Part Four of reflections on recent Italian travels. (For Part Three, go to Genova)
When I was younger, I always planned my travels to the last detail: every hotel night, every sight to be seen, every food to be tasted. A practice, no doubt, heavily grounded in watching my parents plan our family summer vacations with that same furrowed brow they sport when poring over tax forms. Last summer, suffering from third year medical student burn out and a hefty dose of personal turmoil, I took a mental health vacation – the first, but certainly not the last. I arranged for time off school with my Dean on a Thursday, went for a hair cut, learned of Acadia National Park on Google, and was on the road three days later. I had never been to Maine, I have no idea how the idea of Maine germinated in my brain, but I drove those 830 miles in a day and a half and felt at peace the second I dipped my feet in the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. I left having only booked 2 nights in Bar Harbor with plan to meander about the Maine coast for 10 days. And I did. I decided on excursions as I went and booked hotels on a whim as needed. That trip was perhaps the best trip I have ever taken. It was spontaneous and slow-paced and made me realize that not all things need to be planned six months in advance. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busing making other plans” – said John Lennon. So last summer I lived Life, rather than dwelling in my head thinking about Life. What a concept.
My recent trip to Italy was also a last minute and purposefully under planned affair. I had booked some of it, but left the last few days open, knowing I needed to make my way back to Roma eventually. After time in Genova with wifey-love, I landed in San Vincenzo, a small Tuscan town on the Etruscan Coast, about halfway between Genova and Roma. I didn’t pick the town; I picked a farmhouse nestled on a Tuscan hill covered in purple irises garden with reading chairs scattered throughout the grounds – or so Google told me.
“Welcome. Can I get you anything to help you recover from your travels? Espresso? Cappuccino?”
Meet Giulio. He’s skinny, stylish, and speaks exquisite English. I ended up declining and running to the bathroom instead. He then carried my suitcase and led me to my room – read incredibly cosy suite with exposed wood beams, a king size bed that the Italians lovingly call a “matrimonial bed” according to wifey-love, and a tea kettle. After I got settled and jumped on the bed a few times, I walked back to the main house for a tour. Giulio made us espressos while we chatted by the bar. He took out a map of the area and gave me ideas on what to do.
Me: “This house feels like it has seen a lot of life. How long have you lived here?”
Giulio: “I was born here. When I was a boy my mama started the hotel with just three rooms. I used to eat breakfast with the guests before going to school.”
I have had the pleasure of visiting many a bed & breakfast in my travels, in Maine last summer, but also for years in England when my parents would take my brother and I across windswept Lake District and Yorkshire to see one more church, one more stately home. Those B&Bs had flower-patterned quilts and tea kettles, and maybe they had soul too, but I was too young to intuit that. But never had I been in a place where the line between home and business had been so exquisitely blurred to simply become Life. In the main house, a few dinner tables are scattered in the large living room that opened on a screened in veranda. The family dogs roam about the house, greeting every guest but never overstaying their welcome. The Chef who runs the farmhouse’s small restaurant greets each diner at their table and takes their orders – in Italian, English or French. In the daytime, Giulio’s mama sits at one of those tables and does the accounting. If you ask her about the house, she opens up instantly – in my case bemoaning the fact that many American guests request Ketchup for their eggs in the morning but refuse the freshly made tomato reduction she offers them instead.
I only stayed in San Vincenzo for a couple of days, but left a piece of me in that house. How easy it was to adopt the slow-paced life of the farmhouse, to be content just sitting in the garden. When you can see the sea shimmer in the distance over your morning cappuccino, you realize that breakfast is life, that you’ve arrived, that there is only now and it is yours to enjoy – so why don’t you? For Giulio and his mama, life is work and work is life. Once you see past that distinction, you give up the role of “worker” or the role of “housemate” and you can be yourself. Everything you do is authentic. In the case of Giulio and his mama, they do what they love and they love what they do.
Tuscan dolce vita: when the love of life permeates everything. What could be sweeter?