It’s Easter Sunday, my third day in Italy, and I’m sitting on the patio at Residence Le Santucce in Castiglion Fiorentino with a bottle of acqua frizzante and a chocolate gallina and watching oversized cotton balls drift over a vivid green landscape. A field sparked with brilliant acid yellow lies just ahead, and everywhere else terracotta roofs and sandstone walls warm the pastures and trees. The sun comes and goes, and soon it will reach through the archway that shelters me.
I needed a down day before I head off to Firenze tomorrow. I’m exhausted from a deluge of thoughts, observations, and feelings, more so than I’ve experienced in Italy on previous trips, and I think it’s because I’m more mentally present. I have been to this country with my children and my partner at the time, and later in various stages of grief, and both scenarios limited my awareness of the places and experiences I encountered. This time I find myself contextualizing things, putting them in past and future perspectives—new flashes of understanding about my Italian heritage, family, and mindset (not sure I can articulate those), and envisioning myself in this context, living here. Not necessarily in Castiglion Fiorentino, or even Tuscany, but somewhere in Italy.
So many things charm me—the reflexive courtesy of teenage boys who gesture to me to board a train or bus before them; the smile of recognition from the barista at Bar Maro when I show up for the third day in a row; the effusive apologies for being late when the apologizers were actually several minutes early. Yesterday a bus driver let me ride for free from Cortona to the Camucia train station because the next bus to Castiglion Fiorentino wouldn’t come for four hours. And at La Piazzetta Pizzeria, everyone who comes in greets (and is greeted by) the chef and wait staff and other diners as if they were family. It’s fascinating to watch how the restaurant staff works—at times the chef delivers the platters of food himself, and he always stops by my table to see how things are (delicious, always). He rings up the bill at a counter where people stand and chat while having un caffé, or a beer from a nearby cooler. One time, when the chef couldn’t break a €50 note, a man drinking beer at the counter made change, rounding up what I was due by €1 and shrugging at the fact that he’d given a total stranger a discount. And countless times every day I notice the built-in courtesy of the way people interact—always a buon giorno or buona sera, always an arrivederci or buona giornata (or, today, buona Pasqua). It’s not that I didn’t know this already; it’s that, in contrast to the hyper, stressed-out climate in the U.S. today, it seems so needed, a nurturing way to coexist. We could all use some extra kindnesses these days.
Yesterday I went to Cortona, where I wandered the postcard streets and the traveling market, ate gelato, admired the stunning Oratorio from the former Church of Gesù at the Museo Diocesano, stopped I don’t know how many times to gaze at the vast stretch of landscape below (which includes Lago di Trasimeno and Montepulciano on a clear day). It was lovely, as expected. What I didn’t realize is that Cortona is steeply built—the streets that spider out from Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Signorelli don’t rise or fall, they rocket or plunge. Still, when I determined that I absolutely must see the Basilica di Santa Margherita—the pride and joy of this city, and built very high on the hill above it—I didn’t know I’d be walking up a steep trajectory for at least half an hour, ending in an eternal-seeming, near-vertical rise of stairs. I’m the most out-of-shape I’ve been in years, so this hike was, to my body, like going from 0 to 120 in five seconds (though I was cheered to see that the 20-somethings behind me stopped to catch their breath as often as I did). The piazza in front of the church surged with hordes of teenagers, scouts of some kind, playing Frisbee. Every so often they scattered, dodging watery attacks by a Franciscan monk whose four-lobed squirt gun (squirt bazooka?), held at his side, splashed his brown robes with cartoonish colors.
According to my Rick Steves guidebook, Santa Margherita is the favored saint of the Cortonese, and they put their money into the stunning basilica dedicated to her rather than into the Duomo (which isn’t actually a duomo, or cathedral, anymore since it has no bishop). In the 1200s, Santa Margherita, an unwed mother, took refuge in Cortona, where she tended to the sick and poor, lived in poverty and penance, and eventually was admitted to the Third Order of Saint Francis. She spent the last years of her life in isolation in the ruined Church of St. Basil and died in 1297. The church was rebuilt in her name in 1330; Margherita was canonized in 1728.
The place touched me deeply. I don’t know if it was the physicality of the hike—the freeing, centering experience of getting into the body and out of the mind—but I sat there for a long time, thinking about my mother as I always do when I go into a church. She died in 2005, and the fact that I’ve lived 12 years without her always stuns me, as does the fact that I’m now three years older than my dad was when he died. My mother loved the rituals of Catholicism, as I do, though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic—a Gregorian chant will dissolve me. But this time, more than the sense of ritual, it was my mother’s presence that overwhelmed me. After paying my respects to the mummified saint behind the altar, I lit a candle for my mother—the biggest size they had, which I imagine will burn for several days. I placed it in front of a sweet, blue-cloaked Madonna and cried.
I see ritual in so many ways in Italy, and it’s one thing that makes being here so visceral. Religious traditions are strong, practiced by those who aren’t devout as well as those who are. In Castiglion Fiorentino, late on the evening of Good Friday, crowds packed the streets to watch black- or white-robed-and-hooded celebrants of all ages surge by in a town-traversing procession, surrounding barefoot men who carry 10-foot crosses held vertically. The procession stops periodically so that the men carrying the crosses can switch off—though their bases are tucked into a support slung around the waist, they must be heavy, and hard to balance. Watching the crowds were young parents taking snapshots or videos of their children, packs of teenagers, families of all sizes, and neighborly octogenarians, all sharing this centuries-old ritual, a layering of religious and community meaning. As the crowd gathered, and again as it dispersed, the traditional words rang out—“Buona Pasqua.”