Justine van der Leun went to Italy for love, and found a dog instead, a story she writes in her new book, Marcus of Umbria

By Helin Jung
Updated June 07, 2010 11:45 AM
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Justine van der Leun’s decision to up and move to Italy had all the makings of a storybook tale. She had a stable job as a magazine editor, and was traveling through the Italian countryside when she met a gardener, fell in love, and spontaneously decided to leave New York City to move thousands of miles away to live with someone she’d only known for three weeks.

So storybook, in fact, that Van der Leun wrote a memoir about her experiences, called Marcus of Umbria.

Italy: the land of romance, pasta, Fellini, fountains, culture, fashion! Except when it’s not, and it’s an Umbrian farming village, population 200 humans, plus horses, cows and sheep.

Love! Sexy gardener man! But then it stops working – she’s ambitious and wants more, he’s laid-back and wants to live in the same town for the rest of his life.

Oh.

25-year-old van der Leun was reeling from culture shock and debated leaving Italy. Until she walked to the far edge of her then-boyfriend’s family farm, and found a dog, languishing in a cage. She had never heard anything about the dog, a black and white English pointer, and immediately adopted the unsocialized, skittish dog as one of her own.

She named it Marcus, thinking it was a male, but then Marcus turned out to be female, at which point it was too late to change her name.

“When I found her, I was really lonely,” van der Leun tells PEOPLEPets.com. “She was my anchor, and I ended up staying because she was the connection I hadn’t anticipated.”

The year van der Leun ended up spending in the village, called Collelungo, was still full of challenges. She was treated kindly by the other people in the town, but still very much as an outsider – tall, American, strange. Strange, partly because she kept a hunting dog as a pet, which was considered incomprehensible to most.

“If they were to ever have a pet in the house, it would be something like a poodle, but they think it’s gross anyway,” van der Leun says. “I had a hunting dog, and I was coddling her on the street, and I eventually moved her into my house. They were terrified and disgusted by it.”

When she decided it was time to move back to the States, van der Leun initially settled with Marcus in a beachside house on Long Island, where she worked with a trainer for two years to rehabilitate her.

Now 5, Marcus lives with van der Leun in Brooklyn, and is content with chasing squirrels and pigeons in McCarren Park.

“She allowed me to see Italy in a whole new way,” van der Leun says. “But I really fell in love with her more than anything else.”

Marcus of Umbriahits shelves on June 8.