Episode 82 │ Romance Reads & the City of Gold (AREZZO)
Updated: Sep 22
"I like to call myself a 'capital J Joiner'. I sort of jump into things, not not thinking about the consequences, but without being like, 'Oh, this could go badly.' I'm just like, 'Oh, [Arezzo] sounds great! I'm gonna sign up for that. Let me go ahead and interview.' Yeah, because since there were only 25 spots and there were probably 100 Italian students, we did have to interview to get into the program." (Jessica, Episode 82)
Earlier this year I talked about using Twitter to find new guests, just as an experiment, and how that resulted in me finding a handful of lovely new people to feature on Young, Gifted and Abroad. Well, this week's guest is another lovely person from Twitter! And just my luck, after sharing my newfound appreciation for romance novels in the 3rd anniversary episode of this show, I managed to find a guest who's also an expert on romance novels! Jessica Pryde is an Arizona-based writer, librarian, and "romance enthusiast" who not only writes articles about romance as a contributing editor for Book Riot, but also co-hosts a Book Riot podcast about romance novels called When In Romance. But of course, the romance talk was just the cherry on top. The main reason I reached out to Jessica was because she studied Italian in the city of Arezzo, and since I'd never heard of that place before, I wanted Jessica to tell me about it.
Jessica grew up in an intergenerational household in Washington, D.C., where she often watched old romantic films with her grandma, and began reading romance novels as a preteen because her mom read them. Although she doesn't believe there's a strong correlation between her respective interests in love stories and Italy, she does remember having a fondness for certain films where couples would break into song, sometimes even singing opera in Italian. (An example of this is 'That Midnight Kiss', a 1949 film that remains one of her favorites to this day.) Jessica's interest in Italy really blossomed during her undergraduate years in the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities (IHP) at Washington University in St. Louis. As part of IHP, with the exception of a few core classes Jessica could basically create her own major. Since she was required to earn language credits and wanted something similar to but also different from the Spanish and French she'd studied in grade school, she chose Italian, and early modern Italy became the focus of her degree.
Following a full year of introductory Italian courses, Jessica and about 100 other eligible students had the opportunity to apply for a six-week summer language intensive in Arezzo, a city in the Italian region of Tuscany. Jessica was among the 25 students selected to go to Arezzo in the summer of 2005 (the same year that 'Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith' was released in theaters, as she recalled). It was her first time leaving the States, and after a delayed takeoff in D.C. caused her to be stranded in a German airport when she missed her connecting flight to Rome, eventually she arrived in Italy safe and sound. Her home base was an Italian villa-turned-hostel on the edge of Arezzo called Villa Severi, and all the students slept, ate, and had their Italian classes in this same building. Under the instruction of two WashU professors, Jessica and her cohort spent about five hours a day in class, reading Italian literature and learning about Italian history in addition to studying the language itself. The goal was for students to communicate with a medium level of vocabulary by the end of the program. Even if they wouldn't necessarily be able to have a full-on conversation with a native speaker—Jessica told me an amusing story about accidentally telling a public bathroom attendant "I'm dead" when she meant to say "I'm finished"—the students would at least become more comfortable speaking the language and primed for 200-level Italian the following semester. At the end of those six weeks Jessica was very much pleased with the progress she'd made, being proficient enough to research and make presentations about subjects including the banking and political juggernaut known as the Medici family.
While much of Jessica's activity was concentrated at Villa Severi, that isn't to say she was confined to that one location. She and her classmates explored Arezzo at large, discovering a combination of medieval and new, of rustic and very obviously wealthy (Arezzo used to be known as città dell'oro/"City of Gold"), and of regular everyday townspeople and folks commuting between the next major city for work (Florence). One of Jessica's favorite parts of the program was traveling with her classmates to other Italian cities on the weekends, and in addition to Florence they visited Pisa, the beachside party town of Rimini, the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, and Siena. During our conversation she spoke especially fondly of Venice, as an early trip there was what kicked her enthusiasm for being in Italy into even higher gear. She and her classmates' first trip after their first night in Arezzo was to Venice, where Jessica soaked in the awe-inspiring art and architecture of that city. She traversed canals on a vaporetto (water bus), and bought a handmade leather-bound notebook on the famed Rialto Bridge that she still hasn't written a single word in, because she feels more compelled to cherish and preserve it than put it to use.
Of course, Italy as Jessica experienced it was not without its faults. Even her family had been concerned about her "being away and in a place that maybe wouldn't make itself comfortable for my existence as a Black woman", when I asked her about the not-uncommon perception that Italy is incredibly racist (and especially anti-Black), Jessica told me that she did indeed observe certain instances of Italian racism. In fact, she got a crash course in it on her first day there. On a crowded three-hour train ride from Rome to Arezzo, Jessica managed to find a carriage that was empty save for a Black Muslim woman, knitting and keeping to herself, with whom no one else in the train had wanted to sit. As for Jessica herself, there were occasions where the quality of customer service she received may have been lesser because of her skin color, but overall she was insulated by nearly always being in the company of her wealthier, mostly white classmates. In a nutshell, "I was treated more like an American who had cash to spend than a Black person."
"Anything can be a romance novel"
Back at WashU, Jessica's Italian proficiency improved to the point where she could handle upper-level Italian literature classes where all instruction and conversation were in Italian. Today, while her proficiency now isn't what it was in college, she still has fairly good reading comprehension. She generally keeps abreast of Italy-related topics by watching documentaries, reading articles, and watching Italian shows (including Netlfix's young adult romantic drama 'Summertime', which she and I both have enjoyed) with English subtitles. Jessica hasn't been back to Italy since her summer in Arezzo, and hasn't traveled internationally since then either. But she would love to travel more at some point in the future! For now she's mostly interested in returning to Italy to visit places she missed out on or was only able to pass through (such as Rome), and she's also keen to visit more of the various English-speaking countries that are out there (such as England, Australia, and New Zealand).
In the meantime, Jessica's personal interests and professional obligations revolve around books, romance novels in particular. When I asked what her advice would be for new romance readers just beginning to dip their toes in the genre, she stressed how important it is to dabble. In her own words, "The question that every romance novel has to answer is, 'Why can't they be together, and how can they resolve it?'... Anything can be a romance novel as long as it follows the formula [of] a central love story and a happily ever after." Because romances can exist in any genre, sub-genre, format, or medium—and because dozens upon dozens of them are published every week—dabbling helps readers figure out what they're looking for and what type of writing they like. For Jessica's part, she enjoys feeling secure in knowing that the romances she reads won't disappoint her in the end, and she's eager to see how different authors will put their own spin on the familiar formula. Speaking of authors, she's editing an essay anthology titled Black Love Matters, which features Black perspectives on romance and romance media and is slated for release in February 2022. Jessica can be found on Twitter (@jessisreading), Instagram (@jess_is_reading), and her website (jessicapryde.com).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Romance Reads & the City of Gold (AREZZO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Cover reveal and excerpt from Black Love Matters
The Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities (WashU in St. Louis)
Villa Severi in Arezzo (YouTube video)