Comment: Time, tide and Tuscany
By Todd R. Nelson
One July, I set my watch near the church bells of San Regolo, Italy, for three weeks. But that’s not how you read the time in San Regolo.
The bells of the hours ring in its narrow streets, past ancient stone houses, above the surrounding olive groves, cypresses and vineyards of this small village below Castello di Brolio in Tuscany. They give the sound texture of the day, but they do not include a timetable. Village life is more truly punctuated by the ripening of fruit, the wear and tear of stone and the rhythms of ancient customs. Time is a local and subjective phenomenon, not a universal constant.
The dishes that follow the midday meal at the Fabbrizio family trattoria suggest a typical ritual: Antipasti, primo piatti, secondo piatti, dolce, caffe. What is not written on the menu, but assumed, is this: tempo slowly. Free time. That is, a meal must defy the lure of haste. Signora Fabbrizio’s zuppa di verdure and tortellini are made to be savored. One bite at a time. Slowly. As her husband set the bowl down in front of me, then surprised me by pouring some olio d’oliva over it, I felt concerned at his simple instruction. Like the older man sitting at the table across from me pouring his grappa into his espresso cup. Final. The meal is coming to an end, but one more gesture is in order.
Business sleeps there in the heat of the early afternoon, punctuating the day. Even the village clock seems a little slow, ringing languidly in what Billy Collins calls “the afternoon rill”. The older men and women of the village gather outside the alimentari. They chat, play cards and watch young Andrea. He explores their pockets and plays with their coins while the old men ask him questions and teach him new words. They are the same villagers who have always gathered in this town square to enjoy this shade, this breeze that comes up the hill, this company between them and a young child who is barely learning to speak. Or simply to contemplate the rows of vines. Vintage vintage.
The view from the square of the perched village of San Regolo is a medieval view. Each postage stamp on the ground grows a crop: grapes, olives, sunflowers, tomatoes, peaches, plums and lavender. This soil seems to grow anything. The stone village itself springs from the hill as if planted there. In fact, it is the land that is rooted — in the community; and a community rooted in the land, tendrils of stewardship dating back a thousand years or more.
In this ancient place, the narrow, cobbled streets defy the haste. Cars are prohibited and prohibitive. A 1,300-year-old city only had electricity and automobiles for the blink of an eye. The ancient Italian city may be connected to the information highway – internet cafes abound in the shadow of the Duomo in neighboring Siena; cell phones are ubiquitous – but to get there you have to march to the pace of the medieval bourgeois. Slowly. There is no rush at this colony – except for the Vespa Night Rodeo at rush hour.
For the builders of the Duomo, stone imposed the pace of construction. And my time in the middle of an olive grove and a stone village reset my own rhythm to the speed of fruit ripening. Molto bene. Even briefly inhabiting this ancient history has increased my ability to appreciate the patience and care sown in each area. It took many bells for my thoughts to mature like this, afternoons sitting and watching. No, I can’t be a villager here, but I can temporarily adapt my thinking to speeds no greater than the flowering of sunflowers. Slowly.
Back home, I begin to realize that I, too, live in an old place. Four hundred years of European colonization in Castine, Maine, is hardly old for a resident of San Regolo. However, the Italians would recognize certain models. Ours is also a community rooted in the land, and a land rooted in the community; a place known for forest, bay and shoreline stewardship; of a meticulous rhythm of bathing works; of men and women gathering to sit in the village square on an August afternoon, punctuated by the speed of melting ice cream cones and the creeping shade of the elm tree. Andrea! It is the same young child who benefits from the attention of the same older people.
And the comparison reminded me of the time it takes to become familiar enough with a place to feel that sense of community – the intimacy with neighbors and a special place that only comes from time spent slowly. It is the neighborhood scale, in an old or new world, which reinforces belonging; time to tend a vineyard or a grove of trees; time to preserve the land and the friendships that nourish it; time to meticulously place stone upon stone to build a wall that will last for hundreds of years.
At home, I set my watch to the bells of Trinitarian Church on Main Street, heard all over town. But I prefer the notion of daily rhythms defined by the tide – the most basic global rhythm – or the blooming lupine, or our ripening blueberries. Time is a local phenomenon, after all. “Lentemente” is my new standard for “fast” and for the community, taking more time to savor our lives.
Todd R. Nelson is the author of “Cold Spell”, a book of essays on local life. It will be published in October by Down East Books.