In 1986, I sat in a classroom at the Syracuse University school, in the Piazza Savonarola in Florence, Italy, waiting to meet the people who would be my host parents for the next year of my life. I was nervous. I didn’t speak a word of Italian. I’d chosen Florence precisely for the art and the gut-spawned sense that it would be good for me to be mute for a year, or at least wildly misunderstood. I was in rebel mode, and I needed to slip sweetly into humility. I needed to get rid of the fight and get into receiving the beauty and power of life, and what better legacy of beauty and power than in those streets. I threw my eight years of Spanish out the window, and arrived in Italy thinking that you spelled the word “ciao” like this: Chow.
A lot of the students looked like they’d already spent a year in Italy, dressed in leather and capes, chatting and drinking espresso long before Starbucks hit the American scene. I felt small and invisible. One by one, students were paired with their Italian host families, lugging their suitcases and duffel bags down the parquet floors, out to the grainy honeyed light of the city. I was the last one left. It felt a lot like gym class. Before the teacher could call my name, a man who looked like Picasso, with large blinking doe eyes, stood up in a blue workshirt and jeans, nodded and smiled at me like he was rescuing me from waiting a second longer, like he was choosing me, wrapped his calloused black-etched fingers around my duffel, and walked toward the door. I guessed the nod and the smile had been our hello.
He opened the door of a tiny car called a Panda, similar to the 1960s Topolino (means Mickey Mouse), and I climbed inside, smooshed up against my bag. He lit a cigarette, smiled and nodded again, said something in Italian which I of course didn’t understand, and careened us through the streets of Florence, out to the highway, and through the Tuscan countryside. I beamed with measures of invigoration and confusion. Our host families were supposed to live in town. This was not town. How was I going to pound the pavement of the Renaissance in what was looking, ten, twenty, thirty miles out of the city? I wanted urban grit, not Cyprus trees and vineyards. Plus…there was the question of “the rest of the family” and if it existed.
We pulled into a pea gravel driveway, an old mustard stucco edifice standing proud with arched windows, topped in terracotta tiles. A woman was standing at the front door, wiping her hands on her apron, bubbling over with words clearly spun of homemade love. She kissed both of my cheeks. I held her a little hard for our first meeting.
The father took my bag inside, and I just stood there smiling, wishing I could tell her everything. That I was smart and kind and trustworthy and would help out and…and…and…please like me! I’m really not a rebel. I just need to be re-booted.
But I didn’t need to say anything. She took me inside, gave me a helping of a thick bread soup called papa al pomodoro, which is to this day my favorite comfort food, (made from the week’s leftover bread, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and olive oil—sort of their version of mashed potatoes), and afterward an espresso. Then she introduced me to the cat, the grandmother (la Nonna), the housekeeper, the pot of sauce simmering on the wood-fired stove, and suddenly, I realized, I was home. I was a daughter in this house for a year. I didn’t know if there were other children. It didn’t matter.
Then the father came down and took my hand and walked me out to the back porch where all of Tuscany spread out in quilts of olive groves and vineyards. He didn’t need to say a thing. Stunning is stunning is stunning. He paused a while to let me take it in.
Then he reached up to what I soon realized was a walnut tree, and picked a nut. He moved us over to a fig tree, and picked a fig. Then he did a little hand play like a magician before the tah-dah, cracked the walnut in one hand, popped the nut meat into the fig, and held it in front of my mouth. Then he opened his mouth, pantomime, and I knew to open mine, and in popped my first fig, filled with my first fresh walnut. I chewed. The little fig seeds bursting between my teeth.
Then we went inside to see the villa. I later learned that it was inhabited long before America was even discovered. Its foundation was built c. 1420-30, the first floor in the late 1700s, and the second floor in the late 1800s. It came into this family in the mid 1900s when the patriarch fell in love with the Italian style gardens, (think Boboli), a rarity for such a small property. From every window, you could see gardens, or hills or olive groves or vineyards or vegetable gardens.
This was clearly a family who loved land and the fruits of good soil, and it all came to a fervent dance in the glorious kitchen, a warm and never-dormant place of maternal pride and creation; a long table suggestive of a big family and many stories told.
The living room was an ode to stone, with its large fireplace and smooth floors. I would later learn that Florentines were stone masons. The banister and chandelier were wrought iron masterpieces and I would also learn that the paternal side of this family was a long line of blacksmiths, explaining my Italian host father’s hands.
The dining room walls were done in fresco by, I would later come to learn, their famous artist uncle, Silvano Campeggi, the table set in lace, large windows letting in that grainy light so that it looked like a Dutch Vermeer. Up the steep stone stairway were three rooms off a central second living room, a harpsichord in the corner. The ceiling high with wooden beams across white stucco. What I soon realized would become my weekend country room, their primary residence in the city, was fit for a princess– the bed frame, twisted in the same skilled wrought iron, the wardrobe and bureau, priceless antiques, lovingly kept to a shine.
These people were not necessarily rich. They were simply longtime stewards of place. And they were teachers and parents to me for one of the best years of my life. It turned out there were children in this family. A lovely daughter, Elisabetta, who has become a true sister to me over the years and who now lives next door with her children and her British husband—all of them fluent in English, and a talented musician son, Francesco, who has taken over their city flat.
When I returned with my daughter 20 years later, I was thrilled to find that they’ve turned their country home into a Bed & Breakfast, also hosting dinners for tourists in the Chianti area. This is a family of true Tuscans, fiercely proud, as they should be, of their region’s tremendous heritage. Elisabetta, after years of working in the fashion business (Gucci and Ferragamo to name a few), now offers custom insider day excursions around Florence, serving as personal shopper at exclusive and/or off-the-beaten-path artisan shops, personal docent in the world famous museums, ushering you through the streets of Florence to places you might never know to visit like the Ferragamo Shoe Museum, or a silk factory truly fit for kings (the Grimaldi family of Monoco and the Kremlin to name a few of their clients) with silk worms at work and an age-old show room flanked in bolts of the most exquisite fabric I’ve ever seen…booking luncheons in private homes overlooking the Arno, and on an on. My daughter and I got to spend a day with Elisabetta, touring the city of Florence in a way I’d never experienced it. But that’s another blog post. For now check out her website.
I am so thrilled to be able to share my Italian “family” with you. I wrote about them in my book, and I love them. They are touchstones for me. Cairns. Gatekeepers of the soul. It is my deepest pleasure to introduce you to Milvia and Luigi of the Renzoni family. If you’re travelling to Florence any time soon, you might be lucky enough to eat a walnut filled fig and bask in this unspeakable hospitality.
For theirs is heart language.
For information about the Villa di Riboia and how to book a stay at this fantastic family home in the Tuscan countryside, go here.