans.

For the traveller, this book is a feast for the senses, following the seasons as the year progresses. It’s full of colour, culture, scenery, festivals, interesting characters, funny stories, poignant observations – and above all, mouthwatering food and wine. It succeeds in showing how deeply food is embedded in every aspect of Italian life, including its language – especially its metaphors.

By the end of the book, Penny is facing familiar dilemmas. ANSAmed is relocating their office to Rome, so she is unemployed again. Big decisions beckon. I won’t spoil the story by revealing how it ends. Suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 books and highly recommend them for keen travellers or anyone considering a similar life-change.

Bronte beach on the New South Wales coast near Sydney, Australia
Bronte beach, Sydney, NSW – one of Penny’s favourite home haunts

Having moved to another country myself, I can identify with so many of Penny’s experiences and emotions. Particularly, that ongoing challenge of having a foot in 2 camps – which is both torture and bliss. You cannot be in one country without missing the other, and the people you left behind. You become confused about where home is.

Despite this, you also know that, even if you could go back in time and change your decision to leave your home country in the first place, you wouldn’t. Because it’s always better to regret what you did do, than what you didn’t, when it comes to life experiences.

If you enjoy Penny’s writing you can follow her on Instagram – where you’ll note that she is still a sea-worshipper.

More Italy content on this blog: Enchanted June – a magical honeymoon in Liguria; Beautiful Lake Garda – 2 free spirits test a package holiday; Where to take your Dad on holiday.

More book reviews: Slow trains around Spain by Tom Chesshyre; 4 travel books on Spain by classic British authors; The good girl’s guide to getting lost by Rachel Friedman, Without reservations by Alice Steinbach.
If you’re interested in travel writers: 8 amazing authors and their retreats.

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6 Comments

  1. Very inspirational article.
    Great writing style. lovely pictures.; loved reading through.
    Keep traveling; keep sharing, and keep inspiring us.

  2. You have piqued my interest in Penelope Green’s books on moving life to Italy. And, then your own story. I haven’t moved countries. But I research and write about my ancestors who did so there is a correlation that I didn’t realise I can draw from in the present.

  3. A book about travelling in Italy would have me yearning for a return visit. And would give me a new perspective on local life. I understand that feeling of wanting to move on to the next destination. I might have to check out these books.

  4. Ok, I’m hooked! These definitely sound like my kind of books. I can so identify with the idea of moving to a different country and having to learn the language pretty much on the hoof.

  5. I’ve been to Italy loads and will go back loads. It’s my favorite country. When I’m not there I always yearn to go. These book tips will help pass the time until I go back

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