The spring my older daughter Charlotte turned six, I went to the office of the elementary school in Siena and put her name on the list for first grade, a five minute procedure that, in light of the standardized tests, recommendation letters and interviews to which my Stateside friends were subjecting their children, left me suspicious: could anything so readily accessible and totally free of charge possibly be any good?
In superficial ways, her first years of elementary school were baffling. My confusion would start with the list of supplies we had to buy, the word “quaderno” (notebook) appearing repeatedly with various endings like -ino and -one, which indicate to a real Italian mother how many spiral notebooks to buy, how many three ring binders, or what size squares the graph paper pad should have, but to me meant only that the guy at the school supply store was going to have fun with me. Once, I remember feeling relieved to see listed a “vocabulario” which I knew to mean “dictionary,” until I saw the next item on the list, “dizionario.” Continue reading Reading, Writing and Lunch: Scuola all’Italiana
As sure as porcini appearing ten days after a rainstorm, the winter real estate sections of the FT or the New York Times inevitably feature a couple who has bought and renovated a house in Tuscany, making it the center of their leisurely, but culturally rich and intensely social lives. I can only marvel at how quickly they assimilate, how friendly they become with the quirky but helpful, open-minded locals, and how thoroughly they live the dream.
“Dale and Lori Hutchinson had always longed to buy a house in Tuscany, and while they own other properties, they now consider their house here in Lerigno, an out of the way corner of this beautiful region, their one true home.” Dale and Lori came to the Tuscan real estate fad too long after the publication of Under the Tuscan Sun to get anything within fifty miles of civilization. They come for the middle two weeks of August and not a day more.
“Lori’s passion for nature and all things Italian meant that she felt at home here from the beginning. ‘Here, we can be close to the land. We grow our own vegetables and the children play in the fresh air all year round,’ Lori explains.” Lori speaks Rosetta-Stone Italian to her gardeners, without realizing they’re Albanian, while the kids hunker down in the basement media room. Continue reading Renovation in Translation
Last week, the first really cold one this winter, I was at the farmer’s market in Siena, standing in front of the “Azienda Agricola San Pancrazio” meat booth, trying to think of something seasonal to cook for dinner, which in January means pork. With the grapes and olives harvested and the fields frosted over, the post-holiday lull has traditionally afforded farmers the time to undertake a task that kept their families fed for months. I had been in Tuscany almost a year when that task showed me first hand what “local” and “organic” really mean.
“Tell him we’ve killed the pig,” squawked the voice, and hung up. I called my soon-to-be-husband, relayed the message, and was told, “You’d better go get him.” So I started up the ape, our ancient, three-wheeled, stiff-clutched, over-steering little pick-up, and, after one false start (my mother-in-law came running out of the house, hollering over the roar and grind of the ape, “Don’t forget the blood!”), drove up the mountain to the neighbors’ farm to collect our apparently free-ranged pig carcass, which then spent the night in our barn.
Continue reading To Market, To Market
To those who come to me asking how to see “the real Tuscany,” I say, forget the Uffizzi, the wineries and the villas, and go to a bar—a bar in the Italian sense of the word, that is a café. Ah, you think, a welcome break in the pace and pressure of travel with family, twenty minutes to slip into neutral, park myself over a long, warm coffee, and shoot the breeze or flip through the paper. But that wouldn’t be Tuscany at all.
First, make your entrance. Open the door, step inside, and stop. The whole bar will turn and look you up and down (they know you’re American by now), at which point, stand tall, try to look bored and mildly disdainful, and scan the room, as if for danger or possible prey. Then, walk straight to the pastry counter. Order “un’ brioche,” which is the thing that looks like a croissant, or if you absolutely have to point, say “quella,” not “quello” because pastry is feminine. When you are handed your pastry in a napkin, resist the urge to thank anyone, and don’t smile; it looks suspicious so early in the day. Continue reading Bar Tips