Italy, A Love Story, Seal Press, 2005


Waking in a stone house in Umbria, I listen to the sound of rain, a click on shutters, the mutter of wind. The rain itself falls silently. I sink deeper under the quilt, burrowing in like a nested bear. Let the stones receive it. They’re long acquainted, water and stone—so different from a wooden house with its taps and moans. Inside the house is soothing solidity, a sheltering in the earth’s bones. The rain is a long sigh, falling in darkness on the tiles, down stone walls, almost soundless, only the roused sleeper listening.

I am still listening to inner sounds, still divining, trying to get a hold on Italy. Instead, the hold—part poem, part dream, all enigma—is on me. Every night the same dream comes: I circle, stepping over ancient stones, loose cobbles; vines cascading over  walls block my way, forcing me to backtrack, searching for another path. There are no people, no sounds, only rock and vines, and the earth that I know is Italy. If dreams are metaphor, then this one stands for mystery. It’s the broken castle that I couldn’t enter at Pierle. I stood at the castle’s base, gripping the rusted steel of a barred door and peered through at tumbled stone, walls curtained with ivy. Just as my entrance to the castle was barred, I know that in some essential way I’ve failed to penetrate the mystery that is Italy.

You can linger a few weeks in the Italian countryside, live in a stone house on a farm, drink cappucino under chestnut trees while the nuts fall around you, eat the lovely crescent-shaped pasta of Gubbio, but they are only teasing glimpses, like a series of stills, hinting at life lived in a different mode, on different terms. Always there will remain something unknowable about Italy, something very old and very alive.

            In Siena, where I lodged in a medieval building, I lay in bed every morning and gazed up at the ceiling. The cross beams high above were 18 inches square, ending at the wall in carved corbels, nicked and scarred from several hundred years of remodeling. I tried to envision the pulleys used to lift such enormous beams, the straining men, the hands of the workman who carved the wood, but the weight of my imaginings—all the work and masonry and wood—came crashing down around me. I was just a woman lying in a bed, staring at a ceiling, insignificant as a fly. Italy’s past, its long history, can do that, flatten you like an insect, especially if you’re from a new place, a country in which the oldest things standing are not buildings, but trees.

          Tuscany left me both energized and befuddled: The constant catch of breath when suddenly around a bend, a fortress town appeared in slow glittering autumn light; or a Romanesque abbey, occupied and aging well when Columbus left home with a gleam in his eye and the urge to travel. Roads followed the spines of the hills as if balanced there. On either side, like panniers on a saddle, plowed fields of golden soil plunged away in sensuous curves. Surveying those fields, I wondered about the men who worked the plows. As they ripped open the golden soil, did their thoughts run toward restitution, the curves they would inscribe on the hillsides? Did they dream of the seeds they would sow, the wheat, sinuous and whispering under a crackling sun, the warm loaves they would eat?

        What Italy invites the traveler to do is guess. And guess again. But guesses are like a fist of wheat grains thrown into the wind. Whether any of them fall to earth, take hold and bear the fruit of revelation is a matter of chance.

         I went to earth in Umbria. Oak forested and slumberous, it was a respite from vivid Tuscany. Rivers flowed slow and easy through fields of corn, tobacco and peppers. Ranks of dried sun flowers stood by the road, their tilted faces dead as clocks. We settled into a converted barn—my husband and I  and two old friends. We fell into the rhythm of days, woke to look down on the bowl of mist that was the Niccone Valley and watched the sun melt it like ice cream. We made morning runs to the village of Mercatale for fresh bread and cornetti, ate grapes from the vineyard outside the gate, bought salami and olives, tomatoes and pears at the coop in Umbertide. The farmer who owned the barn sold us wine and olive oil and firewood when the weather grew chilly and the rains came.

        We spent our days exploring, filling of an endless need to suck up as much of Italy as we could. We drove miles to see towns, churches, views, castles, ruins. When we found the portable stalls and awnings of a weekly market, we shopped with the locals, observing the things they bought—the clothing and curtains and cookware, vegetables and cheese. My friend Joan and I imagined staying forever, learning Italian, buying the clothes in the markets, knits in plum purple, witch shoes with lethally pointed toes. In the evenings we drove home to our kitchen, our beds, windows shuttered against the rain, a fire in the fireplace. It  was a haven, an island in a sea of sights and sensations. I felt lulled but never settled. There were constant reminders that I was a stranger: starving farm cats outside the door, hot water heaters that turned off and on at will, scorpions under the chairs, a superfluity of keys, every door and cabinet and chest with its own particular key. And there was gunfire in the woods.

Autumn is wild boar hunting season. We saw hunters gathering along the roads—a dozen or more cars parked in a clump, dogs in cages, camouflaged men with bandoleers warming their hands around a morning bonfire. We watched their preparations. The hunt for wild boar—cinghiale—is an elaborately staged event. Men with bright orange vests pulled over their camouflage shirts took positions every 50 yards or so along the road. Most were unarmed, serving as spotters or beaters to drive the fleeing boar back toward the shooters.  

I grew up in a family of  hunters in rural California. My father went out alone or with my brother or an uncle. Witnessing a group hunt, Italian style, was a novelty. Judging by the number of gunshots echoing from the wooded slopes, the method was grimly effective. Our landlord assured us that boars were plentiful. Their mounted heads decorated the walls of meat markets and delis, staring out with beady eyes at the prosciutto hams hanging from ceiling hooks. Cinghiale in stews and sauces appeared on most restaurant menus. And, for a parting taste of  Italy, the Florence airport shop sold wild boar salami.

           We learned why it took a small army to bag a boar. Male boars can weigh from 145 to 400 pounds. Black-bristled and strong-necked, with a head like a wedge, they’re easily riled, and their tusks can be deadly. I never saw the boar in the woods, so I imagined him. Nocturnal, solitary, he rests in thicket so dense the air is dusky even in day time. At the sound of barking, he raises his heavy snout. He’s on his feet by the time the dogs arrive. In the distance, the men, graceless, noisy, crash though brush. The baying dogs thrash their way to the boar’s lair and harry him through the undergrowth, leaping and dodging away, snapping at his hocks. Taller, stronger, he whirls and fights, pivoting on his light hindquarters; perhaps he rakes a dog with a tusk, draws blood. Eventually the dogs drive him from protective cover. He runs from the darkness, where he has always been safe, toward the light where the men are. He’s a black streak, high on his feet and fast. But men are everywhere among the trees, surrounding him, shouting, waving branches. Wherever he turns, the way is blocked.

If hunting wasn’t of necessity a group effort, Italians would probably do it en masse anyway. They obviously enjoy doing things together, especially celebratory things, like festivals and competitions. In Siena we missed Il Palio, a ferociously competitive horse race around the main piazza, but the signs of ongoing celebration were everywhere. All of the 17 competing districts, the contrade, were festooned with lanterns, insignias and shields emblazoned with their emblems—goose, rabbit, panther, drum. In the contrada of the ostrich, we came upon a church square awash in confetti and paper, tables and chairs, flying horse figures, shopping carts draped in checkered plastic, huge silver bowls and clusters of enormous grapes. It was like discovering an elaborately prepared set for a play that we would never get to see. Along the narrow streets of the contrada of the turtle—this year’s winner—men were bringing in trees and constructing arches and elaborate stages, columns and pavilions for a week-long victory celebration.

I’m not sure that attending the celebration, merging with the crowd, tasting the food, drinking the wine, would have brought me any enlightenment. The roots of Il Palio, and the ancient rivalries it feeds, run too deep, more than 800 years deep. I try to imagine what it would be like to be a 20th generation Rams fan, for example, and the layers of trappings and rituals, superstitions and strong convictions that would accumulate over so  much time. Perhaps it would be something like Il Palio—a competition with ancient feet, repeated so often, so long and so passionately that it becomes an institution, one that defines the people who participate, who keep it alive, who keep it burning and who, in turn, burn with it. 

The lesson I drew from Il Palio was to look backwards to try and understand the present. So I did my American best. I tried to penetrate the mystery locked in stone, a sense of time that surrounds everyday life like an aura, one that Italians wear as easily as skin. In the fortress city of Perugia, home to an annual chocolate festival, I paid a Euro to visit the Etruscan well. Entering a stone vault, I followed a winding flight of steps to the well shaft, where I stood on a dripping catwalk and looked into echoing, moss-rimmed darkness. High above lay the street where Peruginos were setting up booths for the chocolate festival. The well is old in a city that’s been occupied for 3000 years.

Nearer the city walls, dark caverns contain the remnants of another city and its churches, streets and buildings. Escalator shafts snake through sections of this ruined city, carrying people back and forth from the parking lots and the new town below. Peruginos barely glance at the ghost city as they pass. It is briefly noted, merely a staging area between escalators.

          I breathed the chill air of ancient caverns and passageways in Siena, Assisi and Orvieto, where an Etruscan city of the dead is scraped into the porous tufa. All of the old mountain towns, the fortress cities, have their undersides, tunnels and suites of rooms, chapels and grottos carved out over the millennia. Beneath the cathedral of St. Francis, where the Giotto frescoes hold spell-binding sway, is another church, and deep below that, where ventilators rumble like the breath of some gigantic beast, lies the tomb of the saint himself.

          Walking the hill towns, I began to regard the earth under my feet as skin draped over ancient bones. I studied maps of cities and imagined a dark efflorescence beneath the gridded lines—the shadow cities below. They were the hidden roots, a town’s covert underside, the yin to newer yang. They were the feminine counterpart to the hard masonry of the architecture above: mystery caverns, sibylline and ancient, repository of funeral urns and carved marble caskets, hidden yet enduring, hollows where old secrets settle like dust. Visiting the underworld places, I experienced the reverse of the sky-falling sensation in my Siena bedroom. Time’s ancient sag pulled at my feet.

         How do Italians cope, I wondered. How do they maintain a sense of time and perspective living with all these layers? I managed to ask an Italian about that fine balance. What was it like to walk every day on the roofs of history?  His shrug was unreadable. “It’s just there,” he said. “Like you and I.”

        In America, this new world, we’re excited by excavations into our brief history. We have Underground Atlanta and Underground Seattle. Old signs and gas lights, broken crockery and inscribed bricks give us a spooky thrill. Italians don’t visit their past, they coexist with it, they walk with ghosts, reuse their stones, copy their earthenware.

Italians seem secure with the stewardship of their ghosts. Their streets are old and sure, the paths well marked. Living among stones cut and set in place by generations of ancestors confers a sense of continuity and strength, permission and perspective. Their culture is founded on rock. That rock may be washed by tides, by the blood of armies, but it is always there, along with the path and the people.

To travel in Italy, to drive the roads, eat the food, settle in one place, is to occupy a comfortable room where you are a temporary guest. I left with little understanding of what makes the Italian heart tick, what passions drive the feuding contrade in Siena, what archaic voice calls the hunter to the hunt, what thoughts flit through the heads of the young women carrying the statue of the Virgin on a feast day. I left without understanding, but I left altered. It was as if I had tried to probe time, plunged into darkness only to be driven back by light. I may have failed to read the passion inscribed in the stone and earth of Italy, but I live with its vibration.