Harvesting Happiness in Tuscany

Whats in this story

Last week, while in a too-loud club after too many drinks, my friend Molly invited me to do something with her that coming Sunday. Liking her as much as I do, I instantly and wholeheartedly agreed, despite not having heard what it was I was being invited to do.

Instead of asking her to repeat or explain further like any normal person would, I spent the next week naively excited about an impending mystery date with Molly.

When Sunday arrived, we met on the steps in a piazza and walked together to catch a bus destined for the famous Fiesole hills. We rode for fifteen minutes or so before we got off and began a trek up a long, tree lined road. As we walked, basking in the sweet smell of the decaying leaves, I told Molly that I had no idea what we were walking into… Laughing, she began to explain.

She’s a part of an association called Associazione Culturale Il Palmerino, she told me; a group designed to promote the exchanging of ideas between artists from a multitude of disciplines. Their events are often hosted at Villa il Palmerino, a 15th century villa that, since its construction, has been home to an impressive legion of Florentines and later, the church. At the end of the 19th century the property was sold to writer Vernon Lee.

Presumably wanting to share the endless inspiration lended by the land, Lee regularly hosted fellow literarian extraordinaires like Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, and Henry James.

As if an exchange of energy occurred between these artistic powerhouses and the very soil of Palmerino, the villa has been an artistic hub since it was in Lee’s ownership.

Upon her death the estate was purchased by painter Federigo Angeli, and his wife, painter and writer Carola Costa. It now remains in the possession and care of their children and grandchildren who have dedicated themselves to perpetuating the villa’s artistic legacy. They use the vast expanse of land to house artists intent on studying their craft and frequently host artistic retreats and classes.

And that day Palmerino was hosting their annual harvest.

As we reached the end of the drive and entered into the vineyard, a dozen people with gloves and small scissors were cutting bunches of grapes from vines and placing them gently into woven wicker baskets. We continued past them and on towards the house where Molly introduced me to the owners, Federica and Stefano, who so clearly loved her like she were their own.

Federica was a dancer and a wonderful artist, I was told. She had a beautiful light eyes and a kind smile and she welcomed me to their home with a warm hug. Stefano, her husband, with classic movie star good looks, fell to his knees and kissed my fingers.

As we walked away Molly leaned in and said, “He’s a poet.”

“Of course he is!” I exclaimed and we both laughed.

As we walked through the vineyard, and out further to the olive grove, she told me of their love story. How they came together only after Stefano had written a love letter to Federica fifteen years after meeting her just briefly. He said he couldn’t forget her.

We walked slowly back towards the vineyard where we found a fig tree.

“I’ve never had one,” I told Molly.

But that wouldn’t do. She insisted I had to try my first one with her. So Molly climbed to the top of the tree as Stefano, looking up from the ground, directed her towards the ripest ones. She passed them down to him and he squeezed each fig gently before picking mine.

“This one belongs to you,” He told me as he handed me the soft, small fruit. I swore then and there that I would never live anyplace that didn’t have fresh figs again.

Back at the house, wine and antipasti were put on the tables. We snacked and drank and chatted with people who had flown across the world just to stay on this land for a stint.

Stefano joked about how he would soon apply for independence for Palmerino. That it would be its own territory. I asked where I could get my passport.

Eventually, I was introduced to their neighbor Tom, a historian in his late 80s who has spent his entire adult life living in Florence, dedicating himself to a seemingly small, but  massively important piece of the puzzle that is Galileo’s influence. “Well, according to me,” he continually reiterated as he shared his theories.

As we stood with Tom, a three piece, traditional Italian band began to play. Two horns and some strings. They stopped every now and then to sing a cappella, their three voices forming a perfectly haunting harmony.

After a couple of songs, Stefano crossed through the circle of onlookers, stood before a friend of his, fell once more to his knees, ripped his shirt wide open, tearing off all of the buttons and said dramatically, breathy, “Balla con me” Dance with me.

And the dancing began. We all fled onto the brick patio in front of the band and took part in a slew of traditional Italian dances. Spinning, and skipping, hand in hand, face to face with happy, beautiful strangers.

Soon after, dinner was served: Cinghiale, a wild boar they had caught on their hills that they wanted to share with all of us. We ate and drank and talked and finally, Molly introduced me to another friend of hers, a brilliant man whose job it is to influence the culture of contemporary art in Florence. We walked through the olive trees, exchanging wild ideas based in art and philosophy. What was the true universal language? Is curiosity born or bred? Does a “happy” image make us happy because of an inherent connection to it, or because of a cultural bias?

The three of us talked until it got so dark that we had to follow the distant lights of the house back to the party.

The night continued. We drank more wine, we tasted desserts, the conversation continued still, and all the while I couldn’t help but be caught up in just how magical it all was. That a few short hours earlier, I was unknowingly walking into one of loveliest days of life. But I guess when I look back on the best days, the best moments, some of the best connections, they all seem to happen that way, don’t they?

So much of the beauty in life is born from the absence of preconception. Just allowing things to be whatever they will be without projecting anything onto them. Letting these things affect you, happen to you and unfold around you. It’s about living inside of moments. Being whomever you are inside of that moment, without alteration.

That’s where the truth lies.

And  being introduced to Palmerino, letting it’s history, its present, affect me, happen to me and unfold around me was truly something special.