Sabbatical, what a civilized idea. All jobs should have them. This year both Ed and I have this blessed time-out, which, combined with summer vacation, gives us the chance to spend six months in Italy. Since this is my first leave in twenty years of teaching, I want to bask in every day. To wake up--without having to go anywhere--and wander the terraces to see what is coming into bloom seems like paradiso. Soon the wild irises will open. Their pointy, bruise-blue heads seem to push up taller as I watch. Narcissi, just on the verge of glory, run rampant. Already, yellow light emanates from the buds.
I am, every day, shocked by something new and shocked that this house and land, which I thought I knew from my summers and Decembers, continue to astound me. We stepped off the plane in Florence on March 15 to seventy-degree weather and it has held, except for occasional blasts of wind. Now, the pears are turning from flower to leaf. As white petals drop or flurry--I remember hearing "peach-blow" as a child--new leaves shoot out with force. That energy has swollen the limbs of all the old fig trees and the branches of the spindly pomegranate we have just planted.
Happiness? The color of it must be spring green, impossible to describe until I see a just-hatched lizard sunning on a stone. That color, the glowing green lizard skin, repeats in every new leaf. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower . . ." Dylan Thomas wrote. "Fuse" and "force" are excellent word choices--the regenerative power of nature explodes in every weed, stalk, branch. Working in the mild sun, I feel the green fuse of my body, too. Surges of energy, kaleidoscopic sunlight through the leaves, the soft breeze that makes me want to say the word "zephyr"--this mindless simplicity can be called happiness.
A momentous change has occurred at Bramasole. "Can you find someone to take care of the place?" I asked signor Martini at the end of last summer. We were leaving and had no one to keep the rampant forces of nature at bay in our garden. Francesco and Beppe, who've worked this land for several years, only want to care for fruit trees, grapes, and olives. Once we asked Beppe to cut the grass. He wielded his weed machine as though clearing brambles, leaving the yard looking like a dust bowl. When he and Francesco saw the lawn mower Ed bought, they took a couple of steps back and said, "No, no, professore, grazie." They, men of the fields, did not see themselves pushing the little humming mower across some lawn.
Signor Martini, who sold us the house, knows everyone. Perhaps some friend would like a part-time job.
He pushed back from his desk and pointed to his chest. "Io," he pronounced. "I will make the garden." He took down something framed above his desk, blew off the dust on top, and held out his agricultural diploma. A small photo stuck in the corner of the frame showed him at twenty with his hand on the rump of a cow. He grew up on a farm and always missed the country life he'd known as a boy. After World War II, he sold pigs before moving to town and taking up real estate. Because he is eligible for a pension, he planned to close his office at the end of the year, he explained, and was moving to a large estate as caretaker. Because so many Italians start work in their teens, they become pensionati, pensioners, while still relatively young. He wanted to make a mid-course correction.
Usually we arrive at the end of May, when it's too late to plant vegetables. By the time we've cleared a space, turned the soil, and bought seeds, the planting season has left us behind. We look longingly at the fagiolini, string beans, climbing tepees of bamboo in our neighbors' gardens. If a few tomato plants happen to survive our ineptitude and lateness, we sit staring at the runty green blobs the morning of our leaving for San Francisco, shaking our heads at the unfulfilled dream of snapping luscious tomatoes from our own labor.
Excerpted from Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy by Frances Mayes. Copyright © 1999 by Frances Mayes. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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