Today I leave Firenze feeling I've just scratched the surface. I long to rent an apartment here for a month, and even went to look at a dark, ground floor studio on the Oltrarno side of the river, much more neighborhoodly than the fancy Duomo side. Ah, will there be a next trip?
The drive down the autobahn from Florence to the B & B in Lazio surprised me with shifting terrain and an uncanny new perception. The rows of poplars and other deciduous trees which just two weeks before had been bare winter stick forms now are budding leaves of greens, gold and even a hint of orange, as if I were experiencing the reversal of autumn, right here before me, but in less vivid hues.
Unlike the Tuscan rolling patchworks of greens and fallow caramel plots with their designer cypress reaching to sky in batches here and there, the Lazio countryside brings new beauty, gradually shifting to more and different types of trees of more varied coloration. The area is dotted with outcroppings of sandy colored calanques from plateaued rises, some with ancient stone villages perched on top looking ready to slide down the sandy soil beneath them. This dryer soil no doubt accounts for the somewhat less verdant cast to the landscape than in Tuscany.
L’Ombrolico, my Umbrian B & B, is another refurbished old stone farmhouse, which my wry and dour English ex-pat hostess named Dawne had orchestrated over the past 15 years. As I arrived into the circular dirt driveway, she sat at her outside table under the porch with her long silver-taupe tresses rolled into a casual bun on top of her head, framing a smiling, almost crimson face. She was doing a crossword while sipping on a drink.
Before seeing her, I am overwhelmed by the bountiful riotous mass of yellow Lady Banks roses and Wisteria cascading down over the porch roof and climbing up the second floor windows. The property, which early “before” pictures showed plopped in the middle of a barren wasteland, was now filled with flowering spring trees, expanses of grass, and small fields of grapevines no longer harvested for wine. But the prize which sent me bounding from my car with cameras in hand was an extraordinary pink peony tree, only four foot tall after nine years, now in full delicious pink bloom with flowers half a foot wide.
A charmingly dilapidated old animal barn with the typical curved terra cotta roof tiles sat off to the right by itself. It’s about as tall as me, and once housed pigs, chickens and rabbits in the early years before Dawne’s divorce from the man who helped create what was to have been a family home. Now, with only Dawne to manage everything, only the shell remains, curled over in places with green vines, and a picturesque old blue metal washpot hosting a lemon tree in early stages of life sits beside it.
My first floor room looks out from my bed to a porch with my own sitting table, framed by the hanging roses and wisteria. I look through a huge heavy glass door protected by an attached medieval iron grate. I sit at my porch table in the late evenings falling in love with nightingales chortling a cacophony of songs to one another from one acre to the next.
Dawne had planted many olive trees years ago along the dirt road to her driveway, providing a rich nesting haven near the Tiber river creek across the road. This, my first exposure to these lovely birds, hypnotized me. In California, most of the birds have one repetitive song or sound or tweet.
Not nightingales. They actually converse musically with each other--at least that’s what I invent--in a most beautifully complex and variegated range of clucks, whistles, warbles and such as I’ve never heard before. I guess in the U.S. they mostly live in the south, but, despite the fact it's probably not their correct ecosystem, I want to import some to Meadow Way and see how they do out there in the Fairfax Cascades.
Today I set out to explore the local town, Civita d’Agliano, and possibly head north to Montepulciano, one of Tuscany’s highest hill towns with a spectacular view of Lazio, but the day turns into one of those where you get easily confused by the list of town names you encounter at junctions, many of which sound just like each other and are never listed in a logical order anyway.
But to begin with, I can barely get to our local town a few kilometers away because I keep stopping to take pictures of this garden or that building or one particularly spectacular peach rose climbing up a terra cotta wall which takes my breath away. The older Italians at these properties look at me and my platinum head with grimly cautious puzzlement, shaking their heads until I smile and holler, “Molto bella giardino!!”, which usually brings a welcoming dentally challenged smile in return.
Once in town, I wind my way around the impossibly narrow cobbled streets, again stopping here and there to shoot a picture, getting the same stone face look of curiousity until I warmed the chill in one way or another.
At the top of one hill in a small plaza behind the church, a drama ensued as I encountered a middle aged woman with a baby in a stroller, a boy about eleven and a wonderful ancient woman with brown leathered skin who must have been at least ninety.
I'm in my car with the window down. The conversation, if you can call it that, starts with a question I ask in fractured Italian, at which point an avalanche of enthusiastic goodwill pours out of the two women towards me, talking over each other in blur of animated instructions, arms flailing this way and that. I laughed and say the one thing I mastered from the Pimsleur tapes: “Io no capisco l’Italiano et le no capiche l’Anglaise”, (I don't understand Italian and you don't understand English!) which apparently registered as a green light to continue in the if-I-just-speak-louder-and-slower-then-she’ll-understand-mode so common here. So on they went, arguing, I think, about which one was saying the right thing to me or not.
The old woman walks over to my car window. Her leathery tanned skin wrinkled around loving old blue eyes and her face was framed by shocks of skewed silver hair which jostled about as she grinned a beautiful five tooth smile right into my soul. She stared at my Annie Lennox platinum hair, gently rubbing the skin on my arm in a grandmotherly gesture I read as a mixture of surprise or compliment, or perhaps even compassionate understanding that I'd had cancer. I'll never know. She kept looking deep into my eyes, repeating a word I didn’t understand, each time slower and louder, over and over, and it drove me nuts because I was loving this woman and could not communicate with her. Eventually I had to sadly give up on the effort, and we were full of mutually affectionate areviderci’s and buena sera’s as they all waved goodbye to me. I drove down the hill with tears in my eyes.
I move on towards Montepulciano, for which I had a village map borrowed from Dawne, and eventually arrive at the local chaos zone just outside a stone archway and narrow cobbled road leading up inside the old village walls. This common feature of Italian hill towns is usually the spot just outside an entry to walled towns in which driving is only permitted, if at all, for residents living inside the wall--supposedly. But, since all the shops and views and sights to see at the church piazza are way up at the top, or on the way to the top, all visitors--whether Italian or otherwise--have an interest in getting a better place to park where there isn’t so much climbing to do.
So, depending on the day and the village, you have many little cars competing to get inside the walls to sneak a parking place at the same time others are trying to get out, all honking at one another and it’s a mess. Mostly the Italians are engaged in this fiasco: except for the real rich Americans in Mercedes or BMW’s who feel just as entitled as the Italians, male tourist drivers tend to resist temptation to join the competitive fray and abide by the signs preventing entry by car. I guess they figure that experiencing the joys of a few moments of this particular kind of male comraderie are not worth risking expensive car damage to regret later on. Ah, but I digress.
This spot is often also where two or three roads converge at a roundabout and one is faced with parking or choosing in short order which of the other roads you want to take, because if you sit there and stare at the list of signs with arrows pointing this way and that trying to figure out which one to take, everyone gets mad at you and starts honking.
Usually there’s a local bar with myriad local folk of different ages, sizes and shapes, and numbers of teeth sitting outside along with the tourists, having espresso, wine, beer, Coca-Lite, cocktails, aperitifs, gelatto or pastry--a pick your poison kind of joint. Little groups of old women or men sit on benches, the men outyelling each other to make a point, the women chatting and watching the local drama evolve.
There is some type of parking arrangement which you are never sure you belong in, bordering, perhaps, a little park of greenery or an administrative building; and, if the place is at all busy, maybe an Italian cop or local man helping to direct traffic. This chaotic, animated spot is where Italian country life converges mornings till one and evenings between five and ten, both in general, and between those who live inside and outside the village walls.
So, on this particular day when I come upon this teeming melange of life, I circle the roundabout a couple of times to try to get my bearings and end up parked amongst a bunch of teenagers socializing near their vehicles by a park while I proceed to study my little map of the village and they all stare at the platinum Americana.
But, I can’t figure out where I am on the map. The street names are different. Thankfully, there is a cop over there, partly directing traffic, partly carrying on conversation with local friends, and partly answering questions for disoriented tourists like me. When I get his attention after a few minutes, I gesture to my map and tried to ask him where I am on this map so I can get oriented. He has trouble understanding me, and after several efforts, gestures me to wait as he kindly calls in to his office to get an English speaker to translate for me.
Meanwhile, all his local Italian friends circle around me, some trying to outyell each other to answer the question, others making indecipherable suggestions to the cop, and still others making noises and gestures to tease him about his eagerness to help this odd platinum blonde Americana woman. When the English speaking lady gets on his police phone, I told her what I was trying to do, she told him, and his eyes lit up with satisfaction! “AHHH, Si, signora”....
And, after trying for several moments to figure out where we were standing on this map, he looks at me like I'm crazy, pointing out that this is not, in fact, a map of THIS town, MonteFIASCONE, but of MontePULCIANO, at which point, the cop and I and the accumulated crowd of curious onlookers around us all burst out laughing while I kept repeating “Ei-yeai-YEI!, mama-MIA!!!...Io stupido Americana!!” The old use-self-deprication-to-avoid-humiliation maneuver. Having realized I wasn’t where I thought I was, I grabbed my cameras and proceeded slowly up the cobbled hill into the village, and took in remarkable views of Lake Bolsena instead of the Lazio countryside.
After a satisfying photo session and a lovely sunset over the lake, I find my way to a popular local restaurant for grilled chicken, and am positioned to observe an initially puzzling group which introduced me to the commonness of interracial adoption. At a long table whose end faces me are three caucasian adults and five kids representing three races and two families.
They all live in Montefiascone and speak Italian, but when the woman on the center of the right side helps me translate with the waitress, I discover she's French, and married to a German husband who sat across from her. Between them they had two caucasian sons of their own, 11 and 3, and an adopted East Indian girl about 8 with a casted broken ankle who kept competing for attention with the 3 year old by leaning into the French woman’s lap. The 11 year old son sat down at the other end of the table, torn between being too old for that mushy stuff and clearly feeling left out, but not wanting to let his father notice this.
An Italian woman sits next to the German man. She is a close friend of the couple, and the adoptive mother of 2 black girls of 7 or 8 who also vie with each other for HER lap space or cuddles when they weren’t enjoying the game of escorting the Indian girl to the bathroom since she couldn’t walk with the cast.
I was touched by the scene of this motley crew, and as they rose to organize the bunch to leave I commented to the French woman, “Bella famillia!” She smiled and said they were really two families and that her Italian friend had adopted the two black girls.
Apparently this sort of thing is very common here, as there are many refugees from Africa, Sri Lanka, and other places to be scooped up by the family oriented Italians, who love their bambinos so very much that I was a bit ashamed at priorities at home, where even loving adoptive parents hold out for white babies.
I got predictably lost on the way home to L’Ombrilico, driving a VERY long way around to get there, since it was dark and that doubled the potential for wrong turns in this country road world.
22 April 2000
B&B L'Ombricolo -- Civitella d'Agliano -- Lazio
Day in Deruta
Deruta is an old town north of Rome where many ceramic artists’ studios are--the ones who make the stuff you see everywhere else, and some you don’t see anywhere. If you take the south exit in, you pass all these huge ceramics stores aiming to get tourists and markups before they get to the little village where all the real studios are.
According to some of the artists I spoke to, even in the village some stores’ proprietors claim to be artists when they’re not. I learned that many of the designs I’d been seeing were ancient ones being reproduced or modified by the current artists, whose work had passed down for generations through the family, while some create original work.
I had already broken my vow, ha ha, to not buy any ceramics on this trip except a few tiles to complete the kitchen, and perhaps a few plates to put up on the walls over the dining table and sliding glass doors. But, as is my wont, I gave in when I’d stumbled upon a lone ceramic artist in a Tuscan town called Certado. She had a quiet, unassuming way, and an assistant who helped her pack things being sent to sale locations, and seemed invested in protecting her from giving away the store.
Everything she had there was original and incredibly beautiful and, according to a pair of young American women who walked in while I was perusing the stock, was the prettiest stuff they’d seen and had the best prices anywhere. And they rattled off all the places they’d been and what they’d seen. They’d come back for more against their better judgement. So, by the time I got to Deruda the stuff I’d accumulated took up needed space in my car, and I’d been looking for a way to get it shipped back home.
I wandered through town drooling over the beauty and trying real hard to just take pictures instead of buy, but of course was only partially successful. When I’d come upon an artist I like and get to chatting with, my discipline got mowed over by my wish to honor my affection for the person with a purchase.
One shop had some beautiful work done by a charming, short, bald man in his 90’s who took great delight in having me take a picture of him at his wheel, something he obviously did several times a day. Later it occurred to me he probably didn't do pottery anymore but sold himself as a tourism feature.
I got an exquisitely painted plate of a woman’s face in profile and a framed set of two tiles from an old design of a woman and man on a country road. The woman is carrying a heavy load of wood and sticks on her back and had just paused to put her her hands on her hips and send a frown back at her man on the other tile, who was only carrying the lightweight bread on his back. This amused me, and the old man, his daughter and I got a good laugh from my things-never-change-do-they observation.
Then, I had a moving experience at another shop, where I came upon an adorable young woman with stark black short hair, painstakingly painting a pot. Her name was Annalisa, and as we talked in fractured Englitalian, she asked about my trip. I told her the story of my cancer, its remission, the possibilities of recurrence and death, and my wish to come and savor the joys of beauty while I still have the chance to do so.
To my surprise, as I spoke her dark and lovely doe eyes gradually filled with huge tears which were soon pouring down her beautiful face. I felt terrible and began to tear up as well, and tried to reassure her. “It’s ok, Annalisa....I’m very happy to be here, and I didn’t want to make you sad”....She replied something like “Le et corragio a forte donna...”--expressing her amazement at what she felt were my courage and strength. I thanked her, said as many reassuring things as I could to help her gather herself together, and proceeded to look around the shop--probably for something to buy for a memory and because I felt so guilty.
She suddenly popped up from her seat, saying “Una momento...”, went over to a shelf, and picked up a beautiful ceramic bell she’d painted, and held it out to me with a huge smile, saying that this was her gift to me, as the bell is a sign of good luck.
I protested, tears welling in my eyes, but I could see that this was an important and heartfelt gesture which meant a great deal for her to make and for me to receive. She took pleasure in writing “Good Luck” and her name inside the bell, and as she happily wrapped it, I told her the story of being embarrassed over my platinum hair, and she said, “No, no, no...I didn’t want to tell you this, but when you came in, I wanted to do my own hair that way--perhaps for the summer I will.” Midstream in all this her husband came in with a friend, which eased the incredibly intense emotionality between us. I left with profuse grazias, my bell well secured in bubblewrap and my heart full of love and gratitude for this moment of life.
Soon after this, I came upon a handsome fellow named Sergio who has a shop in Palm Springs which, combined with his good looks, aroused a doubtful caution in me born of some deep mysterious mistrust. But as the interaction unfolded I came to like the guy a lot. His studio currently opened up onto a massive terrace with a magnificent view, as he was in the middle of a major remodel job with the entire west wall down.
Sergio's whole family--wife, kids, parents, siblings and their spouses--all live in this old stone building built around an ancient stone ceramics furnace which he took me downstairs to see. Buoyed by my interest, he then took me around a corner into his basement studio where things waiting to be fired in the new oven were. Along the way, I noticed the makings of wood crates and thought AHA!, maybe this is the pottery-in-my-car solution.
Before long I was trying to explain to him with the help of his brother’s well-intended but iffy translating, my dilemma of having a bunch of ceramics I needed to ship home, but not knowing how to go about it or who to entrust the task to, since the items were bought from different artists. Sergio eventually got the picture, and was more than happy to to crate and send it.
Once the business was completed and I’d bought a plate I loved from him as a token of my appreciation, we continued sharing--I, my digital pictures of my trip, including sculptures by the Renaissance artist Andrea della Robbia from the Galleria dell’Accademia, and he, his book on della Robbia, showing me how many of the ceramic designs done by he and other artists came from Robbia....And then, some old black and white photographs of the town, it’s central furnace, now in his shop, and one shot of a row of young kids working at potting wheels to produce and paint pots. He pointed to one boy with pride and said, “My padre’s padre”...
I left Deruda with a full heart and an empty trunk, and given my experience thus far with sending anything anywhere to or from Europe, a hope that the crate actually arrives home on Meadow Way.