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Seasons of an Italian Life

Written by Frances MayesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Frances Mayes



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On Sale: March 09, 2010
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59008-4
Published by : Broadway Books Crown Trade Group

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On Sale: March 09, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-70297-5
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND A TIMELESS CLASSIC FROM THE AUTHOR OF UNDER MAGNOLIA
 
Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opnes the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion.

Excerpt

Buongiorno, Luca    

In winter-cold blue light, the bells of Cortona ring louder. The cold iron clapper hitting the frozen bell produces clear, shocked, hard gongs that reverberate in the heads of us frozen ones in the piazza, ringing in our skulls and down to our heels, strikingthe paving stones. In leafy summer, when softened air diffuses the bells, the clarion call accompanies but does not insist; the bells remind, punctuate, inspire. As a benison to the day, the reverberations settle on those nursing cappuccino in the piazza, thenfade, sending last vibrations out to the circling swallows. But in winter, the solitary sounds feel more personal, as though they ring especially for you. I even can feel the sound waves in my teeth as I smile my umpteenth greeting of the morning.  

Returning in early March, I'm thrilled to see my friends in the piazza. We greet each other as though I have been gone for a year instead of four months. I love the first trip back into town after an absence. I walk every street, assessing the state ofthe union. What has changed, who has traveled to Brazil, what's on display at the vegetable market, who has married, died, moved to the country? What's on exhibit at the museum? Half of an enormous cow hangs by a hook in the butcher's, a square of paper towelon the floor to catch the last three splats of blood. Under neon, red meat in the cases reflects a lavender light on the faces of two venerable signoras leaning in to inspect today's veal cheeks and pork roasts. Orange lilies against the glass steam the flowershop window with their hothouse breath, and there's Mario, a blur among them, arranging a row of primroses.  

Winter returns Cortona to its original self. The merchants along the main street complain that all winter long the town feels dead. Non c'e nessuno. There's no one. They wonder if the tourists will return this year. "The dollar is broken, the euro likea hot air balloon," Fabrizio says as he whooshes the imaginary balloon into the sky, then spirals his hands. I visualize a striped balloon heading toward Mars. In Italian, part of every conversation takes place without words. A woman on her cell phone in thepiazza paces, gestures, stops, slings back her head, paces again. She says grazie fifteen times, laughs. She's on stage, a monologue actor. When she hangs up, she snaps shut the phone, shoves it in her enormous borsa, and charges ahead toward her shopping.  

I pause to look at shoes, then sweaters. "That war of yours. It's costing the whole world," Daria scolds, as though I personally have bombed Iraq. She's sweeping off her already clean threshold. They forget that when the lira converted to the euro, almosteveryone abruptly raised their prices; some simply started charging in euros the same amount they'd charged in lire, effectively doubling the cost of their pizza, shirts, coffee, albums, and pasta. Since Italian wages hardly have moved, most people today arefeeling more than a pinch. "Not to worry," our friend Arturo says. "There are two Italies. One economy in sight and another whole economy out of sight.

Everyone has their own ways never revealed to the statisticians. You get paid in cash--nobody knows." This,I think, applies more to independent work and less to the shop owners, who have to give receipts. If I walk out of the bar with no receipt for my panino, the Guardia di Finanzia could fine the owner and me. When I buy a chicken, I am astonished--14.65 euros--twenty-threedollars at the current exchange rate. I think of the reconstruction South prices after the Civil War. What is happening to our country? Our dollar is debole, weak, shockingly so.  

With the wind that must have originated in the snowy Alps, thirty-five degrees feels like zero. "Che bello, you have returned before the swallows," Lina says. Because it is Women's Day, three people give me sprays of mimosa, which I love for its brilliantyellow in the stony gray air. Massimo offers coffee, and later, so does Claudio. Roberto at the frutta e verdura gives me an extra-large sack of odori, the vegetables and herbs used for seasoning. I see that Marco has closed his art gallery and expanded hisenoteca into the adjoining space. There are two tables for wine tastings and the new display cases are handsome. Still, it's sad to lose the gallery, where many regulars exhibited by the week, hanging their own work and sitting out in the piazza with friendsor making friends, while people wandered in and out. But then I see Roberto in the post office and he says he's starting a new gallery around the corner. The museum will expand to accommodate recent archaeological discoveries at the Etruscan sites and the Romanvilla our friends Maurizio and Helena have excavated. A new chocolate shop has appeared in my absence. It looks as though it landed from Belgium. The hot chocolate tastes creamy and unctuous. An instant hit. The two restaurants that opened last fall are doingwell. One already has the reputation for making one of the best coffees in town. It was there, when I stood at the bar sipping my macchiato, that I overheard two tourists. One said, "I saw Frances Mayes's husband, Ed, driving a Fiat. A Fiat--and one of thosetiny ones. Wouldn't you think they'd have something better than that?" I turned away so they would not recognize me and become mortified. I love my yellow Panda.  

To everything its season, and this is the season to replaster, repair hinges, revise menus, clean courtyards and stairways. From the corner table at Bar Signorelli, I watch this spirited activity along the street. Everyone prepares for the spring and summerthat they hope will bring back those innocents with a passion for shoes, leather books, dining, ceramics, peaches, Super Tuscans, and all the good things on offer in this lively hill town.    

**

As I stir my cappuccino, I greet the charcoal self-portrait of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli above the soft-drink fridge. I'm on a Signorelli quest. He was born here, and spent his life painting all over Tuscany, the Marche, and in Rome. Famous,yes, but in my opinion, internationally undervalued. He always presides over my morning-coffee libations. In the local building superintendent's office, I've signed documents under another copy of Signorelli's self-portrait, which shows my man to be blond asan angel, with direct blue eyes and a strong jaw. A main piazza is named for Signorelli. The local museum features his work. Everyone believes that his fall from scaffolding in the chapel of the Palazzo Passerini caused his death.  

Without doubt, he spent charmed parts of his life centered on the piazza, where he most likely ran into a friend one rainy morning and heard the news that da Vinci, what a fantasist, has conceived of a flying machine. Someone tells him that Michelangelohas obtained a great piece of marble (destined to become the David), and maybe even that far away a German named Gutenberg just invented a machine to print books. It's easy to see Signorelli in gold-trimmed green velvet, sun glazing his light hair, intent ashis neighbor mentions that the Pope has excommunicated Venice, and, has he heard, an ancient statue called the Laocoon has been excavated in Rome. In his spotted painter's smock, he raises a glass in his dim studio and listens as his cousin, just back fromRome, describes the newly invented flush toilet. Going home at night, he bumps into Giovanni, the friar at the Dominican convent, whose sweet ways later earned him the name Fra Beato Angelico. His was a heady era. I know that as a local magistrate he was stoppedconstantly and asked for favors, just as Andrea, our mayor, is this morning. Signorelli, as a preeminent artist and also as a genius loci presence, continues to rise up through layers of time. He's an old friend by now.    

**

The piazza, for a Roman, for Signorelli, for me, for that baby in the red stroller, exists as a great old savings bank of memory. It is a body; it is a book to read, if you are alive to its language. I could offer Luca a caffe if he would just open thedoor and with a toss of his yellow hair, stride in. He's here; he never left.  

Campanilismo, a condition of being: When you live within the sound of the campanile, church bell, you belong to the place. Command central, carnival ride, conference center, living room, forum--the piazza also is fun. Never dull. Today the barista flourishesmy cappuccino to the table. He has formed a chocolate heart in the foam. He shouts to me, "Americans don't drink coffee; they drink stained water."  

"Sporca miseria!" I reply, attempting a pun on a mild curse, porca miseria, which eloquently means "pig misery." My wordplay means "dirty misery." I'm gratified with laughs from both bariste.  

Lorenzo is just back from Florida. He buys my coffee and I ask about his trip. "Very nice." And then, staring out at the piazza, he adds, "Meglio qui a Cortona." Better here in Cortona. "America," he sighs. "Either empty and there is nothing, or thereis too much."  

At home in the U.S. of A., I play a CD of the Cortona bells when I feel homesick. Old photos around town show the Allies whizzing in on tanks, liberating Cortona. So familiar is this image, I almost think I was there. The oldest memories, of the Romanforum lying layers below the cobbles, and the even earlier, deeper Etruscan streets, continue to inform the spirit of the place. Memory steams through the baked crust. Old people still call Piazza Garibaldi carbonaia, recalling the place where men brought theircharcoal to sell. Via Nazionale to some is still the rough and rustic Rugapiana, flat street.    

**

The rhythms of the piazza are an ancient folk dance. In summer, the doors of the town hall open and the bride and groom descend the steps into the piazza, where we all gather, even for the weddings of strangers from the Netherlands or England. This iswhere the new life begins. The newborn is strolled up and down. Boys learn soccer by kicking the ball up against the Etruscan Museum. I've been in the piazza at three a.m. in February. Someone with a cell phone wedged between his ear and shoulder leans againstthe crumbling Ghibelline lion and gestures with both hands. A young man crosses on the diagonal, whistling, or two people are talking, their breath wreathing their heads. The piazza is never empty. And if it were, it still would not be empty. Luca would bethere.  

The piazza speaks pure Italian--speaks of who lives here and why. Alberto, my architect friend, and I once tried to quantify the meaning of the piazza in purely practical terms. We measured and analyzed piazzas all over Tuscany, looking at their numbersof entrances, the kinds of buildings and businesses that contribute to the liveliness of a piazza, those that are dead spaces, the patterns of entrances and exits, and still there was something mysterious.    

**

This morning a lone tourist appears, guidebook in hand, bundled in down. In the gelid light, she looks like a just-hatched bird, mouth open as she stares at the town hall clock and the surrounding buildings. She removes her knitted hat and her wispy hair,damp against her head, looks as though a little albumen still sticks to her. She glances toward the antiques in a just-polished window. Two shop owners stand in their doorways, eyeing her movements: the hawks and the fledgling.  

I'm done. Buongiorno, Luca. See you tomorrow. My rounds: groceries, book store, post office, many stops to say hello, flower shop for a few yellow roses for my desk. I shouldn't have bothered. En route home, another Claudio gives me a pot of pansies; Gildadrops off camellias, mimosas, and pink hyacinths at Bramasole; and Fabio leaves on the step a handsome creamy cymbidium. Vittoria brings a bouquet of viburnums to our shrine. I've never before heard of Women's Day, a national holiday in Italy, which commemorateslives lost in a New York factory fire in 1912, but I'm overwhelmed by the gifts of so many flowers. By the end of my first day back, flowers ignite every room of my house, giving the impression of warmth to stony rooms that have absorbed the brunt of winter.    

**

The night finishes at Corys, down the road from us at the Torreone crossroad. Renato and Giuseppe, the co-managers of the hotel-restaurant, are busy serving a table of twenty teenagers who now and then break into song. Ah, no, "Volare"--oh, oh, oh, oh.Papa-bear Giuseppe envelops Ed and me together in a grand hug. Of Lebanese background, he was raised in Rome and has brought to Cortona an unerring good taste in food and wine. He always tells us exactly what we are to eat and drink. He brings over a bloodstonered wine we've never seen, from just around the bend near Lago Trasimeno. Renato catches us up on the news. He is building a "beauty farm" in the old stone parish house attached to the church across the road. He is a wiry man with lank black curls and intenseeyes, a consummate Italian cynic with a wild humor. He talks with his whole body. Electrical charges run through his veins. I love to watch him, especially when he's furious with the hunters who are parking in his spaces. He almost levitates with anger. I expecthim to tear out his hair at any moment or go up in a puff of smoke. Then the anger dissolves and he's joking again.  
"A spa and a church together? The body and the spirit?" Ed asks.  
"Yes, finally, and the graveyard is there, too, so everything can be taken care of."  
Seems surreal, but I can see us heading there for the massages, manicures, and steam bath. "Are we invited?"   "Certo, cara"--certainly, darling. "I am building it for you."  

After the antipasto table with fifty tastes, and a big plate of ravioli stuffed with pecorino and speck, and chicken cooked under a brick, Giuseppe brings over five boxes of Amedei chocolates for tasting. The beans come from Madagascar, Trinidad, Jamaica,all over the chocolate map. Then with a diabolical grin, he puts down a plate of gorgonzola cremosa so delicious that I'm wanting to lick the scoop. Just as we are about to push back, he pours a digestivo we've never tried, a Barolo Chinato, aged Barolo withwhat we finally figure out is quinine. It's complex and meditative, unlike many digestivi that bring to mind being force-fed cough syrup as a child, my mother prying the spoon between my clenched teeth. We are mellow and commossi, emotionally moved, by thelargesse of our friends. As we leave, Giuseppe's young daughter, Leda, brings me a branch of mimosa.  


From the Hardcover edition.
Frances Mayes

About Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes - Every Day in Tuscany

Photo © Will Garin/Banner Media Group

FRANCES MAYES is the author of four books about Tuscany. The now-classic Under the Tuscan Sun–which was a New York Times bestseller for more than two and a half years and became a Touchstone movie starring Diane Lane. It was followed by Bella Tuscany and two illustrated books, In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home. She is also the author of the novel, Swan, six books of poetry, and The Discovery of Poetry. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Praise

Praise

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

“An intense celebration of what [Mayes] calls 'the voluptuousness of Italian life'...appealing and very vivid...[The] book seems like the kind of thing you'd tuck into a picnic basket on an August day...or better yet, keep handy on the bedside table in the depths of January.”
—New York Times Book Review

“This beautifully written memoir about taking chances, living in Italy, loving a house, and, always, the pleasures of food, would make a perfect gift for a loved one. But it's so delicious, read it first yourself.”
—USA Today

“Mayes [has] perfect vision...I do not doubt that centuries from now, whoever lives in Bramasole will one day uncover bits of pottery used at Mayes's table. She has, by the sweat of her brow and the strength of her vision, become a layer in the history of this place.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Irresistible...a sensuous book for a sensuous countryside.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[A] parade of art, food, elemental landscape and abiding camaraderie...stir[s] the reader’s gastric juices with luscious tales...Food is the pivot around which her days swing, and Mayes serves it forth with brio and dash-and recipes.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Mayes’s affectionate and warm memoir vividly celebrates the lush abundance and charm of daily life in the Italian countryside.”
—Publisher's Weekly

“The woman who singlehandedly started the travel-memoir craze returns with more on her life in Tuscany...With a four-city tour; can't miss.”
—Library Journal

“We’re right there with Mayes, fighting every urge to jump straight into these sun-soaked and citrus-scented pages...Mayes is generous with her thoughts, and her evocative writing simply oozes charm and warmth. In these times, this quick read is a thoroughly enjoyable way to visit Italy without once considering the heartbreaking dollar-to-euro conversion rate.”
—Booklist
Reader's Guide

About the Book

Every Day in Tuscany Readers’ Guide
Frances Mayes
 
About this Guide
Celebrating friendship and the pleasures of life in a beloved corner of Italy, Every Day in Tuscany is a book that is meant to be shared. Gather your friends for a special reading-group experience, feasting on the recipes as well as Frances Mayes’s evocative reflections on the timeless beauty of Cortona. We hope that the following topics and questions will enhance your journey.
 
Introduction
In 1990, Frances Mayes made a daring decision to restore an abandoned thirteenth-century villa in the lush Tuscan countryside. Approaching the twentieth anniversary of that life-changing experience, she began to write a sequel to her previous bestselling memoirs, offering a deeply personal narrative of the changes she has experienced since Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany first appeared. One incident, in particular, becomes a touchstone for memory, forgiving, and surprise. The result is a captivating tour of renewal among the townspeople of Cortona as the seasons unfold. From the treasures of the garden to the enduring triumphs of Renaissance painters, Mayes writes of a place where beauty thrives.
 
No longer a newcomer, she welcomes us back to her other homeland, where strangers become cherished friends, communities thrive by resisting the hectic pace of the modern world, and families honor their rich history. And always there is succulent cooking: a hearty seafood stew, a seasonal plum tart, and much more, in recipes captured in each chapter. You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to relish the daily joys of Tuscany. Its enchanting hillside landscape and the vibrant people who inhabit it are brought vividly to life on the pages of Every Day in Tuscany, a book that beckons you to savor it again and again over the years—just as Frances Mayes has done in her twenty-year love affair with one of the world’s most endearing locales.
 
Questions for Discussion
1. Frances Mayes explores the process of “taking” a decision (rather than making one) and being taken by decisions as well. Italy, she writes, took hold of her and shaped her in its image. How has she been transformed by her second home over the past two decades? What impact has she made on the community of Cortona? What decisions have “taken” you in your own life?
 
2. In the opening pages of Every Day in Tuscany, Frances Mayes describes an unsettling dream she’s had in which she must choose between her house, Bramasole, and her right arm. How does she grapple with her sometimes conflicting feelings about Bramasole? What spurs her to occasionally consider living without it? What makes our relationships to our homes very different from relationships with other material possessions? 
 
3. From cold spring rains to the lavish scent of lemon trees at their peak, Mayes describes a community that is constantly aware of nature. Discuss the seasonal aspects of life in Tuscany. Is your life in tune with the seasons? What can we gain by listening to the natural world?
 
4. Much has changed on the world stage since Mayes’s early days in Cortona. How do her Italian friends perceive her American identity? What are some of the cultural challenges of her expatriate life?
 
5. Discuss the many kinds of love that are captured in Every Day in Tuscany: between Ed and Frances; among their friends and family members; of place; and of life itself, in all its everyday joys. What does it take to bring more love into a life?
 
6. Mayes describes the economic factors she encounters in decisions large and small, and in the lives of those throughout Cortona. How does she measure “costs” (financial and emotional) as she and Ed prepare for the next chapter of their lives? How is security measured and defined in a world that is not driven by materialism?
 
7. What were your reactions as Frances and Ed discussed major renovations for Bramasole? Would you have simply replaced the roof, or would you have said yes to the extensive changes? To what extent is the imperfect state of Bramasole part of its charm?
 
8. Hospitality is a key component to life in Cortona. Does your community emphasize hospitality to the same degree? Why do you suppose this is so? Why is it revitalizing for Tuscan families to host many friends?
 
9. Every Day in Tuscany unfolds as a series of beautiful images and powerful memories. How did Mayes’s voice as a poet shape the format of this book? How does it mirror the way life unfolds?
 
10. Mayes describes the threats she received after signing a petition against a proposed swimming pool near her property. What does this incident tell us about the encroaching modern world and Cortona’s attempts to remain unspoiled? Compared to Americans, how do Italians handle resistance? What are the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches?
 
11. Mayes’s memoir includes several recollections of threats and sorrows she and Ed have experienced in the United States and abroad. What does she offer as the best antidote to fear and tragedy? How have she and Ed created “safety” in their lives?
 
12. Discuss the children who visit Bramasole. What is Mayes’s legacy to them? What aspects of life in Tuscany do you predict will remain unchanged for many generations to come?
 
13. As you read about Lucas Signorelli’s works, what timeless aspects of his culture came to mind? Would he feel at home in Frances Mayes’s Tuscany, just as she feels at home immersed in his art?
 
14. What universal truths did Mayes learn from Willie Bell? What aspects of a southern childhood does Mayes carry with her, no matter where she lives? What aspects of your childhood are forever part of your own identity?
 
15. Renewal and moving forward are primary quests in this book. What tactics and solitary pursuits described here might you adopt?
 
16. In addition to Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes’s previous nonfiction includes Bella Tuscany and  A Year in the World, as well as the illustrated books Bringing Tuscany Home and In Tuscany. Discuss the ones you have read. What are the constants in her life? At the same time, how do her books inspire us to constantly reinvent ourselves?
 
About the Author
In addition to her Tuscany memoirs, Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes is the author of the travel memoir A Year in the World; the illustrated books In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home; Swan, a novel; The Discovery of Poetry, a text for readers; and five books of poetry. She divides her time between homes in Italy and North Carolina. 
Frances Mayes

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Frances Mayes - Every Day in Tuscany

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