Striking a balance between being informative and being entertaining is one of the most difficult aspects of non-fiction writing. And when it comes to travel writing, it becomes even more challenging. The author needs to educate readers about people and places while also keeping them engaged in his own personal story. Thankfully, travel writer David Farley has done just that and managed to go the extra mile of writing a truly enjoyable, educational and funny chronicle of his time in Calcata, Italy searching for Jesus’ foreskin. Yes, you read that correctly. He was searching for the lost foreskin of Jesus and details it in his new book, An Irreverent Curiosity
Along the way, he met a wide array of locals, each quirkier than the last. He deceived priests at the Vatican, befriended a woman who talks to birds and managed to put a tiny village back on the map. I recently sat down with Farley at a bar in New York City to discuss his adventure, how he ended up being called Gary Coleman and what it’s like to be known as “the foreskin guy.”
Mike Barish (MB): I’m sure everyone asks you this, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. So why Jesus’ foreskin?
David Farley (DF): Why not Jesus’ foreskin? Who had actually thought of Jesus’ foreskin until you heard of it the first time. The first time I heard “Holy Foreskin” with those two words in succession to each other I thought it was some sort of foreskin fetish magazine.
MB: At the beginning of the story you talk about how you wanted an adventure, but you didn’t know exactly where you wanted to go. What made you want to uproot yourself, head to a tiny Italian village and search for the lost foreskin of Jesus Christ?
DF: Just out of habit of not really staying in one place at one time. Before that in the last 10 years, I had moved around so much from Santa Cruz, Prague, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and a few years in New York. I just started to get antsy again, so my wife and I both were thinking about moving somewhere for awhile but didn’t know where. She had been reminding me about Calcata because we went there on a day trip when we lived in Rome, and it was such a fantastical place with all these crazy bohemian types there. It looks like a classic medieval Italian town, but once you start wandering around, you see that there is an absurd amount of art galleries and people are dressed in saris. You start talking to people and they start speaking about this weird energy that comes from the rock and stuff. Then I came across the story of the Holy Foreskin, and that’s when I realized that it was interesting enough.
MB: In towns of that size [Author's note: Calcata has app. 100 people], you often encounter two types of people: those who are very excited to have an outsider and those who are incredibly distrustful of the interloper. Overall, was Calcata inviting or suspicious towards you?
DF: I expected it to be really distrustful, especially because I was coming there to speak about a relic that I thought was a taboo subject. It wasn’t taboo at all, and Calcata is really welcoming. Pretty much everyone there was really welcoming of me there and really curious about me at the same time. It really went beyond my expectations. I really thought that some guy from New York showing up who claims to be a journalist, is mentioning writing a book about his time there; I thought that a lot of people would be really suspicious of me. Maybe they were, but maybe I just didn’t realize it.
MB: You were confronted by some priests at the Vatican while you were attempting to research the Holy Foreskin. When they asked for your name, you panicked. Why did you tell them that your name is Gary Coleman?
DF: Because, first of all, I was just talking about Gary the night before with an actor who spends his weekends in Calcata and who was in the Italian production of Avenue Q, which in Italy is called Viale T. He was just telling me that there is this part where they say, “I’m Gary Coleman,” and that’s one reason. I thought that was really funny. Then he told me when Diff’rent Strokes aired in Italy in the 80s, and if you were of a certain age everyone knew who Gary Coleman was and the famous phrase: che cosa stai dicendo, Willis (What you talking about, Willis?). I thought that was really hilarious. I even thanked him in the first book that I co-edited, Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s in the acknowledgments and gets a big thank you.
MB: Some of my favorite parts of the book are your interactions with the Vatican and other scholars and how you always tried to come up with a diplomatic way to bring up the Holy Foreskin so as to not be laughed out of the room (or aggressively dismissed from the room). On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Martin Luther and 10 being Martin Lawrence, how much of a sense of humor does the Vatican have?
DF: From my experience it would have to be a 1. They are an ancient institution that is having trouble keeping up with the modern world. So you get people like me coming in asking questions about this ancient relic that used to be part of the institution of Catholicism and the church, and they don’t know how to deal with it. If it were 500 – 600 years ago and I came in asking about the Holy Foreskin, they probably would have invited me in to lounge on their sofa and ask all the questions I wanted to about the Holy Foreskin. Now, of course, things have changed.
MB: In your recent WorldHum article, you talk about how there were mixed reactions to you writing an New York Times article about Calcata. Now you have a whole book about the town. Are you persona non grata, persona quasi grata? What is your relationship with the town and the town’s people now?
DF: Some people won’t be happy with it. I didn’t say anything intentionally bad about anyone in the book, but you never know how people are going to react to the way things are mentioned or characterized in the book. I think Calcata is a special case because the village was abandoned and the people there who still live there, these artists and bohemian types, felt like they saved the village because they did have it taken off of the condemned list. They feel really protective over it. So it is particular to Calcata that anything you write about, people are going to kind of react to in a certain extreme way just because it’s like they’re looking after their child or something like that.
MB: Part of
the story is that a German soldier during WWII had the foreskin, brought it Calcata, and that’s how it arrived in the village. The only real interaction that people have with Nazis and Catholicism up until now is in Indiana Jones. Were you at all concerned that had you laid eyes on the foreskin that your face would melt?
DF: That wasn’t my concern, but my concern would be that my hands would become numb, because if you remember from the story, that everyone was trying to untie the sack that held something in it and their hands would become numb. They needed a woman of complete purity to open it, and they found a seven-year-old girl named Clarice, to do it and she opened it. So not being a man of complete purity, I think that I wouldn’t have much of a chance of touching the Holy Foreskin without my hands or another part of my body becoming completely stiff.
MB: To me, one of the most wonderful parts of the book is that it is about you wanting to shake yourself out of your comfort zone and go on an adventure. What advice would you give to people who are maybe thinking about uprooting their lives? How do you break that inertia and say I’m going to do it?
DF: Right. I actually don’t have any practical advice for that except just to say the annoying answer is just to say that you have to do it. I’ve done it 3 or 4 times in my life already where I’ve just moved somewhere for that reason just to welcome the unfamiliar, uncomfortable. At times it sucks but in the end you become a much better, wiser person for that. You really just have to have the courage to do it. Changeability changes your world.
MB: J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye and never released anything after that. He’s known for The Catcher in the Rye, which not a bad way to be remembered. Now, heaven forbid writer’s block attacks you or no story catches on the way searching for the Holy Foreskin does, have you come to peace with being the Holy Foreskin guy?
DF: No, I haven’t. I was at a party a few months ago on the Upper West Side and somehow it was at one point where the topic of circumcision came up. As soon as it did, everyone looked at me, and I said, “What?” I knew why they were looking at me, but it was just kind of funny that just circumcision, nothing to do with historic circumcision or Jesus’ circumcision, but just circumcision in general made everyone look at me. So it would be nice in a weird way to write something else that I might be known for other than Jesus’ foreskin. I hope that I do, but until that happens, I will just be Mr. Holy Foreskin, I guess.
David Farley’s travel writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Geographic Adventure amongst other publications. He also once showed Gadling what’s in his pack. His new book, An Irreverent Curiosity, is in stores now.