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The Road to Italy

Until 2003, I had never set foot in Italy. Books enticed me to visit the Italian peninsula—and they ended up whisking me into a garden on a Tuscan hillside. To help explain, here’s my essay that appeared in Strut Magazine in August 2005.*

Thank you, Frances Mayes

I’ve never considered myself a fan. No fan club memberships, even when I was a preteen and Bobby Sherman was the rage. I appreciate creative people who help shape our culture; it’s just that I think they should be left alone to do their jobs. In college, I attended a reading of one of my favorite authors, but was disappointed when all he did was—read. My balcony seat didn’t even allow me a good look at the guy. The dust jacket photos in my books at home provided a better view. What more did I want from the author? I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t get it sitting in that dark auditorium. So, aside from my occasional scanning of an article about this author or that musician, I’ve focused on my life, rather than on the lives of artists.

Now, I confess: I’ve written my first fan letter—more accurately, a letter of gratitude—to Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, a memoir describing her purchase and restoration of a 250-year-old villa in Cortona, Italy. I read the best seller and its sequel, Bella Tuscany, while undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. Recuperating from surgery and waiting for chemotherapy to do its magic, I read Mayes’ account of the transformation of her home, Bramasole; her visits to open air markets; leisurely lunches in trattorias; and the colorful cast of characters she encountered in her Italian life. Mayes worked her magic, transporting me to a golden place on the Tuscan landscape.

After my recovery, I wrote the letter, expressing my gratitude for her books and explaining that they had, in part, prompted our family to plan a trip to Italy. Ten days later, I received an e-mail from Mayes, thanking me for the letter and extending an invitation to stop by and see her at Bramasole. She said that if she wasn’t home, to simply open the gate and tour her garden. This was an amazing turn of events.

I had reservations about visiting Bramasole—fear it might be overrun with tourists and admirers, no matter how well intentioned. I sent Mayes a chatty e-mail thanking her for the invitation, hoping to convey I wasn’t a nut case and that if we did show up at her doorstep, she and her husband needn’t fear for their lives. No reply came, so I reconsidered—yet I couldn’t resist. This remarkable author had invited me to visit her home, the subject of her inspiring prose. How could I decline?

The two weeks in Italy had a dream-like quality, but our time in Cortona, an ancient walled city situated on a Tuscan hill, was extraordinary. My mind’s eye had already visited the place and it felt like a homecoming. Sunflower fields surrounded our B & B, located near the hill town. On our first night, we slept with the French doors open opposite our bed. The next morning, the glorious sight of a sea of flowers, all turned toward the morning light, greeted us.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

A couple hours later, my heart raced when I first caught a glimpse of Bramasole in the distance. It is a grand, three-storied house perched on a slope with sweeping views of the valley below. Its stucco is the color of ripe peaches and evening sky pink. My 10-year-old daughter, Julia, and I approached the iron gate and, at first, had no luck figuring out how the latch worked, but ultimately we entered and climbed the steps to the front door.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

I knocked. No answer. I called toward an open window upstairs. No answer. We stepped around to the side terrace and called. Again, nothing. So, with invitation in hand, we wandered through the garden. We put our faces close to the blooms, drinking in their scent. We bent down to examine roses and lavender and marveled at the abundant butterflies. Julia kept saying, “Look at these, Mama! Aren’t they pretty?”

Photo by Diana Dinverno

We walked slowly admiring everything. For those of you familiar with Mayes' writing, it was all there: the Polish wall, the shrine to Mary, the stone sink. Mayes’ affection for this plot of land and her new Italian life had coaxed the garden back into life.

Returning to the city along the cypress-lined road, I felt pure joy. It would have been wonderful to meet Mayes, but I was able to see, touch, and smell what she labored to create. She let me come to Tuscany with her through the written page when I needed a reprieve from the uncertainty of a serious illness, and then she helped facilitate the wonder of seeing her world with my own eyes. Her willingness to reach out to me was an act of great generosity and kindness. The artist came down off the bookshelf and touched my heart. Yes, I guess I’m a fan.

*I’ve added the above photos and made a few minor changes to the essay since its appearance in Strut. Sadly, the magazine is no longer in publication, but I will be forever grateful to its Editor In Chief, Theresa Falzone, for being one of the first editors to publish my creative non-fiction. And for those of you who may wonder about my health status, I'm happy to report that I'm cancer-free.

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