Cristina's Library

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Tag: Italy

Talking to Strangers

My article in the November issue of The Florentine, Florence’s English newspaper!

Talking to Strangers

Full Text

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.’

‘Why?’

‘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.

Journal entry: September 2014

The world has opened itself to me in the form of endless sunflower fields.

I breathe in the smell of grapes, churning nearby, and listen to the rooster’s morning music. Raindrops hover, bulbous, on blades of grass, shifting prisms of sunlight in the late dawn. I write beneath an olive tree, staring out at rows upon rows of slanted vineyards and lush olive groves.

Limitless, peaceful freedom is both a blessing and a challenge, I have discovered here. It’s a reminder that we must make an effort to engage in acts of human culture every once in a while. To allow ourselves to abandon ambitious pursuits, and simply read, write, exercise, cook, grow, and engage in meaningful conversation. After two months of travel through Europe, and 6 weeks at La Macina di San Cresci, a Residence for Artists in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany, I feel so privileged to not only have truly experienced life, but to have participated in the art of fine living.

I sampled delicacies from 7 different countries, danced all night, read by rivers, boarded boats and trains and tiny little cars on tiny little roads, went to the tops of mountains and bobsledded down them (and sprained my wrist doing so – perhaps I will rethink this particular adventure next time!), traversed valleys, strolled cities, drank cappuccinos, drank (a lot of) fantastic wine, discussed world issues with people from around the world, sat on cafe patios, made lasting friendships, lived and thrived in the countryside, counted the stars, learned, embraced.

And I did it with complete strangers, or completely alone.

Back in May, when I was accepted to the Artist Residency, the decision to go was difficult, but one that I felt I had to make. I was having trouble measuring myself against the world: I felt restless yet stagnant, unmotivated yet desirous, not at peace yet overcome by a peaceful sort of melancholy. I was exhausted from my routine. I needed time away to immerse myself in something new. I felt lost in the right direction.

With the support of my loved ones, I chose to grasp the opportunity, and took some time off work. And I’m so happy that I did. I set out to challenge myself, to examine my mind beyond my comfort zone, to complete a writing project, and to marvel at beauty. And I think I have found what I was looking for.

– Greve in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy

Here are a few pictures from my trip (not in order). For more, check out Instagram @crisrizz

The Shoemaker’s Wife

“Did you like Canada when you first arrived?”
“Never,” she replied in her broken English. “I like nothing when I come here. The people, the food, the cold…
veramente niente.”
“Never?”
“Never,” she repeated quietly, looking away. Her face sagged, wrinkles delicately folding into one another. The corners of her mouth curved downwards, two parallel roads. “I never like it, and I never will. I missed my life, my friends. My house. My Italy.”
I nodded, slowly turning an orange around in my hands, caressing its scaly skin for a soft spot to peel into. I said nothing for a moment, saddened by this thought, that someone could live for over 40 years in a country eternally unhappy, disconnected.
“But, I have no choice back then,” she sighed. “Ok
basta, Cristina. No more question.”
Irritated, my grandmother reached out to stab her thumb through the orange for me, peeling off a small chunk. She shuffled away in the embellished cork-heeled sandals that she insisted on wearing inside, leaving me alone at the kitchen table.

***

These days, I can’t write reviews for every book I read (and I read a lot!). Life, busy-ness, business, writing, and work take up so much of my time. But there are some books that truly touch me on a different level, and I feel compelled in my heart to write about them. I have to write about them. The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani is one of those books.

If you were wondering about the above piece, it is a conversation I had with my grandmother, my nonna Franca, not long before starting The Shoemaker’s Wife. Perhaps that’s why it hit me so hard. In the early 1960s, with very little in their pockets, my father and his siblings, and my mother’s parents, made the week-long boat journey from Italy to Halifax to try to build a better life for their families. They had not known each other, but later met in Toronto after fatefully moving onto the same street. Although I’ve heard the stories so many times, I can’t imagine the incredible sense of isolation and fear, excitement and elation, felt by immigrants coming to North America, to a country they had only heard about distantly, and seen in their dreams – but this book puts it all into perspective.

The Shoemaker’s Wife was the most enchanting book I’ve read this year. This is a sweeping historical epic, a kind of double bildungsroman, following the lives of two characters from teenage years in the Italian Alps, to adulthood in New York City and, later, Minnesota. It is a book that, with credit to its stunning, elegant writing, at once made me feel nostalgic, though I’ve never lived in the early 1900s, and engaged, as the history and culture were so similar to that of my own. By the end of the novel, I was in tears, my heart aching, deeply touched by the characters and their lives. They became a part of me. Trigiani beautifully describes intricate details of Italian and Italian-American culture, all of their glories and triumphs, the tolerable and the celebrated – and the food! Oh, THE FOOD. Cooking is a fine art, a tradition, a vehicle of expression, a way that families were brought together and kept alive, and it is deliciously portrayed as such throughout the entire book. Every manner of Italian is perfectly sketched out, from the awful Signora Buffa to gentle Sister Teresa, the rambunctious, hopelessly romantic young Ciro, and practical Enza, whose meaning in life and love lies with family.

Trigiani is a bestselling author, as well as a prolific playwright and screenwriter, and I could immediately tell in her writing – specifically, in the dialogue and detailed setting. Dramatic devices cropped up, from juxtaposition to scene contrast (ie. one scene taking place in two separate rooms), making the story that much more interesting  In my mind, I was watching the play. It is a long book, but don’t let that deter you. When the curtains closed, I wanted an encore.

Unfortunately, I notice a few reviews calling this book “a great beach read” or “a great summer read”, but it is so much more than that. It is so much more important than that. I need to give it the justice it deserves. You will fall in love with the story, the characters, the era, the many cultures, and New York City, of course (if you haven’t already had the pleasure of doing so). A beautiful love story, and a touching tribute to the immigrants that built America, The Shoemaker’s Wife is a must read.