Expatriates

photo gallery

A member of our group asked Louise, our graceful guide in Cortona, whether she knew Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, the bestseller book and film story of an American woman who falls in love with Italy, buys an abandoned farmhouse and olive grove near that town and settles in for good. Louise answered, “Sort of…that is I hear about her from my plumber. He also works for her.” Until Wednesday, the next to last day of the Elder Hostel program, this was as close as we’d come to a real local resident. So Jan and I were excited to use our only day off to accept our old friend Brenda’s repeated invitation to visit her and her partner Don at their country home at Fornello in the hills above Florence.

We knew Brenda in the late sixties when I was a probationary instructor and she and Jan were graduate students at Columbia University. The two of them were in the same Dante seminar, and we crossed paths as visitors to Florence the summer of 1969, our last time in Italy. One hot evening the three of us attended a concert in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, and during intermission, Brenda struck up a conversation with a clarinet player in the orchestra, later married him, moved to Florence and has lived there ever since. The following year Jan and I emigrated to live at the end of the road in coastal British Columbia, where we remained for nine years. In the intervening time, we had heard a bit about Brenda through a mutual friend in California, and before this trip we reestablished contact by email.

The train ride from Siena to Florence on the Eurostar was brief and cushy. There we boarded a local branch line which passed through the less glamorous districts of the city, full of grafitti, litter, and drab apartment blocks but brightened by ever-present backyard and trackside vegetable gardens. The flat suburbs soon gave way to hills, small towns and picturesque views of the Arno, which we followed upstream. Brenda greeted us at the station in Sieci, near where the river took a sharp turn and descended over a small waterfall. She drove us up a narrow, winding road into the foothills of the Appenines, a green rural landscape dotted with farmhouses, fortresses, churches and tiny villages. First stop was a crenellated stone castle on a narrow ridgetop, Castello del Trebbio, which served as the headquarters for a winery and agritourismo. Brenda got a cannister normally used for gasoline out of the trunk, greeted a demented looking feather-hatted old man in the parking lot, and took us into the building where she filled her plastic five-liter container from a hose connected to a huge barrel. “Don bottles it at home,” she told us, as she paid the proprietor what looked to be the cost of an equivalent amount of my home-town favorite, “Two-buck Chuck.”

As we continued up the mountain, the views longer and more pristine, it was hard to believe that she could commute several times a week to teaching jobs in Florence and Bologna. Santa Brigida was just a few houses and a church hanging onto the mountainside along the roadway, and there we stopped in her little local market for bread, cheese, prosciutto and salad vegetables. It took a good twenty minutes before she and Jan emerged from what looked like a Romanesque stone balconied façade with some of the makings for lunch.

Another couple of miles, past a large villa that used to house the noble that owned all the land in this valley, and we turned up an impossibly steep driveway, passed an assemblage of plastic playground equipment belonging to the people who owned the main house, and stopped alongside a converted brick barn set on a terrace above a sloping olive orchard. This was the landscape described in Vergil’s Eclogues. It was a familiar two thousand year old dream: the subject of my doctoral dissertation on Renaissance pastoral.

A transplanted Scotsman from near Edinburgh, Don came out from his study where he works as a translator from Italian to English—everything from marketing materials to fine books, one of which he showed me about the cultural history of the Vespa, and another a photo essay about the Tuscan landscape. He decanted some of the new wine into a pitcher, Brenda laid a colorful tablecloth over the plastic patio furniture, dressed up the antipasto and we sat down to begin a three hour midday meal. Don went into the kitchen and cooked up a fine pasta while the rest of us tried to reconstruct some colorful common experiences of the sixties . After lunch he returned to his work, and Brenda led us on a hike down the lane by a small country church, through a thick forest, past a sign about a newly discovered early medieval monastery, and out to an isolated house with a view of another great valley to the east that opened before us for the first time in the golden evening light

Yet here…you might repose with me,
On green leaves pillowed: apples ripe have I,
Soft chestnuts, and of curdled milk enough.
And, see, the farm-roof chimneys smoke afar,
And from the hills the shadows lengthening fall! (Eclog 1)

Like it was for Vergil’s shepherds however, so this perfection was imperilled. As age creeps up, wages and pensions are frozen and the cost of living rises–especially gas for commuters and rents for possible recreational property now on the global real estate market. In the dark, on the way back down to the train station at Sieci, Brenda mentioned that they may soon be forced to move.

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