Tuscany Diaries

A Lunatic Circus with a Lovely View

Updated July 26, 2016

Leveling Up
Before the whole world turned into a video game (there are no Pokémon in my rural corner of Tuscany) I was already living my best virtual rpg life, leveling up by cultivating important skills like “baking bread,” and “walking on cobblestones wearing high heels,” but there’s no achievement I’m more proud of than learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission.

If you’re reading this diary entry, you’re either rolling your eyes because you’ve driven stick since you were eight years old and it’s not a big deal, or you think I’m the coolest ever, because you’ve never even been inside a manual car. I was pretty much in the latter category for most of my life. I kept thinking it was something I needed to learn, if I ever wanted to be a contestant on the Amazing Race – the official Litnus test of travel skills – but my friends who had manual cars didn’t want a newbie destroying their gears, and it’s impossible to rent one in the United States. So for my first real attempt, I had to go abroad.

Driving Lesson with a Side of Tears
My first stick shift drive took place in Italy, with my father yelling at me from the passenger seat because I kept rolling backwards down the steep village road. The only prep I had was searching “how to drive stick” on the internet, and studying black and white diagrams until I had a minor – mainly cerebral – grasp of what a transmission looks like, as a black and white diagram. Anyway, I ground the gears, rolled backwards and cried. End of lesson one.

Even though it was on my to-do list, I failed to re-address the driving issue until I was forced to financially. Every summer I save tons of money by short-term leasing a brand new car through the Peugeot buy-back program instead of renting. I’m usually good about jumping on early bird pricing, making my reservation 6+ months in advance, until 2014, when my plans were up in the air, and decent rates turned into monster nightmare rates, except for a little manual hatchback Peugeot 308 – it was still cheap, compared to other options. So I did it, took the plunge, reserved a manual car and signed the lease – there was no looking back. Now I just had to find a way to learn – without crying.

Driving Lessons, New York City
I found the driving school on Yelp – my go-to app for subjects I know nothing about. I’ll drop the name here: Professional Driving School of the Americas, just because they were pretty great – or at the very least, patient. No one yelled at me and I didn’t cry during my first lesson, even though I stalled and crawled my way around a residential development for the entire hour. By the end, I’d mastered the basics of stopping and starting – the foundation of driving a manual. Lesson two took me onto the city streets. Even though you may think Manhattan is a less than ideal location for a driving lesson, it’s like a giant agility exercise in stoplights, crosswalks and unpredictable pedestrians. We affixed the magnetic “MANUAL STUDENT DRIVER” sign to the front of the car, and jumped straight onto Manhattan’s best practice track, the FDR Drive, then headed down to Wall Street during lunch hour, a perfect, peopled obstacle course, mainly jay-walking suits glued to their iPhones. I knew I had my stick driving skills down when I could simultaneously shift gears, yell at morons and drink a bottle of water.

Driving Lesson, Rotterdam
It was after midnight; the highway from Rotterdam to Amsterdam was clear. I was in the driver’s seat for my final practice session and my first time exceeding 40 mph. It wasn’t entirely seamless; entering a rest stop, I’d forgotten the mechanics of slowing to a stop. My friends rewarded me with a chorus of “CLUTCH!” from the back seat, and continued to yell “Clutch!” at every shift until we reached our final destination. That was it, three driving lessons and I was as ready as I could be. The following week I’d be totally on my own when I picked up the keys to my brand new car.

(to be continued)

July 13, 2016

Remember that snake I saw? Well, now it’s naked.


June 28, 2016

The freezer is beeping. It’s a high-pitched, constant beep, like one of those hearing tests. The beeping is a good thing, because it means the power is back on. Last night, I made the rookie mistake of turning on the bedroom air conditioner while the pool was self-cleaning. The house lights dipped and trembled; the air conditioner went silent. With a groan, I grabbed my flip flops and a flashlight. Time for my least favorite evening activity: braving the spider, moth and whatever-infested outdoor closet where the circuit breakers live.

I was already on edge; earlier in the afternoon I’d encountered the biggest snake I’d ever seen. I was down the hill, taking measurements with the architect – we’re puzzling our way through Tuscany’s endless, backwards bureaucracy to transform the abandoned chicken coop/storage shed into an annex apartment. The math is making my eyes bleed: we can only work with the volume we have, but if we shift the position of the annex, we have to move it 10 meters from the corner of the house (it currently rests at 8) and if we want to put in a bathroom (uh, yes?) the ceilings have to be raised and correspondingly, the floor space becomes so small it would barely qualify as a New York studio, which is saying something. Rules. Rules. Rules. Oh, and a snake. She (she looked like a “she”) was minimum 5 feet long, with a mouse-sized girth, sleek and brown with dark stripes running down her length. I’m surprised I registered that much, I turned tail and ran in the opposite direction, as did she – but with less running, more slithering. I’m not afraid of snakes, but every time I see a snake in Italy, my brain goes right to “danger! danger! viper!” – so I was already high-stepping it back to the gravel by the time I realized it was harmless. Still, the image of a person-sized snake is haunting.

I unlocked the door and slowly opened the circuit closet, my flashlight illuminating layers of glistening webs, the bright light undoubtedly offending the residents. What was that smell? Burning chemicals, melted plastic? Nice. I analyzed each circuit switch: up, up, up, up, up, up. Second row: up, up, up, up, up. Third row: more of the same. Conclusion: I couldn’t fix this. Sigh. I closed the shed and made my way back to bed.

This morning, Luciano arrived to treat the pool, and found the whole system “guasto” – no power anywhere. I leaned out the window and yelled, “Good morning, Luciano, we have a problem!” In the circuit closet, he opened panels I didn’t know existed, and showed me the frayed wires and black, melted plastic. The was bound to happen, sometime or another. He clipped, stripped and whipped up a temporary patch in five minutes flat. Note to self: learn electrical repair on YouTube, prioritized somewhere between “learn German on Duolingo” and “learn how to change the line on a weed wacker.”

June 25, 2016

Mic Drop
Yesterday, my friend Kelly from Toronto came to visit. He’s in Tuscany for his annual summer holiday, so I planned a little local adventure for us – a hike and a swim in the cliffside hot springs of  Bagno Vignoni, a tiny hill town famous for its thermal springs, spas and breathtaking views of the UNESCO World Heritage Val d’Orcia. Even though I’ve been to the town a number of times, I usually head straight for the giant thermal swimming pool, or grab a meal at ristorante La Terrazza. Most recently (last week) I signed up for a “relax” package at one of the hotel spas, where I experienced an underwater (aka: truckload of awkward) massage, oh mannnn. More on that later, I promise. Anyway, back to Kelly. He was free for a day before meeting up with his cousin and her friend, and heading to their rental house, so I decided we would attempt a moderate hike down (and back up) a cliffside trail — on the first truly searing, ass-hot day of summer, obvs.

Like Bagni San Filippo, my go-to hot springs in Tuscany, the natural pools of Bagno Vignoni are free (no charge) to access, but it takes a bit of work. First, Kelly and I had to find the way down. We located a few stairs that seemed to lead into the wilderness, just on the edge of town, by the ruins of the ancient St. Catherine baths. We followed a narrow dirt trail down the hill, trying not to wipe out on loose gravel, until we found an iron railing that looked legit enough to cling to, until we came to a clearing where a light waterfall splashed down the cliff into a brilliant turquoise pool. There were a few swimmers and sunbathers around, but the springs still felt like a well-kept secret. We spent the better part of an hour floating in the chalky blue volcanic water and positioning ourselves on flat rocks beneath the waterfall, so the narrow spray would hit our shoulders just right.


Bagno Vignoni, Tuscany

We spent the rest of the day at my house, lounging around, watching the Brexit fallout and grilling arrosticini – tiny skewers of cubed lamb meat, a popular snack from Italy’s Abruzzo region. When I discovered that Kelly had never eaten “Bistecca Fiorentina,” a ginormous slab of Chianina beef served bloody rare, I was like – whaaaaaat?!!!!! We HAD to go – right away! – to my favorite neighborhood steak place, Trattoria della Filiera, for a Flintstones-grade meat orgy.

When we arrived, I knew something was up: there were more people than usual sitting around the outside picnic tables, and there was a guy playing cover songs on a keyboard. And, there was a dance floor. I hadn’t even taken five steps before I was greeting and hugging my next door farmer neighbors, who I haven’t seen since I’ve been here, except for that whole incident with Giacomo and the dead “picchio.” Giacomo was there with his wife, and his sister Mirella and her two kids Gianni and Matteo, were at a table, elbow deep in giant hamburgers and plates of french fries. Immediately I knew what we’d stumbled into. “Is this the hamburger festival?” I asked Mirella. Si. Thought so. Change of plans! No steak tonight, but they’re serving up extra rare Chianina burgers smothered in local pecorino cheese, homemade french fries and bonus festival-only dishes, like Tuscan tripe, fried pecorino and a country summer staple that just about blew Kelly’s mind – panzanella. I have to agree, nothing hits the spot on a hot day like a “salad” made with old bread, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

I was having great time, chatting, translating, drinking and pounding down an epic burger. The keyboard player was so fun, singing cover songs in English; little kids were running all over the dance floor. Maybe it was the wine (just blame it on the wine) but out of the blue, I announced to Mirella and her husband, “I’m almost ready to sing!” But I was kidding. Mostly. Luciano jumped up, made a beeline for the musician, pointed back in my direction, and the next thing I know, all these Italians are clapping for me to get up and sing. I didn’t even know what to sing! But the guy had a computer, and I had a shot of limoncello. He scrolled through a few choices, (I’m not singing the Eagles) then pulled up the music for Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time. “But it’s WAY too high for me to sing!” I protested. No problem, he popped on the backing track, dialed down the key a few notches and handed me the mic. Are you serious?! But everyone was waiting and watching, so I just took the mic and started to sing. I’m not a great singer, but I have no fear of making a total ass of myself in public, so I just winged it. And admittedly, I was a bit shaky, but I belted out a few of the refrains, and got some sympathy applause, so all in all, it was a typical night at a Tuscan hill town hamburger festival.

June 23, 2016

So…say there’s something alive in your chimney. The audibly rustling around kind of alive. Do you open the flue, or do you just pretend it’s not there?

June 22, 2016

Observations on Local Wildlife
After yesterday’s unfortunate incident, I added “bird suicide” to the list of things that creep me out, living alone out here in the sticks. Other things on this list are (in no order of importance): wasps, giant moths, the journey from the car to the front door after dark, the inevitable giant horsefly that stalks and dive bombs me every time I take a walk, the vipers that I’ve never seen (also the deadliest animal in the area), the thought of running into a wild boar at night, and those black worms that curl up and die on the walls.

On the “tolerable” list: spiders, mainly because they eat mosquitos and flies. Same goes for those grisly-looking house centipedes. Beyond bugs, there are a number of regular visitors around the house. The lavender bushes are hotspots for honey bees (love them) and these funky-ass moths that look exactly like miniature hummingbirds. I swear I thought they were hummingbirds until I googled them – they’re called “hawk moths” which is unfortunate, because it’s a scary name. Did I mention that giant moths horrify me? I know, it’s totally irrational. I love bats, hate moths that resemble bats, yet love moths that look like birds. Whatever.
Like clockwork, every day between 5:00pm and 7:00pm, I get a flock of barn swallows taking a drink break by swooping down into the pool. They’re not the most coordinated animals – half the time they miss and circle around again. If I’m in the pool when they show up, all I can think about is Fabio (the romance model), that time a bird flew into his nose on a roller coaster. Bird suicide in the face? No thank you.

Poolside predators range from grey fox (saw one the other night strolling by the living room door) to sharp-fanged “faina,” or beech martens. I never even heard of them before living in Italy, but they prey on chickens. Think of martens as large, dangerous, chicken-thieving weasels with sharp teeth and bushy tails.

Around the property, I’ve spied giant crested porcupine (they’re the size of a large dog and only exist in Italy, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa), wild hare, pheasant, little Tuscan “capriolo” roe deer, and wild boar.

I live in a damn zoo.

June 21, 2016

Vocabulary Lesson
Today I learned the word for “woodpecker” in Italian, when one flew into the bedroom window at top speed and came crashing down to the terrace. The poor thing flapped around wildly on its back, unable to right itself. Clearly, it was f%#ked. I’m not an expert on avian physiology, nor did I have the courage to scoop the panicked creature into my arms and attempt to assess the damage. I did the only thing I could do; I drove to the farmer’s house next door and stumbled through an olive grove until I found Giacomo, clearing brush by a tractor.

I explained the dire situation – that the bird was hurt pretty badly. Giacomo shrugged. Nature, natch. “Well, shouldn’t we kill it then,” I suggested, “to put it out of its misery?”

Giacomo told me that he’d be up the hill in a minute, so I headed home. By the time I got back, the bird looked…dead. I headed to the kitchen for a few minutes, and when I returned the bird had vanished. No way, I thought, then I heard tires on gravel. Giacomo was already heading back down the dirt road to his farm. I have no idea what he did with the bird; I don’t think I want to know.

In case you were wondering, the Italian word for woodpecker is “picchio” (peek-yo).

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