Excerpt from Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Bella Tuscany

The Sweet Life In Italy

by Frances Mayes

Bella Tuscany
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  • First Published:
    Apr 1999, 286 pages
    Apr 2000, 255 pages

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Print Excerpt

Fortunate that the place is restored--central heating, new doors, finished kitchen, one lovely bath, refinished beams, barrels of new paint, rebuilt stone walls, refitted cantina for oil and wine. Otherwise, these new projects might seem like restoration itself. "You may think you're through with old houses," Primo tells us, "but they are never through with you."

Soft spring air, an elixir of joy simply to breathe in and out. Quick streams are opening on the terraces. I take off my shoes and let the cold, cold water bathe my feet. The rocky hillsides sprout ferns, glossy green. A new lizard runs across my toes and I feel the clutch of the tiny feet.

Primavera, first green, and the wet grasses shine. A European spring, my first. I only have read of Proust's chestnuts flowering, Nabokov's linden lanes, Colette's double-red violets. But no one ever told me about quince, their sudden pink flares against stone walls. No one said the spring winds can turn murderous. No one mentioned lilac, and somehow during my summers in Italy, I never noticed the heart-shaped leaves. Now I see the Tuscan hills spattered with enormous white or smoky-lavender bushes. Near our house, a hedge of lilac leads to an abandoned farm, and in the rain I cut wet armfuls to fill all my pitchers and vases. More than any flower, the mesmerizing perfume seems to be the very scent of memory, hauling me back to college in Virginia and my first breath of lilac, which didn't grow in the warm latitude of my childhood home in Georgia. I remember thinking, How could I have lived eighteen years without knowing this? I had a terrible crush on my philosophy professor, married with three children, and over and over I played Harry Bellafonte, Green grow the lilacs all sparkling with dew. My dorm window overlooked the James River through a tangle of brush. Springtime is here and it's here without you. That my professor wore drip-dry shirts I crassly blamed on his wife; that he combed a long strand of hair over his pate I tried to ignore.

Violets, the suffocatingly sweet-scented ones, bloom along the spontaneous springs. Naturalized double daffodils, tromboni in Italian, mass along the terrace edges. The faint mists of hawthorn (biancospino, white thorn, or, locally, topospino, mouse-pricker) drift along the upper terraces and, below, the fruit trees continue to outdo themselves. We won't mow--the luxurious grass is overtaken by white camomile and marguerites.

What is this happiness that keeps coming in waves? Time, the gift of time, the free running of time--and Italy owns so much of it. Being from the South, I'm used to people talking about The War Between the States as though it were a decade ago. In the South the long dead and buried are talked about, too. Sometimes I thought Mother Mayes would come walking in the door again, bringing back her powdery lavender scent, her spongy body I could feel beneath the voile print dress. Here, it's Hannibal. Hannibal, who passed this way and fought the Roman Flaminio in 217 B.C. All the hill towns celebrate jousts or weddings or battles which occurred hundreds of years ago. Maybe having so much time behind them contributes to the different sense I absorb in Italy. Gradually, I fall into time. At home in California, I operate against time. My agenda, stuffed with notes and business cards, is always with me, each day scribbled with appointments. Sometimes when I look at the week coming up, I know that I simply have to walk through it. To be that booked-up, blocked-in feels depleting. When I make the weekly list of what needs to be accomplished, I know I'll be running double-time to catch up. I don't have time to see my friends and sometimes when I do, I'm hoping to cut it short because I need to get back to work. I read about an American doctor who pumps her breasts in freeway traffic so she can continue to breast-feed her baby and still keep up with her medical practice. An ad in The Wall Street Journal offered engagement rings by telephone for couples who don't have time to shop. Am I that bad?

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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