Day 582 – 3 October, 2016
To me, the word Tuscany elicits warmth and rustic charm, coziness and relaxed comfort. I picture a big family, loud and laughing, elbow deep in homemade pasta and wine glasses overflowing with deep red Chianti. So when I was invited to stay at a villa with my friends and family from the States, it was impossible to refuse. It’s true that when I first heard of their planned vacation almost two years earlier and I had not even left home yet, I was non-committal on whether I would be able to join them. I couldn’t anticipate my itinerary so early. Then as the time drew nearer and I knew I would be in Europe during their visit, I had other concerns about money and logistics and still wasn’t certain if I could (or should) go to Tuscany. Italy was never truly part of my plan. I had intended to stay in Eastern Europe because the cost to travel there is so much cheaper. Ultimately, the decision was made when I couldn’t bear the thought of being so close to familiarity from back home and just letting the opportunity slip away. Once committed, I arranged my entire Europe itinerary based on a final stop in Tuscany and my anticipation of our reunion grew by leaps and bounds as the weeks passed.
Pete (Sr.) and Crissey, my former in-laws (but now I just call them family), had rented a beautiful four bedroom villa in Montefioralle, really just a dot on the map next to Greve in Chianti. They had been touring Italy for the previous few weeks with friends and other family while using this villa as their home base. By the time the “kids” started to arrive, they were practically local. Pete and Jeff were already settled in two days before me. Pete and I have known each other for 20 years this month and we also happen to have been married once (making sense of the in-law bit), but now he has been married to Jeff for a year and together for 13 years. This, of course, is another story and completely irrelevant to our current relationship, which can be likened to Will & Grace or siblings like Mitchell & Claire. Greg & Jen, our mutual best friends for the last 16 years, descended on Montefioralle two days after me and then our party was complete.
I took a local bus from Florence and my pulse quickened when I saw Pete and Crissey anxiously waiting for me at the bus stop. I was nervous and excited. I know I must have changed in some way since I’ve been gone, but the only people aside from my parents who may truly notice that change were standing right in front of me. I was scared of what they would see. Am I still me? Do I look older with my sun-bleached/graying hair and my tan skin? Can they look in my eyes and see the things that I’ve seen and the experiences I’ve had? Can they feel my heart breaking every time I’ve had to say goodbye to hundreds of new friends all over the world? Can they hear the shouting of street vendors in Marrakech, the call of a gibbon in Laos, or the sound of my footsteps on El Camino de Santiago? Of course, they can not, but only time would tell how these memories that have become so embedded in my consciousness may have shaped the person that I have become and am still becoming. I was greeted with warm embraces all around and immediately whisked off to a wine tasting because there is no better way to quiet those imploring thoughts than alcohol.
Nestled right in the heart of Italy’s premier wine region, our holiday was centered around drinking lots and lots of wine. By appointment, we were invited to visit a couple of the best vineyards in the valley and were treated to a hearty lunch on each occasion. Lucky enough to be in the midst of harvest season, one of the wineries commenced the grape picking on the day of our tasting. The owner said he gets the same temporary staff every year to help with the picking, some are university students, some are refugees, and many are nomadic hippies (like me, I thought). The wine went down easily, more and more bottles were purchased for more easy consumption on the outdoor patio of the villa. Life was good in the company of lifelong friends.
For a special celebratory night, Crissey arranged for Chef Boris, accompanied by his wife as translator and his two teenage children as sous chefs, to make us dinner. It was intended to be part lesson and part family dinner, but Boris, who spoke virtually no English, was more a part of that meal than the tomatoes in the sauce. He was soft spoken and modest, but he commanded every tool and ingredient to dance with perfection. His hands were caked with dough as he kneaded the pasta and his red apron hid the bright red tomato stain splatters. He prepared chicken liver pate to spread on crusty Italian bread, spinach and ricotta ravioli topped with chunky tomato sauce and shredded parmesan, roasted beef, and a decadent pear strudel. This was exactly what I had always pictured when I thought of a Tuscan dinner.
I miss my friends from home dearly and think of them all the time, but along the way, I have been surprised by the people that I stay in touch with more regularly and the people that I don’t. I’ve been surprised by the people that make the effort and those that don’t, even if it’s just a quick email or text message from time to time, I regard each like a big hug and you’ll never know how much it means to me. Everyone has a busy life and we all make time for things or people that are important to us, but being so far away I know it takes even extra effort and extra consciousness to maintain relationships at home. I met Jen, one of my dearest friends, when she came to my bachelorette party 16 years ago. Greg had brought her as his date to our wedding so it made sense to include her with the rest of the party. The rest is history. They now have two busy boys with the standard crazy schedule of hockey, soccor, piano, etc, etc. Even though I know we will always be friends, I never expected that she would find the capacity to stay in touch quite so well. We FaceTime once every couple of months and text fairly often and while I know she can’t understand my experiences any better or differently than anyone else, I am comforted by the fact that she tries.
When the last leftovers had been consumed and the last bottle of Sangiovese was empty, it was time to go. I reflected on my time in Tuscany with a genuine sense of satisfaction and content. I couldn’t truly expect to answer any of my self-involved questions. I don’t know if they could see the butterfly emerging from its cocoon or even if they had, if they would know what they were seeing in the first place. I had a wonderful time recounting the past and laughing until our bellies hurt even while I was becoming more aware that perhaps it won’t be so easy to just go home. For as much as I want to return one day, I’m not sure I will fit in anymore or where my place will be. My metamorphosis is still not complete just like everyone else experiences changes of their own as well. Sometimes life takes us down a strange road and we just have to go along for the ride to see where we end up.
Sending a huge thank you to the MacLeans for inviting me, welcoming me, and making me feel at home. I’m lucky to have friends and family like you!
Rhys, you have touched my heart. We truly enjoyed our time spent together. Families are made in many different ways. You will always be a very important part of ours.