Time, Tide, Tuscany

For three weeks in July, I set my watch by the church bells of San Regolo. But that is not how you tell time in San Regolo.

The hourly bells chime down its narrow streets, along the stone houses, out over the surrounding olive groves, cypress trees, and vineyards of this tiny village below Castello di Brolio in Tuscany. They give the day sonic texture, but they do not comprise a timetable. Village life is paced by ripening fruit, weathering stone and the rhythms of ancient custom. Time is a local phenomenon, not a universal constant.

The courses of the mid-day meal at the Fabbri family’s trattoria suggest a typical ancient order: Antipasti, primo piatti, secondo piatti, dolce, caffe. What is not written on the menu, but assumed, is “tempo: lentemente.” Leisure. That is to say, meals defy haste. Signora Fabbri’s zuppa di verdure and tortellini are to be savored. One bite at a time. Lentemente.

Business goes dormant in the early afternoon heat, pacing the day. Even the village clock seems sluggish, resonating languorously in “the swale of the afternoon.”[1] The older men and women of the village will gather outside the alimentari. They talk, play cards, and watch young Andrea. He explores their pockets and plays with their coins as the old men ask him questions and teach him new words. They are the same villagers who have always gathered in this town square to appreciate this shade, this breeze pushing up the hillside, this company of one another and a child just learning to talk. Or just to gaze across rows of vines.

The hillside view from the village square in San Regolo is a medieval vista. Every stamp of ground grows a crop: grapes, olives, sunflowers, tomatoes, peaches, plums, and lavender. This earth grows anything. The stone village itself sprouts from the hillside as if planted there. In fact, it is the land that is rooted—in community; and community rooted in the land, tendrils of stewardship reaching back a thousand years.

In this old place the very narrow cobblestone streets defy haste. Cars are prohibited and prohibitive. A city dating back 1300 years has only had electricity and automobiles for the twinkling of an eye. The ancient Italian city may be wired to the information super highway—an Internet cafe has opened in the shadow of the Duomo in Siena—but to get there you must walk at the pace of the medieval burgher. Lentemente.

To the Duomo builders, stone set the pace of building. And my time amidst olive grove and stone village set my pace at the speed of fruit ripening. Molto bene. Even briefly inhabiting this ancient history has increased my capacity to appreciate the patience and care sewn in each field. It has taken many bells for my thought to ripen thus, afternoons sitting and gazing. I cannot be a villager here, but I can adapt to speeds no greater than ripened thought. Lentemente.

We also live in an old place, but 400 years of European settlement in Castine, Maine is hardly old to a resident of San Regolo. Yet the Italians would recognize some familiar patterns. Here too is a community rooted in land, and land rooted in community; a place known for stewardship of forest, bay, and shore; of careful pacing of work; of men and women gathering to sit in the village square of an August afternoon, paced by the speed of melting ice cream cones and creeping Elm shade.

And the comparison has reminded me of the time required to be familiar enough with a place to feel that sense of community—the intimacy with neighbors and a particular locale that comes only from spending time slowly. It is the neighborhood scale of an old or new world that reinforces belonging; the time to take care of a vineyard or grove of trees; the time to conserve the land and the friendships that nourish.

At home I set my watch to the bells of the church on Main Street. But I prefer the notion of daily rhythms defined by tide, or lupine blooms, or ripening tomatoes. Time is a local phenomenon, after all. “Lentemente” is my new standard for “quick” and for community.

[1] From “Morning” by Billy Collins, in Picnic, Lightning.

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