Saturday, May 29, 2010

La Dolce Vita

"La dolce vita" is a phrase I've heard several times today, as tourists and Cortona residents alike take time to unwind and catch up on a lazy Saturday. It was Market Day today and, because I seem to be the only tourist who emerges before 10 a.m., I got to shop with Italians. Intimidating, but with every conversation I get a little more confident in my ability to communicate. Not because my Italian is improving quickly, unfortunately, but because a little goes a long way when you can also eloquently speak Hand Gestures. No matter how many times I try to remember numbers in Italian, I forget as soon as I need them. But even the Great Number Block didn't hinder my ability to shop, since ten fingers work to illustrate costs of items in any language! I'll spare you details, but I did buy some beautiful new clothes that may or may not fit in my new suitcase.

I'm fitting into life in Cortona, mainly due to the fact that these are incredibly friendly people. My Denver friends tease me because every time we walk through town people say hello to me - it's pretty amazing! The people who work at my hotel, the waitress who served me the first night here, the girl from the shop where I bought postcards, the owner of the art gallery on Via Nationale - they all say hello and remember me when pass in the street. It may mean that I made some terrible cultural or linguistic faux pas that burned my face into their memory, but whatever the reason, I love it.

I keep adding new waiters to my list of aquaintences, too. My hotel in Cortona costs half as much as my home in Rome did, so I've been eating like a king. (And no, I don't mean "queen" since I think they got royally ripped off most of the time...and yes, pun was intented!) I began at a lovely restaurante on one of Cortona's side streets, where I finally got a taste of carciofi, the famous Italian artichokes. They were worth the wait, despite the fact that the ratio of artichokes to gnocci was high on the gnocci and low on the carciofi. I also ordered grilled potatoes with rosemary...and didn't realize until it arrived that I'd basically ordered Tuscan french fries without realizing it. Old habits die hard...but it was delicious. I've also managed to consume bruschetta (messy but heavenly) and absolutely the best ravioli I've ever had in my life.

One of my favorite things about Cortona is the flowers. They glow from everywhere: windows, hillsides, tables, streets...they seem to love life here very much. It's especially appreciated because - while I didn't want to dwell on this while in Rome - the flowers on my hotel patio there were fake. And not the high-quality, looks-almost-like-it's-real kind of fake - these would have been bought at Wal-Mart if there were Wal-Marts in Rome (thank God there aren't!). But the flowers here are deliciously real, with the exception of some nice, not-bought-at-Wal-Mart fake sunflowers occasionally featured in front of stores or - my favorite - on the balcony of a local real estate agent. Portions of Under the Tuscan Sun were filmed from that balcony which, I think, is a source of pride - even for those who were frustrated with the outrageous changes Hollywood made to their town for no apparent reason (i.e., adding a big fountain in the center of town).

I spend a lot of time wondering how the long-term residents feel about all of the stranieri (foreigners) visiting their town. Until not too long ago, the town had few visitors, but then the invasion started - in large part due to Frances Mayes' brilliant descriptions of the town and Diane Lane's not-as-brilliant portrayal of a completely different story of the same name (Mayes' real story was, apparently, lacking in drama and irresponsible affairs with young Italian men). Everyone seems happy to have the tourists, though...except for one house that had multiple "no trespassing" and "beware of the dog" signs on the gates. Now there's someone who doesn't enjoy camera-laden strangers on the street, no matter how appreciative those tourists may be.

There are certainly lots of tourists here, but they're not all American (I avoid using "we're" since I refuse to think of myself as a tourist even though I am and I've got the camera to prove it). I've met several people from Australia, heard a few conversations in French, and tripped over an entire tour bus of Germans. In my hotel, however, The Americans have invaded. There was a conference here for those studying some specific topic - "mathematics, or something equally as boring," in the words of my delightful but sarcastic concierge. Yesterday, an enormous tour group arrived and, when they return from their daily excursions throughout Tuscany, the hallways echo with their conversations. I work very hard to distance myself from the large groups - they're slightly annoying by American standards, but the concierge thinks they're really crazy because they get up at the break of dawn and then launch into their tours before most Cortona residents have had their first caffe. I greet them in Italian when I encounter them - I'm certainly not going to be mistaken for a real Italian, but at least they'll know I'm not a member of their Nametag Gang. (That sarcasm is for you, Grammie!)

I have, however, befriended the tour guide - a British man who is funny enough to be a character out of Jeeves and Wooster. He's very tall, which I imagine must be an advantage when your job requires dozens of people to see and follow you. This morning, Mr. Guide (his real name is Mick) gave me perfect directions to walk to Cortona's literary mecca: Frances Mayes' house, Bramasole - and he didn't even make fun of me for being enthusiastic about it. (It was even more beautiful than I'd imagined, by the way, but looked very much like I thought it would - a testament to her writing ability!). I confessed that tour groups make me nautious - something he seemed to accept and understand. We sneak in bits of conversation when his lemmings are focused on their own tasks, and he just smuggled me some of the food served for his clients when I was sitting out on the patio. I'm fascinated by his job and we both share a distaste for the snide tone of Too Much Tuscan Sun, written by another Tuscan tour guide. I would be first in line to read Mick's stories, should he ever choose to write them.

I've tuned out the buzz of English conversation coming from the tour's dinner next door, though it's comforting to have so much nearby conversation that I can understand. I spend hours like this, on the hotel patio gazing across Tuscany. There are mountains rising behind mountains, and layer upon layer of scenery that stretches beyond where the eye can see. The details sharpen my vision if I stare longer and longer across the vast countryside - it's as if the landscape becomes an optometrist's vision chart. There at the edge of town is the equivalent of the oversized "E"; keep searching, straining to see the small "print" far into Umbria, in the mountains behind the lake. I don't get a free bottle of contact solution from this visit, but I have the more valuable reward of noticing a tree-lined street miles away that I didn't see this morning.


  1. Another great day for you, and thus for us readers also! Can't wait for the next installment- From Florence?

  2. Amazed you have not yet learned you are unforgettable. Of course everyone remembers you!


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