Our Italian Year – October
Our new home had a large terracotta terrace on three sides and an olive grove for a backyard. A sagging fig tree loomed over the stone staircase that led to the grove. Inside the barn doors was a lofted ceiling and sparse amenities fronting an open yet small kitchen stocked with miniature appliances. Off the kitchen was a den/guestroom with wraparound windows that looked over the pulsing hedges that perfumed the air with rosemary and lavender. A spiral staircase in the kitchen’s corner twisted to a loft where we slept, with double doors on the front side that opened to the rows of olive tress. It was cozy. And rustic. And all that stuff I’d never been too crazy about. Lizards were everywhere outside and sometimes inside. Italians don’t do window screens, so the masses of flying/buzzing/stinging varieties that worked the overgrowth came and went as they pleased. I kept a vigilant eye for vipers during the day and listened for the nocturnal chingiale (wild boar) that furrowed under our trees while we slept. Hunter’s rifles frequently rang out from nearby bluffs. We were definitely not in New York anymore, though I was learning, fast, to appreciate nature.
While acclimating to the immediate surroundings, we also ventured into the Tuscan splendor. We took trips to the Chianti countryside, through the sloping and verdant hills lined with endless rows of grape vines, exploring the elevated towns of stone walls and tiled roofs where we would walk the cobbled alleys and eat at sleepy trattorias. We’d often bring home local products, especially the wines produced in the surrounding hills of wherever we were. In the city of Florence, we’d frequent the tourist attractions and piazzas then wander the serpentine streets, searching for unknown treasures in the ancient city’s less-traveled quarters. Between the city and the countryside, there seemed to be an endless appeal to the senses, as well as our sense of discovery and wonder. And this was all within a short drive in either direction, mere miles from our home.
Much closer to home was the village of Antella. We made a point of coming to town every afternoon. We’d pick up ingredients for our dinner: meat from the butcher, vegetables from the vegetable guy, wine from the wine guy. Easy. We’d also take a gelato from the pastry shop to sit around the piazza and watch Sophia chase pigeons. The locals started to take notice of these strangieri; Americani, no less. We became subjects of a local fascination, the American couple and their beautiful child with the Italian name. So it wasn’t long before we made some friends. In the playground just outside town, an elegant woman of Sicilian decent began speaking to us in English. She was there with her son, who seemed enamored with Sophia. Neither child had much language, and none the other understood, so they just giggled and chased each other, endlessly. We began seeing them often, Tiziana and Guilio, sharing our time in town. One day Tiziana mentioned that her husband wanted to meet us. At an early evening fair, Gianluca arrived after work. It felt like I knew him already – debonair and gracious, a man confident in his kindness. We invited them for Sunday lunch and made the close friends we would keep throughout our year (and ever since).
At the end of October, Antella had a party. I didn’t catch the reason, though it was clearly an important event. The stores stayed open past dark, and people poured wine into plastic cups throughout the bustling piazza. The butcher shop was ablaze with both entrances open to the public. A huge crowd gathered outside, eating and drinking and talking; inside was packed with those – like me with Sophia in her stroller – trying to get some of the food and wine being distributed. The elderly butcher, whom I’d been visiting a lot and developing a friendship, called out to me and came from behind the counter to escort me to the front of the line. In his joyous bellow, he exclaimed something to the crowd that I couldn’t comprehend, but everyone smiled and touched my shoulder as we passed. I was handed a half bottle of wine and a heaping plate of Porchetta (butterflied pork loin stuffed with seasonings, rolled and wrapped in pig skin and slow roasted), which I took outside and devoured amongst the revelers (see picture – look for the lights from the flash on Sophia’s stroller and my New Balance logo). That evening felt like the moment when we were accepted by the village, though that could have been the effect of the free Porchetta platter and half-a-bottle of wine.
Later, in the packed Bar, which is really a cafe, a woman was behind the counter, tending to the crowds shouting orders of espresso and grappa and wine. I’d seen the woman before, in town with her young son, but never working at the bar. Amongst the masses, her fluent but undramatic Italian was as clearly foreign as her skin tone and freckles. We acknowledged each other as fellow Americans, and our families would soon begin a friendship that informed our lives in an enormous way. Rebecca had come to Florence for a semester and, after meeting a young Italian at a dance, never left. Francesco was a man of the countryside, a curly-haired and easy-going soccer player whose family owned the Bar in Antella. Francesco and Rebecca were now married with a son, Oscar, who was the same age as Sophia (see their picture, below, on the steps outside our barn). While I wrote in the mornings, Pam and Sophia would meet Rebecca and Oscar in town for play dates. I’d often come down to meet them for lunch and hang out in the kitchen with Francesco as he prepared daily plates as fine as those available in any ristorante. One of my favorite memories of that year was when we had invited their family over for Sunday lunch, and Francesco walked in with a tray of fettuccine he had made that morning and a huge black truffle he had found under a tree on his way over. Impromptu pasta with grated black truffle. As said, I was learning fast to appreciate nature…and the comfort of friendship, too.