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
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.
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
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.
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
Violets, the suffocatingly sweet-scented ones, bloom along the
spontaneous springs. Naturalized double daffodils,
in Italian, mass along the terrace edges. The
faint mists of hawthorn (biancospino,
white thorn, or,
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
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
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
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
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.
" 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
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,
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
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,
warm, dry wind from the south, or the summery grecale
These winds in the chimney are serious,
reminding me that in March, spring is only an idea.
1. Mayes writes, "It can be dangerous to travel. A strong
reflecting light is cast back on ''real life,'' sometimes a
disquieting experience." What does she mean? How does travel change
your perception of yourself? Has a hidden piece of your identity
ever been revealed to you through travel?
2. While in Sicily, Mayes connects existential thoughts of death
with traveling. "Why am I here where I don''t belong? What is this
alient place? I fell I''m in a strange afterlife, a haint blowing
with the winds. I suspect the subtext to this displacement is the
dread of death. Who and where are you when you are no one?" Do
these thoughts of displacement enter your mind when you travel? Do
you think they are connected to a fear of death?
3. How is Mayes''s trip to Sicily different from her travels in
Tuscany and the Veneto? What are specific traits of the Sicilian
character? What in Sicily''s history can account for these traits?
Are there regional differences in your own country that are as
4. At one of the many extravagant feasts he attends throughout
the book, Ed remarks, speaking of the bitter after-dinner drinks
called amari, "Italians seem to have acquired more tastes than many
of us." Do you agree? Why might that be the case? How is Italy''s
relationship to food different from that of other countries?
5. On a number of occasions, Mayes describes the many elaborate
gestures Italians have for expressing how good food is. Do any of
them make sense to you? How many gestures do you have to show your
enjoyment of food? How often do you use these gestures? What does
it mean to frequently express your appreciation of food through
physical gestures? What does that say about a culture?
6. Why do you think Mayes includes recipes in her book? What is
the effect of the recipes on you, the reader? Does it bring her
story more alive? If so, how? Do you intend to make any of the
dishes? Which ones? Is your interest in these specific dishes
connected to Mayes''s narrative?
7. Throughout her travels in Italy, Mayes frequently encounters
ancient Roman and Etruscan monuments. How does the historical scope
of Italy change her perception of time? Does it change yours just
by reading about the ancient landscape? How do you think growing
up, surrounded by so much ancient history, would change a person?
Do you see those differences in the Italians that Mayes encounters?
How do these Italians feel about their heritage?
8. Mayes writes of the balance between "ambition, solitude,
stimulation, adventure...What is replenishing? What is depleting?
What takes? What gives? What wrings you out and, truly, what rinses
you with happiness?" Do you think restoring Bramasole in the
summers and teaching the rest of the year in San Francisco is a
good balance? What balance have you struck? Are you content with
9. What is the relationship of the foraging woman, who used to
work at Bramasole, to the estate now? Is she trespassing when she
picks their fruits and mushrooms? How is the sense of land
ownership profoundly different in Tuscany than in Mayes''s native
10. Mayes writes, "The garden, I begin to see, is a place where
I can give memory a location and season in which to remain
alive...Scents operate like music and poetry, stirring up wordless
feelings that rush through the body, not as cognitive thoughts but
as a surge of lymphatic tide." What do your plants or garden mean
to you? Is your garden a repository of memories of places, events,
or loved ones? Do you use scents to remember?
11. Quoting a haiku from Basho, Mayes writes, "Deep Autumn,My
neighbor, howDoes he live, I wonder?" Why do you think Mayes
travels? Why do you? Does your urge to travel change as you get
older? What inspires you to leave your home and wander?
12. What is the relationship Italians have with art? How does
Mayes attempt to emulate that relationship? What role does art play
in your day-to-day life? How do you access art in your everyday
13. How is Mayes''s rose garden in conflict with Anselmo''s
olive trees? Why do you think the olive trees are so important to
Anselmo? Is there a larger issue at stake here?
14. Mayes writes that, "Multilingual friends assure me that a
new personality emerges when one acquires a new language." Have you
experienced that, or seen it in others? Do you see a change in
Mayes over the course of her year spent on sabbatical in
15. Mayes asks, "What can we take back [from Tuscany] to our
lives in the new house [in California]? What accounts for the
dramatic shift in our minds and bodies when we live [in Tuscany]?"
How do you incorporate life lessons you''ve learned in your
travels, or while on vacation? How do you infuse your daily working
life with the spirit of Tuscany? What specific, concrete changes in
your life did BELLA TUSCANY inspire?
16. Why do you think Mayes was unable to recognize her
ex-husband at the rehearsal dinner fo their daughter''s marriage?
Has your world ever been so transformed as to make the past
17. BELLA TUSCANY brings the Tuscan countryside so vividly to
life. As you journey through Tuscany with Mayes, through a year of
changing seasons, what specific images have left an indelible
imprint on your mind? Have you been to Tuscany? Do you plan on
18. Bramasole is in perpetual need of repair. Mayes''s
restoration work will never end. Would she have been better off
buying a more modern villa? What is her attraction to dilapidated
buildings? Do you share it? If you restore your own house, does it
change your relationship to it? How so?