I would regale you with more tales of Florence but the fact is: I don’t think I could say anything new or interesting about it. It’s beautiful, it’s rustic and probably has more masterpieces per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world but it’s all been said before. Instead, I thought I’d tell you a fun story from just outside Florence, in the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy.
It all starts, as most things do, with a vision. In this case, literally a vision from the highest point in central Florence.
I was out of breath having just climbed the huge, never-ending hill behind the ginormous Palazzo Pitti (really, it’s disgustingly huge and pretty ugly to boot). While still nursing a full-body lactic acid build-up I decided to climb onto a rather narrow, precarious-looking wall and try to take a photo. That’s probably why the photo isn’t all that great — I was busy focusing on not falling off, and trying to catch my breath.
I don’t know who lives in that rather charming villa, but at that moment I decided to try and find out. I’d been trudging around the very small, densely-packed streets of Florence for three days and the view made me realise: I’m right in the middle of Tuscany, one of the most beautiful regions in Europe! With that epiphany I wasted no time and fled down the hill back to my hotel where I dumped my camera and any other valuables. I kept just my phone and some cash, and a piece of paper with my home address on it — why? I had no idea where I was going nor what I was going to do once I got there, wherever there might turn out to be. I didn’t want to put a total dampener on my trip and get mugged, so leaving the camera behind made sense, along with my credit cards and forms of identification (identity theft is serious business…!)
That means you don’t get any of my photos for this particular story; you’ll just have to imagine the horrors I’m about to describe.
I took the first bus that was heading out of town. I think it went west, but that’s just a guess — to this day, I don’t know where I went. Looking at a map now it could’ve been Scandiaci or Rinaldi or… who knows? The bus slowly motored its way beyond the city limits and wound its way through the hilly, serpentine roads beyond. I stayed on the bus for about 15 minutes until I was far enough away to be out of my comfort zone, but not so far that I couldn’t get a taxi back if shit hit the fan. I hopped out with a Grazie to the bus driver and looked around — a nondescript road lined by nondescript turquoise-grey trees (olives?) — perfect; Tuscany!
Following the avenue (original, non-American definition) into the dark, unlit town I started to wonder if this was actually a good idea. Why do ideas always start off sounding really great? Something about the thought of eating chocolate cake is better than the actual eating? Did I mention that it was October and the sun was setting quickly behind the seemingly-uninhabited settlement; it was a very pretty sight, but quite unnerving too. What now, Seb? I stood in the middle of the town and looked about hopelessly.
It looked something like this only, um, darker — amazing how hard it is to find images of Italian villages in the dark…
There was only one building with lights on, a little way out of town and up a hill. Well, I either go and check if anyone’s in, or head back to Florence… Yet again, after the climb, I was out of breath. Holidays are, ironically, the only time I actually get cardiac exercise (I need a girlfriend). I raised my hand to knock but at at the exact same moment the door swung inward, the bright light framing and silhouetting a short, almost-spherical figure.
“Buonasera” a voice said said and I repeated it back to the shadowy person in acknowledgement, smiling apologetically for my English accent. There’s an uncomfortable moment where I can’t see their eyes but I know they’re looking at me, sizing me up. The shadow eventually steps back to hold the door open, revealing a quizzical middle-aged Italian woman whose every sense is boring into me. She sighs.“Prego, prego.” Reluctantly I am waved in and she shuts the door. Then she deadlocks it.
I follow her further into the old farmhouse, running my hands along pocked oak beams, nibbled for centuries by woodworm. The walls are rendered and bumpy, whitewashed in the simple, continental fashion. Brickwork appears in places, no doubt replacing damage sustained by continued use for — perhaps – 500 years. We reach the kitchen and I’m greeted by a wall of smiles — wonky, missing-toothed smiles, but happy faces nonetheless! I smile back at all five of them, not really sure of what the standard greeting for such an occasion is:
Hi, I’m a tourist with more money than sense, but I fancied a taste of real Italian food, so here I am, invading your lovely 16th century farmhouse with my fast, hairy, British body that is a good foot taller than your door frames;
I was pushed off the bus by a nasty driver, and I’m hungry and I have no where to sleep and I’m scared of the dark… so… if you could kindly look after me…
Considering I know almost no Italian, I had to settle for Buonasera, mi chiamo Sebastiano!!! which seemed to do the trick. Before I know it, I’m being ushered to the head of the table while the youngest son grabs some more cutlery. Over my left shoulder unnamed hands pass me crusty bread while the eldest son grins and passes me the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Plates are being placed before me faster than I can clear them: salamis and prosciutto, lemon-marinated olives and bruschetta, slices of tomato and buffalo mozzarella — that was just the appetiser!
All told I think we had a total of five courses and about ten different dishes, each one washed down with the finest of Chiantis. There was even some fava beans, but the Hannibal Lecter joke that I delivered fell on unappreciative ears. Dessert consisted of biscotti dunked in thick, syrupy dessert wine that tasted like a pound of sugar diluted in water. And then coffee, of course, with a port chaser. Finally, after nodding and smiling through various stories — no doubt the standard, embarrassing family tales that are always brought out at special occasions — I curled up in front of the dying embers of their living room fire and fell asleep.
Sadly there was no dog to lick my toes, or a farmer’s daughter to deflower but beggars can not be choosers, right? I’d succeeded in experiencing the familial Italian way of life and in eating lots of proper Italian food.
Next, I’m going to try and tackle the story of the Venetian jail without getting myself into trouble. But I reserve the right to skip right onto Rome…!