David Farley

The writer discusses restless legs and Jesus's foreskin.



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David Farley has a problem: He's incapable of sitting still. After grad school he hit the road and bounced around Europe. Avoiding traditional jobs, he sought out unique experiences and unusual people. Then wrote about them. He got married, but even that didn't help him settle down. Instead of nesting, he simply brought his wife along with him. In fact, Farley went so far as to track down the holy foreskin (yes, of Jesus fame). He reads from the paperback edition of An Irreverent Curiosity July 9 at Idlewild Books.

For someone who's written about witch doctors, pasta Nazis and pig killers, how did you decide that a prepuce would make a compelling subject for your first travel narrative?
First of all, what interested me in it in general is that it's a piece of the genitalia of Jesus. That's not something most people really think about. But once I started researching it, I became really fascinated with the history of this "little curio," having studied history in college...[Its story] stretches across several centuries and kind of looms over the periphery of several great historical periods and the lives of certain great historical characters. I wanted to write a book not only about my quest to find out what happened to the relic, but also to trace the history and to put this particular relic into a historical context.

The holy foreskin that ended up in Rome was said to be a gift from Charlemagne as he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. The Pope put it in a place in Rome called the Sancta Sanctorum. It remained there until there was a huge sack on Rome by Spanish and German troops in 1527. A German soldier supposedly swipes the holy foreskin and its prized silver reliquary and headed off back to Germany. But he'd only get as far as Calcata, a village about 30 miles north of Rome. He was imprisoned in a cave for a few days and finally let go. Then, 30 years later,  a priest was looking around the cave/cell and under an ancient pile of manure he found this shiny box and in it was the holy foreskin. Of course, miracles immediately occurred.

Besides a desire to put things in context, was there something else you were trying to get across in An Irreverent Curiosity?
Maybe just a love of historical minutiae. And a hope that nobody falls asleep while reading it.

What appealed to you about living in the Lazio region?
What I liked about living in this "lost land," as I call it (because it's sandwiched between Rome and Tuscany), is that there's a whole slew of really amazing things to see in northern Lazio: hill towns totally undiscovered by the tourism industry, great restaurants, walled cities, sulfur springs. It's pretty fascinating.

Living in Rome and then Calcata as long as you did, was there anything that surprised you about Italy?
Italy is overly romanticized in America—and all over the world, actually. Because if you don't travel to Italy, the only image you have is of some gregarious, mustachioed restaurateur named Luigi pontificating on the glories of Italia and his spaghetti and meatballs. But under the surface there are a lot of interesting things going on in Italy. There's really intense tribalism, to the point that people in certain regions and cities won't eat the cuisine from outside their region. They consider it foreign cuisine. Not necessary the younger generation, but if you're in Rome and eating Ligurian cuisine for example, it's like going out for ethnic food to some people in Italy. And also, it seems like almost every aspect of Italian society is politicized in some way. When I would go food shopping with someone in Calcata (we'd always have to drive to another village), we would always go to certain supermarkets because they were in agreement with the shopper's political views. You went to a leftist supermarket or you went to a rightist supermarket. What was fascinating about it, though, is that American society is going in that direction to a greater degree now too.

Frances Mayes has a new book out—her fifth on Tuscany. Are you positioning yourself to become Mr. Italy?
No! I don't want to be pigeonholed into a certain geographical region, or even thematically. My next book is not going to be about the search for the Virgin Mary's breast milk. I go to places for both magazines and books when there's an interesting story. So sure, if there's an interesting story in northern Lazio again, I would really consider doing it. But so far all the stories that have intrigued me are not in Italy.

Describe a dream assignment.
Going to Saigon for the New York Times Travel section with Vietnamese-born New York chef Michael Huynh. Eating my way through Saigon with him for a story was really awesome. I think it's about laziness. I didn't have to do much work. The story was where he eats when he's in Saigon, so I just had to say, "Let's go eating." I just followed him around. For each meal we'd make five or six stops. Crazy, but fun. Somehow I didn't gain any weight even though I ate so much. Vietnamese food is so light anyway, and plus it's so hot. I thought I would come back at least five pounds heavier.

Maybe your next work will be a diet trend book.
[Laughs] Yeah, Dieting Through Travel. Drink the water in Mexico! It's good for you!

As a history lover, what would you say is the mark of a good history book?
I think finding a certain subject in history that is relatively unknown is really interesting to most people. And I think that's one reason why there's been a movement in the last ten or 15 years for these micro-histories. Maybe it's Mark Kurlansky's fault. But I also think Simon Winchester has done a great job writing history in a way that is accessible to lots of people and keeping it very interesting and engaging. My goal is to write history in a way that makes it kind of enjoyable and intriguing at the same time.

Which authors do you admire or crave more work from?
I'm thinking of writers who I read when I feel stunted and I feel like I can't write: Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, Geoff Dyer. He has a new novel out called Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and it's a great book. I also like Francine Prose and Jan Morris.

You also run the Restless Legs Reading Series at Lolita. How did that start?
I started it because whenever some writer or friend was coming into town, they would always e-mail me and say, "Hey Farley, can you get the local travel-writer community together for a meet-up at a bar?" And suddenly I became the go-to guy for organizing writerly types. I just had this idea that if I'm already organizing all of these people to hang out, why not have a couple of us read each time? So then I happened upon this quirky name for it: Restless Legs Reading Series. To me it always seemed to suggest wanderlust, so I thought it was a good title. I've been to some readings before where there are only, like, three people there, and I thought if it ever gets to that point, then I'm going to stop it. I knew the first one would be popular because it's the first one and people would be curious. But I thought that by the second one there would only be a handful of people and I would have to reconsider doing it. But it's been two years now, and it's still going really strong. I'm really delighted that it's still so popular. I feel like I can't end it now because people would be mad at me.

So what's up next for you?
Nothing that's concrete. I don't even want to say it. I'll also look like a loser if people are like, "Why didn't you do that book about whatever?" and I'm just like, "Oh, I just changed my mind." The holy foreskin is a hard topic to top.

Buy An Irreverent Curiosity on Amazon.com

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