We toast with aperitifs overlooking the piazza, my drink with Campari, a thin slice of orange and ice is surprisingly refreshing in the heat of July in Siena. The four of us span many cultures and countries and speak seven languages between us. But at the moment we are keeping an Italian tradition of afternoon rest away from the midday sun. The day is indeed blazing hot with a hazy blue sky setting off the 13th century sandy colored buildings. As I swallow a delicious antipasto I gaze at Torre del Mangia tower in front of me, named after the bell ringer whose laziness “ate the profits”. The tower and the Duomo are equal height, an intentional architectural reflection of the medieval desire for balance between civic and religious life.
The narrow winding streets and ancient buildings are a walking museum of medieval Tuscany. After our drinks we wander into shoe shops that smell of leather, stores brightly colored pottery, curious corner markets with sausages hanging in the window. The mundane and profound mix in a maze of arches and narrow streets. Earlier we found ourselves at the Duomo. The grandeur rendered me speechless. This enormous cathedral is supported by a row of zebra striped black and white marble pillars, filled with gorgeous painted frescos, one by Michelangelo, and bathed in rich blue and red light from stained glass windows. Outside, a flamboyant violinist plays on the street corner accompanied by a recording of the Swan and a street vendor sells T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs.
Surrounded by Russian musicians on the patio back at the hotel, another bottle of wine, fruit and dirty jokes are passed around for hours. I’m surrounded by four pianists who argue about the recent competition winners and the judges and who is the newest, greatest talent. My eyes glaze. The violist, who has performed with many of the greats, immediately saves the party by returning to dirty jokes. The laughter is hearty and unabashed. For once my boisterous laugh doesn’t sound above the crowd, but blends. I seem to be an honorary Russian tonight. After a successful performance of French music, Ravel and Debussy on a poor Italian/Chinese cello with a Russian pianist in a one thousand year old Italian church, we are celebrating. Russians love to laugh, and laugh and laugh. There is never enough of laughter or drinking, and we do so into the morning hours. My brief russian study in high school of Russian Folk songs and the Russian version of “who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” affords me the opportunity to add to the merriment. They are amused at my accent and knowledge. “This is why she plays so well” Yuri shouts, “Russian school!”. But mostly the humor has a darker and dirtier edge, and tragedy descents briefly as the older generations reflect on the soviet era. Then this too becomes a joke and the laughter rings again.
The Italians and Russians both have a great sense of humor. But it is very different. One is light, quick and filled with irony and amusement. The other, dark, complex and large, boisterous, filled with tragedy and comedy all in one. Powerful and resilient, and from the belly. I’ve heard more Chinese and Russian from fellow musicians in this festival than Italian. But our common ground are the Tuscan hills and three hundred years of music from a dozen cultures. I spend my days surrounded by people, at meals, at coachings, in the spa baths, at concerts.
Only once I find myself alone, but I am still surrounded by community. In the Tuscan hill town of Sante Fiore I dine on chestnut filled Tortelli (large tortellini) with local mushrooms. The family at the table next to me offer me a glass of wine. The ristorante is filled with the music of the Italian cultures. Wine bottles line shelves against the wall. Families sit for hours as plate after plate arrives. Even the children sound colorful and musical when they speak. I find beauty around every corner here, not beauty in a precious or overly intense form, but blossoming effortlessly in the full enjoyment of life, effusive and generous. Integrated into the fabric of every day. The stone buildings feel like they have grown out of the land itself, and even flowers bloom between the ancient stones in the streets in splashes of fuchsia. In one moment, briefly, I felt overwhelmed with the fullness of it all. Something in me felt I could lose myself in sensuousness. It is true, time turns in all directions here, the antique with the modern, the hours like minutes filled with the small pleasures like the foam of a cappuccino, or almond biscotti dipped in sweet wine, or the rolling hills covered with vineyards. The Bus schedule is more poetic and hypothetical than precise, they only arrive when they are in the right mood to, after asking for a bill it could be another 20 minutes, and people smoke at will wherever they please. But in a way, it doesn’t matter here. Italians have mastered the art of pleasure to the point of mysticism, and perhaps because the abundant land and history, rather than indulgence, their way seems to be a generous celebration of life in all moments. Instead of losing myself, I find I sink deeper into my body, my humanity, my heart, and the tears well up spontaneously, and oh how very, very Italian of me!