This is Tuscany

florence instagramFrances Mayes hit the nail on the head with her book and subsequent movie about Tuscany. I won’t even mention the title here because everybody knows it. While some things in those classic portrayals of Tuscany may be exaggerated here and there, the essence is the same. All of it is true. I’ve experienced it first hand – sleeping in a renovated farm house in the countryside surrounded by olive groves; taking a stroll down to the piazza of a medieval village, waiting for the annual fair that celebrates the village’s hundreds of years of history to start. But there are other, more subtle details that define this culturally rich and stunning region. Away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Florence Duomo, and the myriad medieval villages, how do you know you’re in Tuscany?

Some hints: It’s being at the beach, standing on a lookout point and enjoying the view of the island of Corsica in the distance, then looking down to see a woman with bleached blond hair performing fellatio on her boyfriend. It’s the couples, mostly young, who linger against walls and fences in public places, unashamedly dry humping in broad daylight.

It’s noticing that there’s a lot of bleached blond hair, often complemented by bright blue mascara. It’s the 80’s fashion that’s not worn ironically. Doc Marteens, New Wave, asymmetrical hair cuts, nose piercings. And then there’s the ubiquitous leopard print worn by a large percentage of the female population, from young girls to old nonna. Sexy underwear, leggings, scarves, bags, jackets. Shoes, even.

It’s having dinner at a hundred-year-old restaurant (Italian of course, are there any other kinds in Italy?) and having your Italian dining companions burst into traditional Tuscan folk songs at the top of their lungs. It’s having the chef come out and join in.

It’s the 20- and 30-somethings who live in Florence and have to work three jobs to make ends meet. It’s the overqualified professionals who have worked abroad and returned home to find no place for them in the Tuscan job market which is a kind of mafia in itself and as dynamic as a dead boar.

It’s walking through Florence’s surprisingly ugly and shabby train station and seeing a feisty Italian couple in their late 20s having not only a screaming match, but punching and slapping each other. Nobody looks twice and my Italian companion tells me that it’s normal.

It’s the North African refugees/immigrants who walk around with loaded with piles of  random trinkets and other useless things. It’s nearly always men hawking these things, moving from bar to restaurant to street corner. As they can’t work legally, it’s the only way for them to get an income. The locals are annoyed but they usually remember their manners and shoo them away.

As a tourist, Tuscany offers many incredible things to see and eat. ‘Picturesque’ is far too diluted to describe the beauty of the region and its heritage. But lurking around the piazzas and castles lies a place that is living off the glory of its past. Soon, the region needs to realize it can’t capitalize on this forever.



In My Italian Dream

10383631_10152230773851853_4697526860467526129_nAnd old and rather Zoolanderish friend of mine from my university days recently posted some modeling shots of himself from some years ago. One photo caught my eye – of him sitting next to a Vespa with a smoldering look on his face in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. The caption he wrote was: ‘The photographer said, “Think you have just got out of bed and you are fixing your Vespa on a sunny morning in Rome.”‘ It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true. I lived this experience. I didn’t make it to Rome this time, but I did spend a fair amount of time on the back of two different Vespas, being driven around by one very handsome Italian, clinging to him like a koala. I spent time at the Vespa repair shop too. I learnt about the trajectory of the brand and the different models and heard all about the intricacies of finding and buying old parts and the quasi-communist payment system it entails. This was all a part of my Italian dream.

I slipped in and out of this dream in the two months I spent there. Sometimes the dream took over reality, like the first time I visited the shabby port city of Livorno in Tuscany and walked along the narrow canals, watched lovers kissing on the bridges and had my first taste of ponche, a local speciality which consists of espresso mixed with spirits. As I gazed up past the sheets hanging out to dry from the windows of four storied terracotta buildings built decades, if not centuries, ago, and scanned the stars in the sky, I wondered if I was on a movie set. As rain fell and we sought shelter under the canopy of a pizzeria, watching the ubiquitous lone African hawking umbrellas, would Fellini come chasing after me and swipe me with his pudgy hands and yell at me in Italian to VATTENNE (go away)?

10672204_10152230774971853_2200441193191780817_nI walked along Roman aqueducts hidden in a forest, through Roman ruins on the coast, around crumbling castles, in and out of monasteries, stood high atop a fascist-era tomb. I trudged through city centres where nuns and monks, beggars and merchants have walked for centuries, listening to the chime of church bells while licking gelato made from lavender. I observed meadows of sunflowers nod off at sunset, all witnessed from the back of a Vespa, zipping through the narrow back roads of Tuscany. I heard the waters of Venice lapping against the ancient, sinking piers as an orchestra played in Piazza San Marco, in almost complete darkness, apart from the moon and the silhouette of Venetian arches. I swam in the same  clear blue lakes as nobility and old monied families on vacation from Switzerland. I took in the view of an old Tuscan village from a restored farmhouse high upon a hill. I was literally under the Tuscan sun. And I stood in awe of many a dazzling Tuscan sunset – like the hottest, reddest fire burning into gold and then blackness.

And yet, while these moments are perhaps too beautiful and perfect to adequately describe or recapture in words – moments I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience in this lifetime, moments of reality seeped in. The gypsies who try to swipe your things at the train station. The young prostitutes standing on the side of the road. The mentally ill who want to fuck them in broad daylight in public. The shops and supermarkets constantly being closed. The fact that it’s so difficult to communicate and so easy to feel isolated. The realization that it’s your own fault because you were too disbelieving in your Italian dream to study much beforehand. The way that public transport doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t run on time. The astronomical cost of said public transport. The whining and justified pessimism of locals entering middle age who feel that there’s no way for them to get ahead. The tenacious clinging on of nepotism and a Byzantine bureaucracy designed to make your life a living hell. A youth disillusioned and/or brainwashed by twenty years of rule by the vacuous iPod Nano that is Berlusconi. A culture of immediate gratification and materialism, and hypocrisy.

And yet La Dolce Vita triumphs. I met her in my dream and now she haunts me while also comforting me. I close my eyes and dream of once again riding on the back of a Vespa, zipping through not only dreams, but also reality.