"Al centro esatto di Piazza Maggiore
con leggerezza da pattinatore
Bologna adesso voltati
mi fai commuovere
lo sai che esagero con le parole..."
"At the exact center of Piazza Maggiore
With the lightness of a skater
Bologna you now turn -
You move me
You know that I exaggerate with words…"
- "A Bologna" ("In Bologna") by Samuele Bersani (translation mine)
I frequently have to explain "Why Bologna?" I mean, I live in Italy – I'm surrounded by historic locations which could have hosted Emily and Davide's story in Ask Me if I'm Happy, right? So why limit myself to a frequently cold and foggy setting in northern Italy that readers might not be very familiar with in the first place?
Well, why not?
The truth is there was no other place as well-suited to the story as Bologna was. I cited some of the reasons elsewhere once, in an interview I did prior to Ask Me if I'm Happy's initial release in 2010: "It's the major train travel hub for northern Italy; it's simply a place I love; it is, as my husband might say, characteristic of the region where I live; and finally, it's a beautiful and historic city.
"Most of all, I feel it's one of the unsung locations in this country. Nearly everyone knows about Tuscany, Rome, Naples and Venice, but very few folks, it seems, are even aware of Bologna. I wanted my area of northern Italy to be represented, for better and for worse, and I think I've done that in Ask Me if I'm Happy."
I've done my best to give a real sense of the city and to show how it affects Emily and Davide throughout their relationship. I tried to not make the story feel like a travelogue, preferring to let the city peek through from time to time, by citing real places and inventing amalgamations of others. From what I've been told, I've done a decent job of it.
In spite of Ask Me… being a love story, I really hoped to write a story which could serve as an antidote of sorts to many other Italy-set stories. I wanted to show the Italy where I – and my ex-pat co-workers and friends – live and work every day. All of us had grown tired of the oh-so-perfect life described by so many novelists and travel writers, the false la dolce vita-isation of these places we know too well. As a result, I aimed to write about this place I've come to love with all my heart, but to write about it warts and all.
Yes, Italy is a beautiful country, there's no doubt about it. I don't deny that, and I do think this aspect shows through in Ask Me if I'm Happy. But there are other aspects of living here which fall quite short of the idealized imagery in those "Ex-pats in Tuscany/Rome/Venice" tales we're all familiar with. This discrepancy is what Emily struggles with, and it's something Davide deals with, too, although in slightly different ways.
From the beginning of the novel right through to the end, I've tried to show the Italy I know in the season I love best: the cold air, the grey skies, and the style of urban living which is the reality for the majority of Italians I know. I wanted to show the romance in a foggy afternoon and in warming one's hands over a hot cappuccino or in the grasp of an attractive companion. I wanted the reader to imagine strolling along the porticos of La Grassa, the city of Bologna, and see her rather weathered charms in all their flawed splendor.
Emily rediscovers these aspects of Italy every time she leaves and returns, just as I – and many of my friends who came here from abroad – do. And every time they open Emily and Davide's story and journey into an Italy they might not previously have been familiar with, I sincerely hope that readers of Ask Me if I'm Happy will do the same.