Emily Is Blessed in Tuscany

It rained all night. At least that’s what I thought until I woke up for good and remembered it was the river that runs immediately outside our bedroom window. For many years, the building that is now a guest house harnessed the energy of the river to create electricity that powered the entire city of Loro Ciuffenna, the small mountainous town in Tuscany where we will spend the next week. Before that, it was a flour mill, and before that it was the ironworks that give the building its name, La Ferriera.

We arrived in Loro Ciuffenna yesterday afternoon after a three-hour drive from Rome in a rented Peugeot. The woman behind the counter where we rented the car said we had to pay six Euros per driver. We paid for one driver. “How many steering wheels does a car have?” I asked.

I was intrigued to discover that the few stop signs we saw from the airport to the freeway actually said “Stop” on the same red octagonal-shaped plate as U.S. stop signs, suggesting that the Italians bought U.S. signs at quantity discount or “Stop” is Italian and the U.S. bought Italian signs at a discount.

The route took us on A1/E35 over roads that were so smooth I couldn’t help but compare them to our Tea Party roads that are falling apart with the rest of our infrastructure so a few billionaires can enjoy more tax breaks. Drivers taking advantage of the superior roads and the absence of police cars sped by us, ignoring the signs every few miles that warned us that we were being watched electronically. We guessed they mailed you your ticket if they caught you and were able to read your license, until we saw a cop on the side of the road writing up his victim.

We saw few billboards. Even most of the trucks didn’t have signs. Italy is not conducive to the alphabet game, we concluded. But the scenery was stunning. The landscape changed from flat lands on both sides but with mountains in the distance to a short stretch of lakes, then cornfields, and then vineyards. On at least four patches of land, sheep were grazing.

Dark clouds held their water most of the way. Only scattered drops fell until we crossed the border from Umbria into Tuscany. Harrie said Tuscany is where the rich used to vacation. Then the poor started saying they visited Tuscany to appear prestigious even though they hadn’t. So the rich stopped going to Tuscany and started going to Umbria.

We got off at the Valdarno exit and took a long winding one-way road to the bottom of the mountain to La Ferriera. Olive trees lined the road on the right. The air was crisp. A river ran through the property. Emily and I had booked the vacation as part of our vacation club. Harrie and Sonja were here as our guests; according to the game plan they were going to sleep on the pullout bed in the front room. At the check-in counter, Virginia, the manager, told us we could upgrade to a two-room suite for an extra 150 Euros for the week. We looked at both suites and made the jump. It was worth the small cost. We’ve got two bedrooms, a full bathroom, a front room with a full kitchen including stove and microwave, tile floors, wood ceiling, TVs in both rooms, and Internet hookup. And no Gideon’s Bible.

Before dinner, we toured the town, a five-minute walk from the hotel. In preparation for Sunday breakfast, we shopped at separate stores for cheese, bread, grapes and red peppers, and milk for coffee. Then we stopped for an aperitif to get psyched for dinner. Harrie ordered a limoncello, his favorite drink, and I followed suit. Emily ordered a wine, Sonja a cappuccino.

A breeze chilled us gently as we sat at the outdoor table under the canopy. A child ran past us into the store; his father carried him out. A couple at the next table was surprised at the sudden appearance of a neighbor. The shopkeeper brought us our drinks and a bowl of potato chips.

The four of us toasted to friendship and family and to being together after so many years. Emily said, “I’m sitting with friends having a drink in an outside café in Tuscany in the middle of the afternoon. I’m blessed.”

* * *

Our destination today was Arezzo, a narrow winding mountain road about a half hour south of Loro Ciuffenna. Emily drove so she wouldn’t get sick sitting shotgun or in the back seat. She watched the road carefully as she drove but didn’t miss an olive tree or vineyard along the way. “Look,” she exclaimed as she swung her arm to the right. I ducked to protect my nose and missed whatever site she was pointing out but the next site was equally as magnificent.

Emily has had control of the camera for most of the trip so most of the pictures are of scenery with Sonja, Harrie, and me. I took control of the camera as we drove off from the hotel and got a picture of Emily just as she drove over a bump. So now the official record shows us as Sonja, Harrie, me, and a blur.

Virginia told us yesterday that Loro Ciuffenna would be closed today because it was Sunday. That’s why we bought breakfast foods last night. But Arezzo, she promised, would be open. Hence today’s destination.

Indeed, the streets of Arezzo were alive. Arezzo was an extended art fair. Every street was lined with artisans, peddlers, and shopkeepers. We could buy hats, cheese knives and trays, olive spoons with holes to drain the oil, books, dolls, shells, jewelry, wall tiles with pictures of farm animals, paintings and postcards of Jesus and the pope but none of dogs playing poker or velvet Elvis. One stand was filled with religious figures and hash pipes. And door knobs—I never saw so many door knobs at an outdoor market. At one stand Emily saw two menorahs and asked the man how much they cost. He said his sister could tell us when she returned from the bathroom. Emily said we would come back, but we didn’t.

We entered a church to view the mosaics. When we came out, we saw two children playing “patty cake” but in Italian. Harrie drew Emily into a game from his youth, but in French. Emily responded with a version of her own: “A, my name is Alice and I come from Alabama….”

Most common short discussion, always understood, always guaranteed to draw a smile: “Grazie.” “Prego.”

Who knew, Arezzo is the town where major scenes from the movie Life Is Beautiful—La Vita è Bella—were filmed. We could have taken a tour of the major landmark sites from the film but Emily and I agreed it would have been a waste since we never saw the film. We added it to our list of must-see films.

Before heading back to the car, we stopped at a café to buy an obligatory snack so we could use the restroom. I pulled on the restroom door to open it but it didn’t budge. I thought it was locked so I waited. After what seemed to be a long time, I pulled again. It didn’t budge. I asked the woman sitting at the table to the left, in my best broken Italian, “Per favore. Occupado?” She said something I didn’t understand and made a sign with her hand to indicate that I should push. I pushed the door and it opened easily. I pointed my finger at the side of my head and twirled it in a circle: “Loco.” She agreed too quickly.