Tuscan Tussle: Six Librarians and an Italian Villa
By Cherie Magnus
Tired of going to Europe alone and inspired by romantic Merchant-Ivory films of the Edwardian Grand Tour, I asked six of my female friends if they wanted to rent a villa in Tuscany for two weeks late summer. They jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t?
Having known each other for years, working in different departments of the same library system, we shared many interests and compatibilities.
All of us single, we frequently got together at local gourmet restaurants and chowed down, bonding through food. Eating our way through Italy together seemed like a no-brainer.
We spent the next several months planning our Italian adventure. During our planning get-togethers, we watched “Enchanted April” on video, savored potlucks of Tuscan food and wine, decided which of the many villas available would be perfect, how many cars to rent, booked airline tickets, and, we thought, dealt with all the other vital details that go into such a trip.
I was especially exhilarated about having a home base in Italy, and a group of women with whom to share the marvels of Tuscany. While I enjoyed solo travel, I’d have a different perspective, plus the relief of not eating alone in restaurants all the time.
On the flight to Florence the six of us were high on excitement, sitting in one row in the middle of the 747, laughing over the idea of this picture perfect trip actually happening.
Things first started to go wrong at the Florence airport. Monica’s bags were lost, maybe due to her late check-in at the curb at LAX, and the dark cloud of missing luggage pursued us as we got our two rental cars, and 3 by 3, found our way out of town and up into the hills to the northwest.
We picked up our keys at the big manor house surrounded by vineyards where the Contessa, our landlady, lived and directed her family’s winery business. Then, our two little European Fords convoyed higher up the green hills, through more vineyards heavy with grapes, by a lake, over a bridge, past a chapel, to our villa, Frantoia.
It was just like the photo in the catalog: stone, two stories, charmingly aged, with a swimming pool. There were five bedrooms, three baths, a living room, a big kitchen with a walk-in fireplace and an ancient stone sink. The largest room was the dining room with a huge trestle table and benches. No modern conveniences, but for very erratic and undependable water heaters that had to be switched on and off. There was no extra charge for the resident bat.
We pulled names for room assignments, two of us doubling up, the other four in their own bedrooms. The first morning, I threw open the old wooden shutters to a flock of sheep grazing below the window, a weathered shepherd and his two dogs silhouetted against the morning sun. The mist-touched Tuscan hills behind them seemed to go on forever.
An excursion to the town of Arrezo was on the day’s agenda due to the annual medieval jousting fair like the Palio of Siena, but less touristy. We stood at the edge of narrow cobbled streets watching the colorful pageantry that has remained the same since the Middle Ages.
Lunch was outdoors on the square, and even though we had gone to the market and loaded up with provisions for the house, I hadn’t eaten much. Now I was starving and ordered a salad and a pasta course, plus desert and cappuccino. I rejoiced at the food — we were finally in Italy!
Household Expense Kitty
Our money plan was based on a kitty for household expenses, and splitting restaurant checks equally. It seemed reasonable and fair. Now, at our first restaurant meal there was a problem.
Instead of merely dividing the check, there was the “ladies at lunch” syndrome of, “Well, I only had the soup, so mine is…” Never mind what people ate at the villa from the communal provisions. This was the second clue that things were not going as we had planned in L.A. Still, we had high hopes.
Until it came to the cars. The whole idea of renting two small cars was that we would each have more freedom to do what we wanted, when and with whom. But somehow it didn’t work that way.
Even though we all paid equally for the rentals, and we were all listed on the insurance, the two women who put them on their credit cards became possessive and wanted to determine who and where and how the cars went. Furthermore, while we were six, one had left her license at home, another hurt her foot, and a third couldn’t drive at night.
As the ranks of drivers shrank, power struggles emerged, with sides chosen: there were the red car people and the green car team, a bit like the jousting at Arezzo only less friendly.
The culmination of the Car Wars was one early morning when the three who were going to Rome for the day drove off the cliff in front of the house in the dark. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the green car was marooned.
The Rome-goers then took the red car, and the other three women waited around the villa all day until the farmer showed up at sunset on his tractor to yank the car back from the brink and onto the road.
The food issue also deteriorated quickly into petty lists of who bought what, who owed how much, and going to the market or a restaurant became a nightmare.
By our final “gala” dinner at a hotel in the nearby village of Ruffina, instead of celebrating our two weeks together in Italy, plus the two birthdays that occurred, we celebrated the end: the togetherness was finally finito.
We all were tense and rude, and over the birthday cake, foul language erupted. Here we were, six middle-aged American librarians, making quite a scene in a little Italian hotel’s dining room. Hardly worthy of a genteel Merchant-Ivory film.
The next morning we all went our separate ways, two to Venice, me to Slovenia, the other three back to L.A., where even now, a year later, the red team and the green team no longer socialize.
Our Tuscan Tussle wasn’t the fault of Italy, which regarded the American ladies’ folly with the wisdom of centuries. Nor was it the fault of the beautiful and warm Italian people, who looked as if they had stepped down from the Renaissance paintings in the Uffizi Museum.
And it most certainly was not the fault of the Contessa’s lovely, old, stone farmhouse. Maybe the fault was ours. Or in the stars. Or maybe it was just a simple conflict between movies and real life. In any event, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of traveling solo, again.
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