“Who knows what a good day is?” A message on a women’s t-shirt, seen from a train in Florence, Italy, June 21, 2022.
I was lucky enough to live in Italy as a student and young adult, and have just returned from a two week trip to the Ligurian coast, Florence and Cortona.
On this trip, my first with my family, we had many great days, some moderately good, and one or two that I would rather forget.
But when people ask me how it was, I find I’m tempted to refer to the crowds and the heat and COVID, rather than recalling the night I sliced fresh porcini mushrooms outside the door open that opened into a Tuscan paradise, or the magnificent once-in-a-lifetime evening when twenty of my loved ones danced the night away to celebrate my 50th birthday.
No, I am stingy with my praise.
I gave Italy points for air conditioning, open tables and clear instructions.
I took points off for stuffy cars, pressing crowds, and any length of waits.
I deducted a surcharge for stressors specific to Italy, such as the N95 mask-only rule on major train routes that no one informs you about until you’re on board with five minutes before the leaving and no way to secure an N95 mask.
Ditto for an AirBnB listing that was clearly labeled number eight on the Airbnb app, but had no such identifier in real life.
Redemption could then be temporarily achieved through a fine dinner delivered by an efficient waiter.
But then, by God, it is better that there are no noisy neighbors to disturb our sleep.
My judgments were distributed under a punitive and non-creative rubric.
I summarized “good” to “convenient” and “bad” to “inconvenient”.
Of course, things are stressful when it’s really hot, when trains and cities are crowded and you’re navigating in a foreign country.
Of course, a good spaghetti carbonara can transform your day.
But my defensive crouch was something else, something I didn’t have in the 1990s.
It looked like a recent development. Eventually, fortunately, I decided to reject it, my hosts telling me what to do.
At times during our trip when I forgot to worry about getting lost, missing the train, or not finding a bathroom, I looked at the Italians.
I was not inspired by their Renaissance art, but by their new vision of life.
I noticed their civic institutions intact and alive, their churches full, the clerks and waiters who seemed genuinely in good spirits, proud of their work, instead of exhausted.
Even in the picture-perfect Cinque Terre, one of the 10 most visited regions in the country, morning delivery people stopped to chat with their neighbors during their rounds because they prioritized conversation.
They greet the young woman who is preparing a cappuccino for me and stop to laugh with the mother who drives her daughter to school on the back of an old bicycle.
No one is in a rush to make as much money as possible. My life is not work, and my work is not life, but my work is important, they all conveyed.
Late on another Italian day, on the south bank of the Arno River in Florence, a seductive guitar is heard.
My children try to open the door to the park where the sound is coming from, assuming it’s a traveling musician who lives off the magnanimity of people like us.
We’d like to throw in a euro and have a few minutes of fun, but a sign informs us that we’re trying to fit into a ‘Circolo Recreativo’ instead, a private leisure club for townspeople.
People there sit at tables and on the grass, living in that neighborhood, San Frediano, which is also our neighborhood, for about 40 hours. The event appears to be an open stage, free for anyone with a talent to share. After the guitarist, we crane our necks to see children doing acrobatics.
Camucia is the sweet name of the village which lies at the foot of the steep hill that winds its way to Cortona. This area is teeming with American and European expats, thanks in part to Frances Mayes’ best-selling book “Under the Tuscan sun.”
In anticipation of our trip, I joined a private Facebook group for expats in Cortona and found a very lucky member who needed a lot of things.
Drivers, replacement spa blankets, a maintenance man, a swimming pool, friends for a book club, Italian lessons, someone to accompany the dogs in a private jet.
Scrolling through these endless requests, I imagined, before I got here, that this valley must be jam-packed with pampered foreigners and locals jostling to meet their needs.
But on the first morning, I land at L’Etrusco, an easy-to-miss corner bar just after a roundabout.
The case upon case filled with colorful breakfast delicacies delights my eyes. It’s breakfast heaven and it’s the kind of place that should sell out at 8:30, but there’s no line.
There are only two ladies at the bar, a portly Italian woman in a frumpy skirt and blouse, and another older Italian woman in a slim, elegant long dress.
While waiting for the bartender to make their coffees, ristretto for the older woman, macchiato for the younger one, they recall a dinner they recently shared at some community event or perhaps a big family birthday party.
The elegant treats her friend-neighbor? relatives? – coffee, plus a croissant filled with cream that she takes away. Marco the bespectacled barista never stops moving and gives an air of unhurried seriousness. He gently removes the croissant, with tongs, and slips it delicately into an open bag.
“Grazie, Mirella, too nice! Grazie Marco!
I then follow and select an assortment of six pastries to take home for the kids. I suggest he stuffs them in a bag too.
“No no! Un sacchetto non va. (Translation: a bag won’t do.)
Instead, he pulls out a golden tray and stacks the pastries – brioche a marmellata, brioche semplice, bombolone, cannolo di pistachio, two pain au chocolat – neatly in two rows. He covers them with red paper, which he folds firmly and glues firmly.
He hands me this gift over the bar, and I am honored to be the recipient. His care speaks to me of respect for his work and the confidence of knowing that it is a shared value and not an individual one.
In the small towns of Italy, I have observed that the workers are not beasts of burden.
In Marco’s world, as in that of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, suppliers and consumers placed a high value on the quality of their goods and the value of their work. A long story is a powerful bonding mechanism.
Tourists there, no matter how many, don’t set the tone, and people in tourist towns aren’t marginalized, demoralized, or bitter.
City dwellers know that the city is their city. Businesses that serve visitors also serve them.
No one is priceless. L’Etrusco’s take-out breakfast for six, plus two cappuccinos and a huge bottle of water, costs just under $17.00.
For us, these last years have been marked by ruptures, divisions and deprivations.
Italy had its challenges too, of course, not the least of which was a megalomaniacal dictator in charge for several years, and a leading role in the most chilling early days of the COVID pandemic.
But Cortona is surrounded by stone walls interrupted by a stone entrance gate that the Etruscans put in place three hundred years before Jesus was born.
He is always there. I crossed it.
There is a common history, a common dialect, a common cuisine and common traditions. People honor the same saint, they prepare the same foods and bake the same unsalted bread. Italians know what a good day is because they’ve been training to create one for millennia and are generous in sharing ingredients with newcomers, from what I’ve seen.
As I walked along the Arno towards Ponte Vecchio like a good little tourist, I fantasized about one day living in Italy again as an expat. I could become a member of the circolo recreativo, greet Marco every morning while he made my cappuccino, create the tradition of swimming in the crystal clear sea of Liguria every summer.
But I also kept in mind the bittersweet truth that I don’t belong there. I belong here, for better or for worse, in this beautiful, blessed and broken valley of New England, inhabited by people with histories not at all in common. It’s a new decision every morning to decide what will make a good day.
I could do worse than remember the old man with the red shopping bag in each hand, stopping traffic to catch up with his neighbor.