An overworked American mom finds bliss in a 1000-year-old monastery on a hilltop in Tuscany.
Time Here: 4:30 p.m.
Time Elsewhere: Nowhere else exists. There’s just this place, this sunlight, this peace, this moment in time… In Cortona, Italy.
I’m writing this on a stone terrace with wrought iron railings, high on a hillside over the Chianna Valley and Trasimeno Lake. Church bells are chiming from a medieval cathedral. Birds chirp, a rooster crows in the valley, and gray birds are cooing from a hole in an old stone wall. I think they’re doves, but not the mourning kind. Just the cooing, nestle-in-old-holes-and-wiggle-your-feathers kind. There are flowers, blooming hot-pink and warm-orange, in terra-cotta pots. They’re swaying in the breeze, under the sun, below a cobalt sky so blue that it hurts your eyes. The flowers look happy. I know just how they feel. It’s a Zen moment, in a Catholic monastery, in an Italian countryside, experienced by an American mom who doesn’t often enough stop to smell the flowers.
Earlier this week (a different time, in a different country, but the same week and the same Me), I was having packing-passport-panic and travel anxiety and Why Is There All This Confusion In The World dwellings. Now though, the angst is gone, melted into the steep streets of this beautiful, beautiful place. The Italians use the word “beautiful” a lot, and now I understand why.
I’m sitting before a huge panoramic view. It ebbs and flows, rolling gently below, and the sight makes me feel small and large all at the same time. I like looking down on the Tuscan rooftops, which are exactly as I’ve imagined they will be. There is beauty as far as the eye can see.
The Hotel Oasi Neumann is a hotel, as the name says, yes, but it’s also a holy place. It’s a place where monks rested their heads, and had faith in things unseen. There’s a peace here, a tranquility, a stop-the-world-I’m-getting-off philosophy that’s almost a religion. My monastery room has a luminous oil painting of the Virgin Mary holding her baby. It is outlined in gold. An angel holds a candle in the echoing hall upstairs, offering her light in the reverberating space.
There’s a small TV in my room. Most of the shows are in Italian, and I discover that I really like that. It’s relaxing. This language shimmies and rolls and flows, somewhat like the landscape, and I’ve learned the words for Thank You and Good Morning and Please and Excuse Me and Bathroom and Beautiful.
There are massive windows with no screens in the hotel rooms. When I flung open my shutters this morning and leaned out upon the cool windowsill, I felt like the character in that movie “Under The Tuscan Sun.” You know the one: An American woman finds peace and tranquility in Cortona.
The journey began in Rome, a place where a multitude of journeys have started. It was in the capital city that I met Patrick Mahoney, the producing director of the company for which I’m teaching a writing workshop: Toscana Americana.
It begins with the trains. I love trains. There’s something about the rhythm and the romance and the chugging forward and the view. Italian trains are comfortable, too, with spacious blue seats and gigantic windows. These are some of the cleanest trains you’ve ever seen. The view from the train leaving Rome was resplendent with fields of dazzling sunflowers (it really is true!), stucco-roofed buildings that have been here forever, castles and towers and churches and villas, and Etruscan hilltop structures that took my breath away and made me wonder where this place has been all of my life. It was a great train ride.
My writing workshop students – John and Holly – as well as John’s wife Suzanne, met Patrick and me in Rome, and we became easily acquainted during the two hours on the winding tracks of central Italy. Patrick has a knack for immediately seeing to it that the participants are comfortable and relaxed, with a boyish charm and wide smile. This is a man who clearly understands the meaning of “public relations.” Even though you know that he’s seen these wondrous sights a thousand times, Patrick Mahoney is looking at the sunflowers and the towers and the hills anew: through his visitors’ eyes, and his respect for the people and the countryside shines forth. His enthusiasm is contagious, and by the time we arrived on the high winding streets of Cortona, I was flying on adrenaline, despite (or maybe because of) my long sleep-deprived flight.
Dinner was prefaced pleasantly with a wine and chocolate tasting in the open air in the walled city, at a place called La Saletta. There’s blue light in the bar, and wrought iron sidewalk tables. This is a perfect starting place for the week, as the evening strollers pass And people perch on the piazza steps nearby.
The waiter informed us of the cocoa contents of various chocolates, and presented a serrated knife on a breadboard resplendent with two thick rich chunks of dark chocolate. There were plates of individually-wrapped candies. I thought that maybe the plane had crashed and I went to Heaven.
Dinner was at La Locanda nel Loggiato Ristorante in the Piazza di Pescheria. Saying it out loud is like reciting a poem. The meal was a splendiferous work of art. There were hand-painted plates of various appetizers, the first course, the second course, another course, pasta, antipasto, dessert. I had lots of things that I can’t pronounce and forget how to spell, but they were decadent and scrumptious. My dessert was strawberries and gelato. Oh, the gelato! I wax euphoric about Italy’s ice cream, which is like stars and moon melted on your spoon.
At dinner, I learned a lot about the Italian culture and history and language and food. I discovered that the waiters here seem to always be smiling and patient and so ready to serve you, Madame. They are also rather bemused by tourists who gamely attempt to order like a local.
I learned that Cortona is full of handmade linens, and that the toilets flush from the wall. I learned that the custom of toasting with wine came from the days when the drink might have been poisoned, and that arms should never be crossed while clinking the glasses. (It’s bad luck, and this is a good luck kind of place). I learned that the locals all seem to know and love Patrick, who’s a native of New England but a zealous convert to the lifestyles of Toscana. I also learned that my student John (who’s a Lutheran minister) uses a 1970s beer commercial as the tune for his family grace. I love that.
The sparrows were flying, dipping ecstatically in the air over La Locanda nel Loggiato, chirping like you’ve never heard birds chirp. This was nighttime. Why were they so happy? Oh, yes, I know the answer. After dinner, we all meandered back to the place of the wine and chocolate tasting. I’m allergic to wine, which is really a sad thing to have to say when in Italy. I’m not allergic to chocolate, though, and so I had some more. I took some back to my room. I’m taking some home, too, if it makes it through the long flight without me dipping into the stash.
This morning began with coffee like I never get in Pennsylvania, and a nice breakfast served by Andrea, an animated man speaking fast Italian. Another nice man served a pleasant lunch, speaking speedy Italian. We didn’t understand anything, so we just said yes to everything. It started with the bread (the quintessentia
l Italian bread, with olive oil. Man – and woman -can indeed live by bread alone, if they live in Tuscany.) Pastas and salads and biscotti and espresso arrived, presented with pride on the handmade linen tablecloths, in the dining room with gold-flake antique paintings of warriors and saints. I’ve been blessed. This eating is a sacred thing.
I learned more at breakfast. I learned from John the fable of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem where Mary leaked milk while nursing Jesus. People of today scrape the stains and drink the scrapings. It’s magical stuff. I learned that there’s a church in Rome, built on Peter’s bones. I learned that there’s a dead Pope in red shoes, on display for public view. He was pumped too full of the stuff morticians use, and the poor guy is now preserved like a wax museum figure. I learned that one can apply to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the excavated tombs. I learned that my student Holly has a daughter whose name became Corey Feldman after marriage. I learned that lots of crispy biscotti can be consumed with just one teeny-weeny cup of very strong espresso.
The workshop started this morning, and my students worked hard. They’re writing now, as I write this. I must go now, though, to shower for dinner. The meals here last for oh, about 2 to 3 hours. We’re having dinner at La Saletta. It’s World Cup Soccer night – Italy versus France – and we’ll be joining the cheering throngs.
Go, Italy. You’ve given me all this: You deserve to win.
Linda Oatman High is the author of 20 books for children and teens, and her first adult book – “The Hip Grandmas Handbook” – will be published in September. Please see www.lindaoatmanhigh.com for info on Linda and her work.