My article in the November issue of The Florentine, Florence’s English newspaper!
Talking to Strangers: A Snapshot of Life in Chianti
I went to Florence to immerse myself in beauty. A few weeks ago, I leaned on the Ponte alla Carraia with a delicious treat from its namesake gelateria and looked out at the Arno. An old man on a bicycle stopped and stood beside me to do the same. We greeted each other, buona sera, and chatted. As he slowly climbed back on his bicycle, he said that my eyes are ‘full of light.’ ‘No,’ I replied awkwardly, never one to take compliments well. ‘It’s not me. It’s Florence that is full of light.’ He shook his head with a smile. ‘Something in your eyes, it says maybe you want to know the whole world.’ Then he rode away.
He’s right, the old man on his bicycle, making cryptic statements and reading people’s eyes. I do want to know the whole world. That’s what’s so beautiful in Italy: the relationships. That you cannot walk into a salon, a store or a café without indulging in pleasant conversation, a glance, a smile, either from those who work there or a fellow patron is enough to justify buying a crumbled old villa and settling down somewhere in the Tuscan hills—not to mention the local produce, perfect weather, Chianti wine and unique artisanal crafts.
It is such a change from life in Toronto, where many harbour almost a peculiar, inexplicable sense of refuge in anonymity. One can easily become another faceless person in the vast city, walking through the streets or sitting in a café without ever catching someone’s eye or engaging in genuine conversation. Sometimes I just want to talk to strangers. Which is what I do here in Greve in Chianti, where I am currently an artist in residence.
I awake to the sound of a cooing rooster, murmuring voices outside, a vine tractor meandering the vineyards. It’s harvest time, vendemmia. Each morning, I go to piazza Matteotti, Greve’s main piazza, for a cappuccino and brioche alla marmellata at my favourite place to sit and watch the world. The staff has memorized my order now. I once ordered a cappuccino without the brioche and received a startled look. The barista placed the drink on the counter and pressed the warm, soft pastry into my hands anyway. ‘Eat,’ he said. ‘It’s not right without.’
Despite its constant impermanence and change, there is a comforting sense of continuity here, an access to natural symmetry that cannot be found anywhere else. Things grow, die, replenish. People enter and leave. Time moves a little bit differently in Chianti than it does in other places—it’s slow enough to give you a true impression of who you are outside of the bustle of routine and industrial life, to make you stop and look at not only the world but yourself. It’s a special place.
Later, I walk into one of the many art stores to decide on a new print for my bedroom back home. As I’m considering the works, I hear a loud OINK! behind me. I turn—it’s Carmellino, the shop owner’s friend. The diminutive ‘-ino’ on the end seems far too young for this retired 60-year-old artist, but I realize people continue to call him this because he has never really aged.
OINK! He squeezes a stuffed piglet at us, and we laugh and shoo him away. He goes onto the sidewalk and squeezes it at tourists passing by, cradling their many purchases.
‘Buongiorno! Good day! Hello!’ OINK! OINK!
They give him dirty looks or roll their eyes. He comes back inside looking dejected. ‘Non ride più nessuno.’ No one laughs anymore.
The shop owner, Jacopo, turns the radio up louder—Michael Jackson is singing ‘PYT.’ He starts to sing. He grabs my hands with his hands that have wet paint on them and twirls me around. I laugh and chide him for dirtying my new white shirt, but, in spite of myself, dance along. It doesn’t matter really. It is a joy for me to simply come here every day, chat and browse the new paintings by local artists or the old photographs of Greve, grainy figures soaked in sepia, staring back at me. I like to imagine their lives back then, where their descendants are now, if they ever stood in this very spot.
I ask Jacopo how much the small Pinocchio painting is. It’s 30 euro, he tells me. Ah. Ok, I say. It’s wonderful. I will think about it. I begin to put the painting back. With serious looks on their faces,Carmellino and Jacopo talk in fast dialect. I can’t catch everything.
‘Ok … For you, 20 euro.’
‘The economy here in Italy is very bad, as you know. So we need to try to sell our pictures. And we want you to have it.’
I give him 30 euro, and refuse the change.
It’s the time of year, and the kind of grey Autumn day, to read H.P Lovecraft.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” – The Call of Cthulhu
“Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” – Collected Essays, Volume 5: Philosophy
Tonight I found myself drawn to the outdoors, wandering into the park of my childhood. I was walking down the sidewalk when I saw someone familiar, a young girl peering out from beneath her hunched, awkward pose and baggy jacket. She had an unsteady gait, veering from left to right as she regarded the trees with curiosity, stepped in patterns, dropped something, then bent to pick it up again. We met, and descended the steep hill, lined with mustard-coloured maple trees tinged bronze in the glow of hazy streetlamps; together, not speaking, towards winding gravel paths below. Soon, though, she made a turn and continued on her way, swallowed by the night. I looked after her for a moment, but she did not reappear. I wandered to the willow tree by the bridge, my steadfast willow tree, the one I would escape to in dark moments, once upon a time. I stood underneath in absolute stillness, surrounded by space, the vastness of eternal space, bordered by pine trees and silence, a familiar, welcome feeling of loneliness creeping into my heart. What is it that pervades our senses, our thoughts, to the point of fatigue — the other, the shadow of our ambition and fear, that thing that makes us question ourselves each time we feel the burden of ordinariness weighing inexhaustibly down on us. Gazing at the moon through the tree’s long branches, which hung around me in a protective circle, tickling the ground, I felt ensconced, embraced, as though in a peaceful, tiny Womb. I moved around the circle in a kind of slow-motion dance, compelled by a warm wind, and ran my fingers through its spindly tendrils of willow leaves, which began to move in a blur, drawing skeletal outlines of images in the air, cutting through the deep blue sky — a wristwatch, a book, illegible scrawl, oval mirrors. Starlight and moonlight entwined in the aether, a shimmering, translucent blanket on which rests the dreams of earth people, and I let myself suffocate in its folds, around and around and around. Time passed, I don’t know how much. A few minutes, hours, days, a second. After a while, I found my way out, stumbling onto the grass, shaking as I stood. I stopped, afraid, suddenly aware of twisting shadows, the Cimmerian gloom, how alone I truly was. I wondered if I should go further, or turn around and go home. And then the beginning of Dante’s Inferno came to mind, glaringly, “Midway on my life’s journey, I found myself in a dark woods, for the straightforward path had been lost.”
And so I went forward into the darkness.