TOSCANA

A portrait of life for a summer in Italy

I want to bottle up this place and this time as much as I possibly can. I want to capture a detailed snapshot of what life looks like right now. Of everything happening.

Summer. Tuscany. I absolutely love it here.

For the longest time, I had the feeling that living in Italy would be something right out of a storybook. I can fall hard for its antiquity, for its whole-hearted approach to life. So far, everything I’ve experienced this summer has only confirmed those suspicions.

Take breakfast for example. Today, I had the simplest meal of oil and bread, and really strong coffee. I finally figured out how to use an moka espresso maker, but I didn’t realize until too late just how concentrated it would be.

Everybody else in the homestay was still asleep. The day was supposed to be pretty warm, but the heat hadn’t started yet. I had a Skype call scheduled with Jonathan, so I took my computer, along with the bread and coffee to the balcony so I wouldn’t wake anyone.

That turned out to be the best decision I could have made.

We only talked for about thirty minutes, and after the call ended, everyone else was still asleep. I sat on the balcony and continued to enjoy the time I had to myself and the ancient city of Siena. I put on Jónsi’s solo album and it made the experience complete, watching people walk down the narrow cobblestone street below to the beat of otherworldly drums.

Coffee in hand, I watched and observed each of the different faces that went by. A trio of nuns in beige habits. A tall woman walking a Chow Chow. A small group of painfully obvious tourists. Years from now, when people ask me what a good start to the day feels like, this will be what I think of. Platinum sunlight, seeing other people go where they need to be, being able to pause with some coffee to whisper gratefulness.

There’s a deep richness to life over here. Something golden.

Just the night before, I sat out on this same balcony while the sun set. I worked on my Italian homework. It didn’t take long before conjugating conditional tenses turned into a bottle of chianti with some friends exchanging life stories. I kept the cork for good measure. I kind of want to start saving corks from bottles of wine drank on memorable nights. There seem to be a lot of those over here.

That night was splendid. The wine that accompanied it was splendid. Brightness and beauty are hallmarks of this place.

Italy is so good for the soul. I feel alive. Confident. Creativity has been on fire.

Photography has never been easier. I can basically point my camera in any direction and find some fascinating work of art, some unbelievable sculpture or piece of architecture.

I’ve had so many sights and experiences that I’ve just wanted to turn into lyrics as well. Lines and bits of song seem to keep swirling around.

I’ve even started getting into cooking. I pretty much live right next to an Italian supermarket. And everything is fresh. Instead of stocking up, I just drop in each day and get only the things I need. A lot of it is really cheap, too. I can get amazing wine for four euros that would probably cost at least twenty bucks back in the U.S. Everytime I go there, I seem to come back with a new cut of meat or veggie that I’ve never used before and it leads to a night of experimenting.

I’ve long had an idea for a story I’ve wanted to write. It’s a story that has an interesting premise, but one that would be nearly impossible to capture.

In a lot of stories, the character is called into action after experiencing a moment of loss or distress or panic, finding out that somebody has been kidnapped, learning that somebody has died, getting stranded on a deserted island. What if there was a story that didn’t begin with a crisis? Instead a character could start by experiencing a moment so euphoric, so perfect, that it was life altering. The character would then maybe face the obstacle of trying to recreate perfection, or maybe trying to have others experience this same high, or trying to convince others that it was even real.

I wonder if starting a story from a place of pleasure, instead of catastrophe, could set up just as interesting of a plot. Maybe not. Or maybe that’s the way most romantic stories go, and the idea really isn’t all that novel.

What I do know is that after Tuscany, my life might take up a similar plot. Trying to figure out what to do next after all the magic. In response to the magic. To recreate the magic. If that’s even possible.

After all, this past summer has been a complete romance, if nothing else. Not just summer flings, but a romance with life itself.

•••

I feel the most like myself when I’m discovering new things. When I’m experiencing something for the very first time. When I feel immersed in a brand new world. When wanderlust strikes me, it tends to strike hard. I want to go everywhere and try everything.

That’s why it’s good for me when I can get to my place and then hit pause. To allow myself to stop and savor the experience, drinking it all in. I’ll slip on some headphones and press play and imagine the real-world scenes in front of me unfolding like a beautiful montage. I’ll allow myself to stop and notice the odds and ends around me and to ask questions about them that have no answers.

Whenever I can manage to slow down this much, it’s life giving.

Today, it feels like that deepest, truest part of me is roaring to life.

I notice the richness of life this morning, as I walk with my earbuds in down that same cobblestone path that leads right into the Piazza del Campo. I walk behind shopkeepers and artists. I weave around the turistici that always seem to clog up the roads. Band of Horses escorts me through new alleyways as I stop to make sure I get a whiff of every bakery or restaurant we walk by.

We pass by the very first place I ever ate when I arrived in Siena, a small pizzeria on the south end of town. Hungry, but tight with my money, I tried to purchase the most simple slice of pizza I could. I think it might have been simply flatbread with caramelized onion on top. I can’t even remember if there was any sauce to hold it together, or if the golden onions simply rested on top in some light oil and their own juices. I bought a square of it and it was the most delicious pizza I had ever tasted, and it only had one simple topping. Onion. It had been so perfectly put together, though, the dough crisp and flavorful, the onions deep and umami.

That pizza slice represents the best of what I was getting out of Italy. A desire to choose quality over quantity. An awareness that life wasn’t always about having the most mind-blowing invention or including a pile of good things, but about making the absolute most out of what was in front of you and allowing yourself to savor it.

This summer had given itself away to romanticism and I was in deep.

I continued towards Piazza del Campo, the center of life for this ancient city. I took my time as I got closer. I would peer down unsuspecting alleyways to find surprisingly ornate statues. I would wonder what happened there centuries ago, what happened to lead to those statues being built. I would look into the storefronts along the way. A very modern looking menswear store stood in contrast to the 16th Century building that housed it. I took a glance at the fashion-conscious shoppers, and wondered what it might be like to be living out a modern life in a city that has seen so few alterations over hundreds of years. 

Green shutters decorated the rust-colored rustic walls, and some of the buildings grew fancier the closer I got to the Piazza. More street vendors appeared, the one right in front of me selling football jerseys to profit off of the World Cup. It seemed like every store was now a café with generous outdoor seating, and I knew I arrived.

One of my biggest gripes about life back home in the United States, is that most of it was built for people to get from one place to another in a hurry so we could continue living our lives in private. We had big roads made for going fast, not so much for walking. We had shopping centers instead of town centers, commerce instead of community. It was rare to see something like this, a town square, simply built for people to congregate. To be together. It was the true heart of this ancient city, and all roads emerged from it like veins and arteries.

Around the perimeter of the piazza were flags of every color, and the names of every one of Siena’s districts were displayed below its central tower as though it was some scoreboard. Despite everyone’s satisfaction with doing nothing, this was still a city full of life and culture. The next week, Siena would host one of the world’s most longstanding traditions. The Palio.

Two times every year, each district would compete in a horserace around the perimeter of the piazza, an inappropriately small space for horses to run. The competition was marked with anthems and costumes and parades and lotteries and trials. Each district held its own fancy dinner the night before, and each had a long history of successes and failures and competition and bribery. It seemed like an event straight out of a young adult novel.

I found myself captivated by the pageantry, and glued to the competition. I decided to adopt the district of my homestay as my own, purchasing two pink and green scarves to wave proudly when the race day came around. The other day was the test run, and I had managed to get on local TV as a result of my team spirit.

I walked past a white marble fountain of gargoyles and potable drinking water. I took a seat on the ground in the middle of the piazza. Many others were doing the same. Two girls several feet in front of me sat and talked. An older man sat off to my right, simply watching, not really saying or doing anything. I took out a baguette, brie, and prosciutto. I crudely assembled a sandwich so I could also enjoy the absence of activity.

•••

•••

We laid down on marble at night, underneath the shadow of the duomo, staring at every detail of its façade. A mostly-vanished bottle of chianti sits in between us.

“My time here has been really good for helping me learn about myself.”

“What are you learning?”

“I’m finding out that the things I think are the most beautiful are usually things that are really simple.”

We stare at the duomo some more.

“If simplicity is your thing, I don’t know if Baroque architecture is really going to be your style.”

“That’s the thing. Here we are, staring at this architectural masterpiece, but I can’t stop looking at that star right behind it.”

This has been the best summer for an excessive romantic with a taste for red wine. The warmth of the night creates the most gentle backdrop for these sorts of exchanges. The day’s heat remains in tact on the green marble steps we lie on.

Connecting one peaceful evening like this to another have been weekends of whirlwind activity. It all started with Rome, both the Vatican and the nightlife, and carried over into Florence, with its unruly heat. We all fell in love with Venice, finding it the perfect city to come to with no plans and no map, just a willingness to get deeply lost in its maze of canals and postcard worthy images.

Last weekend was Verona and Milan in one fell swoop. We were lulled by an opera we couldn’t understand, enthralled by an even bigger and grander duomo, and eventually defeated by countless naps throughout our stay.

Despite all the moving about, the weekend trips, and the new sights, this summer seems mostly to be defined by quiet moments. Simple sights. Savoring tastes and sounds and thoughts and stories.

I look up at that same star.

These feelings, this wonder. Is it even possible to capture it? In words? In a photo? In the last notes of a 2006 chianti?

Soon enough, this whirlwind of romance and adventure will come to an end. I’ll have to leave this place, I’ll have to leave these people behind. Soon enough, I’ll be back in California. I’ll find myself in shopping centers, behind screens. In neighborhoods that have grown overly familiar. I wonder what pieces of this summer might even have a chance at survival.

I’ll wonder where the story goes from here, a story that doesn’t begin with catastrophe, but with romance. With peaceful moments. With making coffee for a new friend on a rainy day, in exchange for learning a new card game.

I’ll wonder what to make of the mental images I’ll have forever stored up. Even the most mundane ones, of yellow wallpaper and The Mountain Goats playing as I hung up laundry on a drying rack. Of my random explorations of Italian pop, and spending a long time in a record shop. Of thick, doughy pasta, served slightly al dente, alongside the most carefully prepared braised beef.

The thing I get most out of Tuscany is a vision of how to fully savor life. If what Proust says is true, and the real voyage consists of returning back home with new eyes, then perhaps that’s what I’ll be bringing back with me to California. A zest for life and flavor. I’ll have traded in busyness for passion.

After all, whether it’s a one topping pizza with caramelized onions, or the golden sunset that seems to take over the last hours of every day, I’ve learned how to find worlds of passion and flavor in the most simple, every day things. And perhaps that’s the new mission I’ll find myself on as a result of a summer in Tuscany, not trying to take on more and more, but moving slow enough so that the things and the people around me can get all of me.

I want to be able to pour large amounts of passion into the simplest things. To take on life’s more mundane tasks with energy and gusto. I want to have room at the end of each day for wine with friends, or time at the beginning of the day for coffee and people watching. I want to buy only what I need for the occasion at hand, not hoarding up things. I want to live both simply and passionately.

And perhaps that’s where the story goes from here. A new mission for a full life. The actual plot summary is still a work in progress, but I know the feeling I want the story to have. I know the vibe I want it to give off.

It’ll be a good one.

And I’ll get to it soon. In the meanwhile, there will be a horse race this weekend, and a few more golden sunsets to drink.

Philippe Lazaro2010