Comentary: Time, tide and Tuscany

By Todd R. Nelson

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

The hourly bells chime down its narrow streets, along the ancient 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 more truly paced by ripening fruit, weathering stone and the rhythms of ancient custom. Time is a local, subjective phenomenon, not a universal constant.

The succeeding courses of the midday meal at the Fabbrizio family’s trattoria suggest a typical ritual: Antipasti, primo piatti, secondo piatti, dolce, caffe. What is not written on the menu, but assumed, is this: tempo lentemente. Leisure time. That is to say, a meal must defy the pull toward haste. Signora Fabbrizio’s zuppa di verdure and tortellini are made to be savored. One bite at a time. Lentemente. As her husband set the bowl before me, then surprised me by pouring a little olio d’oliva on top, I felt care in his simple instruction. Like the older man sitting at the table across from me pouring his grappa into his espresso cup. Finale. The meal is at an end, but one more gesture is required.

Business there goes dormant in the early afternoon heat, pacing the day. Even the village clock seems a bit sluggish, resonating languorously in what Billy Collins calls “the swale of the afternoon.” The older men and women of the village 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 young child just learning to talk. Or just to gaze across rows of grape vines. Vintage vintage.

The view from the hilltop village square in San Regolo is a medieval vista. Every postage stamp of ground is growing a crop: grapes, olives, sunflowers, tomatoes, peaches, plums and lavender. This soil seems to grow 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, or more.

In this old place the narrow cobblestone streets defy haste. Cars are prohibited and prohibitive. A city dating back 1,300 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 — internet cafes abound in the shadow of the Duomo in nearby Siena; cellphones are ubiquitous — but to get there you must walk at the pace of the medieval burgher. Lentemente. There is no rushing in this settlement — except for the nightly Vespa rush hour rodeo.

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

Back home, I start to realize that I too inhabit an old place. Four hundred years of European settlement in Castine, Maine, is hardly old to a resident of San Regolo. Yet the Italians would recognize some patterns. Ours is also a community rooted in land, and land rooted in community; a place known for stewardship of forest, bay and shore; of careful pacing of seaside 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. Andrea! It is the same young child enjoying attention from the same older people.

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, in 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; the time to meticulously place stone upon stone to fabricate a wall that will endure for hundreds of years.

At home, I set my watch to the bells of the Trinitarian church on Main Street, heard throughout town. But I prefer the notion of daily rhythms defined by tide — the most basic global rhythm — or lupine blooms, or our ripening blueberries. Time is a local phenomenon, after all. “Lentemente” is my new standard for “quick” and for community, taking more time to savor our lives.


Todd R. Nelson is the author of “Cold Spell,” a book of essays about local life. It will be published in October by Down East Books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.