Frances 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.