By Francis Mayes
Published by Bantam books
ISBN 0 553 81611 x
“To re-create something in words is like being alive twice”. (Chinese proverb.)
Fields of red poppies in bloom, olive groves, stony villages, haystacks, nuns in white four abreast, bed linens flung out of the window, sheepfold, oleander.
This is how Francis describes “her” Italy.
“Under the Tuscan Sun” was a natural outgrowth of the accumulated notes that Francis jotted down when she and her partner Ed began their love affair with Italy.
“Bramasole”, meaning “to yearn for the sun”, was “une bella villa” in Tuscany, Italy. The locals thought the American couple were crazy to buy a house that was neglected for 30 years. The contract mentions “the house and the land it takes two oxen two days to plow”. With two heavy iron keys, one for the rusted iron gate, and one for the front door, they set out for their “home in Italy”.
It was a dignified house which lay near a Roman road and an Etruscan wall, surrounded by an olive grove and many fruit trees.
The way she describes their workload and how they fill local recycling bins to overflowing, makes you tired just reading it.
In between the passages about “project house”, she shares about the locals and their (to the Americans) different culture. Italians want to know how much you paid for the house. It seems the Italians have time to give; they have the quality to become involved in the moment. Francis and Ed love it.
We meet the “geometra” and a line of prospective contractors, each with a different opinion and price list.
Primo becomes the right man for the restoration, which will take three years to complete. He is helped by Polish workers who are diligent, and Italian workers who don’t care less.
They run into all kind of unexpected and expensive surprise – like the well that has run dry, forcing them to buy truckloads of water, and terraces that are unsafe and need to be restored.
Francis “the Poet” shows in the way she describes nature. These “thoughts” are scattered pearls throughout the book. Just to name a few:
“The summer sun hits like a religious conviction”.
“Night happens quickly, as though the sun were pulling in one motion under the hill. The Milky Way sweeps its bridal train of scattered stars over head.”
“The hot sweetness of the black grapes breaks open in my mouth. They even smell purple.”
We stroll with her to town where they buy groceries in the little shops. “Pay me tomorrow” the grocery woman tells her when she doesn’t have small change.
“Festina Tarde” – make haste slowly is something the couple has to get used to. August is holiday month in Italy, leaving them stranded in their restauration work.
The same as “siesta” in the afternoon, where the shops close for three hours.
With teaching jobs in the States, Francis and Ed have to travel back and forth. Whenever they have a holiday, they fly back to Italy, where, instead of relaxing, they dive into physical exhausting work. But it revigorates them, they are fueled by the joyful feeling of being back in Italy.
Slowly they begin to master the language and begin to adopt the Italian way of living – and love it. Ed begins to gesture and wave his hands the Italian way and throws himself into cooking. Lunch takes two hours, taken in the shade while the “cicades hammer in the trees, their deeply, ehart of summer sound”. They muse about the “Fellini” scenes they encounter everywhere they turn. The pleasant lunch drifts into siesta. After a stroll to town, they have to begin to think about the next meal.
She describes the people in such a way you see them before your eyes – the clock repairer, the cobbler, artisans working in their shops, the smithy, the tailor – each with his or her particulars, so typical of Italian life.
The book is part travel guide and cook book, for she describes several trips through Tuscany and has summer and winter kitchen notes, full of mouth watering recepies.
Describing her driving experiences that need “ice water in your veins” and the way the mayor of Naples views traffic light, give the book lots to laugh about as well.
It’s a book full of variety. It makes you long to explore Tuscany yourself, see with your own eyes what she paints with words.
This book is translated in many languages, and the film is one of them. A movie made out of a book can be disappointing, but this time both can be enjoyed, for they enhance each other.
Reading this (secular) book is like walking between Francis’ roses. These are planted with lavender in between, and spread waves of scent which you can’t but inhale deeply - and be blessed with an infusion of happiness.