It is a cool, perfect morning in Tuscany. The pale blue sky has been accented with wisps of clouds by some Artist’s technique that surpass even those of Michelangelo and Botticelli. Birds are singing cheerfully, for they will be staying home in Tuscany to revel in the blooms and rebirth of Springtime in Cortona. It’s interesting, the way the birds sing because it fits the atmosphere so perfectly– their melodious songs are not shrill or in conflict, but they seem to be designed to enhance the air of tranquility that we breathe here each morning. Each call hangs gracefully in the air as it blesses the ear, then leaves spaces for an answering complimentary series of notes that sing, “peace, peace” to all who listen. The first thing I saw out the window this morning was Buddy and Susan’s luggage out in front on the Villa, awaiting the driver taking them to catch a train to Rome. For some reason the sight of Buddy’s snappy straw hat sitting on top of the bags in the driveway accentuates my sadness over leaving. Each day he has announced a winner of the “hat contest”, of which he is the originator and for which he has been the sole judge. The judges’ decision each day has been dictatorial and final, and to be honest, somewhat capricious. I do not denigrate the hat contest because I never won a single day, nor do I second guess the judge’s decisions… But it was clear, as we waited breathlessly for the results to be announced each day, that I was going to finish at the bottom of the hat wearers, foiled each time by some small detail or new entrant. And one day, actually, my HAT won, but alas! I had loaned it to Brian that day… In the last announcement for the hat contest last night, after our Tuscan cooking class, Buddy announced the results of the final day, retiring the trophy to the Smiths, who had won three times. But then he added a “sportsmanship” award, given to the participant who, although he lacked talent, size, or speed, continued to compete with others better equipped and worthier than he. Imagine (as our Italian guides have said, Ih-MAY-gine) my surprise when I won! The prize was a straw hat Buddy bought from a street vendor in Pompeii, which I will treasure. The hat contest was just one of Buddy’s contributions to our trip, which was not only about Italy but was also about fellowship. We have a fairly diverse group who came together to explore Tuscany, and it has been fun to get to know them. Traveling in a larger group (even one full of Christian folks) can be dramatic or exasperating, but this band of tourists has honestly been a delight. The Villa Laura has been a place effective at promoting good conversation and goodwill. Francesco and Christiano, our chefs who were originally taught by their grandmothers, gave us a cooking lesson last night. After finishing our pizza and tiramisu, our group went into the Chapel and sang some hymns. Many of us had sung in choirs, or just sung in the shower, but as we sang together, magic happened. Harmonies were captured and interwoven, choruses were blended ethereally, and for a few minutes we were the songbirds of Villa Laura, complete with complimentary melodies that lifted us out of that chapel into other realms. For a few minutes, we were blessed with a very small glimpse of heaven, where our happy, harmonious voices will be lifted together in praise. I am not an artificially devout man (probably am not devout enough for lots of Christians who are), but those minutes we spent singing some great hymns of the past together in the chapel will stay with me as inspiration and encouragement. I know today’s modern churches have left hymns behind in favor of more contemporary sound, but I’m just gonna say it here: they have lost something important, and they don’t even know how much they are missing! It is sad to leave greatness behind. Seeing Buddy and Susan’s luggage reminds me that they are leaving to catch a train to Rome. From what we have learned about traveling in Italy, this is bound to be an adventure. Our eclectic band of fellow travelers will all be starting new adventures today, but I take solace in my last time hearing the songbirds of Villa Laura, knowing that as sad as it is to leave greatness behind, it is awesome to know beyond a doubt that there are even greater adventures ahead.
This story has several beginnings, or perhaps it is several stories interwoven, or perhaps it is one story, but it started four years ago and is more amazing today than I could have ever imagined. It went from Dallas, Texas, to a Calico Corners fabric store in Palo Alto, California, to a kitchen in Coppell, Texas, then into storage for 3 years, then back to a living room in Coppell. While packed away, it was magically interwoven through time and space by literary transport, and established a connection that continues today in Cortona and Arezzo, Italy. It is a story of magic, of relationship, and of miracle! It is a real life version of Julie and Julia, and today I witnessed it with my own eyes. Four years ago Nancy and I were traveling in northern California and stopped into a Calico Corners fabric store near Stanford University. She found some fabric that she then used to make window treatments for our “Italian style” kitchen, which we were redoing with granite and faux Tuscan wall paint. We had never been to Tuscany, but we admired the style and wanted to enjoy it every day. Being an excellent seamstress, Nancy accented the windows with the rich burgundy and gold fabric she had brought home from California, and the cornice looked terrific over the redone kitchen windows. About a year later, when we sold our home, she salvaged the fabric and took it with us, hoping to use it again someday… The magic threads of this story began to weave a tapestry that is far more interesting a tale than I could create.
A little over a year ago, we were sitting in Bill and Cindi’s living room talking about traveling to Italy. Cindi had been wanting to get a group to go to Tuscany, and had found out that the Villa Laura (used in the movie to represent Bramasole from Frances Mayes’s book in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”) was available to rent if we could get a group to go. We joined in enthusiastically, and Cindi made the arrangements. For a year Nancy and I were saving, planning, and thinking about our trip to Cortona. Nancy began researching Cortona and the places we would visit on our amazing journey to Italy. During that time we purchased a fixer upper home, and again redid the kitchen, which again received new granite counters, travertine backsplash, and faux paint. Nancy went into the attic and retrieved the fabric she had used in our previous home. This fabric, I would discover, would connect far more than our two do-it-yourself kitchen remodels. It would span oceans and continents, time and space: and I’m not making this up!
While researching Cortona, Nancy read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to learn the REAL story about where we would be staying. We learned that the Villa Laura was the home used in the movie, but not the actual Bramasole villa. It was still beautiful, and we were still able to anticipate being where Diane Lane got her groove back in the movie, so it was all good. Near the end of Frances Mayes’ remarkable story, she mentioned that she had used fabric from her home in the states to make window treatments in Cortona. She had bought the fabric at the Calico Corners in Palo Alto, California, had salvaged it from the home she left, and used it in her home in Italy.
At the same time she was finishing “Under the Tuscan Sun”, Nancy happened to be making the treatments for our “new” kitchen, doing exactly the same thing in Texas that Frances Mayes had described in her book. It was utterly serendipitous, and she couldn’t help but reflect on it as she sat in our kitchen, sewing her window treatments. Nancy said, “I felt such a connection with Frances Mayes at that moment, making my window treatments with fabric from exactly the same store, and it made our upcoming trip to Italy come alive!” the connection was deep and sympathetic. Nancy continued to read everything Frances had written, and we both grew more and more excited about Tuscany. Like many fans, Nancy sent Ms Mayes a Facebook friend request and received a confirmation. I think the Mayes even mentioned on their page that they would be traveling to Cortona in May– so we were intrigued that we would be in Italy at the same time. Wow, small world!
Little did we know… After some time in Rome, our travel itinerary today took us to Arezzo, where they hold an open air antique market once a month. Undeterred by rain, we walked the market and bought several keepsakes. Crowds were light because of the weather, and we shopped and looked around some more. I had to sort of squeeze by a tall, silver haired man with an umbrella, and he politely let me slip by him underneath it. His companion, who I did not really notice, was browsing at the table beside us. Then Nancy grabbed my arm. “Bo, I think that’s her!”. I’m a little slow. “Who?” “Frances Mayes and Ed!”
“Well, go meet her!” I said. “No, Nancy said, I don’t want to bother her.” “Nonsense, she’ll appreciate it.” We approached Ed and Frances, who were as nice as could be, and Nancy got to share with the author how meaningful her books had been in preparing for our trip of a lifetime, while I said something inane to Ed about our being do-it-yourselfers too. We spent a couple of pleasant moments there, standing in the rain in downtown Arezzo, somewhat overwhelmed with the unlikeliness of it all. The threads of the tapestry, woven in San Francisco, Coppell, Cortona, and Arezzo had come together: picture street booths, rainy cobblestone streets, umbrellas, and four people meeting impossibly at that moment at that Italian intersection… As we parted, the Mayes said, “See you on the Piazza!”, and there, 5200 miles from our kitchen window treatments, which which had traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Texas, we met the woman whose window treatments traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Cortona. It just took a trip to Arezzo to connect all the threads of the tapestry, woven across time, space, and possibility.