Life in provincial Tuscany involves a cast of what seemed at first like supporting characters but, fifteen years in, have become in many ways the people I know best, simply because we’ve been through it all—together.
If you like antiques, you had better like carpenters, of which, here in Siena, there are a confusing variety of specialists. There’s the one we call “quello bravo,” whom we hired to make cabinets out of some three-hundred-year old, massive chestnut shutters. Then, there are the two who repair antiques, one rebuilding the damaged section, the other, called the “shiner,” who buffs or waxes or polishes the reconstructed section so that it blends in with the old. There used to be yet another carpenter, whom we called the “candlestick guy,” because the first time I went to see him was about a pair of termite-stricken antique altar candlesticks. He specialized in anything very old, or very precious, or very small.
When I got a dog last year, all these carpenters seemed pleased. Animal lovers, I thought, until one of them explained, “Dog owners are my bread-and-butter.” I didn’t make the connection until Kaya, my Maremman Shepherd puppy, chewed through the bottom bar of a four-hundred year-old chair.
At dinner parties in Siena, the tables are boy-girl, i.e., the men sit at one end, all together, and the women at the other. The main topic at the men’s end is, apparently, the Palio, or professional soccer. One summer, with my family visiting, during a party at our house, my sister and I got up from our women’s end to clear one of the courses, and once safely in the kitchen, she asked me, “So what are the women discussing?” “Floor wax,” I told her, in truth. The day my Italian ex-husband’s first wife moved out of the 11th-century fortress he calls home, his aunt moved in to keep house for him, and the day I moved in, she handed the housekeeping over to me. “I do a floor a day,” this 76-year-old explained, “starting at the top, on Monday, with the bedrooms and bathrooms,” including it turned out, washing their tile walls. I started to laugh when she pulled out the feather duster, but she carefully showed me how to clean the intricate woodwork of the bed with it, then how to brush the rugs—no vacuum-cleaners on site—with what looks like and must originally have been a bunch of twigs bound with twine, although not before clearing the walls and ceilings of cobwebs by means of a ring of bristles stuck to an extendable pole. She explained the importance of vinegar, for the drip stains on the shower doors, and bleach for the toilets and bidets. Had they ever considered hiring someone to clean, I asked? “Che ci vuole?” was Auntie’s answer, “What’s it take?” by which she meant, hardly any effort at all.
When I moved to Castelnuovo last year, I immediately made a mistake. I drove over to the mechanic’s, got out, introduced myself and explained what was wrong with my car. “Lei e’ ricca, signora,” the mechanic said in turn. It was the car that misled him. It’s a ten-year old diesel VW, but a big one, and one of the rare automatics found in Italy—a car that apparently says to the world its owner has cash to burn. The last thing you want, especially as an American new in town, is for anyone to think you’re rich. If I had only driven my Golf–dented on both sides, covered in dust from our long dirt driveway, a war zone inside thanks to popcorn fights on the way home from school and 150,000 miles on the odometer—everything would have been different.
“Put it in the tourist apartments!” was the solution when any ugly, cheap, useless piece of furniture or décor was found in the tower or barn or basement at Poggiarello. It was the early 1990s, and agriturismo was a new vacation idea, devised mostly by the English, who wanted to spend time on a working farm, joining in planting or pruning or harvesting and cooking for themselves, while enjoying Italian country life at the fraction of the cost of a hotel. We were a long way from the designer-decorated, Jacuzzi-outfitted, air-conditioned standards of a typical Tuscan house rental today. At the time, the Italian government offered funding to property owners who would restore buildings and open an agriturismo. Needless to say, anyone with an empty chicken coop found a way to access the money, and within a few years, guest houses opened all over the region. Continue reading Agriturismo Galore