“This time is the time when
the things we love are dying
and the things we do not love
are rushing to replace them”
Rainier Maria Rilke, “The Ninth Elegy” from The Duino Elegies
I left Australia in 1997, a virtual exile. I was soul-sick, at the end of a twenty-year marriage, and in great need of a change. The cozy confines of inner-city Sydney no longer nourished me, not to mention the fact that the arbiters of taste and culture had grown decidedly hostile towards the kinds of plays I was writing.
An isolated farmhouse in the middle of Tuscany was a curious place to take my body. The sweltering heat of midsummer slapped me in the face as I stepped off the train onto the platform in Sinalunga, and looked for a taxi in a seemingly taxi-less world. Sinalunga was small and ugly; not the kind of place tourists visit with alacrity, if at all, despite the fact Garibaldi had once fought a battle there.
In the park across the street, a gaggle of old men lounged in the shade, gossiping regally without so much as a nod in my direction as I crossed the park to where several pay-phones stood resolute and mostly out-of-order. A young man with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth was hanging onto the only phone that still worked. His words oozed seductively like warm dough on a summer night. He had no idea I was waiting, nor would he have cared had he known. The only other living creature in his universe was the woman he was talking to – his lover, I imagined – and that’s the way it remained all the way to the end of his cigarette, which he finally disposed of with a flourish before making the usual kissing sounds into the receiver and hanging up.
I scooped up the phone, coins in hand, only to discover I needed a phone card. A phone card, I thought; where in hell am I gonna get a phone card? A passerby read my mind. Or maybe I wasn’t Sinalunga’s first tourist after all. He directed me towards the railway station, saying I should try the kiosk.
In the café, I made hand-signs and spoke baby Italian to a skeptical, middle-aged woman behind the counter. In desperation, I reached for my phrase book, but she waved it away with a brief remark before commenting loudly to a rather sporty, coffee-drinking couple at the other end of bar. The man replied in Italian, then all of them laughed uproariously. I smiled as if I understood, and tried my best not to look entirely helpless. The woman behind the counter pushed a 10.000 lire phone card towards me, then took my money and rang it up in one seamless motion. You can make your call now, she said in perfect English.
Someone else was on the phone when I got back – a small man occupying a very large conversation that went on for at least ten or fifteen minutes, despite audible sighs, groans and glowering looks from my side of the glass. When he was done, I inserted the card, and carefully dialed the number Ugo had written on a scrap of paper before I’d left Sydney – the number for Gianna, the cab driver.
The phone rang… and rang… and then it rang some more. Maybe it was the wrong number. Or maybe the cab company had gone out of business. Moments before, I’d been hoping that whoever answered the phone would speak English; now all I wanted was for someone to answer the damn thing. I was on the verge of hanging up when I heard a woman’s voice. “You speak English?” I asked. No, no English,” she said, and remained stony, mute, while I struggled to explain my need. Her silence was broken at the mention of Gianna. No, nooooo, she said, Gianna not here. Is he coming back, I stammered. But it was useless. Where Gianna was I have no idea, though I’m sure she must’ve told me. He might as well have been dead for all the good my Italian was doing me. With false conviction in my mastery of the language, I set about trying to explain my predicament – enough to express my dismay at the lack of cabs. I’m not sure it was so much what I said as how I said it that made the difference – a slight quavering in the voice which spoke volumes of dread and uncertainty. People usually respond to expressions of fear, and my friend on the other end didn’t let me down. My howling lament set her to speaking, more quickly now, nervously, as if there was some urgency that I not be left to my own devices in the middle of Sinalunga with nothing more than sunset to look forward to. Pressing the receiver closer to my ear, I gathered together enough key phrases to imagine she was telling me to wait, someone would come.
In the park, the old men went on gossiping and fanning themselves with folded newspapers, oblivious to my plight.
At the side of the station – which had been built during Mussolini’s reign – I discovered a card game in progress. Four men sitting around a portable card table were playing pinochle, surrounded by twelve or fifteen other men who followed the throw of cards with an intense and shrewd expressiveness. The players, themselves, never changed expression, but the ones who were watching them “spoke” silently, showing their approval or disapproval with a uplifted eyebrow or an almost imperceptible nod. I have no idea what the stakes might’ve been, but I began to surmise in the game itself a complicated dialogue with all the gravity of life and death. In short, I became engrossed, watching the players and the watchers with equal interest, long enough to be surprised by the young man shouting through the open car window, asking me I wanted a taxi. Yes, it’s me, I said. I hurried over to the curb and collected my bags. Petroio? I said. Si, si, he said. Trove? I said. Si, si, si, he said impatiently, climbing from the taxi to help me with my luggage. We threw the suitcases into the back, and I climbed in next to the driver.
Bertoli was a would-be Andretti in a clapped-out Chevy. Seconds later, we were flying out of Sinalunga, whizzing past olive groves and 500-year-old farmhouses, communication reduced to little more than place names and finger pointing. Here, the road to Trequanda. Over there, Pienza. This place – this is where the big pots are made for the world. Buongiorno, Buongiorno, with eyes and the flick of a wrist towards those at the side of the road. My country – very beautiful, he beamed, his white teeth flashing. Up, up into the hills – an almost-voiceless passage into the dawning of the Holocene. For an eternity we drove.
Just before the hill town of Petroio, we veered to the right, then went another kilometer before making an abrupt left onto a narrow, gravel track full of pot-holes. I gazed from my window, peering down into a deep ravine, as the car plunged on. In the distance, through the blue haze of late afternoon, the village of Castelmuzio reached ambitiously towards heaven. Beyond that, one could just make out the bell-tower of the monastery where The English Patient had been filmed.
Slowly, slowly, we drove, past the farmhouse of the Bindi, down the windy, rutted road into the enclosed valley where the red, roof-tiles of Trove floated in a sea of green, surrounded by an ocean of sunflowers five weeks short of harvesting.
Nothing was exactly as I imagined it, yet everything was strangely familiar. High up on a high ridge, fifteen erect cypresses stood in one long row; and behind them – maybe fifteen miles away – the extinct volcano of Mt Amiata, Toscana’s highest peak – towered over the Cassia.
I paid the driver and watched forlornly as my last link with civilization disappeared in a cloud of dust. Not yellow as I had imagined, but a volcanic grey. After all these years, I was finally alone.
Looking up at the empty house, I could see it wasn’t as dilapidated as I had thought. In fact, it had a curious nobility about it. And it was much grander than I would’ve dreamed. Tall weeds grew on either side of the path leading up to the front door, and plaster had fallen from the outside walls, revealing the ancient brickwork underneath. All this only added to its charm.
The ground floor had been set aside for horses and farm equipment, but it didn’t look as if either had inhabited this place since the end of the war. Somewhere down here was the toilet I’d been told about, and the bucket of sawdust one used to cover the evidence. Too many snakes, I thought, and decided I’d use the woods at the back of the house.
I climbed the steps to the second floor, unlocked the double-doors, and pushed inside. It was cool, dark. The living room and kitchen shared one vast space. Kitchen on the left, living room on the right, and a rough-hewn, wooden dining table in between. Trove, I said under my breath. Trove… Trove… as if the sound possessed some kind of magical power; as if by merely uttering it I could conjure the company of spirits, good spirits I hoped, who might well inhabit the shadows which fell about me in a room of brick and slate and stone. I was alone. And yet there was a presence here; invisible forces dwelled within these walls and I knew almost at once that I’d have to make a some sort of peace with them if I was to survive the isolation.
I dropped my bags and breathed in the deep silence, an engulfing, claustrophobic silence. Trove. What place was this? What was it I had hoped to find here – without telephone or electricity, three kilometers from the nearest village? Trove… Trove.
The house seemed to go on forever. It had a roominess I had often longed for, having been forced to live for so many years to live in tight quarters with no space to move. There were two large rooms off of the kitchen – one for storage, the other a bedroom. From the living room, a long, narrow corridor led to three more bedrooms, lavishly furnished in antique Italian wardrobes, dressers and beds. I selected the room closest to the kitchen for my bedroom, and the one furthest from the kitchen for my study.
Looking from my bedroom window, I gazed out on a sea of sunflowers; golden heads dipping in the wind, rolling in great waves as far as the eye could see. I threw open the window, and breathed in the exotic perfume of earth and growing things. Within arms’ reach, little green figs hung from a tree. I would take these figs as my calendar. Instead of counting the days I would watch them as they softened and changed color, knowing that September had passed into October by the taste of ripened fruit. After all these months, I was finally here, or least my body was.
I unpacked my bags, placing socks and underwear neatly in the dresser drawers, hanging my shirts in the wardrobe. My commitment to the place growing evermore certain with each action. This was going to be my home.I set up the portable CD player I’d bought in Vienna. The tiny musical library I had with me was a rather strange mix of blues, pop, jazz and classical. I selected Vivaldi and cranked up the volume.
How like desire! I mused. How the reality of what one has hoped for settles into one’s being. I’d come seeking solitude, and now that I was here I was surprised and a little dismayed there was no one to greet me. Nor was there anything to do, other than get on with my writing – a new play about Soutine and Utrillo, and whatever else was thrown up by the extraordinary adventure upon which I had embarked.
At the end of Vivaldi’s last season, the silence was still there. Nothing but the ticking of my watch and my heart’s own gravity. Then I heard another sound. A kind of knocking on glass. It became more violent, as if someone or something was pounding on a window at the other end of the house. I went to investigate. A strange, mad bird was smashing up against the window pane in the store room, as if he might be trying to break in, or break me out. I tried to shoo him away, but he kept coming back, like a warning: bird’s bones on glass and feathers everywhere. I closed the door, hoping to muffle the sound and, after a while, put it out of my mind.
Next morning he was back, body crashing so forcefully it woke me up just after sunrise. It was so damn insistent; and me, not knowing the habits of birds, I became a little frightened. Perhaps it was a sign, an omen, a messenger with a message I was incapable of deciphering.
Later, I went outside to investigate the old, stone well by the side of the house. Peering down its throat, I could see the silhouette of my head back-lit by sky, thirty feet below me. I pulled on the rope tied to the cross-beam, and a blue plastic bucket, half full of water, rose from the darkness. The water was undrinkable – only for bathing and washing clothes I’d been told. And it was freezing. Something I’d have to bear. After the train trip from Florence and the drive from Sinalunga, I needed a wash, so I stripped off, and ladled the water over my body, naked in the heavy, warm air, attuned to every sound and movement, ready to make a mad dash to my towel in the event of any uninvited passersby, but there were none. The only people who came down this road were the Bindis, to attend to their sunflowers, and sometimes you wouldn’t see them for days.
Near the well, the flowers droned with large black and yellow bees, and a persistent march fly, not easily discouraged by my waving hands, dive-bombed for blood. I lifted my face to the sky, feeling the sun on my face and chest, water streaming down my legs. In future I’d fill containers and let the water warm itself in the rays of the sun before using it to wash with. There was something delicious and sensual about being naked and unashamed in the full-bodied heat of the Tuscan light, the sound of summer buzzing in the air.
The house hadn’t been inhabited for quite some time and I could see right away there were a number of provisions I’d need, quite apart from some good vino. I’d need candles and food, and some paper and pens. Petroio wasn’t that far away that I couldn’t walk there, so next morning I set out on foot, back along the route the taxi had taken – a long three kilometers, mostly uphill. On my way, I called in at the Bindi’s farmhouse and introduced myself. The Bindis, I’d been told, were the most marvelous people on the face of the earth. And this may have been true, though I never found out, as they spoke no English and my Italian was still at the stage of baby talk. Most of our “conversations” were composed of head shaking, shrugging, and nervous laughter, though their eldest daughter, Mikalia, and I did manage a fairly lengthy discussion about the occult once, with the help of my pocket phrase book and a lot of mental telepathy.
The store in Petroio was small but had everything I needed. Wine, wurst, candle and cannelloni. I bought as much as I could stuff into my backpack and headed down to the village’s small piazza to rest before the long trek back. I was in terrible physical condition at the start of my time in Italy, but would soon become quite fit owing to all the walking I’d be doing. The complete journey from Trove to Petroio and back again took nearly three hours. Had the store opened early, I could’ve left in early morning before it was so hot, but I usually left at about nine when the heat was already quite intense, and by the time I returned it was nearly 100.
After the first couple of weeks, I began to enjoy my sojourns into Petroio. By the bridge at the foot of the town, there was always an old man, leaning against the bridge, cane in hand, taking the air. We got into the habit of nodding to one another and saying Buongiorno whenever we’d meet. It was always a highlight of the trip, finding him there. I often wondered what he thought about me – who I was and what I was doing there. I seemed so out of place, as though some big, omnipotent hand had stuck me, willy-nilly, into the landscape.
If nothing else, walking gave me time to think, and what I kept thinking was “what the hell am I doing here”… staying wasn’t going to be easy, yet the idea of retreat was worse than surrender; to leave without giving it a chance seemed weak and cowardly.
How I survived… hour by hour, day by day, week by week, has been lost to me. I spent much of my time naked, indoors and out, reading as much as I could – Moby Dick, Antigone and Dante Aligheri. But mostly, I sat and thought about my life and busied myself with the little things, completely conscious of each movement – how a jug is filled, or a stove is lit – appreciating in these simple actions life’s fragility as well as the endurance required simply to be present.
Eventually, I settled into a kind of life. Though my loneliness was always with me, I discovered I could hold it at bay through a kind of inspired diligence to routine. Outside, I washed all my clothes by hand and pegged them up to dry, marvelling at how quickly and easily the task was done. Trips into the village were best when commenced early, and the return trip was made easier after a spell under the trees in Petroio’s small park. On Thursdays, I’d walk up to the main road and flag the bus to Sinalunga and spend the day at the outdoor markets. Amazing how much can be done when there is nothing to do! Some evenings, coming back from a walk, I’d spy one of the Bindi brothers on a tractor and we’d wave or nod to one another, and I’d think of his life and of his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, who had been nourished by this land, and how much richer their lives had been because of their essential connection to the earth. And I felt blind and helpless and ashamed, that I – who had learned so much – was unable to be simply be happy, to take delight in my own nothingness.
Some days, having completed all my tasks, I would seek escape in long walks. Every day I managed to walk somewhere. Every second or third day I’d walk into Petroio to replenish supplies. By now my body had become lean and stronger than it had been in years. No more panting and struggling for breath. Five miles was nothing. Walking uphill was just as easy as walking down. My mind seemed clearer too.
One morning, I woke up and went to the kitchen to brush my teeth. I turned the tap, the same as I’d done every morning, but nothing came out, only a distant sigh, as if dust had grown a throat and was trying to clear it.
I dressed and walked up to Senor Bindi’s place and told him I had no drinking water. He frowned and went to investigate. I went with him. Halfway between his place and mine, on a flat plateau a hundred feet higher than the roof of my house, we unbolted the trapdoor that covered the cistern, and flung it open. The cistern was dry. Senor Bindi sighed, and scratched his head. Then he shrugged. This had never happened before. Maybe a blockage, maybe a pump somewhere. He had no idea. He’d ring the Commune. He couldn’t tell me when I would have water again.
Thus began several weeks of me carrying water from the village to my house. A daily event. I thought of Jean de Florette, and suddenly understood what he had been faced with. It was so hot, I usually ended up drinking half the water before I got home. Next morning, it was all gone, and I’d have to make the trip again.
Poetry, as much as anything, was what had led me here, but it was pure stubbornness that kept me pinned. Later, I would buy a cheap Vespa, and explore some of Dante’s country more fully. The landscape near Sovana, which had provided inspiration for Dante’s concept of the Inferno, is one of the places that will always remain in my memory. Sheer cliffs fall on all sides into a tangle of dark ravines and crevasses. It was while Dante had been journeying on this road that he had had chanced upon this image of Hell. The volcanic rocks and escarpments present a cruel, unrelenting aspect that is only neutralized by one’s arrival in the village at the top. But whose Hell was it really?
I re-read Dante during my time at Trove, and imagined that what had led him to write The Divine Comedy was not so very different from what had led me to seek refuge in the wilds of the Italian countryside. Both of us had felt thwarted, both had fallen from grace, both had come to a “pathless wood”, and the empyrean plain, which all true poets have some inkling of, seemed unreachable. Caught in the suspense of Limbo, stuck between torment and bliss, I could only marvel at his words, standing on the brink of the very cliffs where he had dreamed his great poem, seen visions and heard voices. “Why harbourest cowardice in thy heart? Why act thou not bold and free…?”
Poetry is always more than the poet, always more than method and technique; and never a matter of what one learns or knows, but what one is. More than a way of saying – it is Being itself; and the Etruscan hills were no less a part of this epic – my epic – than they had been his. They were as true or false a sounding board as what I had left behind in Australia, because the voice is not OUT THERE, but always lurking inside, making the soundless sound in the interior landscape of the human heart – the source of all those sounds that make up humanity’s endless howl.
Dante speaks of a way out, but it is not a way one buys for the price of a map. If one must speak of ways, it is the quiet inner-looking by which the poet, Virgil, guides Dante in his migration from the labyrinth of the “littleness of soul”.
I had come to the beginning of the civilized world to forget the crassness of civilization, and what I found was history, the crassiest invention of all in the absence of love. A weighty history of done things without vitality for change. Could I write in this place? Could I live here without the torment of the darkness within?
Some nights I’d lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling, illuminated by candlelight, imagining I’d fallen into a huge grave. In my notebook, I wrote things like:
Coming back from the village
I spy two stag deer grazing
Raising their heads
catching my scent
leaping into the woods,
becoming invisible –
like those Etruscans
barely hidden by the trees…
And in the evenings I drank good wine and made myself dinner, all with fresh, locally bought ingredients. Here is one I often made – a pasta with Sausage and Cream – a hearty, substantial dish for anyone in exile (or not). Best of all it is quick and easy enough to make and will provide a gustatory taste of that part of Italy where I beat out my exile.
Prep time: 5 min | Cook time: 20 min | Total time: 25 min
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced thin
1 pound crumbled sweet Italian sausage meat (stuffing from 4 links)
1 cup heavy cream
salt & pepper to taste
1 pound penne pasta
freshly grated Parmagianno-Reggiano cheese
- Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and sautè, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add sausage meat and cook, stirring occasionally until sausage is browned approximately 10 minutes.
- Add the cream, salt and pepper, and cook until the sauce has thickened, 2-3 minutes. Take the sauce off the heat.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the penne. Cook uncovered over high heat until al dente and drain.
- Place the pan with the sauce back over medium heat, add the pasta to the pan and toss until well coated.
- Serve with grated Parmagianno-Reggiano cheese on the side