Monthly Archives: September 2013

HARVEST TIME

September 22 2013

We’re being blessed with Indian summer right now; warm days and balmy evenings are back for a limited appearance; a lovely coda arriving at just the right moment, for not only is this the week of La Sagra – the annual, week-long harvest festival – but we have long-awaited friends visiting form New York…our first visitors from America this year!  And they bring with them their precious 16 month-old baby boy. As we had hoped, not only is the weather a warm welcome, but so is the welcome of our Tuscan friends.

We spent the preceding week preparing, a big shop in Siena for organic, dairy-free foods as the baby has allergies, and then the need for baby equipment. Silvia and Vincenzo go up to the attic and bring down the lovely wooden crib that had been their children’s. And, as if she doesn’t have enough work to do, Silvia takes it back to her house and cleans it, bringing it back with sheets and blankets to spare. We had thought we might buy a highchair but no sooner do we mention it than she brings us the perfect portable type that clips onto the table. Our friend Rupert makes a toy from treasures he found washed up on the shore on a recent trip to Madagascar and the day of our friends’ arrival Silvia returns with a Winnie The Pooh for him. All these preparations make us realize how much we’ve missed grandparenting.

And then they arrive, after 16 hours of brutal travel, and one wants to just cradle them all. What courage it takes these days to make a long haul trip with a baby. From the anxious drive to the airport in rush hour traffic, to the snaking check-in lines, the horror of security, the cramped space in economy class, not to mention the foul air and food. And then, after a night of no sleep and a 6 hour time difference comes the mind-boggling navigation of customs and baggage and finding one’s way to the car rental. And if that’s not enough to threaten the survival of a marriage, one must then imprison the toddler in a car seat and drive for four hours on unfamiliar roads, complete with unforeseeable detours. Really, that there is such a thing as a tourist trade might be the 8th wonder of the world!

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Yet here they are, the tired little family with their sweet, sweet boy who has already fallen in love with the cows, met the new sheepdog puppy, eaten his first farm fresh eggs, learned to say Ciao, is highly fascinated with every stone in the yard, throws his head back in a thigh-slapping laugh, kisses us hourly and this morning, joined us – sort of – in singing happy birthday to his Mama.

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And if this is not joy enough, yesterday was the first night of La Sagra. Basically, for a week, the entire village becomes a kitchen and dining area. The town, divided into 4 quarters, each of which has its own community kitchen, goes to work cooking for approximately 1500 people. Tables are spread through every courtyard and alley and you are either cooking, serving, bussing or eating. We, of course, are in the latter category and last night, were joined by Gianni and Luana.

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What absolute joy to see this toddler so at ease, walking amongst the tables, waving at everyone, dancing to the music and sucking down pasta until he was comatose. And the food! Last night in our quarter: antipasta, tagliatelli with porcini mushrooms, succulent duck with roast potatoes, tarts and cakes and for those who do, wine and vinsanto. And then around the corner of the ancient alley comes Pepini and his accordion. We hadn’t seen Pepini since he serenaded us after our wedding ceremony, 12 years ago, his music filling the air where our vows had just been made, our party of 50 spontaneously forming a dancing circle…and he played us all the way along the road back to the farmhouse where our wedding feast was waiting.

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By now the baby was exhausted and so the little family drove back to our house while we, with Gianni and Luana, strolled through the courtyards and streets, somewhat amazed at how many people we know here. The town was throbbing with energy, every age on show; the sleeping babies, frenzied toddlers, the pre-adolescents busy serving and bussing tables, the teenagers dress in their trendiest outfits and on and on, to the old lady peering out of her shuttered window.

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This cycle of life, which of course exists everywhere, here seems so much more vital. Is it the containment of the medieval walls, the ghosts of a thousand years revived once more? The insistence on maintaining tradition is one of the things we love so much about this town and, at times like this, rather than segregating youth from age, it brings it together in a grand hallelujah.

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Back at the farm, the baby sleeps, his wooden rocking horse, (yet another gift from the farmers) a sweet dark silhouette outside the kitchen door. And the cycle of life will be ongoing this morning as yet another calf is born, while in the field a cow who birthed just a week ago, lays dying.

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Yes, it is sad, but it is pure. It is nature taking its course as it does with all of us. Yet La Sagra reminds us not only that we reap what we sow, but that we are still ripening. We may look like wrinkled fruit, but our hearts are filled with energy and good will rising.

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A GENEROUS SEASON

September 15  2013

Although it’s not officially autumn for another 6 days, it seems to have arrived early in Tuscany which, as ‘early’ is not much practiced in the Tuscan way of life, makes it seem more of a rip than merely poignant, especially when bookended with summer’s late arrival this year. I wore socks today. Socks, I tell you. How sad is that? Even the sunflowers seem to have been harvested earlier than usual; those fields that just a couple of weeks ago were never-ending seas of vibrant yellow now stand cropped of their heads, their dry skinny necks wailing into the rainy sky.

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There are times, like this afternoon, driving back from Siena, when the landscape makes me weep, it’s that beautiful; the shifting shades of autumn’s ocher and sage under the mottled gray sky, the rain beating on the car’s roof. I thought we might sail through the countryside forever; that as long as we kept moving time might stand still. Yet in spite of the inevitable signs of autumn’s arrival, could the abundance of summer have been more glorious than it was this week? The bounty of nature matched only by the generosity of those who brought it to our door.

Vincenzo’s parents have returned from summer in Puglia, from whence they hail. They travel by coach, dressed the way one used to, with respect for the journey. But no sooner have they arrived than they are in their work clothes. Vincenzo’s father climbs into a tractor to plough a winter field while Mama goes to work in the vegetable garden. At breakfast she comes to our door carrying in her apron enormous bunches of black grapes. The next day Silvia leaves a basket of eggs and tomatoes on our outside table. Moro, from the village, stops by with a crate of figs from his garden. We first met Moro two summers ago when Gianni took us to his house to show us not only one of the most organized and prolific gardens, but also an amazing collection of fossil shells that he has dug up over the decades while hunting for truffles. These fossils date back millions of years from when this land was a vast ocean.

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And the generosity keeps coming. Yesterday Silvia brought us an apple cake still warm from the oven. Knowing we would never be able to eat all the grapes before they spoiled we put them through a sieve and filled a huge bottle with the juice. It is so dense and intense in its natural state that one wonders how on earth Welch’s gets away with calling the liquid it sells ‘pure grape juice.’ This stuff, even in its non-alcoholic stage, is so rich we cut it with sparkling water or, on a day like today, add some ginger and make a hot tea with it.

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Grapes

Yesterday, Joel made fig jam; the crate that Moro brought boiled down to a single jar. We had some on toast this morning, after we had poached some of those eggs and served them on top of some of those tomatoes which I had sautéed. And yes, after breakfast we most certainly did have a big slice of apple cake with our cappuccinos.

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IT’S WHERE YOU MAKE IT

September 8 2013

I was deadheading the petunias this morning, feeling the relaxed elasticity of my body as I bent over the plants, grateful that it is still responsive to the weekly ministrations of our Ayurvedic masseur who arrives every Sunday with his table and his smile, his gentle demeanor an example I aspire to and try to receive through his hands. Joel was on the table now as I snipped the nasturtiums and overhead a flock of birds called out in an avian language unfamiliar to me.

This time last year we were back in New York where, on the night of our re-entry I survived a trip to a Harlem Emergency room. This time last year I was sitting on our couch listening to a flock of helicopters flying over the Hudson River. Needless to say, I don’t miss the helicopters, but yesterday I missed our couch; missed its ultra-suede luxury, the down-filled scatter cushions in their jaunty colors. I missed my stuff. I missed the homes I’ve made, so many beautiful homes in so many places I didn’t want to be.

The flock of birds cawed once more before winging their way over the fields, a staccato of black dots that finally disappeared beyond the hill. I felt the pang of the changing season, the loss of another summer no small thing. Yet always, at this time of year, there is a moment or two when I anticipate donning a cozy sweater, lighting the first fire and luxuriating in a hot tub; I have the sweater, but the fire and tub are missing and it is moments like these that find me missing my stuff.

There is, at present, a slight hiccup in our plans to move up the hill next spring to the house with a tub and two fireplaces. And it threw me yesterday, as I am so easily thrown when anything interferes with my projected plans for homemaking. Of course, it is that little phrase “projected plans,” which gets me into trouble every time. Makes me think of a couple of expressions: “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans,” and “You can plan, but you can’t plan the outcome.” I prefer the latter, partly because I do not believe in any god but especially one who would laugh so unkindly instead of just gently reminding me of the wisdom of the second saying.

But it’s what we do, isn’t it, we humans? We plan. I like to think that planning is merely the business aspect of manifesting dreams and I’m not ashamed to say I divide my time between staying in the moment and dreaming of the future.

Last night we went to town with Gianni and Luana to join friends at a communal dinner outside the medieval wall. Some three hundred of us at 3 long tables, the many courses of food carried out on large stretchers and served by the village children. We’ve been to many of these dinners over the course of 18 years and not much has changed…including the menu.

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Here is community; from the babies passed from arm to arm, the pre-teens put to service. Perhaps 40 young people in their early 20’s still in various stages of single-dom or newly in love took up one end of a table while the rest of us spread out in middle and old age; a clan of young boys with their bicycles hung out nearby loathe to join in, but unwilling to be totally excluded. And all through the balmy night a young man from Siena serenaded us while a handful cooks toiled in the community kitchen.

We drove home at midnight, passing the fields of dried sunflowers, past the colonnade of cypress trees where we married and on to our unpaved road, the tired hills of summer still magnificent in their constancy. We fell into bed in our favorite bedroom with its beamed ceiling, its window onto the landscape, the linen bedding sun dried that morning. We call this home.

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THE WOLF AT THE DOOR

September 1 2013

We were eating lunch outside, another balmy, midweek day, commenting once again on the peace of our surroundings, our music of preference being the sounds of nature and particularly the farm sounds; the moos and clucks, baas and cock-a-doodle-do’s, that punctuate the rustle of wind, the chorus of cicadas and birdsong, and occasionally the distant barking of the shepherd’s dogs.

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We’ve come to learn the difference between a moo for food, the rhythmic moo-groan of labor, and the near constant howling moo that indicates a calf has been separated from its mother. And so it was, that midway through lunch, I realized that the bleating I was hearing didn’t sound quite right to me. Telling Joel I’d be back in a minute, I crossed the lane and walked up the slope to the sheep enclosure. I could see Silvia and Vincenzo’s small herd huddled together on the far left, but could see nothing amiss. Yet still the bleating continued. And then I felt, or saw, something to the right of the pasture. Unmistakably a dead sheep. I let myself in the gate and walked to her, her stomach ripped open, the blue eyes already fogged by death and most distressing of all, the unbroken sac of lambs. I ran to get Silvia and together we ran back to the pasture. It was Silvia who saw the second ewe, also gutted, the lambs torn from her belly already partially eaten. The phrase, “wolfed down,” came to mind with its hideous original definition, for it was most surely a wolf that had come a-hunting.

This is the fourth sheep they’ve lost to wolves this summer. No one can see where or how they are finding their way in to the enclosure. We wept a little and then Silvia called Vincenzo, who would later bulldoze the dead sheep into the earth. I returned to table, needless to say without my appetite. The image of the first ewe etched into my mind forever, the black sac, that would soon have delivered two babies, carrying the sinister finality of a mortician’s bag.

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It was a brutal reminder of nature’s savagery and had more impact on me than the global news of cruelty that we humans inflict upon each other, which, as horrendous as it is, we have come to expect. Who was it that said “One death is a tragedy; 20 million is a statistic”? Inured by the media’s images of starvation, genocide and torture, we chose, when we moved to Europe, to disconnect from that teat. At first we would take a brief online look at the NY Times Week in Review on Sundays, but even that became too much to bear. The grim futility of wars and uprisings and the inability to change anything, made the partaking of such information seem like self-inflicted toxicity.

Instead we chose to surround ourselves with beauty, and peace, taking in good food and fine literature, with liberal helpings of philosophical conversation and much laughter, along with the near-constant gazing at the curvaceous hills, the embrace of golden light, the moonbeam on our bed.

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How close we came to idealization. That bleat of nature was a bucket of cold water, a reminder that there is no Eden. There are wolves and vipers a-plenty here in this oh-so-pretty landscape. And I’ve done battle myself this summer with armies of ants and aphids and beetles as they advanced upon my precious plants. All of which is naught compared to what Silvia and Vincenzo contend with on a daily basis; rains and droughts and failing machinery. The loss of four sheep and their unborn offspring is incomparable to my sole loss of a lavender plant, their loss an enormity hard to comprehend.

Yet nature does balance itself continually, if not always at a pace to match the impatience of man. A new calf was born this week and more are on the way. Gianni and Luana’s litter of pups, born 2 weeks ago were, along with their too-old mother, at death’s door the first week. Now, thanks to Luana’s ministrations, they are fattening up nicely, eight of the ten having survived. These white pups are the next generation of sheep dogs, three from a previous litter having been taken by the local shepherd, his flock thus protected from the wolves. Six of the pups were already spoken for when death struck here this week. Now Silvia and Vincenzo will take the remaining two as a safeguard for the future of their flock.

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In spite of this week’s rude bursting of our idyllic bubble we look with gratitude toward our Tuscan Autumn while our thoughts stray to those slaughtered in the Arab Spring; a season that withered in bud, bypassing summer and going straight to the bleakest of winters.