Now his first book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town (Penguin/Gotham Books) chronicles his time spent in a small town outside of Rome and his personal quest to solve a spiritual mystery.
David Farley was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new book and his writing life.
AKN: An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town
is about your time spent living in Calcata, Italy and your search for one of Christianity’s most interesting relics: the Holy Foreskin. How did your book come about?
I had been living in Rome for a few months and read an article in a local magazine about Calcata. It sounded just about the most intriguing place I’d ever heard of: a medieval fortress town on 450-foot cliffs inhabited by the artists and hippies who saved the village from demolition. So I went there on a day trip and fell in love with it. It was also on that trip when I heard about another intriguing aspect about Calcata: the cult of the Holy Foreskin. Actually, somehow it must have been too terrorizing to my mind at the time because I actually forgot about the Holy Foreskin for a while until my wife reminded me a couple years later in New York about the miraculous membrane that went missing from Calcata in the 1980s. That’s when I decided I had to write a book about it.
AKN: Your search for the Holy Foreskin has moments of great humor and fascinating history, though fundamentally the subject is of a religious nature. Did you experience anything spiritually on your quest? Were there any surprises along the way?
Not of the traditional variety. The residents of Calcata speak matter-of-factly about a curious and generally negative energy that oozes from the rock Calcata sits on. I could never really feel this energy, which surprised some of the locals who acted as if my not feeling it was akin to an inability to tasting and appreciating their grandmother’s ragu. The locals claimed there was a fertility-giving nature to Calcata and its energy and, interestingly, the Holy Foreskin has long been associated with fertility. It would seem Calcata and Jesus’s foreskin went together like pasta and tomato sauce.
After a few months of being there when things would go badly for me—one time I strained a muscle in my leg and limped for a week or two, for example—I started to wonder if the energy and the Holy Foreskin were in cahoots with each other and that I would end up dead or at the very least with a permanent limp. Fortunately, all my limbs are in perfectly working order.
AKN: Food clearly became an important part of your Calcata experience, and much has been written about the importance of food in Italian culture. Have your eating habits and attitudes toward meals changed at all after your Italian immersion?
They have. After eating nearly every day at various salt-of-the-earth restaurants in the countryside north of Rome, I really appreciate good, simple meals. Also, the produce and ingredients are of such high quality in Italy that I’ve realized Italian cuisine can be so simple because they let the bold-tasting ingredients drive the flavor and not necessarily any type of complex cooking technique.
AKN: You write candidly about your learning disabilities and your difficulties learning languages. How did being immersed in the Italian language effect the writing you were doing in English?
I’m not sure it did. Or at the very least, it probably made my mind a bit sharper, since part of it was being taxed by the constant struggle to speak another language. What helps my writing and thinking when I’m immersed in another country is that I’m able to escape the quiet but pervasive bombardment of media and TV that we endure. Without this, I feel like my brain works a lot better.
AKN: Many, many journalists have been rejected in their quests to do research in the Vatican Library What tips can you offer those of us who want to get in one day?
Pray really hard. No, really, I was lucky because I teach at New York University and once I presented a letter from there claiming I was associated with the university, it wasn’t very hard to gain access to the Vatican Library. Another way of getting in for at least one day would be to interview the head librarian at the Vatican. If I re-call correctly, he’s Irish.
AKN: You have lived for extended periods overseas and now live in New York City. What is it like to return home to the US after living abroad? Is it different after coming back from each place (Paris, Calcata, Prague… ) or is the experience universal regardless of where you have been?
It’s different. One of the first things I notice when I come back to the United States from extended times in Italy, for example, is how seldom we interact with each other on the street. In Italy, strangers are constantly interacting in these minute ways. At supermarkets in the United States, for example, people will silently bulldoze past you rather than looking at the person and saying “excuse me.” Also, people greet each other and say goodbye when entering and exiting a shop. At least where I live—in New York City—this doesn’t happen much. So I get a lot of strange looks when just get back from Italy because without thinking about it, I’ll walk into a shop and give a gregarious hello to the person working there. It always makes me feel a bit lonely when I come back from Italy.
When I come back from Prague, the big culture shock is that people don’t start drinking beer at seven in the morning.
AKN: If you only had one day to spend in Calcata, what would you do and clearly, where would you eat?
It would be a Saturday or Sunday because that’s the most lively day in Calcata. I would start off with a walk down in the valley below which is etched with footpaths and littered with tombs from the Faliscans, a pre-Christian people who inhabited the area but were wiped out by the Romans. Then I would have lunch at my friend Pancho’s restaurant, La Grotta dei Germogli, an eatery fashioned out of a cave and one of my favorite spots in the village. I’d hope my friend Paul Steffen—an 87-year-old American who at one time was very famous in Italy for being a dancer and choreographer—would be dining with me (we had lunch there every Saturday and Sunday). Afterward, I’d sit on the square for a while, perhaps do some reading. For dinner I’d eat at Tugurio, a phenomenal place in Calcata. I’d go for a primo (hopefully the carbonara would be on the menu) and a secondo (the rosemary-encrusted pork chop is buonissimo). Then I’d head back to the Grotta for a limoncello and chat with Pancho some more. A perfect day in Calcata.
AKN: Has anyone in Calcata seen An Irreverent Curiosity yet?
Not that I know of. I’m sure they will soon enough. I expect people to react the same way they did to the New York Times story I wrote about Calcata a couple years ago. Some people will like it, some people will hate it, some people will have some warped and false understanding of what I said and didn’t say. I love Calcata and only want the best for it, so hopefully the reaction will be largely positive.
Many thanks to David Farley for his candid responses!
Follow the link to read my review of An Irreverent Curiosity.