Cortona: a New Comer’s Guide - No.2

I am just one small person occupying a place where countless others have gone, leaving their marks in stone walls..

Cortona Life in the Time of Covid: I am writing from Amsterdam, here for a two-week visit to my apartment, after spending nearly 7 months living in Cortona during what was supposed to be a two-week visit to harvest the olives back in October 2020. I needed to check on my Dutch residence, sort through mail, confirm everything is surviving my long absence. I left my faithful dog and co-pilot, Boo, in Cortona, assuring there will be no lingering in Amsterdam. I intend to make the 18-hour drive back next week, going through either Germany or France, depending on Covid restrictions.
I am continually astonished by the twists and turns of my life journey brought about by a bully determined to play a starring role: Covid. Covid has proven to be a tough task master, throwing up road blocks and causing mayhem, while also being a provocateur of change. On my path of transformation, emerging from the grief of widowhood and the realities of being 71 years old, Covid has provided much-needed ballast. No more globe-trotting, packing up and heading off to another exotic locale on a whim. Travel is difficult. Decisions are frequently dictated by Covid’s insatiable desire to mutate, thrive, conquer human’s sense of safety. Combine this with Europe’s poor performance with vaccination, and you have countries in lockdowns, citizens living with curfews and regulations. Thankfully, the tide is turning. It is appearing that Europe will adopt a vaccination passport and open for summer tourism. For the sake of the restaurants, hotels, shopkeepers, and all, I certainly hope this is the case.
There are fewer places better to ride out Covid than my 400-year-old farmhouse in walking distance of Cortona. My quaint, small house is nestled within forests and terraced olive groves, on a secluded hillside, yet with neighbors close by, overlooking the vast Val Di Chiana, one of Tuscany’s most fertile valleys. My view is ageless, protected by strict  zoning laws, within the embrace of the Etruscans still lingering in the stone walls lining Boo’s and my daily walks.
The pace and routines of my life in Cortona are not fully dictated to by Covid. Much has to do with Italy itself and the generous, loving, spirited people. Over centuries, the Italians have mastered respecting and working with the land; they acknowledge the vagaries of Mother Nature; they center themselves on their family, ignore politics (which is good given Italy’s crazy way of governing), welcome opposing opinions, and have made sustaining life an artform. Living well is a top priority. Their outlook has transformed what most Americans would consider “labor” into an art form. For instance, I am constructing a vegetable and flower garden on a hillside that has required significant stone walls for terracing and structure. For over a month, a group of 4-to-6 stone masons arrive precisely at 7:45 am.
They gather on a step and drink coffee, chatting about the upcoming day. By 8, they are mixing concrete, hauling rocks, chipping away. These men have known each other their entire lives, attending the same schools since childhood, their parents lifelong friends. Some are 3rd or 4th generation stone masons. Work, to them, is an excuse to gather with their friends, talking non-stop about the job on hand, which team will win the next soccer match, and their love life and children. Lunch is sacrosanct. At noon, they depart in unison for their homes and extended family gatherings. Two hours later, when they return, conversation shifts to what they enjoyed for lunch. In the afternoon, when I hand them warm American-style cookies and small cups of espresso, they serenade me with opera arias.
Italy has been updating its Covid restrictions weekly. A few days after my departure for Amsterdam, Tuscany turned “Yellow” for the first time in months. This means restaurants may now serve on terraces from noon to 6 pm, shops are open, life has acquired a much broader sense of normal. How long will this last? Hard to say. Meanwhile, us Ex-Pats on the Pergo side of Cortona live in our “Valley Bubble”, linked with WhatsApp, hiking together through the Tuscan hills, taking excursions to find terra cotta or antiques for our homes, enjoying leisurely lunches or dinners at each other’s homes. We always begin with prosecco and dine in courses. Home cooking in Cortona is elevated. For some reason, Cortona is a magnet for superb chefs. We all feel fortunate to be sheltered from the hostilities and difficulties in other places.
I have spent hours alone with Boo, traipsing through near-deserted Cortona, discovering alleys, churches, quaint pocket neighborhoods. The streets narrow and become mysterious while ancient stone walls rise, church bells announce the noon hour, and even now I get lost in the labyrinth.
The aroma of bread and Italian deliciousness cloaks the air. A woman leans out her window and calls to me, bewildered when I respond that I do not understand Italian. My local grocery, run by a sprawling family who all live above the store, is a natural place to congregate. Italians view waiting in lines as an opportunity to engage in conversation, with everyone on an equal footing to offer their opinion, insight, or an off-color joke. The bantering is a non-stop game of delight as long as you are not under a time constraint. I stand smiling and, after many months now, the Italians include me with gestures. The butcher, Claudio, hands me thin slices of his house-cured prosciutto as he fills an order and waits for me to nod my approval. It is known I published a cookbook and write food blogs, so they ask my opinion on the local delicacies prepared for feast days. I bring them my baked goods, as cooking for one leaves me halves of cakes to distribute. I am now considered a part of the family—a foreign part, but still a piece of the fabric of life.
I have recently discovered the serenity of Mother Mary. She beckons me from small shines and statues set in niches in the walls. I am not religious per se, but I acknowledge her as the Italian equivalent of Buddha: sinless, forgiving, all-loving, absorbing sorrows with kind acceptance.
Alone with Boo, days on end, bathed in Tuscan light and timelessness, I have grown to acknowledge my powerlessness to control the world while embracing my strength to mold my attitudes and appreciate my surroundings. I am just one small person occupying a place where countless others have gone. They’ve left their marks in stone walls and paths, 500-year-old olive groves, churches and chapels, stone farmhouses such as mine. They speak to me with their relics and work left behind, their songs carry in the rustling of olive leaves. I sense them smiling, lifting their wine glasses, celebrating that life continues even with Covid serving as a director in a starring role.
Sally Uhlmann, 06/05/2021 10:55:26
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MY CORTONA WAS DUE TO BE LAUNCHED DURING EASTER 2020. UNFORTUNATELY, FOR EVERYONE, COVID 19 MADE AN APPEARANCE.


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