Tired of going to Europe alone and inspired by romantic Edwardian films of the Grand Tour, I asked all my friends one spring, "Want to rent a villa in Tuscany next fall?" And several did.
Because it was spring, we had time for monthly planning get-togethers where we decided on which villa, what and how many cars, personal travel styles, airline tickets. We watched "Enchanted April" on video and had potlucks of Tuscan food.
We six women had all known each other for years, working in different departments of the library system. All of us single, we frequently got together at gourmet restaurants and chowed down, bonding through food.
People turned envious when they heard our plans, "Wow, a villa near Florence for two weeks, how fabulous!" I too was exhilarated about having a homebase in Italy, and a group of women to see Tuscany with. I enjoyed solo travel, but now I’d have a different perspective, plus the relief of not eating alone in restaurants all the time.
On the flight to Florence the six of us were high on excitement, sitting in one row in the middle of the 747, laughing over the idea of it really happening.
Things started to go wrong at the Florence airport. Monica’s bags were lost, maybe due to her late check-in at the curb at LAX, and the dark cloud of missing luggage pursued us. We got our two rental cars, and three by three, we found our way out of town and up into the hills to the northwest. We picked up our keys at the big manor house surrounded by vineyards where the Contessa, our landlady, lived and directed her family’s winery business. Then our two little European Fords convoyed higher up the green hills, through more vineyards heavy with grapes, by a lake, over a bridge, past a chapel, to our villa, Frantoia.
It was just like the photo in the catalog: stone, two stories, old, with a swimming pool. There were five bedrooms, three baths, a living room, a big kitchen with a walk-in fireplace and an ancient stone sink. The largest room was the dining room with a huge trestle table and benches. No modern conveniences, but for very erratic and undependable water heaters that had to be switched on and off. There was no extra charge for the resident bat.
We pulled names for room assignments, two of us doubling up, the other four in their own bedrooms. The first morning I threw open the old wooden shutters to a flock of sheep grazing below the window, the weathered shepherd and his two dogs silhouetted against the morning sun. The mist-touched Tuscan hills behind them seemed to go on forever.
An excursion to the town of Arrezo was today’s agenda due to the annual medieval jousting fair like the Palio of Sienna, but less touristy. We stood at the edge of narrow cobbled streets watching the colorful pageantry that has stayed the same since the middle ages.
Lunch was outdoors on the square, and even though we had gone to the market and loaded up with provisions for the house, I hadn’t eaten much. Now I was starving and ordered a salad and a pasta course, plus desert and cappuccino. I rejoiced at the food—we were in Italy!
Our money plan was a kitty for household expenses, and splitting restaurant checks equally. Now at our first restaurant meal there was a problem. Instead of merely dividing the check, there was the "ladies at lunch" syndrome of, "Well, I only had the soup, so mine is..." Nevermind what people ate at the villa from the communal provisions. This was the second clue that things were not going as we had planned in L.A.
Another big issue was the two cars. Even though we all paid equally for their rental, and we were all listed on the insurance, the two women who put them on their credit cards became selfishly possessive and wanted to determine who and where and how the cars went. Furthermore even though we were six, one had left her license at home, another just hurt her foot, a third couldn’t drive at night.
As the ranks of drivers shrank, power struggles emerged, with sides chosen: there were the red car people and the green car team, a bit like the jousting at Arezzo only less friendly.
The whole idea of two small cars was that we would have more freedom to each do what we wanted with whom we chose. But somehow it didn’t work that way.
The culmination of the Car Wars was one early morning when the three who were going to Rome for the day drove off the cliff in front of the house in the dark. Luckily no one was hurt, but the green car was marooned. The Rome-goers then took the red car, and the other three women waited around the villa all day until the farmer showed up at sunset on his tractor to yank the car back from the brink and onto the road.
The food issue deteriorated quickly into petty lists of who bought what, who owed how much, and going to the market or a restaurant became a nightmare.
By our final "gala" dinner at a hotel in the nearby village of Ruffina, instead of celebrating our two weeks together in Italy, plus the two birthdays that occurred, we celebrated the end of the vacation, happy that the togetherness was finally finito. We all were tense, and rude, and over the birthday cake, even foul language erupted. In fact, the six middle-aged American librarians made a scene in this little Italian hotel’s dining room.
The next morning we all went our separate ways, two to Venice, me to Slovenia, the other three back to L.A., where even now, a year later, the red team and the green team no longer socialize.
The bat? Well one night when Jennifer turned on the electric oven to dry some lingerie, the whole house fell into darkness. We had blown a fuse. We managed to light candles, but a call to the Contessa revealed the necessity of finding our way through the dark to the fuse box in an unused part of the house. "Don’t worry about the bat," the Contessa said. "He is harmless." Sure enough, as the three women bravest among us took a candle and went to the unremodeled back of the ancient house, there was the bat on a rafter! He swooped, we screamed, and then the candle went out.
The fuse waited for Mario the next day.
Between the lost luggage, different food priorities, power struggles over the cars, and the bat, our romantic sojourn in the Tuscan hills didn’t turn out quite as planned or hoped. Not the fault of Italy, which regarded the American ladies’ folly with the wisdom of centuries. Not the fault of the beautiful and warm Italian people, who looked like they had stepped down from the Renaissance paintings in the Uffizi Museum. And not the fault of the Contessa’s old stone farmhouse
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