Everyone who spends time in Italy comes away with a story that captures the essence of the culture. Here, four American writers share their quintessential Italian experiences.
The worst wine I ever had was in Tuscany. I’ve tasted plenty of bad wine in my life, but this was different because I drank it with gusto. It was a gift, handmade, presented in a green plastic acqua minerale bottle with a mismatched screw top. This was seven years ago, when my wife and I and our then-three-year-old daughter spent September in a village 12 miles south of Siena.
It was a glorious month. The village, which I’ll call L., was one of those lovely medieval settlements perched on high, a parapeted bauble of wheat-colored stone buildings set atop a darkly forested outcropping of granite. The population, according to the sign, was 120—or maybe that was the elevation, for it never felt as if it was more than 35. There were a couple of younger families, but the average age of the rest was around 80, almost all the young people having moved away. We were the only outsiders. There were two businesses: a bar-café and a general store, whose proprietor was undoubtedly the oldest ambulatory fellow in town. He sold mostly dry goods and one kind of aged cheese that he kept in a wooden-framed glass case, and which he would unwrap from its oily cloth with shaky hands and then, with an immense, dark-bladed knife, somehow cut a perfect slice; watching him, I felt like a boy mesmerized at a carnival.
On Friday nights, the old people turned on the string lights around an asphalt playground and danced to Italian oldies from a record player hooked up to a PA system, and when they saw us watching them, they warmly waved us to join in. We did. After that we got acquainted with some townspeople, or tried to, as no one spoke any English. Our Italian consisted of words for directions and self-description ("sono scrittore”), and for things to eat and drink.
My wife was crazy for figs then, as she was pregnant with our second child and was, in an apposite and empathetic manner, craving the fruit’s fecund succulence. I, of course, was tirelessly sampling the many wondrous expressions of the Sangiovese grape. A farmer named Laura was particularly friendly, and toward the end of our stay I gave her an Italian version of my first novel, a copy that I’d brought along for just this reason, having no use for it at home.
The next day she left at our door some of what we had mentioned, fichi e vino, the figs from her trees and, of course, the wine. The figs were perfect, but the wine, the wine. I’ve had some memorable bottles—I’ve had ‘52 Pétrus and ‘71 La Tâche—but my memory of the ‘00 rosato di Laura is unmatched. It was pinkish and slightly murky, and its bouquet was of petrol and burnt sugar. It was very sweet to the taste, save for the lingering notes of hot menthol and rubber. I drank some more, and then more, and then, desperately wishing to improve it, tried to mix it with 7up to make an ersatz sangria. But nothing worked, and I ended up with a feeling in my extremities that was a strange mix of paralysis and prickly heat. In the morning, I poured the rest of it out.
I thanked Laura before we left, and she bid us a warm farewell, saying we should visit again. We haven’t been back, though we’ve often wished to, and I think now how I might trade one of the fancy Brunellos I brought back for a plastic liter bottle of that wine. Just to look at, of course.
Chang-rae Lee is the author of Aloft and A Gesture Life.