Sunday in Tuscany …Time Here: 4:30 p.m.
Time Elsewhere: Nowhere else exists. There’s just this place, this sunlight, this peace, this moment in time . . . In Cortona, Italy.
I’m writing this on a stone terrace with wrought iron railings, high on a hillside over the Chianna Valley and Trasimeno Lake. Church bells are chiming from a medieval cathedral. Birds chirp, a rooster crows in the valley, and gray birds are cooing from a hole in an old stone wall. I think they’re doves, but not the mourning kind. Just the cooing, nestle-in-old-holes-and-wiggle-your-feathers kind. There are flowers, blooming hot-pink and warm-orange, in terra-cotta pots. They’re swaying in the breeze, under the sun, below a cobalt sky so blue that it hurts your eyes. The flowers look happy. I know just how they feel. It’s a Zen moment, in a Catholic monastery, in an Italian countryside, experienced by an American woman who doesn’t often enough stop to smell the flowers.
Earlier this week (a different time, in a different country, but the same week and the same Me), I was having packing-passport-panic and travel anxiety and Why Is There All This Confusion In The World dwellings. Now though, the angst is gone, melted into the steep streets of this beautiful, beautiful place. The Italians use the word “bella” a lot, and now I understand why.
I’m sitting before a huge panoramic view. It ebbs and flows, rolling gently below, and the sight makes me feel small and large all at the same time. I like looking down on the Tuscan rooftops, which are exactly as I’ve imagined they will be. There is beauty as far as the eye can see.
The Hotel Oasi Neumann is a hotel, as the name says, yes, but it’s also a holy place. It’s a place where monks rested their heads, and had faith in things unseen. There’s a peace here, a tranquility, a stop-the-world-I’m-getting-off philosophy that`s almost a religion. My monastery room has a luminous oil painting of the Virgin Mary holding her baby. It is outlined in gold. An angel holds a candle in the echoing hall upstairs, offering her light in the reverberating space. There’s a small TV in my room. Most of the shows are in Italian, and I discover that I really like that. It’s relaxing. This language shimmies and rolls and flows, somewhat like the landscape, and I’ve learned the words for Thank You and Good Morning and Please and Excuse Me and Bathroom and Beautiful.
There are massive windows with no screens in the hotel rooms. When I flung open my shutters this morning and leaned out upon the cool windowsill, I felt like the character in that movie “Under The Tuscan Sun.” You know the one: An American woman finds peace and tranquility in Cortona.
The journey began in Rome, a place where a multitude of journeys have started. It was in the capital city that I met Patrick Mahoney, the producing director of the company for which I’m teaching a writing workshop: Toscana Americana. And what a director Patrick is: producing a production that`s as good as it gets.
It begins with the trains. I love trains. There’s something about the rhythm and the romance and the chugging forward and the view. Italian trains are comfortable, too, with spacious blue seats and gigantic windows. These are some of the cleanest trains you’ve ever seen. The view from the train leaving Rome was resplendent with fields of dazzling sunflowers (it really is true!), stucco-roofed buildings that have been here forever, castles and towers and churches and villas, and Etruscan hilltop structures that took my breath away and made me wonder where this place has been all of my life. It was a great train ride. My writing workshop students – John and Holly – as well as John’s wife Suzanne, met Patrick and me in Rome, and we became easily acquainted during the two hours on the winding tracks of central Italy. Patrick has a knack for immediately seeing to it that the participants are comfortable and relaxed, with a boyish charm and wide smile. This is a man who clearly understands the meaning of “public relations.” Even though you know that he’s seen these wondrous sights a thousand times, Patrick Mahoney is looking at the sunflowers and the towers and the hills anew: through his visitors’ eyes, and his respect for the people and the countryside shines forth. His enthusiasm is contagious, and by the time we arrived on the high winding streets of Cortona, I was flying on adrenaline, despite (or maybe because of) my long sleep-deprived flight.
Dinner last night was prefaced pleasantly with a wine and chocolate tasting in the open air in the walled city, at a place called La Saletta. There’s blue light in the bar, and wrought iron sidewalk tables. This is a perfect starting place for the week, as the evening strollers pass and people perch on the piazza steps nearby. The waiter informed us of the cocoa contents of various chocolates, and presented a serrated knife on a breadboard resplendent with two thick rich chunks of dark chocolate. There were plates of individually-wrapped candies. I thought that maybe the plane had crashed and I went to Heaven.
Dinner was at La Locanda nel Loggiato Ristorante in the Piazza di Pescheria. Saying it out loud is like reciting a poem. The meal was a splendiferous work of art. There were hand-painted plates of various appetizers, the first course, the second course, another course, pasta, antipasto, dessert. I had lots of things that I can’t pronounce and forget how to spell, but they were decadent and scrumptious. My dessert was strawberries and gelato. Oh, the gelato! I wax euphoric about Italy’s ice cream, which is like stars and moon melted on your spoon.
At dinner, I learned a lot about the Italian culture and history and language and food. I discovered that the waiters here seem to always be smiling and patient and so ready to serve you, Madame. They are also rather bemused by tourists who gamely attempt to order like a local. I learned that Cortona is full of handmade linens, and that the toilets flush from the wall. I learned that the custom of toasting with wine came from the days when the drink might have been poisoned, and that arms should never be crossed while clinking the glasses. (It’s bad luck, and this is a good luck kind of place). I learned that the locals all seem to know and love Patrick, who’s a native of New England but a zealous convert to the lifestyles of Toscana. I also learned that my student John (who’s a Lutheran minister) uses a 1970s beer commercial as the tune for his family grace. I love that.
The sparrows were flying, dipping ecstatically in the air over La Locanda nel Loggiato, chirping like you’ve never heard birds chirp. This was nighttime. Why were they so happy? Oh, yes, I know the answer.
After dinner, we all meandered back to the place of the wine and chocolate tasting. I’m allergic to wine, which is really a sad thing to have to say when in Italy. I’m not allergic to chocolate, though, and so I had some more. I took some back to my room. I’m taking some home, too, if it makes it through the long flight without me dipping into the stash.
This morning began with coffee like I never get in Pennsylvania, and a nice breakfast served by Andrea, an animated man speaking fast Italian. Another nice man served a nice lunch, speaking speedy Italian. We didn’t understand anything, so we just said yes to everything. It started with the bread (the quintessential Italian bread, with olive oil. Man – and woman – can indeed live by bread alone, if they live in Tuscany.) Pastas and salads and biscotti and espresso arrived, presented with pride on the handmade linen tablecloths, in the dining room with gold-flake antique paintings of warriors and saints. I’ve been blessed. This eating is a sacred thing.
I learned more at breakfast. I learned from John the fable of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem where Mary leaked milk while nursing Jesus. People of today scrape the stains and drink the scrapings. It’s magic stuff. I learned that there’s a church in Rome, built on Peter’s bones. I learned that there’s a dead Pope in red shoes, on display for public view. He was pumped too full of the stuff morticians use, and the poor guy is now preserved like a wax museum figure. I learned that one can apply to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the excavated tombs. I learned that my student Holly has a daughter whose name became Corey Feldman after marriage. I learned that lots of crispy biscotti can be consumed with just one teeny-weeny cup of very strong espresso.
The workshop started this morning, and my students worked hard. They’re writing now, as I write this. I must go now, though, to shower for dinner. Lunch just ended at about 3:00. The meals here last for oh, about 2 to 3 hours. We’re having dinner at La Saletta. It’s World Cup Soccer night – Italy versus France – and we’ll be joining the cheering throngs. Go, Italy. You’ve given me all this: You deserve to win.
Monday, but NOT just another Manic Monday
They won! BRAVO, ITALIA! We watched the World Cup on a TV in La Saletta, in a barroom full of the most passionate, excited Italians I’ve ever seen. The waitress – pigtailed Silvia – was so beside herself that she was dropping things . . . And this was before the game even started. Italy’s National Anthem is a rousing thing, and they were singing it. And singing it, and singing it, before the game. They sing it with gusto. We visitors joined in, even though we didn’t know the words.
The game started, and there was shouting and squealing and screaming and hugging. There was praying and cursing. I don’t even like sports, but I was glued to that TV screen like no Super Bowl fan you’ve ever seen. We four Americans – me and John and Suzanne and Holly – were shouting and squealing and screaming, too. I was also trying to watch the Italians watching the game, without them noticing that I was watching them. Their faces were great. I loved the guy with the smile and the cigar, and the man who picked up the chair and thumped it on the ground when the captain of the French team got red-flagged and kicked out of the game. It was tense as heck when the score was tied at 1-1, and the game went into overtime. At one point, the unthinkable happened: the electricity went off. This happens occasionally in Cortona, but oh Lord, not tonight. There was a moment of stunned shock, and then the waiters and waitresses went into panic mode. There was running and shouting and a man standing up with his hands clasped telling us something serious in Italian. Lights flickered off and on, and off and on, and finally the TV was back on. There was a sigh of relief, and then the volume and the excitement rose to fever-pitch level.
I discovered in that barroom that soccer’s a game I can get into. There are no mysterious stoppings-of-the-clock, no Time-Outs, no unnaturally big-shouldered guys patting one another’s butts, no Budweiser commercials or Janet Jackson halftimes. There’s just the game – “the beautiful game,” as the Italians say. Two halves of 45 minutes each: that’s a game I can take. It’s almost like a ballet, danced on green with a black and white ball in-between. Oh, and the players are hot. Way hot. There’s one with a ponytail and one with a tattoo that says “Anna” on the back of his neck and one with the most handsome Italian face I’ve ever seen that’s not on a statue. As I said, this is a game I can really get in to. Totti and Tono, you can show those ugly Americana football players a thing or two about beauty and grace and the meaning of the game.
When it ended, and Italia was the victor, OHMIGOD. I have never in my life seen such frenzy. Not in Manhattan at rush hour, nor on the Jersey Turnpike. Wow, wow, wow. There was weeping and screaming and leaping and cheering. The people at La Saletta jumped up and down while belting out the National Anthem at the top of their lungs. There were fists of victory, and kissing, and whistling. Some guy hauled out a big flag, and waved it. One man put his hand on his heart with a grin and a proud pulling-up of his shoulders that literally brought tears to my eyes. I’m not even Italian, not even half, but I could have fallen on the ground and wept with happiness at this win that had been 24 years in the making. They’ll be talking about this – July 9th of 2006 – for many, many years.
We went out on the streets to see what was happening. Celebration was happening, and what a celebration it was: jubilant honking of horns and sparklers and torches and running and jumping and dancing. It was spectacular to be in the midst of such patriotism and joy. The unity of it all, the connectedness, was a special thing. I was actually kind of jealous of their country being united as one, having come from, um, a place in which there’s some division going on the past couple of years. Ahem. Anyway . . .
Our group, cautious Americans that we are, headed back down the steep and narrow streets before the throngs got too crazy. No taxi would come to Cortona, and no one could blame them. There were lines of little Smart cars, convertibles, small ATVs, scooters . . . All converging on Cortona. One big black-bearded man (on a Harley!) was revving his red cycle over and over, expressing his satisfaction through loud American horsepower. People from the valley rushed up the mountain. The cars were flying past, careening, and we were jumping on the roadside banks to get out of their way, just in case the drivers were blinded by joy or wine. Italian flags were everywhere, strung between buildings and hung from windows and flapping from speeding cars. One flag slapped me on the cheek, and it was actually kind of sweet. People slapped us high-fives as we walked by, and the connection of the flesh across continents was a grand thing. Bare-chested boys were wrapped in flags, the word ITALIA written in red, white, and green on their foreheads. Oh, and we ingenious (and cheap) USA tourist people made our own little Italy fan gear, having no patriotic clothes of our own. Patrick gave us each three bar napkins – red, white, and green – and we stuck them in our collars, displaying our colors. The Italians loved it. I met one of them in the bathroom (the sinks are all together here, regardless of gender) and he was wearing Converse shoes: red, white, and blue.
“Cool!” I said. “Love the Chuck Taylors.”
“Yes,” he said. “I got them in the U.S. of A.”
So anyway, it was one big jubilee in little Italy last night. I spent a few hours just leaning on my stone windowsill, gazing through the open windows at the sparkling valley below. It was a vista of fireworks and headlights and really happy people planning to stay awake all night. Horns were honking . . . And honking, and honking. People were yelling, and singing . . . And singing. I think I dreamed of soccer balls, when I finally did sleep. It was either that, or maybe Totti and Tono.
It was really hard to get up at 8:15 this morning, after the too-short celebration sleep. I dragged myself up and put on my Converse sneakers, because today is the day that we walked to Cortona. This is not just an ordinary walk: this is one steep and winding walk. 700 metres, to be exact.
After two cups of steaming espresso served by the ever-smiling Andrea (“Andrew in American”), I was semi-ready for the trek. I think we did pretty good for 4 over-a-certain-age people from the United States of McDonald`s burgers. We only rested on benches two times. We saw ripe figs and big fresh olives and a lady hanging out of her upstairs window, yanking up a rope holding a basket of bread. By the time we got to the top, where there’s a good wall for sitting and a statue of the soldier who united Italy, I had to find a ladies’ room.
“Scuzie,” I said to a group of women in a restaurant. “Toilette?”
“Oh, yeah, the Ladies’ Room is down those steps, “ said one lady. “I’m American, too.”
Turned out that the group was from Florida, and there were librarians. School librarians! Well, of course, I had to dig out some business cards and schmooze them up with my children’s books and all that. You just never know when – or where – you might find a networking opportunity.
We did some shopping and then some more shopping, we said “Bon Journo” a lot, and I used the Internet/Telephone place while my students were busy scribbling the assignment I’d given: to write from the point of view of an inanimate object witnessing the celebration in the streets last night. The results were amazing.
Holly wrote about an unlit cigar in the pocket of an old man who unwrapped himself like an Italian flag to stand and light his cigar when his team won. He was Signor Cicconi, who sits on the bench with his cronies in the piazza. There really is a group of old men who sit on the bench. I call them my men. I love them. They’re so quintessentially Italian: the Roman noses and the ornery smiles and the jaunty caps and the cigars clenched between their teeth. They just watch the world go by.
John wrote from the point of view of a stone in the street, and it was deep. Thought-provoking and philosophical. I really like my students, which is a lucky thing as we’re spending lots of time together this week.
I mentioned the idea of a teen writing workshop to Patrick, and he seemed to like it. We also talked about a writing conference, with agents and editors and authors and artists. I can’t wait to work up a proposal. I MUST return here, now that this place runs through my veins.
I’m also planning to write a children’s book set in Italy. There wasn’t much in the gift shops, except for Pinocchio. I love Pinocchio, but it’s time for that wooden growing-nose dude to have some competition, and I may just be the writer for the job. You see, I really need to come back and have some book signings and stuff. Frances Mayes, look out. You’re not the only author who can claim Cortona!
So now I think I’ll take a little snooze, because I have work to do. There’s a workshop proposal and an Italy book and – oh, yes! The 3-hour dinner at Trattoria Toscana tonight. Takes a lot of energy to eat that much.
11:00 p.m. In the room that has become almost Home.
Nighttime in Tuscany is a beautiful thing. There’s that word – beautiful – again. Still, it’s the only word that works.
Our nighttime began with a wine-tasting at Il Pozzo, an eclectic gallery of photography, watercolors, etchings, maps, handmade papers, leather-bound books, Venetian glass pens, and hand-cast jewelry. It’s a lovely place, and the owner (Giovanni, Ivan for short) is a tall and lovely man with a quiet charisma. He turned off the lights after we entered, saying, “And this is the best thing about my shop.”
Ivan pointed at a circle of glass that had looked like a coffee table display area in the light, and there was a collective gasp. Before our eyes, down in the ground below the glass top, was an 11th-century well. Goldfish swam within, and there was a light that shimmered in the waters of the well dug long ago by Etruscan hands. It was a magical moment, full of wonder.
Ivan also showed us the cross over the doorway leading to the alley, explaining the religious significance, along with the fact that donkeys and horses were allowed to sleep inside the house back in those long-ago days. We stared and marveled and clicked pictures and raved about the art in Ivan’s shop, as well as the beautiful work in creating the gallery. Ivan designed it, and it’s incredible. Ivan, however, was modest, dismissing his talents and turning the conversation back to his uncle’s wonderful photography.
Ivan Botanici looked a little bit like John Corbett of “Sex and the City,” and he knew the show. We now knew Ivan (it’s not difficult to make friends in this neighborhood), and he invited us to “come back anytime. Anytime, I will have a glass of wine for you.”
Dinner at Trattoria Toscana was fabulous (what else is new?!) and a bit giggly, thanks mostly to Holly and me. Okay; thanks totally to Holly and me. Sometimes we Americans just have to let loose with a hysterical laughing fit while in an amazing place. It’s a moment of grace: a release of work and worries and worldly concerns.
The nighttime tonight is quiet. The horns have stopped blowing, and nobody’s singing. People are sleeping, and soon, I will be, too. The stars sparkle. A dog barks. A confused rooster crows. The wind lifts, as I lower my head to the pillow. Tomorrow: Florence. Dreams start to come, and I’m ready to go.
Tuesday, Midnight in Italy.
Florence – Firenze – is a remarkable place. We walked in the footsteps of Dante and Donatello and Michelangelo. There was the Piazza della Signoria where the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities happened, and Cellini’s Perseus, holding the severed head of Medusa. There was the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) built in 1593, dripping with the gold of glitzy jewel traders.
Florence is somewhat of an Italian Manhattan: bustling, busy, with lots of commerce booming among the ruins. Patrick led us through the huge Central Market, where we gawked at skinny roosters with the heads still attached, rabbits, octopus in all their 8-legged glory, cow stomachs, pig livers, cheese wheels that could probably support a sporty Italian automobile, logs of salami that take two hands to hold. One cheese vendor gave us each a chunk of something, and the pungent and aged taste remained in my mouth for an hour. Then I washed it down with some Coca-Cola Light: the Italian version of Diet Coke. I guess one doesn’t mention the word “Diet” here.
We browsed the many street vendors, selling everything from knock-off purses to hand-embroidered velvet and lace pashninis to Pink Floyd T-shirts. There were wooden Pinocchios everywhere, and leather so soft and supple that you’d think the cow was still living. Oh, and the soccer shirts. Everywhere, the soccer shirts. I bartered for a few pashninis, and a pink “Gucci” watch. It was ten Euros, talked down from twenty.
In the Museo del Bargello, we saw cases of doorknobs that were so huge and ornate they made you wonder what kind of door they opened. There was also very antique jewelry, ceramics, and a bronze cannon elaborately decorated with the most intricate carvings. Patrick said that it was probably a ceremonial cannon, and we agreed. John and Patrick know a lot. We’re all learning. . . A lot. I feel like a sponge here, soaking it up. I’m soaking up the sights and the smells and the sounds and the tastes. I touch things: marble and stone and linen and wood. This is a tactile place. As Patrick is prone to saying: It’s all good. He says that a lot, and it’s true.
There were rows and rows of scooters in Florence. Men and women of all ages rode motorcycles in lollipop colors – red and green and purple and pink – and it wasn’t uncommon to see a grandmother biker with silk scarf flapping behind her.
We stopped to gaze at the river. I was wishing to see a river rat. No rats, but the sight of the water cooled us ever-so-slightly on this very hot day.
There was the Medici Palace and Chapel, the Bargello, the Uffizi, and the Duomo. There was the restaurant with a print of Nantucket on the wall. John and Suzanne have a home in Nantucket, so it felt like a serendipitous moment. Our little group liked to attribute a lot to serendipity, which became one of the words of the week.
Lunch (again!) was fabulous, and I (again!) had spaghetti. You pronounce the Ts distinctly here, as if savoring a noodle as it slides down. I’m learning to twirl. Oh, and Patrick has also taught us how to cut the bread, from the soft inside out to the crust. It works.
We stopped at Gran Caffe Siubbe Rosse Restaurant for gelato. I had strawberry and lemon: Perfecto!! Lots of famous writers have been to this renowned literary café, and now we’ve joined them.
Our group passed some street people on the way out of the city, and I noticed that they use more of a religious ploy here: begging on knees with hands outstretched. There was one young man with a twisted foot and a white dog, and his face haunts me still.
The train was late, so we had water in the station. I’ve consumed more water here than I do in a month in America. Carbonated, non-carbonated (“with or without gas”), poured from lovely jugs. I’d like to have a wall of these beautiful bottles and jugs.
Finally, the train came and Patrick shared his train tactics: “Sit on the opposite side, in the sun. You’ll be shaded on the way back, and have a nice view of Cortona as it approaches.”
The air was noticeably cooler in Cortona, and it was good to be “home.” Patrick and the taxi driver chattered, and I thought I heard the words “aroma” and “orgy.” We wondered if perhaps the driver thought we smelled bad. Turned out that he was talking about Rome (Roma) and Today (oggi.)
Taxied straight to Fufluns for dinner. Holly was craving a cheeseburger and fries, and some time was spent in deliberating various ways to request a burger (folded in a calzone? In a Panini?).
Participants paying package prices for Toscana Americana’s all-inclusive week are well-satisfied, as Patrick is more than magnanimous with menu choices. (“Whatever you want” is another Patrick Mahoney favorite. “Whatever you want.”) It was here at Fufluns that I decided to try just a tiny taste of wine, life-saving Epipen at the ready in case of anaphylactic shock. Guess what?! No reaction. Suzanne clicked a picture, and we all studied my skin for hives. None. Another sip, then another. No wheezing; no swelling. I was just fine, and drinking wine. Patrick attributed this to the fact that I was now drinking a wine that had integrity. No Boone’s Farm here, just the fruits of nearby valleys in rich shades of claret and burgundy and crimson. I don’t remember the names, but it was all good.
After a plateful of Fuma pasta (another one!) and a lemon frozen, hollowed, and filled with refreshing lemon gelato, another night had ended.
Toscana Americana not only covers the food and the tours and the rooms and the view, but they’ve got your back when it comes to cabs, too. We were taxied happily through the week, whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted. Bidding Buona Notte to our cabbie, we headed back into the Hotel Oasi, reclaiming our heavy room keys from the ever-cheerful desk clerk, and went off to sleep the sleep of the blessed.
Wednesday, 11:00 a.m., in a triangle-shaped park
I’m writing this as my students write on separate benches. The three of us make the shape of a triangle. Suzanne is clicking pictures: photographs of the cats and the flowers and the laundry draped from villa windows. Birds chirp, and there are workers nearby, installing something electrical. Pigeons strut and flap. (Holly calls them “party pigeons.”) The strains of organ music float on the breeze, and a bell chimes. On Italian television this morning, I watched MTV. There were the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, dubbed in Italian. There was an American western, dubbed in Italian. There was an infomercial for a weight loss product, dubbed in Italian. There was CNN, with bad news spoken in English. I turned it off.
We were taxied to the very top of Cortona this morning. Up there, at the summit, is a stone fortress with an Italian flag flapping from the tower. There are two huge stones, inscribed in Etruscan. The carved letters are mysterious and we couldn’t tell if they welcome or warn. Perched on the ground beside the stones were two empty bottles of beer.
Here too is the church: The Basilica of Santa Margherita. I like Saint Margherita, Cortona’s patron saint. She’s got a dog, and it’s with her on statues and in paintings. We don’t know the story of the little dog, but we’d all like to know. We’d like to know a lot in this place, and I keep longing for walls to talk. I’d just love to push a button in any given place, and hear the tales of what went on. I’ve also been wishing for a time machine, so that we could travel back to mingle with the Etruscans. I have some questions for them.
Holly and I got ready to enter the church. This means that Holly opened her collapsible travel bag and pulled out a compactly folded skirt. She wriggled it over her hips, over her shorts, and TA-DA! Holly was ready. We tiptoed inside, hushed and reverent, and there laid Saint Margherita, up front, in a glass case. Her body, preserved, is tiny. She’s resting in peace, very darkened by time, dressed in white. This body is over a thousand years old. Candles flicker, and even a whisper would be too loud.
An elderly couple viewed the body. Holly and I were next. The man excitedly told us a story in Italian, gesturing to the Jesus statue. The story involved a bambino and a rising and a lot of stuff we didn’t understand. Holly and I smiled and nodded politely, not having the heart to tell him that we didn’t speak his language. We decided later that the man thought we understood, but that his wife had known we were faking. Women always know.
Wednesday, noon, as a cat sleeps in the sunshine.
My students wrote pieces so gorgeous that there were tears. This is good. I’m proud. Holly has a wonderful piece about her late father-in-law, and John has a heartfelt writing about a dead friend. Holly has a story about a turtle and the power of a woman. John has the beginnings of a young adult novel, about the power of a woman. This is serendipity.
We stopped in another church, and I lit a candle. I’m not Catholic, but I’m having some epiphanies and spiritual stirrings in this place. I’m beginning to get it. Maybe. I wonder how long this candle will burn.
Wednesday, 5:00 p.m., In the hour after the afternoon nap and before dinnertime.
After another lunch, another luscious lovely lunch, we visited Francesco Campononi’s shop. Francesco’s prints look like they came straight from the pages of The New Yorker magazine. I suggested to Francesco that he look up the website, and submit some cartoons. He nodded, and said, “Perhaps I will do so.“ These are intelligent and witty, quirky and thought-provoking, finely-drawn cartoons, and one could spend hours browsing his little shop of wonders. Jennifer Warnes was playing on a mix CD, and the ambience in the room was very cool, much like the unshaved and artsy-looking Francesco. It was soon time to return to the hotel to wash up for dinner. Tonight is our Tuscan cooking class at Fontelunga. I can’t even cook right in America; how will I manage here, in this place that is The Epitome of Food?
Wednesday, midnight-thirty, after the Tuscan cooking class.
The teachers were Donatello and Lucia. Donatello wore a towering white chef’s hat, and we all donned aprons. The classroom was an enormous kitchen with the biggest pan and rolling pin I’ve ever seen. We learned about cooking rabbit and adding garlic and pouring in the white wine and lining the edges of the pan with olive oil. We learned about rolling snakes of spaghetti pasta between our palms, and about how to punch and knead the dough. We learned how to make Pasta vedova al sugo finto: Widow Pasta With Fake Ragu. Lucia’s boyfriend polished his motorcycle (another Harley) in the drive outside, as we Americans learned Italian cooking in the kitchen.
Joined by a family from Manhattan, we sat down to dine on the fruits (or pastas) of our labors. A discussion of the U.S. President ensued, and due to differing points of view, one of us managed to change the subject back to the non-conflictive topics of this countryside: things like villas and rabbits (“It’s baby’s first meat,” said Donatello) and wine and the correct pronunciation of bruschetta. (It’s a hard “C,” not a “SH” sound.)
The rabbit was melt-in-your-mouth tender and savory, even to this quasi-vegetarian, and the biscotti was magnificent. One of the Manhattan family’s girls was allergic to almonds, and so Donatello cheerfully whipped up another dessert (“You want I should make you a cake? You own special cake?”) as Lucia sped away with her boyfriend.
We all claimed allergies when the dessert was produced, and shared slices of the savory blueberry creation. It was splendid. The stars glimmered, and a cool wind blew through the outdoors dining room.
Thursday, one minute past midnight in Tuscany
There’s an orange full moon (“La Luna Rosa,” as John says) hanging low, glowing brilliantly, luminous over the valley. The day has been as full and as colorful as this moon. It was a Siena day. (Did you know that Crayola got the name “Burnt Siena” from the buildings in this city?) Toscana Americana tailors each workshop individually, but many include two day trips. This was our second.
We took the train to Siena after espresso and pastries. I’m really digging these trains (as well as the pastries). Our group sat in an elevated section of three curving blue seats facing three other curving blue seats, with big picture windows behind us. This train is smooth, and the view floats rather than whizzes. And what a view it is: valleys and hillsides, rolling and rising, the same yet always surprising.
The bus ride from the train station to town has somewhat of a subway vibe. It’s first-come first-serve for the seats, and latecomers hold the poles. Siena is a city with a true medieval feel. The piazza is huge, framed by gelato shops and apartments and vendors plying their wares. This is where the Il Palio horse race is held. It’s a famous race, at least in Italy, and it takes place in the summer. The 17 sectors of the community compete against one another, and the stakes are high: community pride.
We went to the Reliquiario Della Croce Santa Cortona, where we saw religious paintings and artifacts and statues. My favorite was the reliquary of Saint Somebody’s bones: glass and gold, ornately carved, holding a skull and bones tied with bows of shimmery gold. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was gruesome yet gorgeous; strange yet everyday. These bones have been here for a thousand years, and they’ll be here for another thousand, long after I am gone. I’d like if someone would do this with my bones: wrap them up like carefully-chosen lovingly-given Christmas gifts, and display them just right (skull in the middle, of course). It was a tender memento, and a fine tribute to Saint Somebody. I wished I had known him (or her) with flesh and blood.
We met Patrick, who was taking a break on the steps outside, and strolled to lunch. I like the strolling. People wander; they sashay. Patrick saunters. In America, at home, in the real world, I rush. I hurry. Not here. There’s no hurry, for these things have been here for a long time – for all time – and they’ll wait. They’re not going anywhere.
An accordion man entertained us with Italian music spattered with shades of Mexico. He had one eye that wouldn’t open. Patrick opened my eyes to the fact that here in Italy, those with “disabilities,” as we say in America, are much more integrated into society. Nobody stares at a club foot or missing fingers or an eye that won’t open. It’s just . . . The way it is.
The accordion man saw me fishing for my wallet, and so of course we were serenaded with another song. A few coins dropped in his hand, and the music man was on his way: to another table, in another place, to play the same songs. He knows these songs by heart.
After lunch came a movie about the horse race. My favorite part was about how the horses go to church to be blessed before the race. Even the animals get some religion here.
Splitting up for souvenir shopping, we visited leather shops and art stores and ceramic displays. I bought a red purse, soft and buttery as the Tuscan sun, and a leather keychain for my son. The leather shop smelled really good. I also bought a tiny sunflower-painted ceramic plate, a few Pinocchios, and then it was once again time to go. It’s always eventually time to go. But the leaving is okay, because we’re simply going to another place.
Stopping for Coca-Cola Lights in the train station, we discussed our swollen ankles, comparing bloated flesh. It was the oddest thing: we 4 American tourists from the ankles down looked to be 9 months pregnant and “retaining water.” The edema was intriguing to me, as I’ve never seen my ankles look quite so poufy. The puff isn’t attractive, but it’s interesting. We deliberate whether it could be salty pasta or mineral water or lots of walking or the heat or the altitude or the plane ride. We decide it’s either all of the above, or none of the above, but it’s okay. To me it is no problem, as I’ve been hearing a lot here in Cortona.
Patrick led the way (Patrick always leads the way; we’ve come to depend upon him. He`s taught us how to cut Tuscan toast and how to swirl the wine in circles before we taste. He`s taught us how to say Please and Thank You and You`re Welcome. Patrick has taught us how to read the train schedules and how to just trust him on this. It`s his favorite saying. And guess what? We trust him. Patrick has taught us how to . . . Just . . . Be.)
Back on the train, much more crowded now, I closed my eyes, drifting in the motion of the train and the various voices speaking in a language that I’m just beginning to comprehend. I’m starting to . . . get it.
After cocktails at La Saletta, we walked down to La Grotta. This is a great place, and it feels like, um, a grotto. There was lots of good discussion and brainstorming about more workshops for Patrick. I came up with a kind of “women who run with the wolves” theme idea, with Vespas for women to ride. The wind blowing wildly in their hair would be a fine thing. Patrick has the idea of offering something including St. Frances of Assisi, and his values of peace. Patrick is a peaceful man. He never seems to be in a hurry, never impatient, never perturbed, and the vibe is rubbing off. Our little group is really clicking, cosmically connecting on a spiritual level that comes when one is away from ringing telephones and stacks of bills to pay and yards to mow. We talk about life and we talk about death. We talk about joy and sorrow and trains and babies. We talk about angels and saints and prayer and peeing. (My class has all taken diuretics, you see.) We think that Patrick should perhaps add something in his FAQ section. (“Will my ankles swell in Tuscany?” “Maybe. Bring diuretics.”) We talk about yesterday and today and tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow . . . We hope. Patrick has good plans for Toscana Americana to expand beyond Italy, building bridges between the nations, but he’s patient. There’s time. In Italy, there’s always time.
The taxi driver picked us up at 11:00, and Patrick conversed in rapid Italian with him. Holly and I know what he’s saying: that we need to be picked up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The cabbie isn’t happy about the time, but he accepts it. “It’s my work,” he says with a shrug. “It’s just my work. For me no problem. For you no problem.” And so now here I am: in my feels-like-home room below an orange moon. It’s not quite Burnt Siena; the hue is more of a sheen. It’s the brightest moon I’ve ever seen.
Friday morning of the last full day in Tuscany
It’s just another beautiful day in Paradise. I’m sitting in the same place where I began this story, on Sunday. It’s now a Friday, morning, and the mourning dove is cooing. The fountain splashes, the valley is awakening below, and there is the peace. Always the peace.
One of my ankle bones has re-appeared, and I think that the other one is working on it. I’m patient. I can wait. Things take time, and I’ve got lots of time while in Cortona. The watch clicks differently here, at least my ten-Euro Gucci watch that has no numbers and really, really tiny hands. This morning I was out of bed at 7:00, thinking it was 8:00. The extra hour is a gift, though, and so I thank my hard-to-read pink Gucci.
I washed a few skirts in the sink, hanging them from the windowsill like a local. I like this. The sun dries them in no time, and I’ll take home a splash of Tuscan sun and breeze, burned permanently into a couple of American skirts. I also cleaned out my hair brush, releasing a handful of hair into the air, so that maybe birds will use it to build nests for their babies.
Andrea/Andrew in the dining room is cute in an Italian Austin Powers kind of a way: bowtied and bespectacled and very, very eager to please. He laughs like Austin, and I’d just love to hear him say, “Yeah, Baby, Yeah” in Italian. He likes American girls, and the discoteque. He was born in 1974. I know this because he showed me his license, after inviting me for a drink in Cortona. I politely declined, saying that I was having dinner with Patrick and The Group. We are Family: Patrick and The Group. It’s all good.
Next on the Toscana Americana agenda is a Contemporary Music Festival, and the teacher has arrived. I envy him: his week lies ahead. Still, the week that lies behind will be part of me for all of the weeks to come.
I flicked on the television set this morning, and saw that the violence in the Middle East has escalated. There’s been a bombed train in Bombay. More than 100 rockets have been shot somewhere. I turn it off. It matters, it hurts, and it means too much. My brain is taking a break from world news, and my heart needs to remain unbroken, here in this place that’s part of the world yet not.
My class used the wine cellar as part of the writing prompt this morning. It’s cool in there, and the wooden kegs are nice to touch. There are antique chandeliers, and a statue of some pudgy amused saint. The windows are deep, so deep, and I feel insulated from the world. I’d like to be a bottle of wine in this place: chilled, calm, getting better and better with time. We had the hotel employee flick off the lights for a few seconds, and I gave John and Suzanne glow sticks to use as inspiration for their stories, in which I instructed them to include color, the wine cellar, and two universal themes picked from a deck of Brainstorming for Writers cards. We came outside. We’re writing. It’s sublime. I feel as if inspiration is running in my veins in this place. I can understand why Toscana Americana offers painting and art and photography and music and writing and journaling here. If you can’t connect with creativity here, in Cortona, it just ain’t gonna happen. Yeah, Baby, Yeah.
Friday, 4:00 p.m., Last Full Day (for now) in Cortona
I’m sitting in an open-air café, savoring the solitude and the late-afternoon passersby and the Coca-Cola Light. There’s a terrace above, with an flag softly faded from sun. An art gallery advertises on a sign reading “Tomorrow Last Day” and the words resonate. Tomorrow is the last day.
Friday, midnight-thirty, after lots of fine wine and other dessert liquors
Dinner tonight was a celebration and a farewell. We ate, and ate, and the desserts kept arriving. We shared bites, because after all, we are Family. We laughed and laughed, which was good because it kept the crying of goodbyes at bay. My eyes brimmed earlier in the day when Ivan bid me a sweet goodbye with the traditional European two-cheeked kiss, and the words “I am sorry when you are gone, but I know you will return.”
I said not goodbye, but ariva derci. Till we meet again.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. here; 9:30 a.m. there or 9:30 a.m. here and 3:30 p.m. there.
Neither here nor there.
Somewhere in the Air
I’m over the ocean, in a plane, approaching Ireland and heading for America. Lunch has just been served: chicken and potatoes. It was not like the meals in Cortona. I just viewed some of the photos from the week on my laptop. Mama, Mia. I need a diet. Maybe I can lose the weight before the next time.
There will be a next time. For me it is no problem. Patrick says that I’ll be back, and I trust him on this.
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