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Lynn Darling – A month in Tuscany

«IT SEEMED TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, AS IF the very perfection of the place could not help but provoke disaster raining down upon us.

Even the sun cooperated, appearing from behind the last of the rain clouds just as we turned into the driveway – our driveway for the next month – to cast the last of its light on the house we had rented: a restored 150year – old farmhouse with heavy wooden doors and shuttens and thick stone walls. We drove past the olive grove vineyard, up the winding country road, past the thick with ripening blackberries; all around us were the hazy blue silhouettes of the Tuscan hills. Behind the house, a flagstone terrace gave way to a wall wild with cascading rosemary and a pool with white canvas umbrellas arrayed prettily above its calm blue depths.

My encounters with new cultures have been brief and passionate, like love affairs that I left with no regrets and no forwarding address. But this time it was different. I committed myself to renting a house for a month – a commitment to what turned out to be this dream like place, like a movie set, which right away set its own anxious challenge: How could our experience ever live up to such a setting?

There was another challenge, too. I had been to Italy once before – ten years ago, on my honeymoon. My husband, a veteran foreign correspondent, had seen to everything. My job was to look at stuff and eat invariably glorious food at the little wayside places he seemed to have a radar for finding. On a honeymoon, the misadventures are rendered, in the retelling, through a romantic mist; by the time we got home, even the night of tears and pouting spent freezing in a subcompact rental car – because making hotel reservations was just too uptight had become food for a fond reminiscent chuckle.

I was coming back as a widow. The trip was in part born of a promise made to my two stepdaughters, who had helped their father in his last days with a quiet, enduring magnificence. It was also a kind of challenge to myself: What did the world look like, now that I was on my own? What sort of interior landscape would I inhabit? How would I manage?

MY SEVEN – YEAR – OLD DAUGHTER, ZOE, and I were the first to arrive. The house was about twelve miles southeast of Florence, a mile down the road from Torri, a small village whose failure to make it onto any of my maps I had begun, after hour three on the autostrada, to take personally.

Zoe and I crept slowly through the cool, dark house, feeling the mystery of it, the hints of the lives lived there that we knew nothing about. The farmhouse, known officially as La Colonica, had been divided in two; gathered around it were an old rabbit barn (La Conigliera) that had been converted into a studio apartment, and a former hayloft transformed into a two – bedroom house. We had taken the larger, three – bedroom half of the house and the studio apartment. The place was decked out in that sort of understated country charm that would have looked like an arriviste cliché in a country home in the States, but steered just clear of Martha Stewart lockjaw when viewed from the perspective of some serious Tuscan cedars.

We entered through the kitchen, a long, cool, dark room dominated by a heavy wooden table. There was an old easy chair in the comer and a pantry off to the side, where a refrigerator hummed reassuringly. The shelves were lined with glass containers holding rice, flour, salt, and sugar. That and a carton of milk was about all there was in the way of food. In a drawer I found a curved blade with a wooden handle, a kind of kitchen utensil I’d never seen before; nor could I imagine how to use it. The house had its secrets, and we floated around them like ghosts.

We were hungry and disoriented; the light was just beginning to fade. We were on our own in a way I had never been before, in a strange land. I looked around the kitchen. “Well, I could make some warm rice cereal – with sugar,” I said to Zoe. She looked dubious. But she was hungry.

While the rice cooked, we went outside and cut salmon – colored roses from brambles and placed them in a jelly jar on the table. When the cereal was ready, we sat at a corner of the massive table, charmed by the stillness, flushed with this small success, our first meal in Tuscany, foraged from an unknown place. “This is the best dinner I’ve ever had,” my daughter said. And I had to agree. We didn’t know it then, but this would be the essence of our stay here, a plain handshake with the simple elements of life, framed by a culture that freighted every unexamined dailiness with newly minted meaning.

I KNOW THAT REALITY IN TUSCANY IS PROBABLY just as sharp and snaggletoothed as it is anywhere, but in Tuscany it comes bathed in Tuscan light. That first morning, groggy with jet lag, Zoe and I crept downstairs, out of the shuttered bedroom and darkened kitchen, and pushed open the heavy door. Every morning after that would be a rebirth of that first extraordinary moment when we blinked the sleep from our eyes and looked out at the hills, dark blue early in the day, and breathed the scented air, heavy with rosemary, and felt the warmth of the smooth stone patio beneath our bare feet. In a place like this, anything was possible.

Even, perhaps, the buying of food.

It was Sunday. All the open – air markets in the surrounding towns would be closed. Our only hope was a spanking new hypermarket, complete with underground parking, at Figline Valdarno, about forty minutes away. I was embarrassed to be making such a concession – forced to shop in a supermarket when I meant to be fondling plump sausages and tawny cheeses undefiled by plastic.

Luckily the twisting, winding roads through verdant hills, with their outcroppings of old abbeys and castles, more than made up for the hours we spent getting lost. The fact that I am possessed of absolutely no sense of direction, and was in a country with only a whimsical approach to keeping me informed, did not work in my favor. But weighing more heavily was this primitive panic: How could I forage and provide in a language I did not know?

Of course it was easier than I had expected – anything would have been easier than I’d expected. We drove away with bags stuffed with food, so proud of ourselves that not even the countergirl’s contempt when we held up her line of customers because we didn’t know we were meant to weigh the fruits and vegetables could penetrate our sense of accomplishment. Looking back, it seems like such a meager triumph, but that day it was the moral equivalent of planting our flag on the moon.

The hunt for food became a metaphor for our growing confidence. The day my stepdaughter Miranda and her boyfriend, Padraic, arrived was also market day in Rignano, one of the necklace of towns that surrounded us in the hills. A few hours later, we arrived home laden with sausages and prosciutto, peaches and tomatoes, pecorino and fresh mozzarella. There was nothing you couldn’t buy in the two narrow, crowded streets where the vendors had set up: We could also have brought home a used refrigerator, three aloha shirts, and a Spice Girls CD.

Within a few days, our company had assembled: my friend Susan; her daughter, Emily (a year older than Zoe); her mother, Ellie; her cousin Sally; and my other stepdaughter, Alexandra, along with three friends. Throughout the month, the guest list expanded and contracted, my mother replaced Susan’s halfway through, other friends and family members fetched up for a few days here and there. Given the immense upsurge in our popularity when we acquired a temporary Tuscan address, it’s probably a good idea to have a better grasp of simple arithmetic than I do. While I did remember inviting my brother and his fiancée to spend part of their honeymoon with us, I was still surprised to find them on our doorstep around midnight shortly after we had reached peak capacity. And the crescendo of guests certainly did something for our reputation in the neighborhood. Our local guide, Evelyn, was soon able to report that Angela, the somewhat histrionic and clearly overwhelmed cleaning woman, had told her that certain members of our party were sleeping five to a bed and most certainly doing unspeakable things to one another.

Gradually, unconsciously, a rhythm began to establish itself. We would collect slowly in the kitchen, awakened by a variety of unrequested wake – up calls. The place we rented was a working farm with a small vineyard and an extensive olive grove – we didn’t know how working until we got there. An energetic crew of farmhands and tractors started up at an impressively early hour, provoking us to start our groping for coffee and tea. Eventually we filtered out of the dark kitchen onto the patio, where plans were made and maps smoothed out and pondered over as if they contained the key to happiness.

We were a motley, multigenerational crew, with several different notions of Italy to explore. Susan was an inveterate consumer, armed with several travel books designed to provide you with the peak shopping experience in Italy. It wasn’t acquisition that was on her mind, but epiphany: If the guidebook said that the best gelato in Florence was to be had at the end of a twenty – five – minute odyssey down broiling cobblestones, after a full morning at the Uffizi, thenthat was where we went for gelato. My stepdaughters and their friends, all in their late twenties, were after adventure, a kind of ad hoc plunge into whatever presented itself. They were the ones who had the trip most closely resembling my own honeymoon – they would come back at the end of the day, eyes glowing, with reports of another perfect trattoria they had stumbled upon, an old abbey to which a wrong turn had graciously led them. My mother, whose energy level rivals that of a particularly motivated marathon runner, simply wanted to inhale Italian culture. Zoe and Emily would have killed for an English – language videotape.

Mine was perhaps the most unrealistic vision: idyllic days spent writing while the children gambol in the grass, interspersed with the occasional tour of winding country roads; introducing our appropriately awe – struck children to the wonders of Renaissance painting. Days spent strolling the streets of Florence while the resident grandmother looks after the children. That was the plan.

As it was, the grandmothers had no intention of turning into baby – sitters, and the apparently insatiable appetite for long – distance day – trips on the part of every adult but me contrasted nicely with the children’s penchant for getting carsick with a theatricality and relish that did credit to their innate animal vitality.

For me, too, there was the template of the first trip to Italy with my husband. It took a while to untangle that trip from this one, but it began to happen when I took Zoe to see the Duomo in Florence – a mystic experience, as I remembered it, where the Duomo rose out of the half – light of a foggy dawn that found only my husband and me in the piazza. I took Zoe at high noon in August, and the place was packed. I craned my neck to point out Vasari’s ceiling frescoes of the Last Judgment. Zoe burst into tears. She was frightened, and then she was angry. Why, she wanted to know, would any artist want to scare her to death? What sort of religion would punish people so horribly? For the first time I saw the emotion in these works, the way they must have appeared to believers before the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and one too many art – appreciation courses had done their work.

SOONER OR LATER WE ALL BEGAN TO ADJUST TO the frustrations of sharing our multiple visions, and, in time, each different Italy enriched the others. But I think for all of us, the real meaning of that month in Italy gradually coalesced in the house itself – or if not in the house, exactly, which was almost too perfect to be entirely comfortable, then in the life we lived there, in who we were there.

We tracked the phases of the moon from our bedroom window. In the morning, we would find small, fragile reminders of the natural world in which we hummed – once, it was the tiny skeleton of a baby swallow that had fallen from its nest in the caves, an eerie, quiet poetry imbued in its bones. The fog would lift slowly from the blue hills that surrounded us, banished, it seemed, by the strong coffee brewing in the kitchen.

There were always chores to be done: The electricity had a skittish soul and clicked off at the slightest suspicion of an extra appliance in use. We dried the laundry, the endless piles of laundry, on a clothesline hung discreetly down the hill near the olive grove. And every night there was the heat still left in the stones that lingered like a memory unwilling to be forgotten. One night, a coolish sweep of fall brushed over the patio; the next morning, Zoe and I bought her new school shoes in Lucca.

But it was food that became the presiding motif of our month in Tuscany, more than museums and all the other much – visited embers of Renaissance fire. It became clear early on that this was not a trip in which great restaurant cuisine would figure. Contrary to every assumption gleaned from my earlier trip, it is possible to get a bad meal in ltaly: All you have to do is travel with very small people whose prerequisite for entering a restaurant is the presence of ketchup and whose idea of a leisurely meal is approximately fifteen minutes.

The farmhouse kitchen became what kitchens are: the focus of culinary adventures, and of communal life. We were lucky: We had a number of excellent cooks in our company, and we had Tuscany. A casual trip to the most prosaic of grocery stores resulted in golden omelettes and the freshest of fowl. But every excursion, not just market errands, ended around the kitchen. Even dusty days with irritable children, spent in almost but not quite reaching the glories of Arezzo or Greve or Assisi, were redeemed in the evening at home.

We began with a late afternoon swim in the pool, soothing travel – raveled nerves, and continued gathering our spirits while making dinner. My stepdaughter and her friends discovered the vegetable garden, the rows of ripe tomatoes, the carrots and potatoes ready for digging up, the flourishing basil plants. The children were sent out to gather fresh herbs and flowers for the table. And those of us who could not cook chopped. “Look, a mezzaluna,” Miranda said when she discovered the mysterious blade I had noticed my first night. Mezzaluna, half moon – how lovely. She showed me how to use it to chop garlic and parsley, and I found the sort of occupational therapy in which I could take refuge whenever my mother began publicizing another gawky fact about one of my earlier incarnations.

Everything that had come to be Tuscany for me filtered into those evenings: the light and the warmth, the savored appreciation of daily rhythms, the tactile surrender to the immediate moment. The counterpoint between this trip and the first one served to deepen both experiences: If one of the more piercing moments the first time around had been the sight of Michelangelo’sCaptives in the Accademia in Florence, then this time it was my daughter’s tears in the Duomo. And just as the memory of perfect Bellinis in the bar at the Hotel Gritti Palace in Venice still makes me smile at what it is to be in love and newly married, when the universe is reduced to a population of two, so now the recollection of the peaches we crushed by hand brings back what a luxury it is to steal an hour’s languor in the world of friends and family we each make for ourselves.

In the last days, our numbers dwindled to just a few Susan and Emily, my mother, my daughter, myself. It was early evening. The children were somewhere in the olive grove. My mother called to me from the pool – she needed a pair of scissors. I was just out of the shower, wrapped in a towel, and when I walked up to the pool I let the towel drop to indulge a penchant for skinnydipping that had been kept under wraps ever since our daughters voiced their prim disapproval al the idea of such maternal cavorting. ‘Ah, to be naked in Tuscany,” I said out loud to the fading light. Because naked is what we had been. Most travel involves donning a kind of armor, hotels and restaurants serving as the shield between you and the place you visit, whereas living a daily life, foraging for ourselves, learning on the wing, meant exposing ourselves, seeing ourselves in a way that only happens when you can divest yourself of the familiarity that feeds both your nightmares and your dreams. For that one month, we needed neither one.»