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August 9, 2020 | Rome, Italy

An American in Lecce

By | 2020-01-20T13:15:52+01:00 January 17th, 2020|Interviews|
Chicago-born author Peter Byrne, who has made the southern city of Lecce his home.

Few are the American writers published in their native English in Italy, let alone in the Salento, which sits at the heel of the peninsula’s boot. Essays by scholars may appear occasionally, but fiction is rare. Peter Byrne’s “Everywhere Tales” (Grifo, Lecce) is a rambunctious collection of 25 short pieces and two full-length plays.

The bond between Byrne and Grifo is an unusual one. The small Lecce-based publisher specializes mostly in deluxe hardbound books (all in Italian) and illustrated volumes. But in Byrne, Grifo saw something of a native son. And rightly so.

The Chicago-born Byrne long had one foot in Lecce, settling there in 2005 and integrating himself into the fabric of the city. Though his career has seen him teach in three universities, he doesn’t consider himself an academic, preferring to call himself a wandering scholar or simply a writer.

Byrne was born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, and grew up in New Deal, in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II. He smiles when asked how he came to settle in rough edged Puglia and not in the Tuscan hills, or in expatriate-friendly Rome.

“That wouldn’t suit a Chicago boy,” he says. “It would be like choosing to be near elite Santa Monica’s Pacific spray or in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.”

Byrne’s collection of stories and plays, “Everywhere Tales,” was published in English by Lecce’s Grifo publishing house.

The following are excerpts from a lengthy conversation with Byrne.

So, Peter, when did your wandering begin?

I left home at nineteen. Stopped a year at school in Ontario and then went to Quebec City where I studied at Laval University. Pushing on to Nova Scotia, I ran out of money and returned for a long stay in Montreal.

You seemed to have been headed east.

True, another time I squatted in Gaspé for a while. It’s a rugged, rocky, beautiful place pointing across the Atlantic. At the time you could live cheap on the local cod fish.

Did you fit into French Canadian life?

Absolutely. I still consider myself an honorary Quebecer. I became a Canadian citizen. “La revolution tranquille” was in full swing in the 1950s. It was unique in being triggered by “le Refus Global,” the manifesto — very French that — of a group of artists. The Catholic Church had held everything public and private in an iron grip. Think Ireland of those days or Francisco Franco’s Spain. People had enough. It was a foretaste of the 1960s that would rock the West.

When did your thoughts turn to Europe?

French Canadian writers and artists had a direct line to Paris. Everyone wanted to go there. When I could scrape the price of a trip together I’d board a liner for Le Havre and back. If it was an Italian-crewed ship, there would be plenty of wine and good food. That meant a lot to a student. Air travel was too expensive then and only got you a meal or two in cellophane. On one crossing I simply decided to stay.

How did that work in pre-Brexit days?

You could get by in Paris and Brussels, as I did for a year or so, but with my passports it was easier in London. You had legal status for sharing the threadbare postwar with the Brits. I’d spend years in London off and on. There’s probably no city I know better.

The author pictured in Dubrovnik (then Yugoslavia) in 1970: a wanderer at work.

You were an honorary Londoner?

Not quite. Although I did get married and father two children there I was never a true islander, nor did I want to be one. There was the language connection. I couldn’t get back to Chicago or New York often. I needed a cultural capital and London was a free-wheeling place, more and more a world city.

How did you finance your writing?

I worked nights. First at Peek Freans biscuit factory in the east end. My colleagues were genial West Indians and disgruntled Poles left over from the war. Free cookies lost their charm in no time and I settled into the graveyard shift at the International Telephone Exchange. In the small hours, you could read, sleep, or listen in on Hollywood celebrities decrying Europe and letting their hair down. My English wife worked days. I typed away next to a coffee pot in the nursery.

You were settled then?

Hardly. Though the marriage was not unhappy, our daily schedule may have been too neat and rigorous. Of course, “Swinging London” was banging back and forth around us. We got divorced. Marriage was big in those days and I indulged again, this time to a woman who was a figure in the London and Paris fashion industry. Remember mini-skirts? After a while we relocated to Paris and I had another fling at higher education.

Ah, your Sorbonne days.

I suppose I was tying a knot between Quebec and the Left Bank. I began a doctorate about the friendship between the writer George Sand, Giuseppe Mazzini, and the renegade priest, Félicité Lamennais. In France I met members of the Philosophy Faculty of Lecce University, now the U of Salento. At the time the Faculty was active on the European cultural scene and open to foreign collaboration. French scholars began to come down to fit the local cooking into their world view.

Salento would have been little known to foreigners back then. Even Norman Douglas in Old Calabria never got as far down the heel to where the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic meet. Did you read about Otranto in Horace Walpole?

No. The first whiff I had of those parts was when I saw a Carmelo Bene’s one-night solo appearance in Paris. He was a unique theatrical wizard and put his Salento home ground on the map for me.

You weren’t curious about Lecce’s baroque architecture?

That took time to sink in. I’d grown up in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe buildings.

In a lean year, crowded out of breathing space by books, I sold the lot to the university.

How did your meeting the Lecce philosophers turn into genuine collaboration?

We were still in the Gutenberg Age. I’d spent a decade in Paris scouring used-book shops for material about my doctorate. It was something I enjoyed, a treasure hunt. The Lecce profs were working on the same period and were starved for documentation. I shared my finds with them. Later, in a lean year and crowded out of breathing space by books, I sold the lot to the university. Later still, on going back to the Faculty library, I found there had come to be a Fondo Byrne.

You started to visit Lecce. What were your first impressions?

I found a mystifying mixture of generosity and self-interest. Everyone insisted on buying me coffee. I had to struggle so hard to pick up the tab I finally took to surrendering. Then a close friend told me that there was a rumor going around that I never paid for coffee. After one visit to Lecce, I took a taxi to Brindisi Airport to catch a flight to Rome. When I got my baggage out of the trunk, I found I’d been gifted a bushel of small pears. There were also some lamb roll-em-ups stuffed with innards. I’d asked about these within earshot of my host.

Well meant, but hardly the thing to tuck under your seat in the plane.

I exercised my own generosity and left my haul with the taxi driver. Maybe the rumor started that I had a strange idea of tipping. But that trip had more to teach me about local ways. I was travelling with my second wife ( the fashionista) and her daughter. When we tried to board the plane, they told me there was only room for her and her child. Loud indignation on my part got me nowhere. I had after all made a reservation. When I saw a matron board with her Pekingese I shouted like an idiot that they’d given my seat to a dog. On the bus to Brindisi town where I had to wait on my own for the next Rome flight, I discussed my misfortune with a sympathetic passenger. He explained that it was Sunday night and the local member of Parliament probably had to get back to Montecitorio for Monday morning. I regretted not having saved a couple of pears to chew on.

You taught at the University of the Salento?

I did. The Faculty of Philosophy was a lively place at the time. Staff meetings were a noisy, free-for-all where factions fought for their share of research funds. I soon moved into the sleepier English department. Afterwards I taught at the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice. You could spiel on to the students there while looking out the window at the Grand Canal. I also did a stint at the U of Bari. Examination day was always a surprise. A horde of students you hadn’t seen all year would come down from the hills to try their luck.

Had your marital doings stabilized?

Only in a manner of speaking. The fashionista and I parted. I couldn’t make the transition to the apparel industry. The rag traders were a manic bunch, often pretty, but dedicated to commerce, not my thing. Divorce was more in my line.

You went back to Lecce?

To my house in the casbah of the centrostorico. I met Gabriella Miccoli who had grown up a few lanes away. She worked abroad for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, attached to consulates as consultant for educational matters or teaching in schools Italy supported.

You embarked with her?

On a long term voyage that you might be surprised to learn still continues. After Addis Abeba in Ethiopia, she was posted to Vancouver in Canada where we were married. The city offered a less nervous version of California life. Too soon the bureaucratic lottery sent Gabriella — now us — to Sofia in Bulgaria. This was in the 1990s. Bulgaria’s economy had been thoroughly integrated with the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall left the country orphaned and penniless. There were long lines for bread. People were fainting from hunger in the streets. Sofia itself had an ex-Soviet charm and excellent opera. It seemed to have been planned by farmers who dreamt of a super farmyard.

You could spiel on to the students [in Venice] while looking out the window at the Grand Canal.

What did you do while Gabriella taught?

This and that, anything to do with writing, translations, editing, bits of journalism. I also developed my skill as a flâneur. There was the leisure for it. We were five years in Sofia, watching it stumble toward the West.

Next stop?

Istanbul, like a pardon from prison. We would spend seven years there. Our vintage apartment was on a cliff edge that looked down on the old, pre-Italy, Venetian Embassy, and on French diplomatic grounds and school, with the busy Bosphorus and Asia in the distance. The Russian consulate, former embassy, was our close neighbor. Remember it in the James Bond flic, “From Russia with Love”? I used to boast that from my window I could p…, that is, shower kisses on three sovereign states.

A dream setting.

The ancients called Constantinople, ‘The City’, and for me it remains just that. London, Paris, Rome and New York have their points, but Istanbul, with Asia and Europe flowing out of it, is the umbilicus, the dead center.

Everywhere Tales” often touches on the places you two lived. The story “Fathers” addresses the change of regime in Bulgaria. The dialogue between the Italian mother and her Bulgarian daughter-in-law shows how differently communism was seen in Western Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. In Italy, so-called Eurocommunism wasn’t a dirty word, while to the east those who had known “Real Socialism” tried hard to forget it.

That’s so. “Flowers for Lunch” takes a lighter look at what scrounging for eatables under Sofia’s magic mountain could involve.

Your take on Hemingway surprised me. Your generation must have admired him. Yet you treat him roughly in your satire, “Green Dogs on the Spianada”.

Well, he came from a Chicago suburb and called himself “Papa.” I wasn’t the first writer to feel the need to kill his father and go orphan. Hemingway not only laid down a new prose style, he put forward a lifestyle. You had to either respect and imitate him or ridicule him and turn your back. I set him down in touristy Corfu to repeat his great-white-hunter routine, a scourge of stray dogs

Yes, but every dog has his day and your Nobel Laureate has to make a run for it. I must say I winced. I was born in 1950 and put American writers like Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck on a pedestal. For young Italians like me reading Hemingway was one of the things you did on “coming of age,” together with getting a driver’s license as soon as possible.

Cultural Interchange has always started me fantasticating. In the “Sucking Horse” I set down in Lecce a Vancouver couple new to Italy. They are on a quest for a statue they saw pictured in a travel book. It intrigued them but didn’t seem worthy of a place in a church. Strangely, it portrays a woman breastfeeding a horse, and just as strangely, notwithstanding their meticulous search of the church, the couple are unable to find it. The truculent sexton on duty does not wish them well. They never set eyes on the “sucking horse” and fly back home after a visit to the local cemetery that, full of visitors in their Sunday best, strikes them more like “a civic opera house or a live theater”. Their search and speculations show North American sophistication stymied by the provincial Italian south.

So there you were, settled down in Lecce for good in 2005, a prolific contributor to an online San Francisco magazine and working on the two full-length plays that close Everywhere Tales: “Weed” and “Great Fire”, both set in Chicago. I think we can conclude that you began and finished your long life of musing on Chicago.

I was in Lecce but my footloose mind roamed Chicago’s past. And while I mused on the city, Chicagoans destroyed and rebuilt it more than a couple of times.

About the Author:

Aldo Magagnino
Aldo Magagnino was born in Alezio (Apulia). After a career as a teacher of English he now works fulltime as a literary translator. He now lives in the Apulian town of Presicce, a few miles from Santa Maria di Leuca, land's end of the Italian boot, with his wife, two dogs and a variable number of cats.

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