We arrive in Geggiano on one of those starless evenings in November when it could be the middle of the night, but is actually just 6 pm. I’m traveling with my sister Isadora, and her partner, Michele. We’ve driven south from Florence (where we dropped off our cousin Jessica at the airport and picked up Michele) into the hills outside of Siena in Tuscany.
We’re met on the road by our affable host, Alessandro. He guides us to a gravel parking area next to an ancient stone wall, a tractor and a well-loved Fiat Panda. We follow him as he ducks through a small door obscured by vines, greeted by the two sweet and enormous Tuscan sheepdogs, Fiora and Pecorino, who guard the property. Aside from looming silhouettes of cypress trees and the faint twinkle of the lights of Siena in the distance, everything is shrouded in darkness.
I don’t know it yet, but I’ve stumbled onto the actual location of an adolescent fantasy. It’s an accidental mid-life pilgrimage.
Alessandro leads us to the guest house where we’ll be staying for the next three days; an elegant stone structure built in the 14th century and renovated in 1768, with rough-hewn wood beams and walls at least a foot thick. Each stairway in the house is more idiosyncratic, irregular and perilous than the next.
The interior is full of well-worn and comfy furniture, books, ceramics, textiles and art. Nothing is too fussy or pretentious. It is the kind of space that I love the most, bohemian in the truest sense of the word. Not the kind of calculated bohemian aesthetic of Instagram of Kinfolk, but one that organically develops over years of actually inhabiting a space and allowing that space to reflect the lives and interests of the people who live and move through it.
Alessandro explains that this property is is his ancestral home. He lives in the main house with his brother and together they run the family winemaking business. We are staying in his nephew’s home on the property. He explains that they rent the place out for weddings and events, and from time to time, a movie, tv show or magazine shoot. The money they make helps with the upkeep of the villa —which is a historical monument— and the gardens.
He wonders if we’ve heard of Succession? They were scouting it as a location for the last season but it didn’t work out. How about Bertolucci’s film Stealing Beauty? That was shot here.
And this, dear reader, is when I realize I am living out some kind of unintended mid-life prodigal journey…only the place I am returning to only existed in my adolescent mind.
In the summer of 1996 I was 17-years-old. I’d just graduated from high school. I went to see Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Stealing Beauty in the theater and was completely entranced.
The film revolves around a girl, Lucy (played by Liv Tyler), returning to the home in Tuscany where her mother, a poet who has recently taken her own life, spent her days immersed in a community of bohemian artists and writers. Lucy is there to ostensibly 1)lose her virginity to the hot Italian guy she’s had a crush on for years, and 2)figure out who her real father is.
Along the way she wears incredible clothes, frolics in the Tuscan countryside, smokes weed, kisses boys, takes baths, writes bad poetry on small slips of paper and gets ogled by all the adult men in the film, including the director, Bernardo Bertolucci. There’s art being made, shared meals at large communal tables, skinny dipping and raucous parties with mimes. Oh, and one iconic scene involving a pair of white undies and an oak tree. (Do your own research.)
My 17-year-old mind was blown.
It was the life I imagined for myself. Granted I was not a virgin, and my parentage was never in question, but I related to Lucy and her desire to inhabit that world. I too wanted to ride a bike through the August yarrow in Tuscany. I too wanted to make out with all the Italian boys. I too wanted to be accepted in a community of creative people making art and getting drunk and living a life that looked messy and interesting.
And now here I was. It took me 27 years longer than I thought to get here, but I made it.
Alessandro excused himself and we retreated to our rooms. I squeezed myself sideways through the secret door/bookcase entrance to my room, got into my sweats and immediately found the movie streaming online.
For the first time since I was 17, I watched the film. And let me tell you, it was not the same experience. This time around I found the whole movie to be decidedly icky.
Lucy is depicted as a beautiful, virginal object. Bertolucci’s camera follows her like a love-sick stalker, constantly training the camera on specific parts of her body — most notably her crotch. When she does speak, it is in fragments. This is meant to illuminate the depth of her interiority, but instead comes off as showcasing the fact that she’s been robbed of a personality and instead is there to service the male gaze. Liv Tyler is captivating, in that she is beautiful, and the camera fixes your gaze on that beauty.
The adults in the film are obnoxious, strangely vapid and overly concerned with discussing Lucy’s sex life (or lack thereof) which strikes me as REALLY FUCKING WEIRD. They all seem infected with a sad malaise, each one of them playacting Dionysian decadence, but with a kind of half-heartedness that pisses me off.
The real star of the movie is, of course, Tuscany; the houses, the villas and the land. As Roger Ebert (RIP) so perfectly states, “it makes you want to find this place and go there. In this case, however, you hope the movie characters have moved out before you get there.”
And I was there. For 3 nights at least. (A big shout out to my sister for making this happen!) In the morning I opened the shutters on the windows of my room and encountered this view:
I put on my clothes, made a cup of coffee and wandered the grounds. It was a kind of out-of-body experience, as if adolescent me was guiding me from place to place. I took pictures, picked mint in the kitchen garden and tripped the fuck out.
So now I’ve become a total cliche. I’ve arrived in Tuscany in middle age and stumbled upon a reckoning with the dreams I’d constructed for myself as a teenager. Whereas I wanted to be Lucy in that movie, in actuality, I am now one of the adults from the film.
I am the disgruntled wife of the artist who is tired of cooking the meals and tending to everyone’s needs and just wants some rest. I am the artist who aches to be alone with no distractions and time to himself to work. I am the privileged and confused couple who are satisfied to sleep naked by the pool, but still manage to find conflict and dissatisfaction in paradise.
A meta moment:
Here’s where I get really uncomfortable. I feel SO gross writing this. I recognize that this whole journey is one of immense privilege. My best friend Renee made me promise not to feel guilty about writing about my experiences here, because the truth is, I feel like an asshole when I do.
In fact, while I was trying to write this post I went down a very deep Eat, Pray, Love criticism rabbit hole as a form of preemptive self-flagellation. I read that book when it came out and I despised it. And yet, here I am in Italy writing about having my own journey of self-fucking-discovery! Yesterday I found that a whole genre of literature was coined as a response to that book. It’s called “priv-lit.” I shudder.
There is a special kind of vitriol reserved for these kind of musings/memoirs of self-discovery. Here’s a sampling from Goodreads:
“Denise” says: I just kept thinking wahhhhhh the whole time. Poor woman wants out of her marriage so she leaves.... wahhhh. Poor woman is depressed so she whines wahhhhh. Life is so unfair for the poor woman wahhhh. Please, poor woman is completely lost so what does she do? Why she takes a year off and travels to Italy, India & Indonesia to try and find herself.
“Helen” wrote: Boy did I dislike this book. By that I mean I hated it. Sorry to all those who love this book but Gilbert's constant whining and "me, me me" attitude made ME break out in a rash. Shut up about your problems already, you don't know what real struggle is. Try as I might, I couldn't begin to give a fig about this self-absorbed woman's journey of discovery. I found nothing in it. My takeaway: "EAT" shit you whinny (sic) bitch. Someone should "PRAY" to the book gods that she's never allowed to write again.
(These reviews are basically the voice of my inner critic when I write these posts.)
It gets worse. The reviews are overwhelmingly scathing. The general response is one of incredulity that Elizabeth Gilbert had the audacity to be paid to write about a year in which she did not work (reminder: writing is work), but instead traveled to 3 different countries in an attempt to attend to a broken heart and an emptiness of her soul. I remember reading the book and feeling similarly. Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing made me angry and jealous and resentful. I hated her and her passage to fulfillment and enlightenment.
I’d probably feel the same way if I read the book today. But my takeaway from reading all of those reviews is not that the book is trash, but that everyone desperately needs and deserves time to rest. That the demands of capitalism and the never ending hustle are poison to our bodies, our families and our happiness.
Perhaps the reason that Italy looms so large in so many of these narratives is that the Italians have clung tighter to fundamental truths about what matters: food, beauty, community, family, art, the land. And more importantly, the time to appreciate all of it. It’s very far from a perfect place, but they do a much better job than we do in America. Plus they have universal health care.
The truth is, we saw a portal to an escape in the form of a work opportunity for Andy, and we jumped. And now I am here, resting. I am recovering from 20 years of teaching in a thankless school system that chews people up, steals their life force and spits them out. I am recovering from the pandemic and from injuries to my body. I am trying to heal a marriage, spend time with Cleo, soak in as much art and life as I can, and escape a society that I feel is rotten to its core…at least until the money runs out.
It’s privilege. And it’s perspective. And it’s a gift. And it’s melancholy and sometimes lonely, and I am grateful and sometimes sad, energized and lazy, filled with joy and missing my people, and discovering so much each day.
So yeah, perhaps I am trying to reclaim a little piece of that 17-year-old me that’s been lost.
And this is where I leave you, dear reader.
From Under the Tuscan Sun (I couldn’t resist),
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I love that you found yourself in your 17 year old fantasy and recognized how much you have grown since then. Yes, there is privilege in the world. Everyone has it in some way, shape or form. The fact that you are sharing your experience with us is amazing. One of the magical things about people sharing their personal experience, privileged or not, is that we recognize ourselves in the story. Whether it's a common wish or goal, a little envy, or just learning about an experience completely foreign to us, that's valuable. I'm happy that you are getting a break, that you are getting rest, that you are reconnecting with what's important to you. Everyone deserves that. I've always known you for being authentic and that comes through in your writing. Please keep sharing your writing with us, and my hope for you is that this international experience will allow you to live out some of your dreams, connect with the things that give you life and energy, and that you walk away from the experience with new dreams and a zest for what is available to you in the future.
Hi Belle - I’m one of your dad’s plant growing friends. Re Gilbert, I had that same reaction to Eat Pray Love Barf! However her novel The Signature of All Things was a welcome corrective. That wonderful writing and a much more interesting read It helped me to forgive her.
I so enjoyed your post - the marvel of the place, the coincidence and your re-visioning of the Bertolucci movie from your youth.