AS THE ROMANS DO By Alan Epstein William Morrow 287 pp., $20
It was love at first sight for Alan Epstein. Twenty years ago, on his first trip to Italy, he was captivated by the beauty, warmth, and grandeur of Rome. He dreamed of making the Eternal City his home and schemed how to turn his desire into reality.
In 1996 - with a wife and two young sons in tow - he finally made the move, first to a hulking suburban villa, then to a palazzo in the heart of the city. Life in Rome was as delightful as he had imagined: dropping by the cozy neighborhood coffee bar each morning for cappuccino and a corneto, attending lavish parties, and paying a pittance for bountiful trattoria lunches - where, no matter how long you linger, the check is never presented until you ask for it.
Unlike Frances Mayes's tales of Tuscany ("Under the Tuscan Sun") and Peter Mayle's chronicles of Provence ("A Year in Provence"), which are lyrical accounts of the vicissitudes of day-to-day living in another country, "As the Romans Do" uses a series of vignettes to celebrate the joys, quirks, and foibles of Italian life - from the city's hidden bakeries to "the flesh and flash" of Roman women.
First and foremost, Epstein never misses an opportunity to expound on the gustatory pleasures of his new home. Eating, he says, is the true passion of the city.
Americans going out to dinner can choose from many cuisines. Not so the Romans. "In a city of 3 million people, there are only a handful of Chinese restaurants, only one or two Japanese establishments, a few Indian, no Greek or even French ones that I know of," he says. "And yet when it comes to food, the Romans lack for nothing." Who needs Chinese takeout when fettuccine with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, or linguine with radicchio tomato sauce and cream are available around every corner?
Still, life in Rome isn't just one bountiful meal after another. An American has to make adjustments to the quirky - occasionally exasperating - ways that things are done: not being able to find a photocopier, storekeepers never having change, shops closing at whim throughout the day, frequent work stoppages, and the fact that doing errands is going to take at least three times as long as expected. Residents must develop patience and learn the art of waiting.
He recalls the afternoon in an outdoor market when he and his wife spotted exactly the bathroom rug they had been looking for. But the merchant had begun piling his rugs back into the truck. When the Epsteins asked to see it, he nonchalantly said the rug was too hard to get to - although they were close enough to touch it. Besides, it was time to eat. The reader waits for Epstein to complain about such irritating behavior. Or at least grumble about the inconvenience. But no, he turns philosophical: In Rome, "life is not organized around the principle that doing business and making money are the reasons why we are put here."
Occasionally, Epstein's love is blind. When California friends ask how he can tolerate dining in smoke-filled restaurants, the former San Franciscan metaphorically shrugs. "It becomes part of the daily routine," he says, adding, "When I am sitting outdoors, I begin to miss the familiar aroma if no one around is smoking." Then he devotes a chapter to a convoluted explanation of why, even though 70 percent of men and 64 percent of women reportedly cheat on their spouses, "Romans don't need to talk about family values because they live them...."
While readers may sometimes tire of Epstein's boosterism of all things Roman, this is a pleasant introduction to the complexities and contradictions, as well as the delights, of life in the Eternal City.
*Judy Lowe is the Monitor's travel editor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society