Why I love Italy: five inspiring insights from an evening with Frances Mayes

Earlier this month I had the transporting opportunity to interview Frances Mayes on stage as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series in Washington, DC. I actually met Mayes in the early 1980s, when I moved to San Francisco. I had told my creative writing graduate school poet-mentor that I was moving to the Bay Area, and she told me that I should be sure to look up the poet Frances Mayes. I did and Mayes helped introduce me to the cultural riches of the city. This was years before Under the Tuscan Sun catapulted her into the kind of best-sellerdom poets can only dream of. That passionate, transformative memoir has spawned many subsequent books on Italy, including her most recent and delightful work, “Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life.” In our conversation, as in her books, Mayes was passionate, articulate, and electrically alive to the senses and seductions of Italy. Here are five of the many Italy-inspired insights I took away from our talk:

1) The rhythms of Italy: Poetry, Mayes said, was all she ever intended to write. But something happened after she bought and moved into Bramasole, her house in Cortona:

“I started writing longer lines and lines didn’t any more want to be cut at where the line break goes in a poem. I started keeping notebooks and it just started expanding, and I found myself writing prose. I never intended to and I think that it’s just mysterious that sometimes the rhythms in your brain change and your genre follows after that. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I did start writing prose because I was writing out of excitement at living there and leaning a new language, meeting people. It was very spontaneous and in fact all of my books about Italy have been written out of just spontaneity and fun.”

It’s fascinating to me how the rhythms of a place can infiltrate us and change the way we create, even how we move through the world. This phenomenon has certainly been true in my own life. In the hard Grecian sunlight, I’m more decisive and my writing is brighter. More vivid. More clearly etched. In France, my sentences are more languorous, more nuanced, more apt to while an hour or two away over a café crème, watching the perfumed passersby from a windowside seat at a café by the Seine. In Hawaii, I surrender myself to sun, sand, and sea. In Japan, I’m attuned to intricacies, shadows, the larger meanings of little things. 2) Italy is old and ever new: Last summer was Mayes’s 20th anniversary of living in Cortona, and yet, she said,

“Tuscany is still new to me. That’s what is so unpredictable. You think that you know a place after 20 years, but Italy is such a remarkable country. Maybe this is because they only unified – to put it loosely, they haven’t really unified — 150 years ago. Because they had such a long history of small papal states and little kingdoms, everything stayed very individual: different dialects, different pasta, different artists, different colored stone. It’s still like that. Even if you’ve lived there 20 years, you can still go 30 miles and be somewhere that you’ve never seen before – some little tiny village or hill town that’s really intriguing. There’s always something really interesting and new to discover. And of course learning a new language is the same thing.”

First of all, I love the sense of possibility in these words – the way when you know and love a place well, it keeps revealing itself in new and expanding ways. (Mayes used as an example of this her discovery in January, in Friuli, of a Byzantine church floor mosaic about the size of an auditorium. “I’d never heard of it and it was stupendous. And we discovered it just by haphazardly visiting this wonderful old Roman town,” she said.)

This has been true for me everywhere I’ve lived – precious pocket musees in Paris, overlooked archaeological sites in Athens, mossy cemeteries and senbei shops in Old Tokyo, parrot-loud parks in San Francisco. It’s a great lesson: the more you know, the more you have to learn.

Secondly, I love the analogy that a language works the same way. It’s so true! You think you know a language well and then you stumble into linguistic neighborhoods you’d never known about before. Or you discover the past perfect subjunctive and it’s like a whole new swath of grammatical jungle has revealed itself with raucous birds and impossibly lush flowers. You can never exhaust a language or a place.

3) The lessons of the Tuscan table: I asked Mayes if there was one meal that stands out for her as a particularly unforgettable feast. She said it would have to be the first of the many eight-hour fests they have been invited to in Cortona.

“This was a First Communion dinner a friend had for her two boys. There were about 150 people there. When we arrived, they’d passed around 30 antipasti already. Next they served two pastas they had made, and then several secondi. After that four men came in the back door holding a tray big enough to hold a human. This was the thigh of a Val di Chiana cow that was so big they had it roasted in the hotel oven in town. They passed around this wonderful roasted beef and potatoes. Next thing I knew my husband Ed was on his feet singing a song he’d never heard of with four other men. He was feeling really good because two women had asked if he was in film. I think we were the first to leave and we staggered out about eight hours later. As we drove off, Ed said, ‘I just hope we’re around when those two boys get married.’

“When I first started having Italians over,” Mayes continued, “I remember being thrown because they would often turn up with a couple of extra guests. I had the table set for 8 or 10, and they’d say, ‘Oh, so-and-so was in town so we’ve brought him,’ and I’d think, ‘Oh great.’ I’ve since come to think how wonderful that is in a way because it shows how naturally they entertain, how they think about food, and how they experience the table. Put in another handful of pasta, pull up another table, va bene. So now when we go someplace, we sometimes bring an extra guest too.

“Food is such a good reflection of the culture. Food is never cult in Italy. For example, I have never heard food associated with guilt, never heard someone say, ‘That looks so fattening.’

“Another thing I love about the Tuscan table is that nobody stays in their place. Our friend Marcos says that it’s best to have 25 at table. I’ve come to think that’s right – I used to think six was the best – because in the course of the evening everybody moves several times so everybody gets to visit with everybody else. I love that.”

4) Openings and art:

“Another thing I’ve loved in Tuscany,” Mayes said, “is the sense of the open door. Our house is very at home in the landscape. And when I first saw it, I remember thinking that if I lived there, I could be at home there too. There are no screens. The doors are open, the windows are open. The butterflies go in one window and out the other. The neighborhood cats run through the house. The house is open and therefore the mind is too, and that has influenced me quite a bit, opened up my writing quite a bit. It gave me the confidence to try to write a novel, for example.

“Italy is a wonderful place to be a writer – there’s something about living in beauty. Art is taken for granted when you grow up bouncing a ball against the Orvieto Cathedral. Beauty is just something that is part of their breathing. As a writer, it was wonderful to be in a place where the arts are taken much more as a natural part of life, not afar but normal.”

5) Living on Tuscan time: There is a different sense of time in Italy, Mayes said.

“Tuscans are at home in time because they have so much time behind them. They don’t have the sense that life is a frantic thing to master. It’s more like time is a river and you’re in it. Down at the bottom of our hill, Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC, and sometimes we’ll go to dinner at somebody’s house and they’ll be talking about whether Hannibal came from the south or another route, and whether he’d lost his eye by then or not. You’d think Hannibal could walk in the door….

“So they do have this really long sense of time. Our little town was one of the original 12 Etruscan cities. The town walls date from 800 BC. You live in layers of time, you’re conscious of it because of the landscape. The landscape is still so similar to the background in those Renaissance paintings that you feel like there’s a continuum of time that you’re in, so you feel less crushed by time and more in it.”