In the early morning, just before the sun has fully risen, I like to stand barefoot on the grass in my yard. The stiff tuffs of the Italian blades of grass give my feet a welcomed massage as I flex and stretch my toes back and forth. I like to think I am giving Mother Nature a back rub. The land is always cool, a result of its peaceful Tuscan sleep and it feels so wonderful.
I then rub the leaves of the herb plants planted in my cucina (kitchen) garden, putting the leaf between my thumb and index finger and moving it back and forth. They smell so fresh. I always start in the same order, first, the lavanda (lavender) leaves (my favourite) then the rosmarino (rosemary), saggio (sage) and finally the timo di limone (lemon thyme) saying their names out loud. It is these simple acts that makes me happy and give me a sense of gioia (joy).
In the distance and if I am facing northeast I can see the adorable piccolo (little) village of Montebenichi, a quaint hamlet (deserving of its own blog), and if the breeze is coming from the west, I can hear the rousing chorus of clucking polli (chickens) being fed at the poultry farm a short distance from Montebenichi . Colazione (breakfast) is obviously their favourite time of the day (mine also) and I find the sounds of the clucking chickens peaceful, gioioso (joyful), soothing in fact.
One day while taking my intenso (intensive) Italian language classes, I asked my Tuscan insegnante (teacher) about what makes Tuscany so special?
When I posed this question, she paused briefly and spoke about her love of singing in a local church choir. She then proceeded to sing a portion of an aria, all the while smiling. She had a lovely, strong voice and then she asked us (students) to sing with her (not so lovely). I thought to myself “where is this going”?
She spoke about her amore (love) of foraging herbs (she laughed as she recounted her famiglia (families) distrust of her choices), finding and smelling fresh vegetables and fruits at the Siena market, drinking good vino rosso (red wine), the beauty and variation of the Tuscan landscape and her recent trip to Puglia. She shared she was a mother of one, a grandmother of three and she enjoyed cooking and sharing the results with friends and famiglia after work. Then at the end of her reply she smiled, looked intensely into my eyes and said something similar to the following (remember I am translating):
“Carolyn it is very important to surround yourself with what brings you gioia: what you smell (lavender from the fields); what you hear (the voices of those you love or the music you play), what you see (fresh flowers on your table, art, the Tuscan landscape), what you touch (the fur of your animals, the hand of a friend), what makes you feel gioia inside (famiglia, pets, work), what you do with your time (sing, visit museums, talk with friends), what you taste (fresh food, fresh olive oil), what you drink (fresh water, good wine) and who you love (famiglia is the most important).”
‘These are the simple elements of true happiness and gioia, this is what Tuscans’ know to be true – as she pointed to her heart. Simplicity in life brings tranquility and happiness.”
La semplicità è l’ultima sofisticazione – Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. -Leonardo Da Vinci
I thought a great deal about what I heard that day, about gioia and the simple things in life. I began to watch the Tuscan people as they interacted with each other, my husband, myself and their impact on non Italians. The Tuscans’ seem to relish even the simplest of opportunities and occasions for moments of gioia.
When David and I meander around the local town of Castelnuovo Berardenga and the village of San Gusme, Tuscans’ maintain eye contact and greet you with a punctuated “Buon giorno” often accompanied by a deliberate nod. I feel as though “I have been seen” and not a mere stranger here, I am visible. How wonderful to feel as though you are counted amongst them. A simple gesture, a joyful feeling.
When I visit the local macelleria (butcher shop) the lady that serves us patiently waits while I speak broken Italian and as I go through my standard routine of asking for carne (meat) and formaggio (cheese); “Vorrei 100 grammi di prosciutto e 200 grammi di pecorino fresca” (I would like 100 grams of prosciutto and 200 grams of fresh pecorino), she politely and consistently corrects my mispronunciations with an earnest and thoughtful expression. She takes great care in wrapping my packages for take away, focusing just on who is in front of her, ignoring the line up and listening intently – how lovely that everyone is made to feel “special”, the “focus”, how simple, how respectful.
We often sit in Bar Centrale, the local cafe in Castelnuovo Berardenga. It is the “hot spot” for locals on their way to work or as a way to start their day. We are greeted by the owners with broad smiles and we order our cappuccino and espresso with tre (three) walnut cookies. We watch the morning madness as Tuscans’ dart in and out, greeting each other with “Ciao, Ciao“, grabbing a fresh pastry and gulping down their espresso.
Baci’s (Kisses) on both cheeks abound, back slaps are heard, laughter erupts with locals talking over and around existing conversations. Elderly, middle-aged and youth, Tuscan and non-Italians mixing together like oil paint moving on a canvas, it just simply works.
When the crowds settle, the “arrivederci” (good byes) ensue, good-bye kisses resume and then they are off. We finish our dolce (sweets), wrap up our Italian language session of reading the local Siena newspaper and it is time to go…..we have had our gioia fix, it’s that simple.
Tuscany has a way of bringing out the best in people as simple acts of kindness abound.
Sergio, the Villa’s gardener who shared his fresh fagioli verde (green beans) and strawberries with me, for no reason except he can and does. Our wonderful neighbours Penny and James who bring us along to wine tastings and foraging events for no other reason except they “do”. Spreading the gioia of Tuscany.
I have come to realize that respect and manners remain culturally important in Tuscany.
The person who stands and offers me their seat stating “Signora” as they gesture in the direction of the empty chair. The simple act of greeting you when you enter their shops and saying good-bye when you leave, purchase or not. They take seriously their commitments to their families and friends.
The Tuscans’ have a saying;
Cuando l’amico chiede, non v’è domani. – When a friend asks, there is no tomorrow.
I have been given the simple yet long-lasting gift of gioia in Tuscany and I am coming to understand Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian opera composer’s sentiments “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me.” (You may have the universe if I may have Italy).
For those of you reading this, if you were asked today’ “Have you found your Gioia?” What would your simple answer be?