Living in a Foreign Language
A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italyby Michael Tucker
“A satisfying look into the good life.” —Publishers Weekly
From award-winning actor Michael Tucker comes a lush and delicious memoir about food, family, and finding home in a faraway place.
The actor Michael Tucker and his wife, the actress Jill Eikenberry, having sent their last child off to college, were vacationing in Italy when they happened upon a small cottage nestled in the Umbrian countryside. The 350-year-old Rustico sat perched on a hill in the verdant Spoleto valley amid an olive grove and fruit trees of every kind.
It was literally love at first sight, and the couple purchased the house without testing the water pressure or checking for signs of termites. Shedding the vestiges of their American life, Michael and Jill endeavored to learn the language, understand the nuances of Italian culture, and build a home in this new chapter of their lives, with just two criteria: to eat well and drink plenty of wine. “Our goal,” writes Tucker, “was to slow down our hearts and minds until they synched up with the circadian rhythm of the Italian countryside.”
What follows is a lush and delicious memoir about finding home in a faraway place. Tucker takes us to a host of intrinsically Italian places—a neighborhood butcher shop where the owner cures his own prosciutto, a harvest festival in the rustic city of Canarra, an antique store in a Roman alley. We share his laughter as he opens his home to a strong and vibrant group of expatriates and delight in his testimony of sharing life’s adventures with someone he loves dearly. And we eat vicariously through his sumptuous descriptions of long and lavish dinners at neighborhood trattorias with antipasti fit for kings, of the mouthwatering sandwiches at a roadside porchetta stand owned by a pork-serving seductress, and of large, celebratory parties featuring roasted pig and lamb, with homemade pizzas baked in the Tucker’s four-hundred-year-old wood-burning oven.
Both a celebration of a good marriage and a careful study of the nature of home, Living in a Foreign Language is a gorgeous, organic travelogue written with an epicurean’s delight in detail and a gourmand’s appreciation for all things.
“A satisfying look into the good life.” —Publishers Weekly
“Foodies will slaver and bristle with envy at the surfeit of pungently fresh truffles that appear at seemingly every meal.” —Mark Knoblauch, Booklist
“Not at all the usual actor’s memoir, but a simple toast to eating, drinking and innocent merriment in old Umbria.” —Kirkus Reviews
“If you’ve ever dreamed of living in an ancient stone villa set high above the Italian countryside—and who hasn’t?—Living in a Foreign Language is a seduction, a warning, an encouragement, and a guide to making a dream come true.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow
“Michael Tucker’s Living in a Foreign Language is a rollicking, food and fun-filled chronicle of his and his wife Jill’s international traveling circus. From New York to Los Angeles to Marin county to Italy and New York again, it’s an odyssey of change and growth filled with good wine, fine food, and great friends. Infused with love, the Tuckers’ saga of building a home (and a life) in Umbria, Italy, is as warm and irresistible as a freshly baked pizza.” —Steven Bocho, Hollywood producer and creator of L.A. Law
“[A] charming book. It literally grabbed me by the taste buds and took me for an epicurean excursion.” —Phil Doran, author of The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian
“The ex-L.A. Law star details his and wife Jill Eikenberry’s move to Italy. Viva la dolce vita!” —People
“Tucker . . . writes easily, endearingly and entertainingly about finding a rustico in the Italian countryside and moving there with his wife . . . Journey with him to Italy; you’ll smell that ravioli con funghi porcini.” —Geeta Sharma Jensen, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Reading books on wine provides an invaluable, yet often insufficient, wine education. Without knowledge of the wines’ accompanying food, you’re nothing but a wine geek. Books like Living in a Foreign Language provide such an ideal context for how to truly enjoy wine with food that they should be required reading for all oenophiles.” —The Washington Post
“One quarter of the way through I realized this wonderful experience of Italy was going to have a last page, which I couldn’t and didn’t want to happen. I devoured each moment!” — Bernadette Peters
“Michael Tucker’s life is full of adventurous, lusty choices. He writes about them with just as much boldness. Whether it’s an Italian lesson in Rome or the first pizza party in his four-hundred-year-old kitchen in Umbria, his descriptions make you feel as if you’re guests in his home.” —John Lithgow
“When actor/writer Tucker and his wife, actress Jill Eikenberry, bought a cottage in Umbria, they fell in love with the house, the place, the food, the wine, and each other—all over again. This charming memoir will make you want to hop on the next plane to Italy with the love of your life (or find the love of your life).” —Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, Windows a bookshop, Monroe, LA, Book Sense quote
A Book Sense Selection
There’s a hill covered with olive trees that nestles around our house like the strong, safe lap of an infinitely patient grandfather. We called it a mountain until we hiked up to the top one day and saw the snowcapped Sibillini stretching out across the horizon. No, it’s a hill—one of many colline that climb to the east of us and roll out to the north and south, shimmering with silver-green olive leaves as far as you can see. The tiny stone house sits tucked into the side of the hill so that our bedroom window isn’t exposed to the early rays of the sun, but that morning I was up with the first soft light in the sky. I had slept the sleep of the sated. Perhaps the three glasses of grappa at the end of dinner had helped a bit with that. Along with the bottomless pitcher of the local red wine that went down so easily with the wood-grilled lamb and the fried potatoes. God, those potatoes. Maybe it was all a dream; I never eat potatoes after a big bowl of pasta.
Not in the same meal. Not in real life. The pasta, by the way, had been simple—just noodles in olive oil with about a half-pound of fresh truffles shaved over the top. Truffles pop out of the ground like weeds around here.
The sky did a cross-fade from gray to light blue and one by one the birds started to sing. I had nowhere to go for a couple of hours; I just lay there and listened to them. I had flown over two days earlier to close the deal on this farmhouse in the hills of Umbria and I was heading back to California later that afternoon. My inner clock was totally confused at this point, but sleep wasn’t really the issue; I could sleep some other time.
The Rustico—that’s its name—has been standing on this hill looking west out onto the vast and verdant Spoleto valley for over 350 years. “Rustico” means a farm workers’ cottage, a place where migrant workers slept when they came every year to harvest the olives. Now it was going to shelter two migrant actors.
I went down to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. I sat at the table under the pergola just outside the kitchen door and watched a bird with black and white striped plumage and a smart-ass Woody Woodpecker look on his face squawk and swoop down from the trees, strafe the vegetable garden and then soar up for a couple of laps around the chimney. You could already tell it was going to be a hot day. But inside the Rustico, with its three-foot-thick stone walls—which make it look considerably larger on the outside than it feels inside—it was as cool as a wine cellar.
I called Jill in California, where it was nine o’clock the evening before. Totally confusing. I told her all about yesterday’s meeting at the notaio’s office, where I signed the papers and passed over the certified checks—one above the table, one below. I told her how the notaio solemnly intoned the whole contract, pausing after every line for the English translation. It all felt quite official. I told her how Bruno and Mayes, who sold us the house, and JoJo, who brokered the deal, took me out to lunch afterward at Fontanelle, a restaurant a few miles up the hill from our new house.
I told Jill how I was feeling at that moment, sitting next to the garden watching the birds; about the pull this place has for me, how the rhythm of the land dictates the pace for everything and everyone. I’m not a particularly patient person—I don’t usually do the stillness thing well—but I thought that living in this house, in this valley, might change that some.
The year we met—1969 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.—I was already married with a one-year-old little girl, and Jill was engaged to an actor who was working up in Montreal. We caught each other’s eye in the read-through of that season’s opening play and by the time we got to dress rehearsal, we were waist-deep in a love affair that’s lasted for thirty-five years and counting. A few days after the closing play of the season, I left my marriage, and a month after that Jill and I took custody of Alison, my daughter. Then we left for New York to try our luck on Broadway, off-Broadway and—mostly—the unemployment office. That was the first time we stepped off the edge together, and it’s become a way of life with us.
We have nine-year cycles. At least, looking back, that seems to be the way it works out. New York, however, was a doubleheader—almost eighteen years in the trenches, carving out our careers, learning to live with long periods of separation and falling prey to the pitfalls and temptations of life on location. Alison grew up there. I took her to school—every day on the back of my bicycle, rain or shine—and when we left, she stayed on in the apartment and went to college there. Max, our son, was born in Lenox Hill Hospital and went—every day on the back of my bicycle—to the Montessori School on West 99th Street. New York was our nest. We met our dearest friends there, the kind of friends that even if we don’t see them for ten years are still our dearest friends. Our personalities took shape there—individually, as a family and as a couple.
Then in 1986, we got a call from Steven Bochco, an old friend of mine from all the way back to college days, with an offer to do his new TV series. He had written the roles for us, he said. Jill got on the phone, thanked him graciously but told him that she was really a theater actress and didn’t want to leave New York. Her kids were in good schools; she was a nester; she didn’t want to be on TV. I was across the room screaming at her to sell out—sell out at any price!
But I needn’t have worried. Bochco calmed her and said she didn’t have to play the part, but was it okay with her if he kept her in mind—just to help him write it? She—again graciously—deigned to allow him to do this.
When the script showed up, Jill started to leaf through it and, after a few pages, started learning the lines. No way was she going to let anyone else play that part.
We flew out to L.A. for three weeks in May to shoot the pilot. It was a high time—first-class parts in a first-class pilot, custom-made clothes, studio flacks and agents hovering around us; it was like a scene in a movie. And we were doing it together. After years of one of us being up while the other was out of work, here we were taking our first stroll down the sidewalk of fame together, arm in arm, both winners, no loser.
We came back to New York after we shot the pilot to get our kids together, our things together, so that we could move out to L.A. in August to shoot the rest of the first season. We went to St. Martin in the Caribbean to celebrate and on the day we got back to New York, Jill reached up and felt a lump in her breast.
It was cancer. We lay down on our bed on West Eighty-ninth Street, pulled the shades and held hands in the dark. Jill was looking at the end of her life. I was looking at life without her. Like a drowning man, I watched all the scenes of our life together and realized how much of my identity had been tied up with this exquisite woman. Just standing next to her elevated what other people thought of me, what I thought of myself. I had cashed a lot of checks on that account. Not a pretty thought, but there it was.
Jill had her operation at Mt. Sinai in New York. Two weeks later she would have her first radiation appointment at UCLA—on the very same day L.A. Law went into production. We packed up, calmed our terrified children and got on the plane for L.A. This time we weren’t only changing coasts, jobs, schools, lifestyles and friends; we were also taking on a new life partner: cancer. This partner would radically change the way we looked at ourselves, our relationship, our future together—everything. Eventually—once we accepted it—cancer taught us how to live.
The sun appeared over the top of the mountain a little after eight and I got in the car and went down to our little village. I had an espresso at the bar; then I had another. I was too shy to start a conversation with the barista, so I pretended to read a local newspaper in which every fifth or sixth word made sense. After the morning crowd thinned out a bit I summoned up the courage to talk. I opened with my well-practiced phrase of self-abasement: “I’m so sorry, I’m an American, I don’t speak very well in Italian. . . .” This always worked. The barman lit up and we had a third-grade-level conversation in Italian in which I asked him if he could tell me where to buy the best local olive oil. He launched into a vivid description, with maps drawn on paper napkins, of where he thought I should go.
I wanted to take as much of Umbria back with me to California as I could fit into my suitcase. I found the olive oil outlet, where they also had some chestnut honey the region is known for and some cellophane bags of strangozzi, the local pasta. Then I stopped at a house—right on our road—that had a sign out front advertising fresh truffles. It turned out to be quite a serious operation—aluminum bins of truffles with the earth still clinging to them, scales to calculate their worth down to the smallest gram and a shrink-wrap machine so that people like me could travel without creating too much of a stink. I bought six beautiful specimens, each about the size of a billiard ball, to smuggle through customs. I went to the wine store to pick up six bottles of Montefalco Rosso. It’s a wonderful wine, which I hoped would taste as good when I got it back to California.
I went back to the house with my booty and stuffed it all into the suitcase, among the few clothes I had with me. I locked up, closed the shutters and drove off to the airport in Rome, bidding arrivederci to our little Rustico until we’d be back in September.