Notebooks of a Tuscan Recluse
During the last hour of my four-hour drive from Rome, I meet no traffic along the lonely road. The late summer night is chilly and calm; a half-eaten moon hangs low over fields of withered sunflowers. Before I turn off the main road onto the gravel track leading up to the village, a dark, humped shape bolts from a cornfield, dashes out in front of my car, then scuttles to safety. I watch it trotting at great speed toward a thicket. This is my first glimpse of a wild boar.
The road up to the deserted village has been badly washed out by the August rainstorms. I park my car outside a small cluster of stone houses. There are eight houses in this village, but only three are inhabited. The old farmhouse to the left, facing the forest, is to be my home for the next few months. I have come to house-sit here in Tuscany for an acquaintance who has gone abroad for a year. But I have really come to see if I can learn to live more simply and more fully, obeying the demands of the present tense.
A dog begins to bark furiously as I go up the steps. The key is waiting for me where the owner told me she would leave it, beneath a geranium on a ledge near the door. It is a large, heavy, black iron key, made perhaps fifty or a hundred years ago by a local blacksmith — the sort of key you imagine might have once opened dungeons, worn smooth with much handling. A few weeks ago, when I discussed practical details with the owner before her departure, I marveled at her nonchalance about leaving keys within such easy reach, but she just laughed and said I had been living in the city too long. There was no need to fear intruders here.
As I unlock the door and step inside, I am met by the faint tangy smell of wood smoke mixed with the pungent odor of dried herbs; the ripe, sweetish smell of straw; and a damp slightly sour, but not unpleasant smell that seems to come from the stone walls themselves. A clock is ticking. Everything is still and seems in perfect order. I stand there for a moment in the dark kitchen, savoring the cozy, yet intriguing atmosphere. I have stumbled into someone else’s life or into another era, or perhaps into the ogre’s kitchen somewhere in a fairy tale and this sensation brings with it an enormous curiosity and sense of anticipation. Then as I grope for the switch and turn on the light, the feeling fades.
I go back downstairs and unload my things from the car, mostly practical objects useful for a life in the country: old clothes, woollen underwear, rubber boots and gardening gloves, kerosene lanterns -- the sundry paraphernalia of grown-up girl scouts — a pressure cooker— for all the beans I intend to eat ( paying homage to Thoreau) and several kilos of brown rice and other staples. At three a.m. I crawl into bed, leaving a shutter open so that I can contemplate the stars glittering above the dark tower on the hill. I soon fall asleep counting them.
I wake in my new home with a glowing feeling of exhilaration that I have not experienced since my adolescence. From now on until I leave this place, my time will be my own. I will not be straggling behind the calendar any longer. I shall be living in the slow, steady stream of the present which, here in this house of ancient stone, seems inextricably bound up with the distant past.
The above extract is taken from an essay which appeared in Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad For an illustrated chapbook of the complete essay, contact the author