My Modena - A Year of Fear, Laughter and Exhilaration in Italy by Andrea Gelfuso


My Modena -

By Andrea Gelfuso


My Modena, by Andrea Susan Valentine Gelfuso Goetz (aka Andrea Gelfuso), is a hilarious memoir of the year she and her family spent in Modena Italy an Italian city that frustrated her every attempt to do the simplest things. Buying a stamp shouldn't be this complicated. Living in an apartment that was like camping, with tile and nowhere to sit. Modena is a town full of ancient churches and beautiful Italians.

Here you will meet her friend Melanie, a fashionista who can make ATMs bend to her will from across the country. You will also meet her landlady Giovanna and her husband Raimondo who watched as six firefighters tried to get Andrea and her family back into their 7th-floor apartment, using a ladder truck.

You'll also meet Piero the artist, Luca who sold boots, and let us not forget Danilo, Fabio (of the soon-to-be-famous Fabio's balcony), and Marcello, heart-stoppingly gorgeous Italians all.



I think the reader gets a sense of what is to come from page 1.

‘How many books written by men open with the writer sobbing on the floor? Weirdly, many womens' do. Not me bub! My Italian adventure began with laughter and profanity. When my husband, a geography professor wanted to discuss his upcoming sabbatical, I beamed.

“Where do you want to go?”

I laughed, “Italy!”’

This is an entertaining insight into Italy and Italians from the perspective of a foreigner, namely an American. In just a few pages, it provides a real understanding of the difficulties of navigating Italy's crazy bureaucracy and way of life. It highlights both the joys and frustrations of living in Modena from the tortuous to the downright inexplicable. The author guides you through her journey as an American visitor vividly depicting her day-to-day life, her attempts to immerse herself into the local community, and the colourful characters that she meets along the way. Fabio, (in his underwear, on the balcony, Fabio!) the stunning bronzed Adonis who lived in a nearby apartment building, landlady Giovanna and her husband Raimondo (who patiently and continually flipped the circuit breaker after the author attempted to use more than one volt of electricity!) Elena and Edward, the street-savvy parents of the kids' school friends.

The stories come fast and furious, too numerous to mention, but the author describes her experiences in detailed, amusing, relatable anecdotes. It takes a clever wit to retell everyday situations in something as funny as a Victoria Wood or Saunders and Dawn French sketch. For example:

‘Although we had a visa that let us stay in Italy for one year, we also needed a Permesso Di Soggiorno a residence permit which possibly entitled us to free medical care but definitely entitled us to taxation. To get the Permesso we had to go to 400 obscure government offices, which were usually closed, take numbers that were never called and wait in line until we realised that what we actually needed was a form from the Post Office. Since the Post office was only open fourteen minutes a week, it took another month to obtain a copy of the form. The end goal of the process was an appointment at the Questura, a cross between police headquarters, immigration and the corporate offices of the wicked witch of the west.’

While reading this book, I am rather mindful of one of my all-time favourites – Pride and Prejudice, a satire of the convoluted norms of human life. Bizarrely, My Modena has immediate comparisons to this timeless classic, albeit set in a city known as the birthplace of the Italian flag. There are many witty and hilarious moments in both. 

Don’t we all desire to be perfect? Yet we can still make bad decisions about how necessary it is to analyse our flaws and get them fixed ourselves rather than wait for the other one to step up. About how prejudices and feelings of pride can blind even the best of souls. About the worth of the right relationships. Andrea’s stories are about learning to push past boundaries. After all, without self-reflection, we cannot grow.

Writing comedy into a scene is arguably one of the hardest things to master when it comes to writing. It is not what is said but how it is said yet I feel that for the author, it is an effortless part of the narrative. She gets the timing right, takes an ordinary situation, switches the order of the salient details, throws in some cultural references and muses on the absurdity.

‘My Italian key ring looked like a prop from The Da Vinci Code. Our landlord, Raimondo gave me seven keys. Each key was shaped like it was made by a blacksmith with a personality disorder and each door had several sets of keyholes, some of which dated to the building’s post war construction and some to the Middle Ages. So, there were 7 keys and 600 potential keyholes. To open the apartment door, made of iron-hard oak required 2 keys, which had to be turned in opposite directions, 400 times each. No wonder Romeo climbed up some shrubbery to reach Juliet – she would not have had time to let him in through an Italian door before their parents killed each other or they started dating other people!’

After only two weeks of living in Modena, the author spent a lot of time alone in the rented apartment which was not good for her sanity, and she deteriorated faster than she expected.

“I’m starting to feel like Boo Radley, the recluse from To Kill a Mockingbird!

After six months, Andrea had mastered the basics, shopping in the market, recharging her phone and even taking a bus. At the end of the year, the author reflects on her time in Modena.

‘Although I lived in my idea of paradise, I had to function in most American’s idea of hell. Italy is a fabulous place, but it is a challenge to accomplish anything more ambitious than lunch.

Modena changed me, … maybe it just showed me who I am.’

 My Modena takes you on a journey that, in its intense recreation of the depths and heights of human experience is reminiscent of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The poem follows a pilgrim who journeys through the afterlife to salvation and a vision of God and is an imaginary image of heaven and hell. Dante chose to call his poem a comedy (commedia in Italian) because it ends happily.  This ominous quotation is perhaps the best-known line from Dante's Divine Comedy and could also be a strap line for Andrea’s book!

 ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter’ (or arrive in Modena!)



Why I recommend this book

Highly recommended. Captivating!  I loved this book.

Andrea's book, My Modena, a Year of Fear, Laughter, and Exhilaration in Italy describes the charming bewilderment of residing in a country where each chore proves comically vexing, yet every stroll offers a voyage into Italy's captivating history - and exhilarating contemporary life.

There were some Amazon reviews from people who felt that there was very little about Modena in the book so if you want a travel guide this is not for you. However, if you crave some light-hearted humour paired with the vibrant flavours of fresh pesto, balsamic vinegar and home-produced olive oil, then prepare to embark on a delightful journey. You really feel that you have joined Andrea and her family as they navigate the enchanting, winding roads of Modena. The author captures the perfect blend of madness and beauty which is Italy and that’s what makes the country so unique and captivating.

It is an engaging and heartwarming read, offering an authentic taste of Italian culture and comedy. Her anecdotes are very entertaining and insightful, providing a vivid picture of the family's journey to acclimatise to Italian life. Through the ups and downs, they learn to appreciate the nuances of Modena, making their experience both memorable and transformative.

Diane Hales, the NYT-bestselling author of La Bella Lingua, Mona Lisa and La Passione describes the book as:

"My Modena is a scrumptious literary tiramisu, layered with history, art, food, fashion, culture (and culture shock), all topped with generous dollops of hilarity." 



Andrea Susan Valentine Gelfuso Goetz is an environmental attorney who adores Italy and all things Italian. A year in Italy with her husband and two kids, while living in an apartment that was like camping, with tile, and in a city that was like God's attic, made her appreciate Italian culture, art, and heart-stoppingly gorgeous Italians. Her book, My Modena, a Year of Fear, Laughter, and Exhilaration in Italy details the delightful confusion of living in a town that made every task hilariously frustrating, but every walk a journey into Italy's fascinating past - and thrilling present.


Published by Storytellers Publishing (25 Nov. 2021)



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