Bestselling book on Rome Italy
Bestselling book on Rome Italy

 

Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday Travel Section
April 23, 2000

How Eternal City got to be that way. An expatriate American writes lovingly of life in Rome and of its residents.

It is essential reading for visitors.

Just in time for the Jubilee 2000 celebration in Rome comes As the Romans Do (William Morrow; $20), an insightful look at life in contemporary Rome. With more than a little humor sprinkled through this cultural survey, author Alan Epstein weaves in the 3,000 years of history that informs today's Eternal City. Epstein, an American with a doctorate in European history, allowed Rome to seduce him on his first visit in 1981. On subsequent visits, his ardor grew stronger and, 20 years after that first visit, he, his wife and their two sons shifted into expat mode and moved there. Rome, he writes in his introduction, has been around so long, has been ruler of the known (to Romans, at any rate) world and a mere observer, and has accumulated so much experience over the millennia that "all it wants to do is exist in eternity according to the wisdom of what it has learned."

For the Romans of 2000, "the lessons are obvious. Life is to be lived passionately, excessively, publicly - in bars, restaurants, streets and piazzas - applying charm and style mixed with a healthy respect for tradition." And for the next 284 pages, Epstein tells us with charm and style - and a healthy respect for tradition - what makes the city and, most particularly, its people so attractive, so frustrating, so perplexing, and often so difficult to leave. He delves into virtually every aspect of Roman culture, explaining through examples and anecdotes and the wisdom he has gained from 25 years of observation. For example, take the Roman male. To the uninitiated, he may seem proud, arrogant, worldly, at ease with himself in every situation. But as Epstein learned from female Roman friends, he is also thin-skinned, easily hurt when criticized, particularly by women - his wife, his lover, his mother. Especially his mother. There may be a lot of macho in his confident strolling down the Via Veneto, but lurking under those $1,200 worth of Armani threads is the soul of a mama's boy.

Rome remains the capital of la dolce vita, the sweet life, even if it is not quite as excessive as portrayed in the Fellini film of the same name. Romans, according to Epstein, live in the moment more than almost anyone on Earth. Dues are to be paid at some vague future date, perhaps long after a Roman draws the final breath. That explains why, for example, they smoke - almost everyone, almost everywhere. And why they lie for hours in the sun, defying cancer-causing rays, to get that perfect tan. It also explains their attitude toward sex. "It is no more - or less - than a pleasurable fact of life, like eating and sleeping and talking and walking and reading a magazine," Epstein writes. "Romans do not fall in love any more or less than other people, but they do have more sex, and they are more likely to engage in indiscriminate sex - without either guilt or contraception - than their non-Latin counterparts." Whether discoursing on the excellent cuisine or the historical foundations of the predominant habits and niceties of civil intercourse, Epstein captures the heady atmosphere of Rome so completely as to make this book essential for anyone who would understand the city before heading there."

Jack Severson
Travel Editor
Philadelphia Inquirer

Star Tribune, Minneapolis
Sunday Book Review

April 16, 2000

As the Romans Do

In this richly anecdotal account of his life in Rome, Epstein captures the essence of la dolce vita -- and holds it up as a model for the workaholic Puritains he left at home in the United States. The best travel writers tell as much about home as they do about their destinations. Think of all those Brits -- from Robert Byron to Bruce Chatwin -- whose deadpan Englishness made them revealing foils for the foreigners they encountered. Or see how Bill Holm caught the stolid soul of Minnesota ...when he wrote about China in "Coming Home Crazy."

Alan Epstein's "As the Romans Do" belongs on the same shelf. Part hymn, part insider's guide to life in the Eternal City, Epstein's thoughtful essay collection also holds a mirror to America, presenting a reversed, unlovely image of our dollar-driven, self-improvement culture.

Going to Rome from San Francisco, Epstein and his family learned to love the bustling cafes, the monuments and the quiet hours between 1 and 4 p.m. when stores close, the streets empty and "the only sounds you hear ... are the particular rhythms of plates clacking, silverware clinking, and linen snapping on the tables." They found a city where it's no surprise that a middle-aged mother "dresses as if she were on her way to an audition ... solely to accompany her 7-year-old son to the local park." Coming a half hour "late" for a party, the Epsteins find that they are the first arrivals. "Scusate," their smiling hostess says, "I must still go and take a quick shower."

Romans celebrate talk, theatricality and physical pleasure -- and "the ubiquitous 'torno subito,' or 'I'll be back immediately,' signs that appear on the doors of the shops" mean that "life is just not organized around the principle that doing business and making money are the reasons why we were put here."

Getting personal

Epstein's book of manners reveals that the real glue of Roman society isn't law, money or other abstractions, but an elaborate web of personal relationships defined by tradition. Convenience and efficiency don't persuade many Romans. They grumble and wait in line to deal with bank tellers, but mostly refuse to use cash machines. In Rome, he writes, "it is better to have 20 people earning enough money to scrape by ... than it is to have five people living high on the hog ... while the other fifteen live off public assistance and have no self-esteem. To Romans, machines do not necessarily make life easier. But they definitely do take away jobs and provide less opportunity for socializing with your neighbors."

"The more you see Romans," Epstein writes, "the more you think of people who are stuck in the fifties, before medical science and activists came along to tell us that ... sunshine, fatty foods, alcohol, sex and the skin of animals -- was verboten." Yet, in his new home, Epstein has "witnessed only a handful of occasions where a man was obviously drunk, and these were strangers on the street." And despite all the other pleasurable vices, Rome is a place where "heart disease is low and longevity high."

Even when Italians catch on to the new rules, they give them a spin of their own. An anti-fur rally featured protesters who "did a striptease to demonstrate their displeasure, as women in sexy black bras paraded around the piazza ... shouting slogans -- and delighting the crowd."

Sex, sin and family first

Looking closer, Epstein found that his pleasure-loving new home was one in which family values really do come first. Italy has the lowest divorce rate in Europe, even though 70 percent of married men and 64 percent of married women admit to sexual infidelities. "In 1995, the United States, with five times the population of Italy, had forty-three times the number of divorces -- 1,169,000 to 27,000," writes Epstein. "The religious Puritans in the United States would point to the depravity, the immorality and the hypocrisy of the Romans, but what is really going on here is that marriage and family are not based on absolute notions of right and wrong, but on the fact that the family is sacrosanct ... In Roman unions, everyone pretty much knows they will last truly 'until death do us part,' so there is a kind of backhanded license to develop [extramarital] sentimental ties -- if performed discreetly."

Epstein's real discovery is that Romans believe in forgiveness and an immutable order to things: People are flawed, government is a nuisance, society can't be improved, so lets relax, forgive each other and focus on cooking dinner. Buon appetito!"

Starred Review
Chris Waddington
Books Editor
Star Tribune 2000

Library Journal

As the Romans Do

Epstein, European correspondent for American radio and president of a travel association aptly named As the Romans Do, has written a colorful account of his experiences and observations of daily life in Rome. Focusing mainly on the Italian people, Epstein compares and contrasts their lifestyle as well as their views on religion, marriage, and family. The reader is taken on a magical journey through a land of plenty, as Epstein discusses the importance of the piazza (not only for watching people but for catching up on neighborhood gossip) and such traditional activities as baking bread, playing soccer, and eating in trattorias. The account ends with the preparations being made for the end-of-the century millennium party. The love and awe Epstein feels for the Italian people shine through in his vivid descriptions. Warmly recommended for all lovers of Italy."

Stephanie Papa
Book Reviewer
Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews

As the Romans Do

A glowing tribute to the Eternal City, from an American who became infatuated with Rome some 20 years ago and later moved there with his wife and two young sons. To call Epstein (the president of an association -- also called As the Romans Do -- that provides guided tours of Rome and Italy) enthusiastic about his adopted home is an understatement. He praises the city's love of culture and sense of history, celebrates the Roman's live- for-today attitude and flair for the dramatic, flips over the beauty of it's exceptionally well-groomed and sexy women, and savors its food and wines. Not even the strikes, traffic jams, and summer heat for which Rome is equally famed can dampen his ardor. He is initially wary of the Catholic doctrine classes that his young son must attend in the public schools, but his fears are soon allayed. Epstein frequently travels about the city on foot, relishing its architecture, piazzas, vistas, fountains, ruins, narrow streets, and small shops. Food and drink figure large here: in lively prose sprinkled with deftly translated Italian words and phrases, he extolls the sensual pleasures of morning coffee, quick lunches, and multicourse dinners in the Italian style. Simply waiting in line for bread seems to be a pleasant adventure for Epstein. Yet it may be the people that he loves the most, admiring not only the importance they give to beauty, but the sophistication of their attitudes about sex and money, the strength of their family ties, and especially the rhythm of their lives. A somewhat less rosy picture emerges at the very close, however, when Epstein introduces a character disillusioned with the city and acknowledges that Rome, now experiencing a "tidal wave of immigration," is on its way to becoming "just another big city." Perhaps Epstein's real message is: Come quick if you want to experience Rome while it lasts.

An exuberant, well-timed promotion for Rome in this is its Jubilee Year."

Kirkus Reviews

Booklist Review

As the Romans Do

It is intoxicating to read about a love affair, the more so when we glimpse the beloved and recognize our own desire. How much more so when the beloved is the ancient and glorious city of Rome. Epstein is an unabashed lover: a transplanted Californian, he and his wife and sons have chosen to live in a place they were not born to but have completely embraced. He captures the texture of so many obvious Roman delights: food to bring tears to your eyes; history and art on every corner. But he also renders nuances not so easily described: the frank sensuality of Roman men and women, their elegance, the way they make conversation and argument writ large. The Italians cherish children and worship family; their ways -- patterned, slower, ritualized -- are not our ways, but Epstein adores the differences. This is better than Peter Mayle, because Rome is more fun than Provence, and ... as sweet as Tim Parks' An Italian Education. "

GraceAnne A. De Candid
Book Reviewer
Booklist



As the Romans Do
Diane & Alan Epstein featured in the media:

Oprah Winfrey Show
Books Seen on the Show
Past Shows: Choose Your Life, June 21, 2000

Redbook Magazine
Dream Job, Fantasy Life, January 2001 issue


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