Welcome back, dear reader, or perhaps you should be welcoming me back. For it has been quite some time since I have put pen to paper (figuratively) to recount our foreign adventures.
What a paradox. It has been more than three years since we bought our villa in Umbria – la Fattoria del Gelso – and since that time we have made well over a dozen trips to Italy. Over that span we have encountered so many blogworthy personalities, enjoyed so many memorable experiences, seen, heard, ate and drank so many special things that we should have been chronicling, preserving, broadcasting. But such is the life of the landed gentry, the nouveau gentleman farmer, that life – work, that is – has in the interim intruded on my ability to record. Without appearing to complain, during those many visits there has simply been too much to do, too many people to take care of, too many crises to manage, too much of this and way too much of that, to write. What a pity, for the past three years are a book in themselves, the story of two incredibly naïve Americans, armed with only their burning passion for Italy, and how they triumphed over a sometimes hostile, but more frequently indifferent Italian bureaucracy, a contorted legal and commercial system and an always amusingly foreign mindset to realize their dream. And how, along the way, they managed to eat and drink a little, establish new friendships and make a home here.
So during this weeklong trip, work as we may, I hope to reintroduce myself to you and to show you around the place a little. By the end of our journey I think you will agree with me that we have created something special.
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How odd, too, that our last 18 days of travel in Europe have not been in Italy, but in France. The final two weeks of a marathon summer vacation with our children that took us to Provence and Paris and this week’s all too brief stop in Paris to visit some dear friends. And what a wonderful place is France and what an incredible and intoxicating culture they have created. Its sophistication, richness, art, food, transport, style. So many of the things that we have fallen in love with about Italy. But behind these apparent similarities lies a vast difference. At least to my pop psychology way of thinking (and based upon my incredibly deep experience of 18 days in France) the French culture is a culture that they have created. It is intentional and purpose driven. Italian culture, with which I am much more familiar, may have been guided by intention and shaped by conscious decisions, but it is more organic than the French. The Italians just tinker with it less.
Look at their cities. Paris gleams. It is big, clean, modern, the buildings are harmonious, stylish, in good repair. They reflect on their citizens and their citizens take pride in this show to the world. Rome? A different story. It is a city with a historical pedigree matched by few cities in the world. Around every bend is another history lesson. But that history is housed in edifices that are caked with grime, whose facades, when not covered by scaffolding are peeling and crumbling. To the Italian, however, it does not seem to matter. The import is the soul of the building, what it represents, not what it looks like. I honestly believe that when a Roman wanders through his hometown he does not see the decay around him, but rather the Imperial Rome of two centuries ago, his eyes deceiving him like those flip books of the ancient monuments with their transparencies that fit atop the drawings of the current buildings to show how they were decorated in antiquity. It is hard to imagine a Frenchman allowing the Eiffel Tower to be covered with rust or the Sacre Coeur to be in need of a paint job.
Last week we visited Monet’s home in Giverney. There, the painter created the most beautiful gardens, works of art that he then often used as a subject of his paintings. But create them he did. He intentionally set about to design something that replicated and improved upon nature, introducing exotic plants and flowers, manipulating and arranging colors, building ponds to create something of astonishing beauty. That a half million visitors come to see his gardens each year and that millions more stand agape in front of his paintings of them is testimony that his creation succeeded. Nonetheless, I believe that a typical Italian’s garden, built in nature rather than circumscribing it, with a vine covered arbor fashioned by hand, tufts of grass exploding here, a small utilitarian vegetable garden there, is more beautiful still.
And food. No doubt we have eaten well, in fact incredibly, in France. Feasts for the eyes and the tongue. Sublime combinations of the best ingredients, subtle sauces, unforgettable perfumes. But like Monet’s gardens, these are, often, contrivances, towers that are created to reflect and best nature. In French food, we see the highest expression of man’s ability to create beauty from food, but in the end it is manmade nonetheless. But Italian food is not created, at least not the simple food we eat. It just is. Fettunta, toasted bread scraped with garlic and slathered with olive oil, did not need to be invented, it simply needed to be cherished, to be put on the same pedestal as chateaubriand with bernaise sauce. It is the gift of the Italians to be able to see and taste so clearly the essentials, to sense and appreciate the beauty and spirit within the dilapidated building. It is the genius of the Italians to rightly cherish this simple perfection without trying to change or improve it.
And it is this quality that keeps us coming back here time and time again.