“Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings
My husband, Brian, and I recently returned from a trip to Italy, a trip I’ve dreamed of making for many years. I’d been to two small cities in Italy, Udine and Trieste, on a high school choir tour many, many years ago. I’d always dreamed, though, of spending some time in Tuscany. The appeal of the hills and vineyards, the old stone farmhouses dotting the countryside, the olive groves and the timelessness of the place was a draw for me. I longed to visit a place where time seemed to stand still. I can tell you now that I’ve been there that all of that is true.
When you make a visit to Tuscany, of course you must go to Florence. You cannot see the unfinished works of Michelanglo’s sculptures, or the intricate, details that boggle the mind of his finished work, “David,” without a trip to Florence. One is in awe, as we were, of the sculptures in abundance everywhere in Florence. It makes you wonder who has the patience, the vision, the skill to chip and hone such detail? As a person who possesses very little artistic ability, it is was even more appreciated.
And yes, the canals of Venice are worth a visit. The architecture and the imagination of building a city literally atop water is astounding.
Bologna, where we spent four days, was well worth the visit. Bologna has history and porticos and architecture as well, fabulous markets, and the best food in Italy, minus the touristy souvenir shops. I truly felt, as I walked the old part of the city around the Piazza Maggiore for three days solo, that this was a true picture of how Italians live in this ancient and beautiful city.
And then we go from Bologna and Venice to our home for the next six days…an old farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany near Castellina in Chianti, the place of my dreams. It literally was of my dreams. It was quiet, secluded, modern enough with the charm of ancient Italy. The views were spectacular and the romance abundant.
All of this beauty and wonder aside, what I will remember most about my time in Italy is the little things. The service in the trattorias and osterias. (Restaurants are too general.) Not once in 11 days was I served a drink out of a plastic cup. Not once was I given a paper napkin. Even in our villa, in which we had to supply our own food, condiments, paper products, we had a difficult time finding “garbage bags” in the small, local grocery store. We paid the equivalent of 9 cents for plastic grocery bags, which we used in our villa for our “garbage.” We felt a bit like losers constantly buying these plastic bags. But hey, all my reusable fabric bags were in the backseat of my Honda CRV back in Suwanee, GA. Another thing, we toted our daily “garbage” to one of the many public garbage disposal bins that dot the winding roads of Tuscany. It was something we just got used to. And I will most fondly remember our evenings, cooking in our quaint little kitchen, sharing a bottle of wine we bought from whatever region we’d been that day, and playing Travel Scrabble.
But then there’s coffee. We are addicted to coffee, both Brian and I. No matter where we were, at a hotel in Bologna or any small café, we were served coffee in a cermic cup. I say cup because I’m used to drinking my all-American ground coffee in a large mug. That’s how I like it. In Italy, if you can get “American coffee” at all, it’s still served in a small cup. The grocery stores stock one brand of what they literally label “American coffee.” It comes in an aluminum canister, of the Folgers variety. The villa owners know that Americans like their coffee this way, so they had a standard Mr. Coffee type brewer in the ready for us. Brian likes cappuccino and espresso; me, not so much. That is one thing I just never got used to. Believe it or not, even if you stop at a gas station and want a cup of coffee, people stand at a counter where a Barista prepares their “coffee,” they drink, and then they leave. There’s no drive-thru window or “to go” cups.
There is also a large expense for heat in Tuscany. And it wasn’t warm in March. We didn’t want to pay for heat. We turned off the heat in our villa as we traveled during the day, turned it on upon return for a few hours, and then turned it off again, relying on extra blankets and each other for warmth. I’ve never slept better.
When you ask for water in a trattoria, you receive a beautiful glass bottle of water and two small glasses to drink from. It’s delicious and clean. When you ask for wine, you either get a bottle or one glass; they don’t come around for “refills.” The wine is too good. Nobody would be able to drive.
The picture I had in my mind of the local villagers, old men wearing hats, chatting in Italian, which is always fun to listen to, still exists. Men still hang together and chew the fat on the street corners, maybe play a game of cards. Women walk along country roads, not in work-out gear and colorful Nike tennis shoes, but in worn-out brown leather and heavy coats. It’s truly timeless.
One day, I felt the need for some exercise. (too much bread and olive oil, pasta and chianti will do that to us Americans.) I ventured out of my hotel in Bologna in my bright fuschia Athleta warm-up jacket, neon green running shoes, and headed out onto the streets for a “power walk.” Never in my life have I felt more out of place! For one thing, most Italian women wear a size 6 shoe and don’t wear exercise shoes, and also, they are short. I felt like a giant American tourist twisting my arms and breathing heavily as I worked my way past the locals, strolling, chatting, and enjoying their cappuccinos (and their cigarettes, but that’s another story.)
I will remember the simplicity of Italy. I will remember the rugged way they still live, without plastic and Styrofoam, fast food and instant gratification. It’s a slower pace, a beautiful pace, and a lovely way to live.
Now back home in America, the land I love, the land of the beautiful and brave, I will carry a piece of history with me. I will carry a piece of tradition and culture, of elegance and class. I appreciate my washcloth (you don’t get those either), my disposable large grocery bags I can buy in bulk at Costco, but I will think twice about all the plastic we consume. I will consider linen before paper, walking before driving, and just simply enjoying my surroundings instead of racing to and fro. I will enjoy my American landscape, especially with the gorgeous spring changes that occur daily, and await my next trip to that beautiful country. And I will most sincerely appreciate my Cuisinart coffee maker and my programmable thermostat.