If I close my eyes and breathe deep, I can return to a place that lives - for the moment - only in my mind. And if by chance, you find your way in this magical place, please give my regards to the inhabitants of the city of Cortona located in the heart of Tuscany. Tell them La "Signora Americana" sends her regards.
I can, for a moment, pretend that I am back in this charming medieval town tucked into a corner of Tuscany where it has remained unscathed by modernization and technology. Perched high on a hillside, this walled city claims to be 3000 years old. It is a small tight knit community of 1,600 that proudly traces its ancestry back to the time of the Etruscans; a place where tradition and art blend together in a delicious gazpacho.
I imagine that I am back at the Hotel San Luca with its wrought iron black gate and welcoming windows. Small and cozy, it is my respite from the daily grind of life as I know it here in the States. From my bedroom window I can see red tiled roofs that seem to climb on top of each other rubbing shoulders with turrets and bell-towers in a span of a few meters. The old and the new - side by side.
I can recall the voice of Vincenzo, the caretaker of the grounds, who greets me every morning me with a "Buongiorno Signora" and a steaming caffe latte. "Grazie mille" I answer with a smile and grateful outstretched hand. He is a wizened little man with deep jowls, an easy smile and the bluest eyes I have ever seen.
Often Vincenzo can be heard humming or whistling Italian ballads. His voice is sweet and rich. Vincenzo knows I am a strange bird, a solo bird really, who prefers to take her morning caffe out in the Piazza Garibaldi rather than in the parlor with the other guests. He and I have come to be friends and every morning I count on this Italian relic for a smile and a warm drink. He knows I write - or pretend to - and he actually helped me translate from English into Italian a little piece of verse I had composed. It was a small poem I had written about the allure of Cortona and how something about the city just seemed to tug at my soul then and now.
Usually mornings find the city shrouded in a blanket of grey mist that moves slowly and dreamily across the sky. The sun tries to peek through but without success. By afternoon however there is a stage before the eyes with enchanting views of the landscape surrounded by Lake Trasimeno and the Apennines.
One sees a vast and beautiful patch work quilt of green fields, regal Cyprus trees standing at attention and purple and yellow valleys swooping gently across the land. As I sip my hot drink, I hear strands of Italian music and morning greetings of "buongiorno" and "ciao" wafting through the air. I smell the rich aroma of caffe floating by on an invisible cloud. Fresh bread beckons from la panetteria around the corner. I look at my hotel from across the Piazza and see the green clapboard shutters being thrown open here and there like eyes suddenly opening wide ready to take in the adventures of the day.
A sleepy tabby cat guards the entrance to the hotel. I watch all this and feel as if time just saunters, softly, quietly, dreamily. Sitting on one of the old stone benches in the Piazza Garibaldi I watch the city wake up. The mothers - in three inch stilettos - take their children to school, walking easily across the cobbled stones and plant generous kisses on cheeks and head of tussled-hair cherubs.
Old woman in bright colored kerchiefs, handmade sweaters and support hose, wheel little carts effortlessly through narrow streets on their way to market. Large men with big bellies and bigger voices make their way to the nooks and crannies of the city where they will spend hours reading newspapers and nursing a caffe with il panino. There are a few cars small and compact that make their way up and through the Piazza but it is mostly feet and strollers that one notices in the early hours of the morning.
Sipping my caffe latte I listen to the chatter of the birds clearing their throats in the boughs above me. Everyone seems to know everyone here. Mid morning I take a stroll through the city's narrow, stone-paved alleyways down to the city's main street, Via Nazionale. It is here in this main square with its impressive medieval town-hall that much of life in Cortona takes place. Here people shop for groceries and chat without ever stopping to look at a watch. The tower bell in the Town Hall will ring when it is lunch time. Life here rolls across the landscape. Every morsel is tasted and remembered.
I watch a teenage boy with droopy lids and baggy pants give his father a big hug as they cross through the square. In turn, the father plants a kiss on his son's cheek. It is not a sight I would find easily in the States - a teenage boy hugging his father in public.
The history of thousands of years still present and part of people's lives; respect for things old, wearing wrinkles with pride- nothing plastic- authentic - real- fresh bread- nothing bought in a bag from a store pre packaged- (well some things like paper goods) - the simple act of just being and enjoying the moment - seizing the moment. This is what I love about Cortona. This and the little things that mean a lot. I can see and hear little children running around the square chasing pigeons and skipping across the brick sized cobblestones.
Each stone is a timepiece unequalled. Centuries have crossed this square and still, the echoes of laughter fill the air, music to the soul really. I walk along and see the pigeons paying little heed to me- I have nothing to offer. I dream and wish I could be there tasting the sweet butter with il pane in my la pasticceria.
I wish I could sit high on the buttressed wall in the square of Via Nazionale and listen to the children coming home for lunch laughing strolling arm in arm fresh-faced and young and care free. But now, I must open my eyes, take another breath and return to the laundry and the grocery shopping in the real world of the moment. Tomorrow perhaps I will plan another visit to la dolce vita.