Italian Seasoning

Italian landscapeThe past week has brought many milestones my way.  It was one year ago that I left Atlanta and moved to Italy.  That was a huge lifestyle change.  In addition to that, three days before I boarded that plane, I stopped working full-time.  I’m not sure which was the bigger adjustment, and in my mind they will be forever linked.

The Four Seasons

It’s no wonder that an Italian, Vivialdi, wrote one of the most beautiful series of concertos honoring the seasons.  Having lived here a full year, I’ve experienced them all and I am qualified to say that the seasons here have a certain intensity that is lacking in the American South.  One of my goals was to wake up 365 consecutive days in Italy and experience each season fully.  I’ve traveled here for over 25 years, and have seen snippets of each season, but I’ve never experienced winter giving birth to spring, or summer bleeding into fall.

Autunno

Fall in Anghiari, ItalyHands down, my favorite season.  The days are still warm, but not broiling hot, and the evenings are crisp and cool.  You definitely need a a little something around your arms at night.  The days are shortening and the light is golden as it slants across the landscape.

This is harvest time, so a parade of tractors crisscross the roads, coming with empty wagons and going with full ones.  Most of the harvests here are done by hand – grapes, olives, tobacco – although some of the big farms use machinery.  Fields are crowded with migrant workers busily plucking the ripe fruit and loading it onto the wagons.

I grew up in the rural American South surrounded by farmland.  My father was a farmer.  But my entire adult life has been spent in Atlanta.  Anghiari is a small village with no traffic jams, no shopping centers, and no crime.  It’s set amid many farms and a short walk out of town will take you by fields of tobacco, vegetables, sunflowers, olives groves, farm stands, and farmhouses.  It’s agricultural territory and the rich soil of the Tiber River valley makes for great farming.  From our terrace we overlook the red clay roof tiles of the ancient city, but we can also see and hear the tractors snaking up and down the winding road that hugs the side of the mountain.  In the fall, the tractors sometimes outnumber the cars.  Farmers rushing to get their harvest completed.  It reminds me of my childhood and those crisp fall days with full cotton wagons ringing our house waiting to be taken to the gin.

I’ve surprised myself with how much I enjoy this lifestyle.  To me, it’s the best of both worlds.  I can go to an opera under the stars in the piazza one night and the next day walk by a field where tobacco is being picked.  This culture has always appreciated art and music and has always relied on the land for sustenance.  Anghiari is a small town with a big city vibe.  And that is never more evident than in the fall.

Probably the biggest crop around here, other than the ever-present olives, is tobacco.  I didn’t grow up around tobacco farming so this is all a bit of a mystery to me.  The lush, arching tobacco plants are picked by hand and hung on big metal racks that are driven by tractor to curing barns.  Soon we’ll smell the faint aroma of tobacco being smoked.  Ironic, isn’t it, that tobacco is smoked before you can smoke it?

Fall also sees the arrival of truffles and chestnuts and other delicacies that come with the turning of the leaves.  It ushers in a whole new way of eating.  You start seeing slow-cooked meats on menus and begin having red wine with dinner again.  The panzanellas and capreses of summer give way to ribollitas and polentas.  The festas in the fall honor the harvest and the new olive oil and new wine.  It’s a time for celebrating the earth’s bounty and the hard work that went into producing it.

Inverno

Italian winter sceneWinter is my least favorite season, although that’s probably true for me anywhere.  I am a child of the American South and heat and humidity are as natural to me as breathing.  Cold is something I have a hard time suffering, especially as I get older.

Winter here brings very short days – getting dark at about 4:30 pm and light at about 8:30 am – and punishing winds.  The tramontana, the wind from the Alps that hits you like an iceberg, is ever present in the winter.  You can hear it lashing against the windows and blowing anything that’s not anchored down.  I imagine this was the inspiration for the term “cocooning”.  You hear that and you want to snuggle under a warm blanket in front of a slow-burning fire.

But the wonderful thing about winter is that there are absolutely no tourists and on the days when the wind is mild, you have Italy all to yourself.  Some of the most magical times I’ve had here are winter days spent strolling through Florence, Rome, or any of a hundred hill towns that are mobbed with people in summer.  Imagine wandering into the Pantheon when it’s only you and the pigeons.  Or standing in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence and seeing nothing but the incredible architecture, amazing statues and fountains.  These places come alive when the crowds are gone and you experience them on a very personal level.  There’s absolutely nothing like it.

The beginning of winter also brings the Christmas season, which here runs from December through the Epiphany on January 6.  It’s a time when Italians take a break from working, with most people getting ample time off around Christmas.  It’s truly festive with Christmas markets, elaborate living nativity scenes, and remarkable light displays.  One of the most beautiful things are the Christmas concerts in the ancient churches.  Voices of angels singing in these magnificent old buildings, sounds echoing from the frescoed domes to the worn stone floors.

Primavera

Italian poppiesSpring is like a promise that the cold, dark winter will soon become light and warm and we can go outside again.  It teases us with days that are sunny and warm, with light breezes and air perfumed with early spring blossoms.  Then the next day will remind us that winter is not done yet and is still wrapping its cold wind around us.  It’s a transition time and as such is unpredictable.  But it’s so glorious that we forgive its schizophrenia and latch onto the respite it gives us from winter.

Winter and spring are when it rains and the ground saves up all that water for the dry summers.  In the mornings the fog covers the valley that separates Anghiari from Sansepolcro, turning the mountains into the sides of a great cauldron.  Moisture everywhere, being absorbed by the ground, the plants, the trees.  These things know to take water where they find it, because it’s not available in the dead of summer when they need it.

Spring brings artichokes, asparagus, fava beans, wisteria, and poppies.  We eat what grows and find ourselves in heaven in the spring when these tender green delicacies start showing up at the markets.  It’s the taste of freshness and the start of a long growing season that will keep us in produce for months to come.

We start living outside again, bundling up if needed, and taking in the views that we only glimpsed during the winter.  The sunsets are alive now, as if the sky is waking up along with the ground and is trying to kick that tramontana back up north where it belongs.  Each second brings a different set of colors to the sky as the sun drops behind the mountain.  Pink turns purple turns orange turns red.  It’s breathtaking.

Italian sunset in Tuscany

Estate

I arrived here in mid-summer.  I learned early on that summers are hot and dry, but there is a delicious breeze that is almost always present – the venticello.  This summer, my second one here, is even hotter than last summer.  We’ve had many days that topped 100, with the norm being about 95.  We’ve been stuck on 97 for the past week or so.  There is very low humidity so the heat is intense and dry.  It was a marvel to me last year how hot this sun is.  If you’re in the shade, it’s tolerable, but the second the sun hits you, it’s like you’ve stepped into a wood-fired pizza oven.

I can now appreciate the genius of the siesta, or riposa, as it’s called here.  These long, hot days reach their peak from about 1:00 – 5:00.  That makes those few hours after lunch perfect for avoiding the heat and staying inside where it’s cool.  Moving makes you more hot, so any movement that needs to be done should be gotten out the way in the morning or saved for the night.  Sometimes our image of the siesta is that it was born out of laziness, but I don’t think that’s the case.  This Mediterranean sun is brutal and will zap your hydration and energy in minutes.  Wise people stay out of it until it’s manageable.  And remember, there’s no AC to speak of here.  Most homes rely on the venticello, including ours.

If you happen to go through a town during the siesta, it’s like one of those old westerns where the stranger rides into town in the heat of the day with the tumbleweeds cartwheeling through the streets.  Well, there are no tumbleweeds, but if there were, they would be cartwheeling through the streets.  It’s deserted and all you can see is the sun blazing down.  Not a soul in sight.  They’re all inside doing what God intended – resting in the cool, dark refuge of their homes.

But in the evening, when the sun starts melting into the mountains, it becomes another world.  Almost cool, with the most gentle venticello rewarding you for making it through the long, hot day.  This is when people start coming out again and shutters get thrown open to welcome that cool, evening air.  This is when the passeggiata starts.  The evening walk that has people strolling through town, maybe stopping for a gelato or an aperitivo, chatting with friends, pausing in the piazza to watch the kids play.

Perspectives

In my year here, I’ve discovered many things about myself and about Italy.  I’ve learned that comfort zones are what keep us from expanding our horizons.  I’m speaking only for myself here because if you want to stay in your own little sphere where everything is known and predictable, that’s fine.  Do what you want.  But for me, kicking myself out of that mundane routine was an awakening.

Italy has not disappointed me.  I did struggle through the winter, but even it had its merits.  Cold, clear air that invites you to wander around towns that have been abandoned by visitors and only hosts locals.  The smell of wood smoke and the feel of a warm fire on a cold night.  The aroma of a long-simmered sauce or slow-cooked roast.

Seasons remind us that our time on this planet is finite.  For every winter when things die and go dormant there is a spring when things sprout new life.  It’s up to us what we do with the time we are given.  Some things we have no choice about, but what a wonderful gift it is be given so many things that we can choose.  Sometimes your passion has to wait for the right time to become your priority (like mine did) but when it does, believe me when I say it’s worth it.  Follow your passion and be where your feet are – you will see the world through a beautiful new lens.


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