The word alone evokes images of lush, swelling countryside....beautiful hill top villages.... centuries-old "palazzi" with ground floors like prisons and upper stories like lace....old hidden monasteries set deeply into idyllic valleys....medieval villages perched Disney-like on craggy tufa....views that stretch the horizon and the imagination.
As good as it is for me to just be there, to explore and discover, to observe the beauty of the landscape and the people, to eat the nothing-anywhere-like-it food, to drink the orgasmic wine, to immerse myself in the history....I want more.
I think there are lots of travelers who want more. I can't be the only one who wishes they could be transformed into a local. It's not enough to know the language (which I don't) and the customs (which I sort of do). I want to be a participant rather than an observer. If someone would just grant me a wish. Some Italian genie. I would wish that I was Tuscan. Born and bred.
This will probably not happen, of course. No more than my childhood wish, which involved staring down at our garage from my second floor bedroom window, convinced that if I just stared long enough and hard enough, a white pony would be in there.
Wishing aside, I have come up with a way to vicariously become a participant, a local, a Medici-wannabe. I place myself in the middle of a lively piazza in a lively village. Then I spy on the locals in a search for someone who looks interesting and who I could follow around. No hard staring is involved, but I do choose my unwitting guides carefully and I always maintain a discreet distance in my attempts to transform into a Tuscan local. And I must say, this practice has led to places and experiences that generally do not make the guidebooks. So far, I've not been arrested for stalking.
One of my favorite villages is Greve. I really enjoy the Saturday open-air mercato. This market is a huge social gathering for the locals. Plus the vendors offer everything from kitchen gadgets, to fresh produce, to linens, to cheese, to live ducks, to a sandwich made from a slice off a gigantic roasted pig, which rotates on a spit inside a rolling rotisserie.
On one particular Saturday morning, I noticed when the cheese man (his white truck was drawing the biggest crowds) motioned to his helper to take over. It was almost lunch time and as he clomped down the cobble stoned street, I followed him. Discreetly, of course. He ended up at a cafe called, "Enoteca Fuoripiazza". It was filled with locals (I can spot a foreigner from several feet away) and the aroma coming from the kitchen was heavenly. I chose an outdoor table where I spent the next hour enjoying a plate of bruschetta and insalada caprese. With two glasses of wine. Maybe three.
During this lovely pranzo, I could hear the locals talking the talk of daily life. My limited knowledge of the language permitted me to eavesdrop somewhat. There was not a turista in sight. I felt so very Tuscan. I considered dying my blonde hair black. Prima Italiana.
Directly across the very narrow street was a fruit and vegetable shop. An older woman was visiting with the owner about a wedding. They were joined by another woman who had a toddler in a stroller (in Italy so many grandmothers take care of so many grandchildren). The two women talking with the shop owner mentioned getting a gelato for the bambino. I had paid my bill and, upon hearing the word "ice cream", decided they were my next victims.
The gelato shop was waaaay around the back of the piazza buildings. I would not of found it on my own. Once again my sneaky technique worked beautifully because the caffe-flavored gelato was not of this earth.
As I wandered back towards the central market, I rounded a corner and was engulfed in a crowd of people and deafened by the loud, tolling church bells. I was in front of a church and within moments a bride and groom appeared in the doorway, accompanied by cheering from the crowd. Obviously, THIS was the wedding the older women had been discussing! Another victory for the transforming Tuscan!
As I followed the crowd, they arrived at a courtyard, which was set up with festive tables and lots of white bows and frilly decorations. I stood on the sidelines, smiling and enjoying the happiness when someone nudged my elbow. I looked to my left and a lovely lady offered me a glass of prosecco. Maybe, just maybe, she thought I was some long-lost cousin....
I drank the wine, tried to overhear some conversations amongst all the singing and dancing, and came away with the name of the ristorante that the family would be going to that evening to continue the party. Later, I asked my friends if they knew of "Taverna del Guerrino" and they said, "Si!"... and told me it was located in the ancient tiny village of Montefioralle. We decided to go there for dinner that evening. Upon our arrival we could hear the wedding festa, which was being held outside on the back patio. The meal, not to mention the company, was simply divine.
I know if I just keep wishing hard enough this transformation could happen... in stages. No one can convince me that the events in this story happened by chance. It took wishing, a bit of staring, determination, will, and a plan. I intend to continue in my quest.
Maybe I'll try for that pony again, too.