Last week, Amber and I took a trip to the Italian region of Tuscany. I learned a great deal there, and I'll be sharing more in the coming days. For now, allow this to serve as a preview. Here are 7 things Tuscany taught me. (And for more short photo stories, check out my Facebook page.)
1. “Literally” is literally the best adverb for everything in Tuscany.
I consider myself a man of ample vocabulary, with the ability to wield it with precision and creativity. That being said, while visiting the Tuscan region of Italy, I found myself often at a loss for words. All of my adverbs seemed to take flight with the rowdy Italian swallows, and I was left with only one—literally.
For example, I found the Tuscan countryside was "literally the most well-manicured landscape in the world.” The cheese from the nearby organic farm was “literally the best cheese I’ve ever put in my mouth.” The gelato, of course, was “literally the best desert known to man.”
I’m ashamed to admit it: I literally turn into a vocabulary buffoon once I set foot on Italian soil.
2. The best adjective for describing anything in Tuscany is the word itself with an added y.
When in Tuscany you will find yourself awed by how thingy a thing is. In other words, a tomatoe taste more like a tomato than any tomato you’ve ever eaten. Lavender smells more like lavender than any lavender you’ve ever smelled. The grapes are more grapey; the sky is more sky-y; the olives are more olivey. This is not a hyperbolic observation, and it works its way into everyday conversation in Tuscany. "Have you ever smelled more jasminey jasmine?" you might ask.
These sorts of adjectives work well in Tuscany, and the English speakers in the region are, for the most part, over-joyed by these expressions. That being said, there are two notable exceptions.
Exception No. 1: First, the adjective use is limited when the thing itself ends with an “ee” sound (try to say “celery-y celery” ten times fast).
Exception No. 2: These types of adjectives should not be employed when it will cause inadvertent offense. For instance, refrain from calling the wine of a Tuscan farmer the “most winey wine” you’ve ever tasted, lest he believe you are calling his wine immature or temperamental. (As an aside, and for those of you following my recovery series, this was not an issue for me.)
3. All similes and metaphors in Tuscany can be condensed into eye rolls, sighs, and humms.
Sticking with grammar rules and literary devices, most similes and metaphors fall flat in Tuscany. Often at meals, I would literally taste the most cheesy chesse, and would exclaim, “this cheese is like….” (Allow the elipse to indicate my dumbfoundedness and inability to harness any appropriate simile.)
My striking lapse of literary language led me to toss my love for simile and metaphor out the window. Instead, and in the place of language, most comments regarding food were limited to eye rolls, deep inhalations, and the hum of a low “mmmmmm.”
4. In Tuscany (along with the rest of Europe), you will see dead people in churches.
When you visit churches in Tuscany (as with the rest of Europe), be forewarned—you will occasionally see human remains. Evidently, this is a bit of a thing overseas, and what’s more, these long-passed saints are often adorned in gaudy garb. For instance, see my good friend St. Faustus.
St. Faustus is the patron saint of Castellina. According to a placard on the church wall, it is said that his remains, which were originally buried in the catacombs in Rome, were donated to a noble Florentine family. The family entombed St. Faustus' body in this reliquary, and mounted it on the church wall. According to town lore, St. Faustus has proven quite effective in warding off the plague since the 1700s.
Be further forewarned—the inclusion of skeletons in church reliquaries can create awkward prayer experiences. For instance while in Castellina, I ducked into the local church to offer a prayer for a friend. I sat in the pew closest to a burning candelabra, figuring the flickering fire good for a bit of ambiance. Upon whispering my amen, I turned to the candelabra, where I noticed the remains of St. Faustus in the glass box. I would be lying if I did not admit that it startled me almost to the point of swearing. By God’s grace, I kept it clean.
I credit St. Faustus for warding off my near swears.
5. Americans work a grave disservice to the word “Tuscan.”
On my drive to the airport, I noticed an American housing subdivision named “Tuscan heights.” The houses were between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet, with front-facing garages and faux rock artifices. They were adorned with anemic, young maples and monkey-grass edged concrete walkways. They were archless, inset with vinyl windows, and hung with fake shutters.
Note to subdivision developers: this architectural style is not reminiscent of the Tuscan region. In fact, the only correlation between Tuscan Heights and Tuscany proper is that both have dirt and sky.
So, Mr. Subdivision Developer, if you’d like to coopt the name “Tuscan” for any future subdivisions, incorporate some homages to the subdivision’s namesake. Consider building a town wall with archer posts, planting a small olive grove, using a few thousand fifteenth century stones to pave the streets, or otherwise including a small Catholic church with a shadowbox containing the remains of an ancient Saint. It’s really the least you can do.
6. Tuscany is literally more Tuscany-y than any painting, photography, or video footage you’ve ever seen.
Have you seen the film Under the Tuscan Sun, or the heaven sequences in Gladiator (which were shot mere kilometers from our villa)? Have you seen photographs or paintings of Tuscany? The scenes are breathtaking; right?
Those images don’t do justice to the beauty of the Tuscan landscape and architecture. It’s true: Tuscany is literally more Tuscany-y any image you've seen.
7. We could learn a lot from people of Tuscany.
We stayed in the quaint village of Castelmuzio a few kilometers from Pienza. The people of Castelmuzio were kind, hospitable, authentic, and eager to serve. They smiled as we passed them on the street, sat next to us on the benches overlooking the countryside, and did their best to bridge the language gap with kind eyes and heartfelt ciaos. The waitress at the local restaurant served us as if it were her honor, suffered our broken Italian with a smile. Our trip coordinator, Isabella, helped us understand the local culture, and provided us with lavish meats, cheeses, snacks, olive oils, and beverages from the region.
And if their hospitality were not enough to win me over, the people of Castelmuzio took deep pride in their community. We saw elderly women sweeping their front stoops, children carrying trash to the strategically placed receptacles, and men carrying garbage to well-hidden dumpsters. The residents hung beautiful linen window treatments, and placed flowers in terracotta pots by their doors. Their gardens and courtyards smelled of lavendar and jasmine.
The town was squeaky clean, a pristine gem hidden in the countryside. “The people take pride in their homes,” Isabella, our coordinator from Le Casine Di Castello told us. “They believe what they have is a gift.”
This is the gift they gave to us.
Yes, the people of the Tuscan countryside are worthy of imitation. They made me pine for my own small, connected, hospitable ideal, made me believe that community can cooperate in gratitude.
We could learn a lot from these good people.