Italian lessons

Notes on a season in Tuscany

Aleksandra Hogendorf
January 15, 2015

The day has finally come to say goodbye to the last guests, fold the blankets and stack the mattresses, clean, cover and close. The last day of the season and time to say goodbye to my window view of cypress trees and green hills. Incredible, how fast six months have passed. Bittersweet.

I never meant to stay as long as I have, but isn’t that always the case? I arrived in May to a guesthouse devoid of guests; to rainy days, cold nights and an imposing home with its maze of hallways, dusty attic shortcuts, smog of stories and secrets waiting to be unearthed. Those days were marked by feelings of displacement, by languid introductions into Tuscan life, by dark and cold evenings warmed by bottles of local Chianti around the farmhouse kitchen table.

 The guests trickled in as the sun warmed spring into summer. I learned to make beds with perfectly tucked sheets, learned enough Italian to fill out the daily check-in forms, learned to bake biscotti and navigate through the tiny town. I learned where to send guests for wine tastings, which trattorias in town served the best ravioli, memorized supermarket hours and scenic bike rides. By June we were busy, pizza nights at the local vineyard were a hit, my days off were hot enough for beach trips, and life and language were beginning to feel less foreign. Words took on a familiar taste.

I suppose I truly began to feel at home when the fireflies came out. Taking out the garbage one night to the bend in the road where the woods begin, I looked up the gravel path into glitter. A shimmering thicket of fireflies sparkled all around. The moment this daily chore became magic, I knew that arrivederci was a word that would take a long time to come.

The months have rattled away like the train that speeds along nearby. Summer peaches have made way for plums, the hydrangea has long withered away, but the daily-ness of this Tuscan life of mine remains the same. I still sit on the blue couch and watch the sun set from the terrace, still bathe in its honeyed light. I still brew my moka pot every morning, unfurl the mosquito net stuck to the window shutters and fawn over the view.

I came to Italy because there was no more room for New York in me, no more love, and here I found the antithesis of the city I call home. Here I find a certain strain of timelessness in the land, the faces, the stone of towns that feels almost prehistoric. Life seems attuned to the soil and the weather, the ways the winds shift. The daily routine—with all of its customs and rituals, its coffee culture and bakery queue—seeps in slowly but easily, almost unnoticed, until I’m using words that were once foreign on my tongue to do things I thought I knew how to do. But no, coffee is a stand-up ritual at a marble bar, not a paper cup. Bread is used to wipe the plate clean at lunch and there is a word for this delicious act: la scarpetta. There is more than one way to say ‘I love you.’ There is more than one recipe for ragu. There are infinite reasons to linger.

Italy has taught me many things: words, birds, wines, names of cities along the Siena-Firenze line, train timetables. I have learned the proper way to make carbonara, pizza dough, cantuccini. I have learned to greet with kisses, to cin cin, to always order the cinghiale. I have learned to take a siesta, to slow down, to indulge in gelato when I need to.

But mostly, this has been a study in imperfection. Over any other word, this is the one I would choose to describe this beautiful, broken, enchanting nation. Everything is crumbling, peeling, cracking; modern life weaves among ruins and ancient dust. Daily tasks seem more difficult to accomplish here—a post office errand, shopping during siesta, bank deposits. Bureaucracy is a tangled web that’s a challenge to unravel, especially for people like me, stranieri. Trains are late, service is slow, beautiful people spew cigarette breath. But somehow you adapt to this rubble, learn to rely on imperfections. All of the charm lies within these quirks. It takes some time to acclimatize, but once acceptance comes, so does a new way of looking at life and at the world. I have learned to revel in the imperfections. They are the shadows and bruises that create intrigue, that prove to be irresistible.

The season is over, it is time to say goodbye, and I photograph my kitchen window yet another time. Five months of the same daily view has not lessened its effect. It still hangs there like a painting, between my stove and tarnished cabinet—green hills, cypress trees punctuating the slopes, striations of clouds above swatches of vineyards and olive groves. One day it will all be a faded photograph, a handful of discolored memories. I will think back to that blue couch, umbrella pines, cracking walls and I will miss the perfect imperfections that left me smitten. Arrivederci is a hopeful word.

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