Just a girl rambling around the globe and writing about it.

Musings from around the block and farther.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reaching for the Cortona Sun

Cortona is the beautiful little hilltop village where Frances Mayes, a college professor, and her longtime love (and future husband) Ed fell in love with a run-down house on the outskirts of town.  Through patience, hard work and careful negotiations through a foreign culture and language, they transformed the property a lush Italian homestead for themselves and their family and friends.  Though they no longer live full-time at Bramasole ("reaching for the sun"), their legacy -- and Mayes' well-loved rendering of their journey toward a life as ex-pats in Tuscany, Under the Tuscan Sun -- has inspired thousands of people to travel to Cortona to see if it's really as magical as it sounds.

My first time in Cortona, it was 2004 and I was 4 months pregnant with Marlowe.  That solo trip to Italy was one of desperation and could be considered a pre-"push" gift.  I had been very clear about not wanting more children and already had my perfect duo (Emme was 3-1/2 and Serena was 2-1/2), but the events of late 2003 had changed my mind.  My father-in-law Isaac had been hospitalized for liver failure; meanwhile, Max and Ali had gotten married and I'd been at the birth of Amy's son Donovan.  Something about the fragility of life had changed my mind and I had called Raf on the way home from Donovan's birth, saying, "I think we should have another baby."  By the time I came to my senses, one thought occurred to me - and remember, I was mired in the chaos of small children who were just about out of diapers, so I was really "in it" - and that thought was, "What if I never get to Italy again?"  So I made one crazy request to Raf: I didn't want to have another baby until I went back to Italy.

Wanna know what he said? "Book the trip and we'll start trying to have a baby when you get back."

And so I booked the trip.  But obviously I was feeling generous about this "gift" from Raf... and so I was already pregnant by the time I got on the plane.

Cortona is a labyrinth of small passageways and steep, steep hills.  For a pregnant woman who was constantly out-of-breath to begin with, Cortona was a tough place to visit.  My hotel was in Pienza, so this was a day trip and I mostly stayed on the flat Via Nazionale and ducked into the tiny, touristy shops, my well-thumbed-through Rick Steves guidebook in hand.  I remember the magical feeling I got from wandering alone through the gorgeous Museo Diocesano, filled with golden works by Fra Angelico, Lorenzetti and Cortona homeboy Luca Signorelli, but I couldn't relax enough to really enjoy the city.  I kind of just wanted to go back and take a nap.

In 2006, I returned to Cortona to take an art workshop and was offered the chance to stay here at Casa San Marcos, a renovated 500-year-old home near the Chiesa di San Francesco. Renovated by an artistic woman from Portland, OR, Casa San Marcos is a blend of American comforts (washing machine, dishwasher, heat) and rustic Tuscan style (frescoes on the walls, pizza fireplace, crisp white linens on comfy beds, handmade pottery).  On that trip, I met Christine, and we wandered the streets and hills of the town with our workshop compadres, soaking up the sunshine and local flavor.  We all watched the DVD of Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane and many of the local shopkeepers, and we walked past the house that launched a thousand dreams.  Lucky me, too: I ran into Frances Mayes and Ed TWICE on that trip, once in Florence and again in Piazza Repubblica.  It was a good sign.  You're on the right path, Erin. You're supposed to be here, now.

This visit, I'm moved by how easy it was for me to assimilate into the Cortonese way of life.  Sure, Christine and I have spent an inordinate amount of time cackling and chatting, spewing American pop culture, watching our favorite SNL digital shorts on YouTube via the magic of WiFi.  But we have also stocked the kitchen with fresh produce from the store and have "made do" with what we have for our meals, a very Tuscan ritual from which many delicious local dishes have originated (the thick tomato soup ribollita, made with day-old bread, comes to mind).  If we need something, we hike down to Molesini market and then hike it back up the hill, so we only buy what we need for each day.  You may know that at home I'm very attached to my Chevy Suburban, which wouldn't even fit between the houses on the lane, and so this is a very different kind of thinking for me.  But I'm cool with it.  It's not supposed to be American here - it's Italy!  I'm the one who must adapt... and I'm happy to do so.  If my time here is limited, then I must adapt even faster.  

This morning, Christine stopped on her way up the stairs and said, "I've noticed that you glow in the mornings here... I'm surprised you're not all jet-lagged." Much of that has to do with taking a Tylenol PM each night before bed to be sure I'm not up all night, but I'd like to think it also has to do with my desire to wake up and inhabit Cortona as fully as I can on this trip.  I don't have to see the museums or churches.  I don't have to buy up all the Cortonese goods that I see so that I can "bring Italy home" with me.  I don't have to eat up all the rich food that is in front of me (though I would be hard-pressed to decline a fresh espresso with perfectly formed crema on top).  But I do want to wake up at 3 am, as I did last night, with the glow of the full moon shining in my face, and turn over happily, knowing that I'll be waking up in Italy again in a few hours.  And I want to step onto my balcony at 7 am as the bells of St. Francis call the faithful to worship, and inhale the freshness of the air that wafts past me on its way from Lake Trasimeno to Florence.  

I tend to live this way in Agoura Hills, too: mindfully, with purpose and intention and gratitude.  It's not a new way to feel, thankfully, and I know that when I return home, I will be able to recall these gorgeous sensations gratefully while I go about my days on the coyote trail and at the softball field.  But I do have a strong affection for Italy and I will always have an adoring heart for Cortona.

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