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corner corner Under the Tuscan Sun

An Empty Nest Journey and BookCrossing Adventure

by MarysGirl
May 8, 2010

Little did I know, a year ago, as I scanned the Forums, it would lead directly to a three-week adventure across an ocean and 2000 years back in time (metaphorically). Not only a physical trip, but a reading adventure as well. Last spring, I was on a Book box binge and signed up for five in rapid succession—then promptly forgot about them as I went about my life. My daughter agonized over a college decision. My dad struggled with a mysterious ear infection. I was trying to get a book published.

Summer arrived and so did the first book box—"The First Sentence Virtual Book Box" organized by collectorkerri. I made my mystery selections and sent them off. A couple of weeks later, a package arrived from Italy. It was Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. Canadian-Babe, a Canadian transplant to Tuscany sent it with a lovely note and bookmark. I was thrilled! My husband and I had taken a week-long anniversary trip to Rome and Naples nine years ago, but hadn't had time for Tuscany. We had several friends who had visited and raved about the area. I thought, "This is perfect escape reading!"

Escape from what? My daughter was leaving for college in a few weeks and I already missed her. The empty nest -- the anticipation of it hit me hard. I couldn't write, my garden suffered, but I did read. I sat on my front porch in the long summer evenings, reading Mayes' memoir and sighed, "I would so love to visit Tuscany!" My astute spouse took note. A message popped up in my email, "Check this out." I opened it. Earthwatch (http://www.earthwatch.org) had an archaeology dig in Tuscany and there were teams available in the fall.

For those who have never heard of Earthwatch, they partner with scientists around the world to provide volunteer workers on field projects dealing with climate change, endangered species, and archaeology. I did a two-week dig on a Roman fort in England six years ago and my husband studied glaciers in Iceland. They have dozens of projects available ranging from the study of meerkats in Africa (anybody a "Meerkat Manor" fan? - this is the colony) to Easter Island culture, to climate change and caterpillars.

But the key elements in this project were "Roman"—I write historical novels (www.faithljustice.com) set in the Imperial Roman era—"archaeology"—I love digging in the dirt—and "Tuscany!" My loving husband had hit all my buttons and we could go after our daughter left for college. A perfect "get to know each other again" trip -- for us. I realize most couples would rather spend time at the beach or exploring a romantic city to try to reconnect, but I'm afraid we're science geeks. I immediately checked with Earthwatch and they had two spots left on the last two teams. I picked one, handed over my credit card number, and we were committed.

As our excitement grew, the other book boxes started to arrive. In August it was affinity4books' Spring Cleaning Book Box. I sorted through, read the blurbs, and settled on several including The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella and The Lost Madonna by Kelly Jones. The first was a love story set in WWII Naples and the second was a mystery set in Florence. Ladybug74's Historical Fiction Book Box arrived in September, and I pulled out My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, another mystery set in England and Florence. I added Julian, a historical novel by Gore Vidal and Virgil's classic The Aeneid from my own Mount TBR and I had my Roman/Italy-themed vacation reading.

We packed our daughter off to college, acquired our steel-toed shoes (archaeological digs in Italy are considered construction sites), read our research papers, and practiced our Berlitz Italian. Finally, the big day arrived and we jetted off to Pisa. Julian, a brilliantly-written story about the last "apostate" Roman Emperor and his attempt to bring back the old gods, kept me company during the long plane flight. And softened my disappointment when we arrived and the famed Tuscan sun was hiding behind drizzling rain clouds! Eventually the clouds parted and the Earthwatch folks rounded up the team. We drove an hour and a half along the coast to Populonia Stazione where the streets are named for ancient pottery, an archaeologist, and the Etruscans.

The next two weeks were a delightful mix of hard work, good fellowship and fascinating history. The dig site—a 1C Roman villa—was on a beautiful wooded bluff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It had been partially excavated in the 1980's and we were extending that work. One team uncovered a lovely mosaic of a Medusa head, another worked in the villa's courtyard along a wall trying to determine the purpose of a lined trench, and a third team looked for the boundary of the opposite wall. We "cleaned dirt"—exposed new stratifications—hauled rocks, measured finds, washed and labeled pottery. The archaeologists gave us classes on dig technique, safety, history, and pottery classification during the day; took us on guided tours of museums and Etruscan tombs on our recreation day; and cooked our meals and shared their insights during the evenings.

We had a three-hour break between work and dinner for cleaning up, napping and/or visiting the local bar and shops. That's when I'd catch up on my reading. I finished Julian (loved it!) and started on The Wedding Officer. A love story—the perfect book for readjusting to a childless life. Plus the food! The story is about a young British officer who is responsible for "vetting" the Italian fiancées of the WWII troops—in other words, keeping British soldiers from marrying local women. He falls in love with the young widow who is cooking for the officers' mess. There are countless descriptions of mouth-watering Italian dishes and our archaeologists plied us with equally delicious delicacies. We had pasta in its myriad manifestations, risotto and mushrooms, tempting salads, barbecued meat and, of course, wonderful local wine. On the night before the end of our dig, we all went out for a wild boar dinner. After four courses I groaned, "Basta!" (Enough!)—a word I had picked up from the book.

We said goodbye to our Italian archaeologist hosts and our Earthwatch dig mates to begin our solo adventure in Tuscany. It was off to Florence for a long weekend accompanied by The Lost Madonna. I couldn't have wished for more compatible reading. The book was rich in detail about the art and architecture of the city. As we wandered the streets, I felt like I had been there before. We saw the massive: the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore; the magnificent: Michelangelo's David; the bizarre: Galileo's finger; and so many Madonnas of so many eras, I'll be happy not to see any more for a long, long time.

From Florence we wandered the countryside. Like the 19C English tourists in My Cousin Rachel we visited hilltop towns that had changed little from the Middle Ages, watched stunning sunsets over the Tuscan hills, tasted the local wine, and ate the local delicacies. We even took a side trip to Ravenna—a favorite destination for those on the "Grand Tour" (and mentioned in the book I'm currently reading Brideshead Revisited. There, we admired the 5C mosaics at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (the protagonist in my second book), biked the cobblestone streets (a jarring experience!), and ate divine gelato.


But all things come to an end and we were beginning to miss our comfy bed and Chinese takeout. We wended our way back to Pisa. The Tuscan sun had blessed us with three full weeks of beauty and warmth in an unusual spell of great weather for the autumn season. As our plane taxied onto the runway, a thunderstorm rolled in. We were grounded for over an hour. But, no problem! I pulled out The Aeneid, the story of the Trojans' journey to their new home in Italy—the perfect book to read on my journey home after our own adventures "Under the Tuscan Sun."


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