At home in Tuscany

The slow-paced pleasures of rural Italy come to life for two new residents.

Published December 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The almond trees were precociously in bloom as we turned into the hills towards Montepulciano. The fields, plowed bare last November, were now green with grain, and crocuses, wild daffodils and irises bloomed along the roads. Above the ditches brambly hedges of wild plum were in full white flower, as if fresh snow were packed among their branches.

We sat silently with the engine roaring, in that confusing mixture of joy and trepidation -- joy because everything seemed perfect, and trepidation that we might have made the mistake of our lives. But we didn't say those words. We fretted instead about details like how will we sleep without a bed, wash without towels, cook without pots and eat without plates and live in a strange country in an empty house. We were to be left a few antiques: two cassapancas, low wooden chests; a madia, in which flour was once kept and upon which bread was kneaded; an angolieria, a tall triangular corner cupboard; and a small old desk; but nothing you could sleep on or eat at. We tried to visualize the empty rooms so we wouldn't be too shocked. And we worried -- but only until we came over the last hill, and saw the towers of Montepulciano bathed in midday light, and San Biagio in her reassuring splendor.

Billowing spring clouds drifted over the valley. Doves swept overhead on Via Delle Colombelle. The old lady of the house right on the road, was leading a big nanny goat past the vegetable garden into a field, with a little brown kid jumping and kicking at the air. Down the hill La Marinaia snuggled in her oasis. We stopped at Bazzotti's where we were to get the key from Renata, who had looked after the house for the previous owners. Bazzotti's daughter with bewitching eyes must have recognized the car, because she jumped up from the stairs, ran inside and came back with a great steel ring, and on it the key to our house. She smiled shyly.

We drove past the pond. Great clusters of the winter's dead reeds had fallen across each other, but between them were new, fragile shoots of green. At the top of the hill, we unlocked the rusty chain strung between stone columns, and drove down. A coarse winter grass had grown tall between the tracks and whispered under us. The garden looked unkempt. Piles of dead leaves had accumulated, wind-swept, in odd places and the trellis was a skeleton of naked, leafless vines. Snow had forced flat some long-limbed shrubbery, and spring weeds had sprouted everywhere. The house too seemed forlorn. With the windows and doors shuttered and peeling, it seemed to be waiting for a new life.

We unlocked the big wood shutters, and pushed open the glassed doors. An odor of wood, and stone, and age, cool from the long winter, wafted into the sun. We went in and groped for the light switches but the power was shut off, and so I went around and opened the inside shutters. I blinked in confusion. The big eating hall was indeed empty but down the steps in the soggiorno loomed shapes of objects I didn't expect to see. Besides the antiques, there were the four down-pillowed chairs and the old Persian rug, and among them a low travertine table. The kitchen too had some surprises: a tin garden table covered with a faded tablecloth, and two wood garden chairs, and on the shelves a few pots and pans, and plates and soup bowls and cups.

Candace called from upstairs. I went. In the big bedroom was a double bed with pillows and a cotton cover. Candace stood at an open wall cupboard. On a shelf were sheets and pillowcases and towels, all neatly ironed. Someone besides us, someone we barely knew, had worried about our coming to an empty house. We threw open windows and shutters and let the sun-warmed, spring air stream into the rooms and expel the cold of winter.

We went back out to get our luggage but ended up meandering in the garden, looking at the tiny leaves sprouting on rose bushes, smelling the pungent fragrance of the white-flowered lentaggine that formed a hedge along the walk to the outbuilding, kicking piles of leaves, wandering into the hayfields, ending up on an eastern bluff where the sun-warmed air ghosted up the slope. Here, a few years later -- we didn't dare dream of it then -- our son, tousle-haired and in short pants, would spend hours in the fields holding with all his might, his kite soaring in the warm summer winds that swept up the hillside.

We were standing there, staring across the valley at a pine shrouded ruin, when we heard a car on the clay road on the ridge. It turned down our drive, stopped in the clearing above the house, and out stepped Piccardi with a fruit crate packed with jars of preserves. He explained how from his window in town he saw our shutters open, and how his wife, who has a passion for putting up preserves, was worried that we'd come to an empty pantry, so there were cherries and plum jam, and whole plums and apricots, and artichoke hearts in olive oil. And a bottle of olive oil from his trees, of course. He asked if all was well, and we dragged him inside and showed him all the things the previous owner left. He said simply, "Normale." Which of course it wasn't. Then he left and told us he'd check in again tomorrow, then raised dust along the road as he drove back to town.

We shelved our jars in the pantry and began to settle in. The suitcases we lugged upstairs, and we were putting some things away on shelves and hooks when the second visitor came. It was Bazzotti. He had come in through the open front door without knocking, and only when he was well inside the house did he call out loudly, "Permesso?" May I? Tuscan style. In one arm he had a wicker-shrouded demijohn of wine, and in the other a paper bag whose contents seeped grease through the paper. It held a string of sausages he had made himself, and a half-loaf of bread. He talked with his small eyes squinting, straightforward, unsentimental, and his great, sunken gash sometimes blushed. Renata, his wife, had meant to look after the house as she had for the previous owners, but she has not been well as of late. She sent these things not knowing if we'd had lunch. Then he left, chugging up the hill in his Cinquecento.

"It's beginning to feel like Christmas," Candace said.

We laid our treasures on the table. Then we began hunting for gas valves to light the stove, and breaker panels to turn on the hot water, and a switch for the furnace which we couldn't find, so we lit the fire in the kitchen. We sat by the fire and roasted Bazzotti's sausages, poured his wine, munched Piccardi's wife's artichoke hearts, and poured more of Bazzotti's wine. We ate and drank some more until the sun went down and it got dark, and we forgot that we still hadn't found the furnace. So we showered in the cold house, started the fire in the soggiorno, dragged down the mattress from upstairs, and laid it on the old rug before the flames. We put on the sheets, puffed up the down quilt we had brought from Paris, turned out the lights, listened to the enormous silence, and watched the distant, comforting lights of our fairy-tale town.

We slept. The deep, dreamful sleep of those at ease in their own home.

A flood of sunlight and concert of birdsong woke us, and the tapping of a beak on tin. Somebody was building a nest in a drainpipe. We went to the windows. To the east, the town was silhouetted against the early light, each tower etched in black, each rooftop solid dark; you could sense the mystery of its streets in the shadows. To the south, beyond the tall wild roses, San Biagio stood solid and comforting. To the west was the hill of lavender and rosemary and the pomegranate bushes and the wild hedge full of birds. We dressed and rushed outside as if going somewhere, then ambled aimlessly around. Candace announced that she was starving and went in to get a piece of bread, but the bread had been left out overnight and had turned to stone, so she ate some plums from the jar with her fingers. Then she said she was still hungry so we drove to town to shop.

We stopped at the Bazzottis' and saw only his mother, short and smiling, and we thanked her profusely for the gifts of yesterday, and we're not sure to this day if she had any idea of what we were saying. Then we said our good-byes and drove up to town.

It was a normal Wednesday morning, but to us it felt like the most festive day of the year. Outside the town gate, under the
ilex trees, was a balding man on an Ape with a small workbench
mounted in the back. He sat on a stool and sharpened knives that
people had brought down. But now he was finishing the last one,
and people stood around and gossiped, so Candace went to over to
him, pulled out her Swiss Army knife and said, "Per favore." The
little stone whined and sparks flew. Then Candace came back
proudly. "First contact," she said.

On our way to the gate, we edged over to the low stone
parapet and looked down into the valley, just to be sure it was all
real, just to be sure La Marinaia with its little island of green was
still there. It was. Then we invaded Montepulciano.

Montepulciano was built for humans not for cars, so the
main street was just wide enough for conducting daily affairs,
evening promenades, and small festive processions. No outside traffic is allowed, so we walked in the middle of the quiet street that from beginning to end at the Piazza Grande is but a ten-minute walk uphill, and much less coming down. We passed the little gnome guarding his cantina full of bottles and jars of tourist
ware. He looked at us, smiling expectantly. We wanted desperately to tell him that we were locals, dammit, not tourists, but we were too shy, so we just walked by. He glared.

Across the street from him was the cobbler's shop with a handful of old boys sitting on old chairs against the wall. A hundred steps inside the gate was the first store we needed. It, like so many in small Tuscan towns, was a store of many faces, a general store of sorts without the hardware. There were pots and pans and plates and grappa glasses, and doormats, and electric fans for the summer heat and electric heaters for the winter cold, and wedding gifts and baby gifts, and what we needed most: an espresso maker. And for the kitchen stove, big ugly tanks of propane that gave one hernias, so the son of the earnest-faced signora who owned the shop would bring them to house in his Ape. Oh yes, La Marinaia; my son knows the place.

Next door was another mixed store: postcards, cameras, binoculars and the film we wanted. The door was open. But there was no one there. The cameras and binoculars lay on open shelves. We called out, "Buongiorno!" There was no response. We felt like thieves being in a store alone, so we went back out onto the corso and stood conspicuously away from the door in the middle of the street. We waited. Nobody. Then we heard steps and turned. It was a sizable butcher with his apron smeared along his two thighs where he always wiped his hands, and he said, "Sta per arrivare dal parrucchiere." He's coming back from the barber's. So we waited, assuming he'd gone for a quick errand. And waited some more. Only when the youngish man arrived, with his wavy red hair freshly cropped, did we understand that he had been gone for a good while, with his shop's door ajar, and cameras on the shelves. Yet he was a careful, dedicated young man, we were to discover: the official town photographer. We would often see him at concerts and plays and town events, always with a camera, recording impressions of his town for posterity.

We found out later that his empty shop was not unique. Tuscans are a social lot, and apart from necessary errands to barbers, banks and a merendina at the local bar, they often wander off to another shop to chit-chat, or to the churchsteps to get some sun, or to the corner to talk with the vigile or the sweeper, or the cobbler's to sit with the old boys against the wall.

We went a few more steps, past an antique store, a tiny jeweler, a barber, a shoe store and a bar -- of which we had counted three since we entered the town -- to a tiny fruit and vegetable store across from the church where Christ lay full of thorns and the pin cushion Madonna stood with her chest of daggers. The fruits and vegetables were laid out neatly in the street in wooden fruit crates. Braids of red-skinned onions and garlic dangled from pegs; small barrels were filled with beans and lentils and chick-peas; big jars with sunflower seeds and nuts; and crates with figs and dates and gnarled ginger root.

We had three shopping nets from Paris with us, and we asked for a kilo of this and a kilo of that, blood oranges and clementines, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, onion and tons of garlic. A quiet lady, the owner, asked where we were staying, thinking we were here on an off-season farm holiday. We beamed. Then we explained to her, that we were, as of yesterday, locals, having bought La Marinaia, and she laughed and said she used to go there as a child because the priest lived there who taught her catechism, but in a hurry, because he liked to go off hunting on Saturday afternoons. So she chose what we asked for and set aside the slightly bruised fruit and gave us only good ones.

Then the bags were full and our arms stretched, and Candace was still starving, so we found the bar Cafe Poliziano, and stuffed ourselves with spremuta squeezed from blood oranges, and brioches, and caffe's, and Candace said, "This sure beats the hell out of shopping at A&P."

Thirsts and hungers quenched, we hit the street again. We still needed the butcher, the baker and a place to buy cheese. We saw a lady carrying a big round loaf in a paper bag, and Candace asked her where she'd bought her pane, and she pointed down the twisty street past the little piazzetta where on top of a building some huge ancient figure in a carnival outfit swung every half hour and struck the world's dullest bell.

We searched the curved little street awash with fresh-bread fragrance, but we found no baker, and ended up back on the corso again. Breadless. But oh that fragrance. So we looked and looked, and by that point I would have settled for a loaf of Wonderbread for it was getting close to noon and we were nowhere near done shopping. We had seen three grocery stores on the way, miraculously small, wedged into nooks, all of which had a couple of loaves of bread, but Candace was going to find The Baker, by God, or eat no bread at all.

There was something wonderfully personal about those hole-in-the-wall grocery stores. They all sold the same few things: pasta, milk, the inescapable tomato sauce, a bit of prosciutto and salami, fresh mozzarella, cheeses and eggs, and a few household goods -- that's all there is room for in a store the size of a closet. But they all had at least a few clients at a time, who came to do more than just shop: they were there to linger. It seemed to me -- and this was confirmed through the years -- that they, just like the old boys at the cobbler, were in the small stores for company. There was an impersonal supermarket near town, but they -- just as we -- avoided it like the plague. And so they would spend twice the time, going from butcher to grocer to baker, waiting their turn, and enjoying a bit of gossip about the weather, or the kids, or how bad the school is, or how lazy the mayor, or how if the vigile gives you one more parking ticket you'll make him eat it, or how's your back, or what did you do Sunday, or how can you be so stupid as to step off your own stoop and break your ankle. Perhaps small things, but small things make a life, and a town, and a livable society.

So anyway, there we were with all the bells tolling, up the corso without bread. We panicked. We slipped into the first small shop and bought two kinds of cheese and asked for the most common of objects: matches. No matches here, the lady said, you have to go to the tabbaccaio. But as we stood there speechless that a grocery store has no matches, in came, of all people, The Baker, talking away, with a wicker basket of bread that he dumped unceremoniously into a wooden bin. Still chatting away, he departed.

"Follow him!" Candace ordered. "I'll catch up with you."

"How the hell will you find me?"

"It's a small town."

So I tracked the baker. We passed the bell twanger and twisted down the side street where we had been before, and there was his little store, behind a door with a curtain over it. Heaven. Crates full of big round Tuscan loaves, and bean-shaped Tuscan loaves, and whole wheat loaves, and flat things that looked like crushed slippers and hence were called just that, ciabatta, and ciaccia that crispy hard-baked wonder, slick with olive oil, and buns. And that fragrance. I kept buying things just so I could stay and inhale.

Then we raced to the butcher. And waited. Italians don't buy meat; they extract it like dentists do teeth; slowly and painfully. Now it's true that the gleaming white-tiled butcher shops are a place of wonder, with great shanks of prosciutto, and miles of coiled sausages, and tiny moldy sausages of cinghiale hanging there, and skinned rabbits dangling with a bit of fur left around their bunny feet and tail, only -- so I was told -- to prove they're not the neighborhood's stray cats, and long, skinny-legged, racing chickens called ruspante that spend their lives happily in the great outdoors, running from dunghill to dunghill and back again. They dangled there with feet and legs still attached, their crests cavalierly to one side. And of course there are slabs of lamb and veal and pork-ribs, pigeons and quail. So it is hard to choose and easy to stare, but the most time is consumed not in silent contemplation, but in the interminable exchanges between the average client and the butcher, one of which I noted years later:

Butcher: Carlotta, what do you say?

Carlotta: I'm not saying a word. Every time I say a word I'm wrong. Ask my husband.

Butcher: How is he doing?

Carlotta: Top of his form. Lungs strong as ever. After I left, I could hear him yelling at me even past the church.

Butcher: Cook him something good.

Old Lady Bystander (butting in): Cook him some rat poison with castor oil. Then when he's back on his feet he'll be thankful he's alive.

Carlotta: I'll probably overcook it and he'll throw it in my face and I'll end up on my back. Give me something, Augusto.

Butcher: A nice guinea hen.

Carlotta: I made that yesterday.

Butcher: Roast pork.

Carlotta: Hates pork. Says it reminds him of my mother.

Butcher: Veal then.

Carlotta: How much veal?

Butcher: A couple of nice slices like this.

Carlotta: That's too much. Thinner.

Butcher: Like this.

Carlotta: It'll break his dentures and he'll blame me for that too. Thinner.

Butcher: How thin?

Carlotta: Just chick enough to fold over the rat poison.

By the time our turn came, we were weak with hunger, so we bought up what was left in the store, and just in time, because the bells tolled one, and Tuscany ran for the shelter of the kitchen table.

The Matra creaked under the load. Candace lost all self control and began gnawing on a sausage and a loaf of warm bread. At home, we unloaded and quickly set the garden table under the trellis, where the honeysuckle climbed and a few now even bloomed, and great bumblebees buzzed among the blue flowers of the rosemary on the slope. And we poured the olive oil over tomatoes and slices of mozzarella and basil, and attacked the sausages and olives, and drank Bazzotti's wine. Then we carried the mattress back up to the pitched-ceiling bedroom, opened the shutters so the sun blazed in, and with the sunlight all over us, had our first big, festive, soon to be traditional pisolino. Nap.

I awoke in the kind of daze that says please let me sleep on for another hundred years. Candace was wide awake staring at the enormous beam and the clay tiles overhead. The sun was low, the walls of the town already aglow. I tried to snuggle and drift off again, when her voice of reason announced, "Someone has to go and hunt down the furnace."

It was true. We were sure that it existed, we had seen the radiators, even opened their little valves and saw some water drool out, so we knew they weren't just fake, installed to impress company. But we had searched every nook in the house and had found everything larger than an ant -- everything but the fugitive furnace. So we rose and hunted. We moved rugs and furniture to see if something lay in waiting beneath the floors; we searched for an attic but of course there was no attic, the sloped ceilings were in fact the roof; and we fought. We fought because Candace had the preposterous idea that we go look in the outbuilding sixty feet from the house, where no one in their right mind would ever put a furnace, and where -- bloody hell -- it in fact turned out to be. There was a little room cut into the hill, with a steel door, which at first glance held crumbling garden furniture, but beneath that deceptive fagade lurked a huge German monster of a furnace. We flicked an industrial-looking switch on the wall. The furnace roared like some U2 rocket lifting off for Coventry, and Candace yelled, "Run for the shelters!" That night we had heat. And later that night as we sat in the warm and silent house, we had to admit that whoever restored the house had class, for keeping that roaring beast at a good distance.

After we lit the furnace, we began a sunset walk around the garden when on the piazzetta we ran into another visitor -- a pretty blond girl of eleven. She stood holding a plate, covered by a fresh cloth. I recognized her from the house right on the road, where I had seen her wobbling on a much-too-big bicycle. She held the plate out to us and said in a tiny voice, "Sono Eleonora Paolucci. Lo manda la nonna." I'm Eleonora Paolucci. Granny sends it. Candace took the gift. Without a further word and not listening to our thanks, she said "Arrivederci" and scurried up the steps and hurried, sometimes skipping, home along the road. We laid the plate on a stone wall and took off the cover. There was a great fig leaf below it and below the leaf a slab of very soft, very fresh goat cheese, blinding white, sitting on another fig leaf. This was the most moving gift of all. So simple. By a child, from a grandma, whom we had never even met, and smiled at only once from a distance, the one with the chickens in her arms.

© Ferenc Máté. Used with permission of the author.

By Ferenc Mate

Ferenc Máté is the author of "Autumn," "A Reasonable Life" and other books. He lives with his wife and young son, tending his olives and vineyard, in the hills of Tuscany.

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