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10/29/2002 08:00:00

Caltech Author Publishes Travel Memoir

PASADENA, Calif. – Merrill Joan Gerber admits she was not pleased when her husband, Joe, a history professor at Pasadena City College, was asked to take a group of American college students to study in Florence, Italy, for three months. Gerber, a lecturer in creative writing at the California Institute of Technology, simply was not interested in leaving the comforts of home, her friends, and her aged mother.

Still, she went, and in a classic case of turning a negative into a positive, Gerber has written a travel memoir as a result of her experiences in Florence. Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence, to be published November 1, relates her slow conversion from reluctant traveler to intrepid explorer.

The key, it turns out, was the extended stay. "You can't get a sense of a country by staying only two weeks and doing tourist things," says Gerber. "It takes time just to learn the currency, learn the rudiments of language, and understand the acceptable modes of behavior."

She and her husband rented a four-room apartment on the outskirts of Florence, and almost instantly became engaged, learning to live like locals. They met the neighbors, shopped at the nearby supermarket, and teased out the confounding bus schedule. "You become privy to real life by living there," says Gerber, citing the requirement to wear surgical gloves before you can feel the tomatoes at the local store, having to pay for her grocery bags, and battling squadrons of mosquitoes each night.

Then there was the infamous underwear incident, in which Gerber, who was hanging laundry on a clothesline, dropped a pair of underpants which landed on the balcony below her own. Protocol required writing out a note--dictated by her husband in Italian: "A favor--I am sorry, a piece of clothing has fallen. Please return it to the apartment on the fourth floor. Grazie."

And "Lo and behold," as Gerber writes: "The next morning, the pair of underpants arrives, without fanfare, by an invisible messenger, at my front door. It is left neatly folded on the floor. To my dismay, when I retrieve it, I see it has a hole in it. What will the Italians think of me? Look what shame I have brought upon my country."

Instead of sticking to the conventional tourist path, Gerber soon followed her instincts, making discoveries without tour guides droning in her ear, taking time to shop in a thrift shop ("Italian designer dresses for $2!" she says), and making friends with her landlady who turns out to be a countess (and who invites Gerber to visit her farm in the country near Siena).

Through a U.S. writer-friend, she meets a University of Florence professor whose specialty is American Women Jewish writers. She speaks to his class, and one young woman decides to translate eight of Gerber's stories into Italian for her master's thesis. Tangentially, she becomes involved in the lives of the 30-odd students she and her husband are traveling with. "Love matches made and lost," says Gerber, "and much hitting the discos at night, and falling asleep in class the next morning."

Gerber earned her master's in English from Brandeis University and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship to Stanford University. She lives in Sierra Madre with her husband, who is retired from his job as history professor at Pasadena City College. Gerber has three daughters and two grandsons.

Botticelli Blue Skies is Gerber's twenty-third book; her novels include Anna in the Afterlife, and King of the World, which won the Pushcart Press Editors' Book Award for an "important and unusual book of literary distinction." The Kingdom of Brooklyn won the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for "the best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme." Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and Redbook, and in many literary magazines. Her short story, "I Don't Believe This," won an O. Henry Prize Award in l986. In spring of next year, University of Wisconsin Press will publish a book of her collected essays, Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions.

Gerber will read from Botticelli Blue Skies on November 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Distant Lands Bookstore, 56 S. Raymond in Pasadena. Please RSVP at (626) 449-3220. The author can be reached at mjgerber@caltech.edu or via her Web page at www.its.caltech.edu/~mjgerber.