Il Piccolo Rustico
I had a machete in my hand and I was thinking about using it
on Henry David Thoreau. You know, that guy they made you read
in school who popularized the
we should find solace in nature. Maybe I was doing this all wrong, but I had
been hacking my way through nature all morning and all I had to show for it
were blisters, sweat, and a shooting pain up my arm. I didn’t think I
was having a heart attack, but if I were, it would have been more amusing than
dealing with a hill covered in underbrush so thick it made this little corner
of Tuscany look like a Brazilian rain forest.
Of course the land was only part of the problem, because at the
top of this hill sat a three-hundred-year-old stone farmhouse
we had just bought. Perhaps
was too grand a word to describe this crumbling heap of rubble. In fact, the
dwelling was so insignificant, it didn’t even have an address. Folks
around here simply jerked their thumbs in its direction and referred to it
as il piccolo
rustico. An apt description, because it was certainly rustic and definitely
small. Just the perfect size for its current occupants, the scorpions and the
I gathered up my tools and began the long trudge uphill. When
I had started, the morning sun was slanting low through the
olive trees, casting gnarled shadows
across the hill. But as the day grew warm, a low, silvery-white haze descended
over the countryside. The Tuscans call this il sfumato, which comes from
the Italian word for smoke. And as my wife, Nancy, pointed
out to me at the Uffizi
Gallery, artists as far back as the Renaissance have been suffusing their
canvases with its pearly glow.
I gazed out, realizing how integral il sfumato had become to
my very perception of Tuscany. It made me feel as if I was
looking at life through a fine linen
bandage that blurred the edges, softened the colors, and cloaked the undercurrents
of intrigue that threatened to engulf us.
My feet crunched on a floor of pyracantha berries and I stooped
to pick a weed. I stuck it between my teeth in a jaunty Huck
Finn pose that greatly belied how
I felt. We had invested most of our savings in this house, but in our attempts
to make it livable we had managed to alienate our neighbors, infuriate the
local government, and generally outrage the normally serene
citizens of this fair land.
So much fuss over such a crummy little house. Stone walls splitting
apart where ancient mortar had decayed into dust. Wood beams
so riddled with wormholes, they
looked like they had been peppered with birdshot. A wide crack running up
one of the exterior walls had caused part of the roof to
cave in and stove over.
There was no electricity, water, or gas, and only the vaguest rumor of a
septic tank buried somewhere. Even if everything ran smoothly,
we could finance a lunar
probe for what it was going to cost to restore this place.
I stopped to breathe in a dizzying mixture of rotting humus and wild jasmine
and thought about the chain of events that had brought me here, and how this
run-down, neglected little house in Tuscany had become a metaphor for my
life. Call it a late-life crisis, but in my mid-fifties I had turned my back
career and on a way of life that had sustained me for the previous three
decades. In the process of forging a life here, I struggled to rediscover
myself, my wife,
and our life together.
And like many improbable adventures, it all began with a phone
“I bought a house,” Nancy said.
“You what?” I gripped the receiver in astonishment. “Where?”
“Here. In Italy.”
I rolled my eyes and whimpered.
“I think we could really be happy here.”
“I’m happy here,” I said. “And how could you buy a house
without me even seeing it?”
“I had to move fast. But you’ll see it now. How soon can you get
“I’m going to fly all the way from L.A. just because—”
“Yeah, come on, get over here.”
“I’m still working on this goddamn script,” I mumbled as I
peeled the foil off a roll of Tums with my teeth.
“And then pilot season
starts in a couple of—”
“Dai!” she said, which is how Italians say, “Come on.” She’d
been working there so long, she had started to think in their language. “Just
come take a look. If you don’t like it we can always.” She ended
her sentence there.
“Forget it, you’re going to love it.”
She launched into all the reasons why I was going to love it,
and my eyes glazed over. I found myself watching the sun drop
behind the Santa Monica Mountains.
I’ve always wondered about people who could stare endlessly at sunsets
and roaring fireplaces. For me, they were pointless because you knew that both
were going to end in cold and darkness.
“The house is over three hundred years old!” she said, as if that
were a good thing. “It sits on a hillful of olive trees with a magnificent
view of the village of Cambione.”
“And that’s something I want to look at?”
“The view is to die.”
“What about the house? Is that to die too?”
“I won’t lie, it needs a little work.”
“What a surprise.”
“But the construction’s pretty basic. Except for putting in the road.”
“You bought a house on a hill that doesn’t have a road?”
“That’s why we got it so cheap,” she said triumphantly.
“Let me see if I got this,” I said. “In the long history
of Tuscany, which has been occupied by the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans,
the Visigoths, the French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Nazis, and now the
baby boomers, no one has ever thought to run a road up to this house?”
“We’ll put one in.”
“We are talking about Italy, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” she said defensively.
“Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Relax, honey. There’s always a way.”
The sun had dropped behind the mountains and I sat in darkness.
Two weeks later I finished the script I’d been working on and sent it to
my agent. Rather than stay in L.A. and brood about it and wait for his phone
call, I boarded a plane for Italy to brood about a house I didn’t want.
Dai, Nancy, what are you doing to us? Aren’t we being crushed enough under
this jackboot of a house in Brentwood? And now that I’m struggling to
find work, why do we need this added pressure? God, this flight is long.
I felt the plane shudder and looked out the window. We were
being buffeted by turbulence over the Alps, but while everyone
else saw snowcapped peaks and
I could only think of the clouds of plaster dust that seemed to follow Nancy
wherever she went. My wife is a chronic nest builder with a strange compulsion
to find places nobody wants and devote all her energy to making them beautiful.
When she sees a house she wants to redo, she gets a look on her face like
a fifteen-year-old boy on a topless beach.
When Nancy and I first started going out twenty years ago, she
was working at Universal Studios as a set designer and moonlighting
as an interior designer.
This meant that she never met a room she didn’t think she could improve.
In fact, the night she walked into that party, I thought she was checking me
out, while she claims she was thinking about opening up an interior wall and
bullnosing all the wainscoting.
Before she turned up, it was a pretty boring party full
of artsy types dressed in black arguing about things like The Future of Bio-morphic
Abstractionism. I was in the kitchen watching the guacamole turn brown when
I looked up and saw her in the doorway. She was slim and graceful and had
a way of standing with one hip cocked like a dancer. She
had thick blond hair and playful dark eyes that were almond shaped and
made her look slightly Mediterranean. She was pretty and
she had such a great
was sure she was an actress, which was not necessarily a good thing because
of the policy I had about not dating actresses or any other female impersonators.
But when she came over with a corn chip in need of guacamole, we chatted
and she told me about her work and how she loved the designing
part but hated the
bullshit. I told her I felt the same way about writing for TV, which is
aspired to direct my own features. She had an ambition of her own, to work
in Italy as a marble sculptor, which is what she had studied in art school.
did I realize that night that she would live out her dream, while I was
still waiting for mine.
The plane banked and the sun blazed through my window. I cupped
a hand over my eyes and squinted out at a sky that was suddenly
clear enough to see all
way up to the stratosphere. Below me lay the city of Pisa, all ochre walls
and terra-cotta roofs fanning out like a mantilla around the cathedral in the
del Duomo. The locals called this “the Square of Miracles,” and there
is no greater miracle in all of Italy than Pisa’s own symbol, the leaning
tower. The plane began its descent into Galileo Airport, and I admired how
this Romanesque torre, constructed with all the confidence of the High Middle
leaned thirteen and half feet off the perpendicular, making it look both majestic
and improbable at the same time.
Our plane landed and taxied to a stop. We then had the pleasure
of sitting on the hot tarmac for forty-five minutes while
the Alitalia ground crew figured
out how to open our door. This gave me ample time to recall how this whole
chapter of our lives had begun.
About fifteen years earlier, I had been working on a
TV show so beset with problems that between the network, the ratings, and the
star, we writers never went home. This plunged every writer’s life into
a shambles. But instead of screaming and calling a divorce lawyer like the other
spouses, Nancy told me that she was going to Italy to carve marble. So she came
to this part of Tuscany and bought a block of the white statuario that’s
mined from the nearby Carrara Mountains. With the help of the local artigiani,
some of whose ancestors had been working the stone since the days of Michelangelo,
she sculpted a statue that eventually wound up being shown in a museum in Florence.
This arrangement worked out well and it became a steady fixture
of our lives. Nancy and I would figure out the busiest time
of my production schedule and
plan her annual trip. Over the years, as she morphed into an Italian, she became
gripped by the desire to find us a charming little stone farmhouse where we
could one day retire.
The airplane door finally popped open, and my fellow passengers
and I filed out. I claimed my suitcase and presented myself
at passport control. When the official
asked me the purpose of my visit, I had to fight the urge to tell him that
I had come here to murder my wife. I cleared customs and
wheeled my suitcase through
the gate. Nancy rushed into my arms, and we kissed in the middle of the airport
like people did back in the fifties in those movies with William Holden and
She guided me out to where she had parked in a taxi zone. As
I stuffed my suitcase in the trunk, she asked me how I was
doing. I told her I was fine because I
want to talk about how I was living on antacids, suffering anxiety attacks and
migraines, and popping Trazadone when I couldn’t sleep, which was often.
But she knew. She opened her arms and hugged me in
a way that always calms me when I’m going through life
like my hair’s on fire. We held each other for a long time, prompting
ill-tempered shouts from the taxi driver waiting for us to leave. Nancy broke
off our embrace
to holler back at him. I feared that the whole thing would spiral into an opera
buffa as can only be performed by the Italians. Or at least one Italian and
one Italian-speaking girl from Santa Monica.
But as we were getting into the car, I noticed that the taxi
driver had stopped yelling and was now blowing kisses at Nancy
and muttering, “Che bella,” his
face contorted in pain as if her beauty had stung his eyes like smoke.
“No wonder you like it here,” I said as she started
“I like it here because they know how to treat an artist.” She showed
me a check.
“Oh, you finished. How’d it come out?”
“Vulgar bordering on the pornographic,” she said.
“I’m sure it’s beautiful.”
It would have been if he had let me sculpt her the way I wanted. But while I’m
carving, he’s screaming, ‘Make the tits bigger, make her waist smaller.’ I
finally said to him, ‘Hey, you don’t want a statue, you want a copy
We pulled out of the airport, and Nancy used her horn and her
lungs to bully us through an onslaught of traffic that seemed
to be moving in absolutely no
relationship to traffic signals or stop signs.
“Is this the way to the hotel?”
“We’re all meeting up at the house first.” Nancy whipped onto
the Autostrada, executing a suicide squeeze into a lane of cars moving at a Grand
“Who’s we all?” I said. Actually, I had to yell it over the
sonic boom of the red Ferrari that roared past us, reminding me that I was now
where everybody has to drive at twice the speed of sound so they can get to
a café and sit for three hours.
“We’re meeting with Vincenzo, the ingegnere, Maurizio, the geologo,
and Umberto, our muratore ... that’s stonemason to you, gringo.”
I clucked, calculating the cost of such an entourage.
“Actually, it’s not going to be that bad. I paid most of their fees
when the dollar was strong against the euro.”
“And what happens now that the dollar’s weak?”
“Boh,” she said, which isn’t exactly a word but more of a sound
a Tuscan makes when he wants to say, “Who the hell knows? Stop bothering
Cutting off an Alfa full of fat people who responded with rude
hand gestures, we exited the Autostrada and merged onto a
narrow road choked with Fiats and
Lancias creeping behind sputtering tractors and overloaded produce trucks.
Occasionally an impatient driver drifted over the nonexistent
yellow line to pass, only to
be pushed back into his place, muttering and cursing, by the unbroken line
of oncoming vehicles. Only the two-wheelers made progress,
from the souped-up motorcycle
with its space-suited driver to the Vespa carrying two middle-aged women
in housecoats and aprons, chatting and laughing.
We inched past groves of fruit trees and sprouting fields of
new spring wheat, eventually reaching a sign that welcomed
us to the village of Cambione in Collina.
Even though I’d been to this country before, here’s how Ihad pictured
an Italian village: a desolate piazza, sun-baked to a ghostly white and dominated
by a crumbling but implacable cathedral. Mandolin music played in the background
as unemployed men in dark suits smoked unfiltered cigarettes while their wives
scrubbed laundry in the fountain with a soap stick.
But my first approach into Cambione changed all that, as farmland
surrendered to a loose alignment of houses, gas stations,
goat pens, factories, and produce
markets jammed next to each other with absolutely no sense of congruity.
There seemed to be no such thing as a purely residential
street, or a commercial
one for that matter. When you did find a stretch of houses, each was a different
height and seemingly angled in its own peculiar direction, as centuries-old
sat next door to squat, shoe-box-shaped dwellings that looked as though they
had just been built for the Festival di Cement.
There was, indeed, a main piazza with a church, a faded war
memorial, and a fountain. But far from being desolate, it
reverberated with the chaos of people shouting,
whistling, swearing, and singing. Clumps of teenagers joked and jostled each
other as mothers called out to their children from second-story windows.
Groups of men in shirtsleeves, all talking at once, debated
the key issues of the day
at such volume that the veins in their necks stuck out.
We circled the piazza so Nancy could point out the fish market
where we would buy the freshest branzino and the kiosk where
she had already talked to the woman
about saving me the Herald Tribune each day. I thanked her, then winced as
she whipped down a side street that, because there was no
sidewalk, was essentially
a blind corner.
Darting through a warren of one-way backstreets and alleys
so narrow that I found myself gasping, we roared past an
abandoned stone quarry and turned onto a freshly
paved asphalt road that led us uphill.
“Hey, I thought you said there was no road.”
“Shhh,” she cackled.
“Lucy, what have you done?” I said in an exasperated Cuban accent.
“I told you there’s always a way.” Nancy slammed on the brakes
to avoid hitting an ancient Italian woman dressed in black down to her knuckles
except for the large white handkerchief on her head.
“That’s our neighbor, Annamaria,” Nancy said. “She told
me all about the history of our house.” Then, by way of introducing me,
Nancy called out, “Signora, voglio presentare il mio marito.”
The old woman poked a leathery face into my window.
“Buon giorno, signora. Piacere,” I said, using up ten percent of
my Italian vocabulary.
“She told me that no one’s lived in there for years,” Nancy
farmers used it to store equipment and keep their goats inside during the winter.
But get this, during the war people called it the Bunker because the Germans
set up a machine gun right in our kitchen!”
“Hmm.” I nodded, wondering how many Cambionians
one could pick off from up here.
“She was just a little girl then, but she remembers,” Nancy
Annamaria’s face contorted into a dark scowl and she flicked her thumbnail
against her front tooth, a gesture, no doubt, she used with regularity on every
passing busload of German tourists.
We got out of the car and walked the old lady to where her goat
was grazing in some tall weeds. Between expressions of “Arrivederla” and “Troppo
gentile” she told us that when we were ready to move in, she’d
come over with bread and salt. Then, wetting the side of her thumb and making
on her forehead, she also promised to bring us the other necessity of life,
a statue of Maria Santissima.
Walking uphill, we began to hear an overture for cement mixer
and earthmover accompanying a powerful baritone oratorio. The
voice belonged to Umberto, the
muratore, a stout, ruggedly built man, shirtless in shorts, construction boots,
and a battered straw cowboy hat—which made him look like a slightly paunchy
member of The Village People.
I soon learned that Umberto Baccarelli had dedicated his life
to single-handedly disproving the cliché that the average Italian laborer has the work
ethic of a third-generation welfare recipient. He whirled around the construction
like a dervish on amphetamines, screaming at anybody who dared slacken his
breakneck pace. As a result, the rebuilding of our retaining walls was being
such fanatical urgency that if the Italians had behaved this way during World
War II, Mussolini would have been sitting in the White House.
Umberto stopped flagellating his crew to explain in fractured English that
Vincenzo, the engineer, was not coming because, frankly, he wasn’t very good in the
mornings, and that Maurizio, the geologist, had just not shown up, lacking even
the decency to come up with a shoddy excuse like Vincenzo’s. He took a
last drag off his cigarette, tossed it over his shoulder, and Hacky Sack–kicked
the butt into a pile of gravel. Then while Umberto and Nancy launched into a
lengthy conversation about some aspect of construction that I wouldn’t
have been able to follow even if it were in English, I wandered off to take
a close-up look at my new house.
It was a small, two-story affair that had fallen into such
disrepair, it was closer to a ruin than a dwelling. Wood
planks lay rotting in the uncut grass,
and there was so much debris scattered around, it looked as if the remains
of a shipwreck had washed ashore. I was shaking my head at
this folly, when I found
myself walking under a canopy made of cut branches that abutted the side
of the house. Glancing up at the tangle of vines snaking
around the trellis, I spotted
a glorious cluster of cobalt-blue grapes as perfect as wax fruit and succulent
enough to adorn the brow of Bacchus. I picked one and popped it in my mouth.
The sweetness was so pure it staggered me. For a long time afterward I could
taste the sun on my tongue.
Oh, no. I had only been here a few hours, and Tuscany was already
beginning to work its magic. Its insidious charm and inexhaustible
natural beauty were
me, and if I wasn’t careful, I was going to find myself feeling happy
for absolutely no reason.
I shook aside such subversive thoughts and pushed open the
splintery wooden door. I entered and was immediately struck
by the coolness and quiet inside the half-meter-thick
walls. The house was small, built to the measure of a man. Essentially just
a kitchen on the ground floor connected by a rickety ladder
to a bedroom above.
As I batted away the cobwebs, my eyes were drawn to the hearth,
which was nothing more than a knee-high platform for firewood.
Over this, somebody had fashioned
a mortared hood so misaligned, it had allowed a black finger of soot to miss
the flue and meander up the wall, where it found refuge in the methodical
blackening of the center beam. I studied the thick accretion
of inky residue and pondered
the dramas that had played out inside these four walls.
The births, the deaths, the quarrels, the passions. And that
was just the goats.
As for the human chronicle, I could not even fathom the complexities
and the vagaries of a dozen generations playing out their
tragedies and comedies upon
this tiny stage.
Of people living continuously inside a structure built when
America was a colony. A house that had stood in silent witness
to every famine, flood, and forest fire
to be hurled at it over the past three hundred years, its very survival a
living testament to the sturdiness of its construction and
the indestructibility of
its macigno stone walls, a quartz-bearing limestone hard enough that craftsmen
in the Middle Ages had used it for grindstones.
The door swung open and Nancy entered.
“I’m so pissed,” she said, too angry to stop walking even though
she was halfway inside the room. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“The Germans are back with their machine gun?”
“Didn’t he just start?”
“He got offered another job.”
“And it didn’t occur to him to finish ours first?”
“He got offered another job so he couldn’t finish ours.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
“Who? The Pingatores, that’s who.”
“Wait, aren’t those the people you bought this from?”
“I’m sorry to be making a wrinkle in the fabric of your alternate
universe, but I’m not following this.”
“Don’t you get it? They want their house back.”
“Why did they sell it to us in the first place?”
“Because nobody else would buy it, because it didn’t have a road.”
“Speaking of that, where did that road—?”
The door flew open with a bang, and a wild-looking woman with
flyaway hair and the deranged look of a spree killer stood
in our doorway.
“Puttana!!” she screamed, her eyes glaring a malocchio so fierce,
it would calcify flesh. Nancy rose to protest, which only prompted the old woman
curses and threats at us, building to a shriek of “Porca miseria!” and
all punctuated with the slamming of the door.
“What was that?
“Mario Pingatore’s sister. She seems to think that whoever put in
that road tore down some of her trees and generally desecrated the sacred grounds
“Great, now we have a neighbor who hates us.”
“Actually, it’s a little worse than that. See, the road was put in
abusivo, which means illegally, which is done all the time and is perfectly fine
long as nobody kicks up a fuss.”
“Well, that looked like some big-time fuss-kicking to me.”
she just went to the Comune de Cambione and issued a denuncia against
“That sounds serious. Are we in trouble?”
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