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Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italyby Frances Mayes
Fortunate that cypress shadows fall in wide bands across the sunlit road; fortunate that on the first day back in Cortona I see a carpenter carrying boards, his tabby cat balanced on his shoulders, tail straight up, riding like a surfer. The carpenter tosses the wood on sawhorses and begins to whistle. The cat bends and leans as he moves--a working cat. I watch for a few moments then walk on into town for a cappuccino. Thank you, I think. Fortunate that yellow blazes of forsythia light the hills. After seven summers on this terraced land, Ed and I feel a rush of happiness on turning the front-door key. I'm enchanted by the rounded Apennines, this quirky house that takes in the sun, and the daily rhythms of life in a Tuscan hilltown. He's far in love with the land. By now he knows the habits of every olive tree.
Fortunate. Otherwise, we might want to post a For Sale sign on the gate ten minutes after arrival because neither well pump is working: a grinding noise in the switch for the old well, a buzz for the new well. We peer into the cistern--at least there's enough water for a few days.
When the pump went down into the new well six years ago, I never expected to see it again. Now, on our first morning, three plumbers are hauling up ropes, their heads down the well. It's a beast. Then Giacomo stands on the well wall, the others beside him. They're counting, uno, due, tre, giving the heave-ho. Soon they're stripped to their pants, cursing and laughing. Up it comes, and Giacomo almost falls backward. They carry it to the truck.
The old well's pump--replaced just last year--they yank out easily. The contraption comes up with fig roots dangling and is pronounced dead on arrival. Why? They begin to dig for wires. By noon, the walkway is torn up, the lawn is carved into ditches and the mystery is solved. Mice have eaten the insulation around the wires. Why would they eat plastic when they can eat hazelnuts and almonds? The pumps have shorted out.
The new well's pump, it turns out, is also dead. Fizzled. Kaput. By the third day, we have new pumps, new wires sealed with silicone, which the original electrician neglected to do, lots of water, a patched walkway, and a depleted bank account. If mice eat plastic, what's to keep them from eating silicone?
Fortunate that we are served pheasant with roasted potatoes for dinner at the trattoria up the mountain, and that the early March dark spills forth a million twirling stars, because otherwise Ed's scrawled list might seem daunting: new grass, prune trees, build a shed for tools, remodel two old bathrooms, new septic system, paint shutters, buy desk and something with space to hang clothes, plant trees, extend garden.
Primo Bianchi, a stonemason who has done extensive work here during our restoration, arrives to discuss the projects. He can start in July. "I was on your roof in January," he tells us. "Your friend Donatella called and said there was a leak." We've seen the dripping stain on the yellow wall of my study. "It was the wind. You lost some tiles. When I was working in the afternoon, the wind came again and blew down my ladder."
He laughs, pointing both forefingers at the ground, that gesture meaning Let it not happen here. Dark comes early in winter. I imagine him, his back against the chimney, sitting on the cold tiles, his pale blue eyes squinting at the road below, the wind standing his hair on end. "I waited. No one came by. Then a car but he did not hear me. After perhaps two hours a woman walked by and I called for help. This house was empty so long--she thought I was a spirit and let out a scream when she saw me waving on the roof. You need to think of a new roof soon."
He walks off a measurement of pipes we'll need for the new drainage system. It looks like a plan for trench warfare. "Hurry and order the furnishings for the bathrooms if you want everything here by July."
Fortunate that the place is restored--central heating, new doors, finished kitchen, one lovely bath, refinished beams, barrels of new paint, rebuilt stone walls, refitted cantina for oil and wine. Otherwise, these new projects might seem like restoration itself. "You may think you're through with old houses," Primo tells us, "but they are never through with you."
Soft spring air, an elixir of joy simply to breathe in and out. Quick streams are opening on the terraces. I take off my shoes and let the cold, cold water bathe my feet. The rocky hillsides sprout ferns, glossy green. A new lizard runs across my toes and I feel the clutch of the tiny feet.
Primavera, first green, and the wet grasses shine. A European spring, my first. I only have read of Proust's chestnuts flowering, Nabokov's linden lanes, Colette's double-red violets. But no one ever told me about quince, their sudden pink flares against stone walls. No one said the spring winds can turn murderous. No one mentioned lilac, and somehow during my summers in Italy, I never noticed the heart-shaped leaves. Now I see the Tuscan hills spattered with enormous white or smoky-lavender bushes. Near our house, a hedge of lilac leads to an abandoned farm, and in the rain I cut wet armfuls to fill all my pitchers and vases. More than any flower, the mesmerizing perfume seems to be the very scent of memory, hauling me back to college in Virginia and my first breath of lilac, which didn't grow in the warm latitude of my childhood home in Georgia. I remember thinking, How could I have lived eighteen years without knowing this? I had a terrible crush on my philosophy professor, married with three children, and over and over I played Harry Bellafonte, Green grow the lilacs all sparkling with dew. My dorm window overlooked the James River through a tangle of brush. Springtime is here and it's here without you. That my professor wore drip-dry shirts I crassly blamed on his wife; that he combed a long strand of hair over his pate I tried to ignore.
Violets, the suffocatingly sweet-scented ones, bloom along the spontaneous springs. Naturalized double daffodils, tromboni in Italian, mass along the terrace edges. The faint mists of hawthorn (biancospino, white thorn, or, locally, topospino, mouse-pricker) drift along the upper terraces and, below, the fruit trees continue to outdo themselves. We won't mow--the luxurious grass is overtaken by white camomile and marguerites.
What is this happiness that keeps coming in waves? Time, the gift of time, the free running of time--and Italy owns so much of it. Being from the South, I'm used to people talking about The War Between the States as though it were a decade ago. In the South the long dead and buried are talked about, too. Sometimes I thought Mother Mayes would come walking in the door again, bringing back her powdery lavender scent, her spongy body I could feel beneath the voile print dress. Here, it's Hannibal. Hannibal, who passed this way and fought the Roman Flaminio in 217 B.C. All the hilltowns celebrate jousts or weddings or battles which occurred hundreds of years ago. Maybe having so much time behind them contributes to the different sense I absorb in Italy. Gradually, I fall into time. At home in California, I operate against time. My agenda, stuffed with notes and business cards, is always with me, each day scribbled with appointments. Sometimes when I look at the week coming up, I know that I simply have to walk through it. To be that booked-up, blocked-in feels depleting. When I make the weekly list of what needs to be accomplished, I know I'll be running double-time to catch up. I don't have time to see my friends and sometimes when I do, I'm hoping to cut it short because I need to get back to work. I read about an American doctor who pumps her breasts in freeway traffic so she can continue to breast-feed her baby and still keep up with her medical practice. An ad in The Wall Street Journal offered engagement rings by telephone for couples who don't have time to shop. Am I that bad?
Sabbatical, what a civilized idea. All jobs should have them. This year both Ed and I have this blessed time-out, which, combined with summer vacation, gives us the chance to spend six months in Italy. Since this is my first leave in twenty years of teaching, I want to bask in every day. To wake up--without having to go anywhere--and wander the terraces to see what is coming into bloom seems like paradiso. Soon the wild irises will open. Their pointy, bruise-blue heads seem to push up taller as I watch. Narcissi, just on the verge of glory, run rampant. Already, yellow light emanates from the buds.
I am, every day, shocked by something new and shocked that this house and land, which I thought I knew from my summers and Decembers, continue to astound me. We stepped off the plane in Florence on March 15 to seventy-degree weather and it has held, except for occasional blasts of wind. Now, the pears are turning from flower to leaf. As white petals drop or flurry--I remember hearing "peach-blow" as a child--new leaves shoot out with force. That energy has swollen the limbs of all the old fig trees and the branches of the spindly pomegranate we have just planted.
Happiness? The color of it must be spring green, impossible to describe until I see a just-hatched lizard sunning on a stone. That color, the glowing green lizard skin, repeats in every new leaf. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower . . ." Dylan Thomas wrote. "Fuse" and "force" are excellent word choices--the regenerative power of nature explodes in every weed, stalk, branch. Working in the mild sun, I feel the green fuse of my body, too. Surges of energy, kaleidoscopic sunlight through the leaves, the soft breeze that makes me want to say the word "zephyr"--this mindless simplicity can be called happiness.
A momentous change has occurred at Bramasole. "Can you find someone to take care of the place?" I asked signor Martini at the end of last summer. We were leaving and had no one to keep the rampant forces of nature at bay in our garden. Francesco and Beppe, who've worked this land for several years, only want to care for fruit trees, grapes, and olives. Once we asked Beppe to cut the grass. He wielded his weed machine as though clearing brambles, leaving the yard looking like a dust bowl. When he and Francesco saw the lawn mower Ed bought, they took a couple of steps back and said, "No, no, professore, grazie." They, men of the fields, did not see themselves pushing the little humming mower across some lawn.
Signor Martini, who sold us the house, knows everyone. Perhaps some friend would like a part-time job.
He pushed back from his desk and pointed to his chest. "Io," he pronounced. "I will make the garden." He took down something framed above his desk, blew off the dust on top, and held out his agricultural diploma. A small photo stuck in the corner of the frame showed him at twenty with his hand on the rump of a cow. He grew up on a farm and always missed the country life he'd known as a boy. After World War II, he sold pigs before moving to town and taking up real estate. Because he is eligible for a pension, he planned to close his office at the end of the year, he explained, and was moving to a large estate as caretaker. Because so many Italians start work in their teens, they become pensionati, pensioners, while still relatively young. He wanted to make a mid-course correction.
Usually we arrive at the end of May, when it's too late to plant vegetables. By the time we've cleared a space, turned the soil, and bought seeds, the planting season has left us behind. We look longingly at the fagiolini, string beans, climbing tepees of bamboo in our neighbors' gardens. If a few tomato plants happen to survive our ineptitude and lateness, we sit staring at the runty green blobs the morning of our leaving for San Francisco, shaking our heads at the unfulfilled dream of snapping luscious tomatoes from our own labor.
Now, signor Martini has metamorphosed into a gardener. A couple of times a week, he comes here to work, often bringing his sister-in-law as well.
Every day involves a trip to a nursery--we've visited every one within twenty miles--or a walk around the terraces and yard sketching possible gardens. Winter rains have softened the soil so that I sink slightly as I walk. Since we're here in time, I aim to have the most riotous, flamboyant, flourishing garden this side of the Boboli in Florence. I want every bird, butterfly, and bee in Tuscany to feel drawn to my lilies, surfinias, jasmine, roses, honeysuckle, lavender, anemones, and to the hundred scents drifting from them. Even though the risk of freeze is still a consideration, I barely can restrain myself from planting. In the nursery greenhouses, the humid air and the narcotizing effect of bright geraniums, hydrangeas, petunias, impatiens, begonias, and dozens of other rosy pinks and corals, entice me to load the car immediately.
"Whoa, slow down," Ed says. "We should buy only what we can plant now, the lavender, rosemary, and sage." These replace what was damaged by the paralyzing winter storm, when it snowed, melted, then froze all in one day. "And more trees can be planted immediately. There's plenty of time."
Plenty of time. What a musical phrase.
Even the spring night is shocking. The silence of the country sounds loud. I'm not yet accustomed to the shrieks of owls tearing apart the stillness. We're coming from burrito-and-a-movie nights, order-out-for-Chinese nights, seventeen-messages-on-the-answering-machine nights. I wake up at three or four and wander from room to room, looking out the windows. What is this quiet, the big, moony night with a comet ball smearing my study window and the dark valley below? Why can't I erase the image my student wrote: the comet, like a big Q-tip swabbing the sky? A nightingale practices some nightingale version of scales, lingering on each note. This seems to be a lone bird; no answer comes to the plaintive song.
Late every afternoon, Ed hauls in olive wood. We have supper on trays in front of the fire. "Now, we're back," he says, raising his glass to the flames, perhaps to the humble god of the hearth. Happiness, divine and banal word, a complex proposition which shifts its boundaries constantly, and sometimes feels so very easy. I pull a blanket around me and doze over Italian idioms. A wind comes up. Which one? The tramontana, tinged with frigid air from the Alps, the ponente, bringing rain, or the levante, blowing hard and fast from the east? The cypresses outlined by moonlight seem to swirl their pointed tops in all directions. Certainly it is not the libeccio, the warm, dry wind from the south, or the summery grecale or maestrale. These winds in the chimney are serious, reminding me that in March, spring is only an idea.
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