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Learning to tell Tuscan time.


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Every morning in Italy, I would wake up with the sunrise.

Early in my trip, it seemed a little harsh, since the sun appeared over the hill at about 6 a.m. But after spending a few days and nights in the Tuscan countryside, one gets a new understanding of time.

I was sleeping in a renovated 16th-century barn built with its open end facing south to dry the hay in the late-summer sunlight. Today that side is a large window with a bed nearby, so a visitor can lie there and watch the day's first light spread over the vineyards and olive groves and hilltop houses. Times like that make you forget about time.

Besides, once you settle into the Tuscan groove, you realize that time is a concept and a highly elastic one at that. My friend Silvio would tell me, as we said goodnight, that we would start our day at, say, 9 a.m. By my third day with him, I'd come to realize that the little shrug he offered with this comment, the subtle wave of the hand, the shift of the lip, meant "That's 9 a.m., Tuscan time."

So, after watching the sunrise and then catnapping some, I would get up, splash my face, dress, and write in my journal for a while. Then I'd see if the light in the main house was on, and if it was, I'd amble over to find Silvio at the long wooden table by the fireplace, where maybe some coals still glowed from the previous night's roasting. With a half-mumbled giorno he'd motion to the dry toast, the homemade fig jam, the stove-top espresso maker with a couple shots left in it, and the bottle of water. This, on the occasion that they go so far, is what Italians call breakfast.

About the coffee: What we call espresso, they call café. Add a splash of milk, and it's a macchiato, which over here is usually some concoction with caramel flavoring and whipped cream. What we call coffee, they don't drink. An Americano is café with water, because they see that Americans can't handle the real stuff. A latte over there (latte is the word for milk) is served separately: café and a pitcher of warm milk for you to mix in. Cappuccinos are only for the morning. Drinking a cappuccino after lunch is as strange to an Italian as drinking a Pepsi with breakfast is to us.

To my palette, espresso is the way to go. A strong, flavorful shot or two, perhaps with some sugar to dull the edge, with some toast and jam and a glass of water ... that's a proper breakfast. It's just enough slap to get you going, not enough substance to weigh you down. Later, when you have your mid-morning fade, you can swing by the little shop in town for a pastry and a cappuccino, and then lunch will be big and filling, with pasta and wine, and then, along with most other people in the Tuscan countryside, you'll shut it down for an hour or two, maybe even take a nap. Then have another shot of espresso, and you're ready to go till dinner.

This was the general outline of the day that awaited me when I'd head back to the apartment to finish my morning routine, and Silvio would say, "Maybe half an hour." With an interior chuckle, I'd walk with the dog out to the road for some morning air, take in the sweeping view, then watch and listen to the swallows flitting around in the trees.

After some amount of time that my American mind identified as "maybe half an hour," I'd see Silvio push open his door, still in sweats and T-shirt, and leave to water the vegetable garden, the wagging dog now at his heels. I would grab my journal and sit at the table on the lawn — ready to leave, just as ready to stay.

Soon, sometime, eventually, we would be driving some winding lane through the hills, so Silvio could show me the Renaissance chapel his friends are renovating, or the new olive mill another friend put in this year, or his favorite view of a particular medieval village from a recently found hilltop vista. Or maybe today was the day the local wood-fired baker has that special bread, or the shepherd is saving us a ricotta.

Walking up from the garden, petting the dog, Silvio would say — half ask, really, and with the same half shrug — "About 15 minutes." I'd look up from my writing, take in the new angle of light on the rolling hills, feel the warmth of the sun, then shoot him a smile, and a wave of the hand, and say, "Whenever."


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