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Mayes: Vibrant piazza is center of life

By Frances Mayes
Author Frances Mayes people across Italy flock to piazzas to shop, socialize and watch the rhythms of life.
Author Frances Mayes people across Italy flock to piazzas to shop, socialize and watch the rhythms of life.
  • Frances Mayes is author of bestselling "Under the Tuscan Sun"
  • Her new book chronicles everyday life in Tuscany and decision to buy a second house
  • Volume is part memoir, part travel guide, part cookbook
  • Mayes writes that in Tuscany, she learned to take time
  • Tuscany
  • Italy
  • Travel and Tourism

Editor's Note: Below is an excerpt from Frances Mayes' new book, "Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life." She begins the first chapter by describing what it feels like to return to the region in the spring after a few months of absence.

In winter-cold blue light, the bells of Cortona ring louder.

The cold iron clapper hitting the frozen bell produces clear, shocked, hard gongs that reverberate in the heads of us frozen ones in the piazza, ringing in our skulls and down to our heels, striking the paving stones.

In leafy summer, when softened air diffuses the bells, the clarion call accompanies but does not insist; the bells remind, punctuate, inspire. As a benison to the day, the reverberations settle on those nursing cappuccino in the piazza, then fade, sending last vibrations out to the circling swallows.

But in winter, the solitary sounds feel more personal, as though they ring especially for you. I even can feel the sound waves in my teeth as I smile my umpteenth greeting of the morning.

Returning in early March, I'm thrilled to see my friends in the piazza. We greet each other as though I have been gone for a year instead of four months.

I love the first trip back into town after an absence. I walk every street, assessing the state of the union. What has changed, who has traveled to Brazil, what's on display at the vegetable market, who has married, died, moved to the country? What's on exhibit at the museum?

Read an interview with author Frances Mayes

Half of an enormous cow hangs by a hook in the butcher's, a square of paper towel on the floor to catch the last three splats of blood. Under neon, red meat in the cases reflects a lavender light on the faces of two venerable signoras leaning in to inspect today's veal cheeks and pork roasts. Orange lilies against the glass steam the flower shop window with their hothouse breath, and there's Mario, a blur among them, arranging a row of primroses.

Winter returns Cortona to its original self. The merchants along the main street complain that all winter long the town feels dead. Non c'è nessuno. There's no one. They wonder if the tourists will return this year.

"The dollar is broken, the euro like a hot air balloon," Fabrizio says as he whooshes the imaginary balloon into the sky, then spirals his hands. I visualize a striped balloon heading toward Mars.

In Italian, part of every conversation takes place without words. A woman on her cell phone in the piazza paces, gestures, stops, slings back her head, paces again. She says grazie fifteen times, laughs. She's on stage, a monologue actor. When she hangs up, she snaps shut the phone, shoves it in her enormous borsa, and charges ahead toward her shopping.

I pause to look at shoes, then sweaters. "That war of yours. It's costing the whole world," Daria scolds, as though I personally have bombed Iraq. She's sweeping off her already clean threshold.

They forget that when the lira converted to the euro, almost everyone abruptly raised their prices; some simply started charging in euros the same amount they'd charged in lire, effectively doubling the cost of their pizza, shirts, coffee, albums, and pasta. Since Italian wages hardly have moved, most people today are feeling more than a pinch.

"Not to worry," our friend Arturo says. "There are two Italys. One economy in sight and another whole economy out of sight. Everyone has their own ways never revealed to the statisticians. You get paid in cash -- nobody knows."

This, I think, applies more to independent work and less to the shop owners, who have to give receipts. If I walk out of the bar with no receipt for my panino, the Guardia di Finanzia could fine the owner and me. When I buy a chicken, I am astonished -- 14.65 euros -- twenty-three dollars at the current exchange rate. I think of the reconstruction South prices after the Civil War. What is happening to our country? Our dollar is debole, weak, shockingly so.

With the wind that must have originated in the snowy Alps, thirty- five degrees feels like zero.

"Che bello, you have returned before the swallows," Lina says. Because it is Women's Day, three people give me sprays of mimosa, which I love for its brilliant yellow in the stony gray air. Massimo offers coffee, and later, so does Claudio. Roberto at the frutta e verdura gives me an extra-large sack of odori, the vegetables and herbs used for seasoning.

Try one of her favorite recipes: Baked pasta with sausage and four cheeses

I see that Marco has closed his art gallery and expanded his enoteca into the adjoining space. There are two tables for wine tastings and the new display cases are handsome. Still, it's sad to lose the gallery, where many regulars exhibited by the week, hanging their own work and sitting out in the piazza with friends or making friends, while people wandered in and out.

But then I see Marco in the post office and he says he's starting a new gallery around the corner. The museum will expand to accommodate recent archaeological discoveries at the Etruscan sites and the Roman villa our friends Maurizio and Helena have excavated.

A new chocolate shop has appeared in my absence. It looks as though it landed from Belgium. The hot chocolate tastes creamy and unctuous. An instant hit. The two restaurants that opened last fall are doing well. One already has the reputation for making one of the best coffees in town. It was there, when I stood at the bar sipping my macchiato, that I overheard two tourists.

One said, "I saw Frances Mayes's husband, Ed, driving a Fiat. A Fiat -- and one of those tiny ones. Wouldn't you think they'd have something better than that?" I turned away so they would not recognize me and become mortified. I love my yellow Panda.

To everything its season, and this is the season to replaster, repair hinges, revise menus, clean courtyards and stairways. From the corner table at Bar Signorelli, I watch this spirited activity along the street.

Everyone prepares for the spring and summer that they hope will bring back those innocents with a passion for shoes, leather books, dining, ceramics, peaches, Super Tuscans, and all the good things on offer in this lively hill town.

Excerpted from "Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life" by Frances Mayes, Copyright 2010 by Broadway Books. Reprinted by Permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.