I’ve been meaning for some time to start regularly writing about travel books at The Mother of All Trips. I’ve got a stack of them in my office, some sent to me, some that I’ve picked up myself. No matter where I’m going, reading is always an important part of my preparations, both for practical advice and information and also for inspiration.
Recently I’ve been reading Every Day in Tuscany by Frances Mayes, the type of book that makes up an essential part of my travel library. Although it doesn’t offer advice or tips for traveling with children, in fact offers little in the way of nuts-and-bolts advice of any kind, it readies me for travel by opening up my imagination, which is just as important.
Mayes wrote the enormously popular Under the Tuscan Sun about buying and restoring a house named Bramasole in Cortona, Italy. Now, twenty years after her purchase of the house, she revisits some of the same territory with a very different eye and attitude. No longer consumed with rebuilding the garden or furnishing her new domain, indeed no longer new to expatriate life, Every Day in Tuscany is a less heady (if no less romantic) ode to Mayes’ adopted country.
Mayes is a diffuse and eclectic writer who tends to follow her own whims. There are moments reading this book when I wish that she would perhaps be a bit more disciplined and organized in her approach. But the lack of structure does make this a great book to dip in an out of. One day I might read about how to construct and use an outdoor bread oven and the next travel along as Mayes pursue the tale of Cortona’s native son, the painter Luca Signorelli. There are recipes, lists of old-fashioned Italian names, and even some darker moments when Mayes actually contemplates giving up her entire Italian enterprise.
Some of my favorite moments in the book, not surprisingly, are when Mayes writes about her grandson Willie, who was six at the time of writing (the book is dedicated to him). Willie first visited Cortona when he was six weeks old, and Mayes writes about how instantly comfortable he seemed there. She describes her pleasure in sharing Italian food with him, in introducing him to new tastes, textures, shapes and colors. And she clearly understands the value of traveling with a young child:
I never love Italy more than when Willie is here. Everything good about living here magnifies. Everything just ordinary takes on the aura of his interest. Which theologian said that religion should feel like a larger freedom? I like the idea and connect it with love as well. Having this boy in my life offers many large gifts and the best is an expansive sense of largesse. Maybe freedom comes when you can feel your best self way out in the open.
And what’s also vicariously enjoyable is that although she writes of homey things like making meals with her grandson, there is plenty of glamor in Mayes’ life – she is after all a famous writer, living in Tuscany. Some of this comes out as she describes a meal shared with Robert Redford and talks also of meeting writers like Muriel Spark. But mostly she writes of her Italian friends, of loving meals and parties both at Bramasole and at a second cottage she and her husband have purchased somewhere up in the hills nearby (no doubt mostly to escape the prying eyes of tourists, since her house is now on their bus routes). She also writes gorgeously about her peregrinations around Italy, trips to Portofino and Assisi and Urbino and Rome. She writes about Tuscany so fondly that I find myself wanting to go on Tuscany Tours to witness all the beautiful features in person. She describes the locations around her with such precision it’s unbelievable.
In fact, I was struck reading the book how much Mayes is driven by wanderlust. She is forever contemplating selling the house, moving elsewhere in Italy or the world. I love her ability to visit a place and imagine an entire new life for herself. It is that ability I think that qualifies one to become an expatriate in the first place. For me it’s a pleasure to go along for that ride with her, trailing along in the wake of her lush language:
Italy is an immortal playground. Does any country come close to its sustained, heady concoction of joys–serene landscape and magnificent art and layered history and savory cuisine and glorious music and welcoming people? So many ands. All in an elongated peninsula slashed down the middle with mountains, packed and stacked with dialects, great cooks, the Renaissance, hill towns, evocative cinema, ruins, castle, mosaics, villas, church bells, beaches, on an on.
Sometimes the best travel books offer nothing more than an invitation to dive into a place. This is one of those.