Tuscan Holiday

Published in Vogue, February 2008


We met on the wide sidewalk of the Via Cavour where it intersects the Piazza del Duomo. Marco was a friend of a friend. I’d just arrived in Florence. As I reached out to shake his hand, a voice in my head, low and calm, said, You’re going to date him, but you’re not going to marry him. I’d never heard voices before, and I couldn’t imagine a reason for such an admonition on a weightless Italian afternoon. I was 24. He was good-looking in jeans and a blue collared shirt with a button undone, tan and a little gray at the temples. He was slim, and he spoke clear English warmed by an Italian lilt—perhaps I would date him, I thought—and he smiled, and his warm brown eyes sparkled, and we shook.

I had arrived on a one-way ticket with savings from the banking job I’d quit a month before. A man I knew, a jet-setter, had introduced me to two kind and well-connected Italian women before I arrived. I planned to stay and learn the language. I’d dreamed of going to Italy and living there and most of all of belonging. When I was in elementary school, I watched Cinema Paradiso 22 times and memorized the dialogue. In the movie, everyone had a place, even the bum who thought he owned the piazza. Eccentricities were celebrated, and no one was isolated. There was tradition and camaraderie, and all of it seemed more fulfilling than what I’d had growing up in Palo Alto, California. Italy was where the soul went to find calm and love, and I wanted to hold the best of it in the palm of my hand.

Soon after we met, Marco took me to summer dances in crumbling candlelit villas, and to a lopsided castle built on the cliffs over the Tyrrhenian Sea. He introduced me to his friends, many of whom belonged to families of old Florentine society whose children had been friends for centuries. They all ran family companies, were kind and chivalrous, knew how to sail, ski, and speak English and French, kissed the hands of married women, and had their initials embroidered on the lower right side of their collared shirts. I had never seen such abundance and luck all gathered together. Their lives seemed to follow a pattern, like rooms in old villas with wallpaper that matches the curtains that match the bedspreads.

We went to baptisms and art openings, to a Mozart concert in a small, candlelit church in Gstaad. We skied on the slopes of Cortina, where the rose-quartz mountains glow pink. We sat in the front row at a turn in the track at the Palio di Siena, where the spindle-legged horses passed full tilt in a furious, muddy cloud and I lost my breath. We went to parties. Men wore tailored suits, tight and loose in the right places, and flocks of women in gowns reflecting the warm light wore diamonds handed down from their mothers or grandmothers, old stones against new skin. The talk—varied, buoyant—flitted to the next subject just when it touched ground, like a half-filled helium balloon. In summer, lucciole sparked in olive groves. We ate with silver. Everyone did. What was the point of saving it? For what? If at first I worried that each party would be the last, the most exquisite, I soon understood that there was no scarcity of beauty; this was Marco’s life. I had landed inside Cinema Paradiso, but it was better, and it was real.

In California, my mother had raised me mostly alone. We didn’t have many things, but she is warm and we were happy. We moved a lot. We rented. My father was rich and renowned and later, as I got to know him, went on vacations with him, and then lived with him for a few years, I saw another, more glamorous world. The two sides didn’t mix, and I missed one when I had the other.

Marco was twelve years older than I was, charming and sincere. The boy was still inside the man, joyful and mischievous. His laugh filled up the room. His hands looked good on the steering wheel. I was petite, irreverent, and eager to please. We brainstormed about how to salvage his ailing family company, and I helped him try to mend his rocky relationship with his father. A few weeks after we met, we drove through Fiesole at dusk, and he parked off the road near a grassy hill and a few villas in the distance with lit windows. He said later that he had meant to park at a vista where the hillside fell away and Florence was spread out below, golden in a bowl of purple hills, but he had been too impatient to find the right spot. He dove across the seat to kiss me. I remember feeling as if he needed me, as if I were a kind of salvation, and I was confused. Wasn’t I the one being rescued?

In one scene in Cinema Paradiso, the main character, Toto, wishes he could skip ahead in time to a different season, as if his life were made of film: Fade out boring, lonely summer, cut to winter. I’d felt the same way: fade out California, cut to Italy. Toto had wished for it, but I’d done it. I was willing to stay forever, to cut my life above the root.

I found a job working for a small American company, writing research reports. It paid the bills and allowed me to stay. I took Italian lessons at a language school in the center of Florence named after Dante Alighieri.

One day I walked to the architect Brunelleschi’s Cappella dei Pazzi near Santa Croce. There was no one else in the vast, domed room. I sang a note. The inside of the dome was constructed to hold notes for a long time—as if by providence, not physics—and soon after the first note I sang another one, a third above the last, and the two notes joined above me and were sustained, locked together in a buzzing consonance. It was a metaphor, I thought: Here in Italy I was in harmony with myself.

I had always wanted a large, close-knit family, and the Italian families I met stuck together. Marco lived with his mother, Lucrezia (a tall princess of a respected line from Naples with thin, aristocratic ankles), his father, and two sisters, in his own part of a Medici hunting villa on a cypress-lined Tuscan hill. During my first dinner at the family villa, Marco’s father pointed to an old black-and-white print of a property he’d bought in the Veneto a few years earlier. The villa had been in Marco’s mother’s family since the Dark Ages, and then, 30 years ago, it was sold. Now, thanks to the father’s purchase, it was back. This was a family that recovered its possessions.

Lucrezia told me her childhood was like Luchino Visconti’s film Il Gattopardo. Before each trip to a magnificent weekend of festivities in Vienna or Brussels or Paris crowned by a white-tie ball, the maid would pack her bags by counting engagements and selecting outfits for each. Lucrezia had never met the cook or even seen the kitchen—the food just arrived.

When she fell in love with Marco’s father, a Florentine entrepreneur, her father didn’t speak to her for the rest of his life. She wasn’t supposed to marry a commoner. “For the rest of his life?” I asked. “Didn’t you feel sad and try to reconcile with him?” “No,” she said. “That was just the way things were. We respected each other’s choices.”

In the kitchen before dinner the cooks talked to one another in the soured whoosh of a Sicilian dialect. I’d heard about people who had cooks and servants, but I’d never seen them before, except in movies. Americans were known for effervescent, childish curiosity, but in this society naïveté had limited allure. In order to belong, I accepted the servants as if they were commonplace.

During that first dinner Lucrezia asked me when my parents had been divorced; my parents had never married, I corrected her. And then, in the salotto after dinner, when it had come out that I was a vegetarian and also not a Catholic—not even baptized?—and perhaps thinking she’d misheard the first time, or else forgetting, she asked me once more. I forged the date of a divorce; I could not bring myself to announce it again.

That was the catch: I could have my Italy, but only if I wasn’t quite myself. I wanted Italy so much, though, that I didn’t care what I’d have to trade. In fact, I wanted to trade. I wanted Italy to civilize me, to cover over the parts of me I didn’t like.

“They like you because you’re malleable,” my mother said on the phone. Learning manners and customs was the best way for an illegitimate American vegetarian to blend in, and so I embraced them. I lusted for the exact right way, the ballast of perfect etiquette. Such rules look easy because they are absorbed over many years. Though superficial, they flow from a deep pool of culture and belonging. That’s the reason they exist: to keep the classes fixed.

Before sitting down at a dinner table, I would hesitate, my fingertips on the back of the chair, watching the hostess out of the corner of my eye, waiting for her to sit. I was almost always the youngest woman; did that mean I should sit last? I asked Marco. I was not required to wait, he said, not even for the hostess: I could sit down just as soon as I knew my seat. The men waited for the women, and then they sat down, too. From then on I relaxed: I sat when I wanted to. But one evening the local priest made an unexpected visit for dinner, and when I sat down, Marco pulled me up again. He had neglected to explain this one exception. I should not have been seated before a man of God. I was mortified.

I learned to begin eating when served, not to stand when someone entered the room (unless they were very old), not to say piacere (“nice to meet you”), because it was vulgar. I learned to write the address below the midline of an envelope, and not to wear shoes that clacked at the heel, or shiny, sparkly things—anything that tried too hard, or too obviously, to please. I learned how guests were seated at a table, by complicated rules that involved status and rank. I learned that there was status and rank, and that people took these very seriously. I began to take them seriously, too. I never wore wrinkled linen. I filed my nails. For a wedding, I ordered a suit made in pewter silk, and a hat to match.

On the bus on the way to pick up the suit from the tailor, I was caught without a ticket. (I’d run for the bus; the ticket counter was closed.) I had to exit the bus to pay the fine, and when the officer noticed that the other side of the chilly street was bathed in sunshine, he suggested that we move and do the paperwork there. He had combined duty with pleasure, the way people did in Italy. I did the same, and my various obligations—the suit, the etiquette—were rimmed with joy.

I bought the pewter suit for the wedding of Marco’s sister Anna. The invitation meant our relationship was official. Marco seemed nervous. He wanted me to look right, almost as much as I did. My preparations were elaborate. It’s hard for me to understand the urgency behind such gestures now, as if I believed my world, a tight winter bud, would expand and blossom the moment I could get everything just right.

The felt hat was formed by two women who made it on half-oval wooden lasts in the back room of a shop. The rim was sewn around wire so it wouldn’t sag. Thick, noxious fumes filled the space—the very fumes that had driven the Mad Hatter mad, I thought. I worried about these women and their sanity. I don’t remember worrying about my own as I rushed from shop to shop.

The suit was made of a cangiante silk, the tailors said, which meant it fluctuated between light and dark shades, depending on the angle at which it was viewed. It wasn’t a common word, but it impressed people when I used it outside the atelier. My desire to impress was cangiante, too. It seemed innocent at first, but then it darkened to something needy, slavish. Why did I care so much what everyone thought of me? I brought the suit home wrapped in tissue in a brown paper bag. The jacket held its shape with a layer of organza between the silk and the lining. The wedding was a week away.

One day I stopped at a shop that Lucrezia had told me about, on the Via del Corso, where they made doughnuts she remembered from her youth. The doughnuts were fried upstairs, filled with fresh custard or chocolate, and then thrown with a holler down a metal slide to a fat man on the shop floor who caught them and handed them over, hot, inside a piece of white paper. The doughnuts were delicious, but how long would the fat man hold out? How long would the little shop be there, while tourists preferred the flashy and the new?

I became attached to the idea of a crumbling past that wasn’t mine. Florence was too beautiful to be torn apart and rebuilt, but in stasis it would surely die. Locals were moving out, tourists were moving in, and places like the doughnut shop didn’t stand a chance. Prato, a town outside Florence known for textiles, was beset with economic troubles since the manufacturing migration to Asia. China already had the weaves, and soon people said, when they got the hang of color, Prato would be over.

Marco took me to a stately crumbling villa on a hill outside Padua. The doorways were boarded up; the aviary birds had flown. Once it had belonged to a distant relative and bustled with butlers and champagne fountains. He had attended many parties there as a young man. He missed his childhood. And even though it wasn’t my family villa, and they weren’t my memories of dance parties and butlers and money that ran like water through the fingers of a great-aunt until it had all been flushed away, I felt the sadness, felt it age me, all that lovely decadence.

Years later I wondered why I had been welcomed into this society without the social pedigree that usually enables such border crossings. At the time I thought it was luck—but perhaps I was naive. Marco’s family knew that my father had money, and I wonder now if they assumed that I would one day inherit some of it from him, or if they were reassured by his cachet. Perhaps more than I understood at the time his name bought me admission to this Italy, as it would have in a story by Henry James. Their feelings for me were genuine, I knew, but maybe without this they would not have accepted me.

My mother came to Italy and met Marco’s family. She liked them, and they liked her. She liked the way Marco always guided the conversation up to joy and laughter. I had worried that next to them, my mother and I would seem flimsy, but we didn’t. She is a bright, sensitive, high-cheekboned artist, and she fit in. I was surprised, seeing us through their eyes: We were as much of a family as they were. She knew me, and near her I felt important, amplified. I was proud of my Italian life, and I thought that she would be, too—I’d found the beauty and ease we had dreamed of for so long. But she was not overwhelmed by the fairy tale. She thought I needed to find out who I was first, and that with Marco and his family I wouldn’t get the chance and it would be a huge loss.

An American friend who lived in the Tuscan hills told me about divorce in Italy one day as we walked together through the Piazza della Signoria. I had been thinking about marriage, even if I didn’t talk about it—marriage was one sure way not to lose Marco and Italy. “Divorce in Italy takes three years,” he said. “And with children, it’s worse, of course. They can’t leave the country unless both parents agree.” He had seen through me. “Lots of Americans come over here and marry,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s perfect in the beginning.”

I met several American women who had married and stayed. Some seemed lost and displaced. In the initial flush of villas and balls and men who kissed hands and pulled out chairs, they must have felt that their old life was a good trade for this one. These women, like me, had never seen such grandeur in America. One of Marco’s distant cousins, an aristocratic architect, had married a woman from Orange County, California, and they had a son together. She wanted her husband to ask for a raise at the firm where he’d been designing buildings under someone else’s name for years on a pittance, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. It wasn’t in his blood to ask for such things, he said, even if he needed the money. It was hard for her, as an American, to understand how blood could have anything to do with a promotion. Blood had to do with other things, biological things, like children. The couple’s son couldn’t yet speak in sentences at three. At family gatherings, everyone wondered: Was the boy normal? He seemed slow, but maybe he was fine. An uncle, the father’s brother, rattled about in one of the family castles, sweet, but not entirely all there. Thin blood, they called it. They hoped her robust American blood had overcome any potential problems. Marco’s blood was fine (from a different branch of the family tree), but I was fascinated and haunted by the idea of a stream that coursed through generations and had to be protected and thickened.

Anna’s wedding took place on a sunny autumn morning in a medieval church full of Italians in colorful hats. The officiant was the same priest who had come to dinner the night I had sat down first. Marco was seated with his family in the front of the church; I sat toward the middle beside a couple I knew. Anna was radiant, slim and elegant in a long silk dress. Nothing about the ceremony was studied or stilted—it was as if these people had been born in these clothes for this day. Afterward the guests convened at the family villa for a meal in the golden afternoon light.

A few weeks later, Marco took me on a pheasant hunt in the Umbrian countryside. Dogs frightened birds out of dry bushes, and they clucked and pumped their wings through the crisp air until shots cracked and they fell cruciform. I was startled by the way life left the body in an instant and the birds fell like rag dolls. If it hadn’t been my first hunt, laced with novelty, I would have hated it. But for now the hate was poised and quiet beside delight and curiosity. When that faded, I understood, this sport, like so many activities, would lose its allure. Marco told me a story about a great-uncle who had loved animals and disliked hunting. The uncle drove one of the first cars in Italy, and one day he accidentally ran over a farmer’s sheep. Of course, the farmer was upset, and the uncle got out of his car and asked the price of the sheep, and when the farmer told him, he said he was sorry but—not to worry—he would pay four times the value. After that, all of the local farmers started to push their sheep into the road in front of his uncle’s car.

And so it was with me: The more I molded myself to the contours of my Italian life, the more I was rewarded with misaligned gifts—gifts disconnected from who I was, like the uncle’s roadkill and the hunt. For Christmas, Lucrezia gave me a large white plastic terrier that plugged in and lit up with a switch. Marco gave me a necklace of large freshwater pearls that would have looked right on an older, more conservative woman. I started to see Marco differently, too. In the beginning I thought of him as the epicenter of an ideal world, but now that I spoke his language and knew him, I saw that his family and tradition gave to him abundantly, but also stifled him. In college he could not choose his degree or, later, his job, and now he could not skip family weddings or baptisms. His charm seemed thinner than it had before. The compensations were hand-pressed shirts, houses, cooks, adoration, love, but he could never veer from the prescribed path; he had a life, ready-made, but he’d missed the chance to see what it might have been, if it had been up to him. 

Italian children are taught, “L’erba voglia non cresce nemmeno nel giardino del re,” which means, “The plant I want doesn’t even grow in the garden of the king.” It’s meant to teach children not to say, “I want this” or “I want that.” I think it’s also meant to encourage something beyond speech—a gracious acceptance of what is and what is not one’s own.

I thought that Marco loved me for whom I could become, how much I could assimilate. But he probably understood that I could never really fit, and that was part of what he’d loved about me. He couldn’t leave Italy—he was attached, inexorably, to this world—but being with me provided a small escape. He probably saw me all along just as I was.

Marco had not proposed marriage, but I had a sense that he would. He planned a trip for us to Portugal. Friends intimated. His father, suggesting that I might be pregnant someday with a grandchild, made a gesture with his hands, rounding an invisible bump over his abdomen and smiling. I felt uncomfortable, as if he’d implied that it would also be his child. I understood that if I were to carry on the line, I would have to carry on everything that attended it, even though it wasn’t really mine.

During the stagnant hot summer of 2003, I thought of how envious all of the white-shoed tourists would be if they knew that I’d turned their little holiday into a life. And I was confused, every time, when they went back to the places they had come from—even though they might have said yes if I’d asked, they didn’t want to stay. The voice had said: You’re going to date him, but you’re not going to marry him. I held on to the insight like a rope on a steep mountain path while I hoisted myself back to myself.

I moved to New York. I felt the way friends might have felt all along: It was my singular adventure, without precedent or rules; rough, maybe, and lonely, too—but mine. I missed Italy, but I wouldn’t have traded my new freedom for anything.

When I left Marco he gave me a gift: a small glass snail. He didn’t explain. He was choked up. I think it meant that regardless of how I’d longed to find shelter within their old stone houses, to be rooted, protected, roofed, I’d had my home all along: Snails carry their home with them wherever they go.

A few years later I visited Florence, and I saw Lucrezia at a wedding reception at the Palazzo Corsini overlooking the Arno. She sat smoking on a low chintz couch on the balcony, flanked by two petite friends. The night was hot, and inside the Baroque palace’s massive rooms hung huge, serious oil paintings. Most of the guests stood outside in groups, waiting for the dessert to arrive, talking. I walked over to her and said, “Buona sera, Lucrezia.” She took a long drag on her cigarette, glanced at me, and then turned to speak with the friend on the right. The friends didn’t look up. I stood there for a second before I understood, and then I walked back into a knot of people I knew, standing a few steps back.