In 1990, we bought Bramasole, an abandoned, scorpion-inhabited, blackberry-choked villa perched on a terraced hillside just outside Cortona. My husband, Ed, and I were first known as "the French" (because we had a French license plate on our rented car). Later we were called the stranieri, the foreigners. We chose Tuscany for the serene landscape, the frescoes, the piazzas with their fountains and liveliness, the wine, the markets, the festas, and the perfect espresso. We stayed for the people and the way of life we learned from them. Now, after fourteen years of eating pasta al dente, we've found ourselves inextricably folded into the intense life of a small town. Without our permission, our private vacation and writing retreat became home
Ten thousand joys attract us to life in Tuscany. Each time we push through the arrival doors at the Florence airport and speed toward Cortona, we both feel rushes of excitement as we pass toasted farmhouses surrounded by vineyards and, in the distance, silhouettes of walled villages. We still marvel: a castle! When we stop at an autostrada grill, Ed tastes his first espresso. Inevitably, he says, "At last, real coffee," and he thanks the barista
as though he's been handed a gift. After that, he drives even faster. Just off the Valdichiana exit, we pass the tenth-century abbey of Farneta, our first marker that we're near home. I always look back to see the rounded brick apses, as Ed straightens out the curved roads through gentle fields of wheat and sunflowers. Climbing toward town, we love to see the golden stones, rippled tile roofs, and aqua dome of our little città
nestled on the hillside. We stop at our gate. Bramasole looks mysteriously down on us, and we remember the first time we saw it, when I stepped through weeds taller than I, and said, jokingly, "This is it."This is it
. I didn't have the prescience to know that our lives were about to change profoundly and that we would become deeply married to this plot of land under the Medici fortress and the Etruscan wall. We live on the Strada della Memoria, where every cypress tree memorializes a Cortona boy killed in World War I. Six hundred local boys, what a horror. One of our current projects is replacing a hundred missing trees along the road. At night, with only moon and stars as light, these immense dark trees sentinel the road, and as I walk in the tide of cool currents that stream across the hills, I think what a good tribute the cypress trees are to those who forfeited the chance to live their full lives in this sublime landscape.
Entering the house after an absence brings back the first time I ever walked inside. The small rooms-so many of them and all the same size-were crammed with chests that provided homes for generations of mice and upright upholstered chairs that looked like Abraham Lincoln died there. Someone's bad attic. Lugubrious religious paintings hung over tubular iron beds. I was fascinated by the bleeding sacred hearts, the sappy Madonnas, and the saint-eyes rolled to heaven-with a dagger in her chest. I grew more excited by the minute. Stepping out on the balcony overlooking a classic Tuscan landscape, dotted with toffee-colored farms, I scarcely heard the agent's warning: Signora, at any moment, please, the floor might collapse
Is it an homage to that initial impression that I, too, have my collection of religious paintings? Two Christs crowned with thorns, two Mary Magdalenes, several crucifixions, one Madonna and Child, and a few of the eye-rollers, too. I was stunned to open a gift from a friend and find a painting on tin of the saint with the dagger in her chest. The antique markets have stacks of these religious paintings, as well as other objects of fascination to a South Georgia Methodist. A visitor would view my bookcases as a study in holy dismemberment, filled as they are with a collection of heads, arms, and legs of various saints and putti, but my collection of relics protects us (so far) from harm.
My study walls hold the studio portraits of an Italian family I have imagined for myself-a serene mother holding a letter (from whom?); a stray Fascist uncle all puffed up in his uniform; a cousin with scrolled curls and first communion white; a propped-up baby, his tiny penis proudly poking forward; and the sturdy grandmother of considerable girth, who looks as though she could tell off the butcher, stir the minestrone, and deliver twins all at once. The still life painting of cherries we found at an antique market, the iron bed we've dragged out of a junkyard near Olmo, and the chestnut armadio
lugged up to the third floor-everything in our house reminds us of an adventure.
While I visit every room, Ed heads for the olive terraces. He knows each one of our original 160 olive trees by name. This year we bought a grove just below us, adding another 250 trees-more bottles of that liquid poetry, olio d'oliva
. Ed named it Il Oliveto di Willie, Willie's olive grove, in hopes that someday our grandchild will continue the good work of husbanding a grove.
When we hand-label our oil for gifts to friends, we write, organic
, extra virgin
, cold-pressed by stone
. Extra virgin is oil with less than 1 percent acid, but we've learned to scoff at such a high bar. Ours, like other growers' oil in our area, has but a small fraction of 1 percent, so it is the virgin among all virgins. We bring it home from the mill and invite friends over for the tasting every year. By now, Ed simply scoops up a spoonful, while others of us dip in a finger, a piece of bread. This ritual links us to the deep taproot of Mediterranean life.
Another ritual is seed planting-always connected to the moon's phases. We're stunned to see our seeds sprouting, growing, flourishing so quickly in the ancient dirt. We, too, feel a rich connection to the land and the procession of the seasons. Our roots have spread. We have a tribe of Italian friends who put up with our version of Italian, and who show us, by example, the pleasure of living everyday life in this bellissimo
The first revelation from these friends-and the most influential-centers on home and friends and the table, the focus of celebration. Tuscans passionately love whatever plot of terra
they live on and cultivate every inch with flowers and vegetables. They thrive on their local markets, which provide not only food but social life. Food, in Italy, is not cult but culture. In all my years in Italy, I've never once heard food connected to guilt. The pleasures of eating and drinking are never tortured into psychological struggles. The intense sense of community we feel in Cortona revolves around the table. Mangiare bene
, stare bene
–eat well, be well.
We hear constantly two Tuscan expressions, per ora
, for now, and per piacere
, as you please. These are links to why the Tuscans know how to live. After living so long in California, where being in the here and now is a mantra, in Italy I've finally absorbed per ora
. You inquire about someone's health and they answer "Good, for now." That tacked-on phrase speaks to the realization that the moment is just that, and, almost superstitiously, we are wise to acknowledge the transitive nature of good fortune. Per piacere
appears on menus–as you please. You can have whatever you want, the chef suggests. This carries over into daily exchanges. We relax into the laissez-faire attitudes of these anciently sophisticated people. Absorbing the resonances around these two concepts, our lives have changed. Friends drop by spontaneously for a chat. Just-picked wild asparagus translates instantly into an invitation to make a frittata with neighbors. A...