Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 6: "Tutte le Direzione"

Brian had been trying for days to get us to another monestary (at Montalchino?), which he promised was just as beautiful as Monte Oliveto, but in a totally different way. However, due to Tuesday's late night and everyone's general tiredness, we all decided it would be better to stay at Montalto, rest, and enjoy the quiet of the castello for a day.

Scuola, our little schoolhouse
Scuola, our little schoolhouse

Georg, Francesca and I had a simple lunch that would have cost a fortune in a restaurant back home: pane toscano (the salt-free bread that is the specialty of the region) with prosciutto, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, all drizzled with that intense fresh olive oil. It's still amazing to me that we ate like that because we were budgeting, rather than going to restaurants. We sat out on the patio behind Scuola, watching the lizards sun themselves. (Montalto had those little lizards all over the place. Everywhere you went, they'd skitter away from your oncoming steps.)

After lunch we wandered up to the area between San Martino and Vescovo, which had become a sort of meeting place. A group had gathered to pass around decks, which we gladly joined. Folks like Arnell and Alexandra had brought their own decks, Joan had the decks she bought in Siena (apparently she found a store with a decent selection, and cleaned them out!), and others had favorite decks they had brought with them.

Looking back on the trip, I realized that this was one of the few Tarot-related events of the week! While I wouldn't have missed out on any of the things we did and places we saw, I do wish we had had a little more time like that: just sitting together, sharing Tarot. I also really regret that I got distracted and never asked Alexandra to show me her deck. What an opportunity I missed, to have the renowned Wheel of Change Tarot shown to me by its creator.

After our Tarot afternoon, all the guests at Montalto were invited to have tea in Diana and Giovanni's home, the main residence of the castle. We all filed upstairs, gawking at the massive, ancient crest in the hall at the top of the stairs before turning into the living room. Diana poured tea while Giovanni told us about the art and other decorations. Just below the ceiling, all along the walls were little frescoes from the 15th century, which depicted the surrounding farms under the protection of the castello at that time. They had an impressive collection of antique weapons. To me they just looked like "neat old swords and things hanging on the wall", but I'm sure that someone with expertise in historical weaponry would have been in heaven in that room. Also there were two decorative wooden poles flanking the massive fireplace, which as Georg mentioned had each carried Palio victory banners. The living room was beautiful, but to be honest, to me the idea of living in a room like that was a little intimidating. It's hard enough to imagine living in a medieval castle, but the thought of kicking back after a day's work, in a room like that, was beyond my comprehension.

Next Giovanni led us through a smaller, cozier room (in this room the renaissence art was punctuated by family photos and other mementos) to a small private balcony. Like all the balconies and patios in the castello, it was made of stone and completely covered with ivy. Giovanni told us more about the castello's history, pointing out farmhouses that were pictured on the frescoes in the living room.

Last we went back out to the courtyard, and Giovanni opened the chapel for us. After all the massive, awe-inspiring, overwhelming cathedrals we had seen in the past few days, I was very touched by the charm of this exquisite little chapel. Giovanni told us that the chapel is consecrated, and that guests at Montalto have sometimes arranged to be married there. I wonder if they allow Protestant marriages in the chapel, or only ceremonies performed by a priest. (If you wanted to be married there by a minister, you might have to bring your own!)

It was so kind of the Coda-Nunziantes to give us a tour of their home and give us a glimpse into the heart of Montalto. Afterwards, Georg and I retired to Scuola to prepare our dinner. While we were cooking, we chatted with Francesca. about many things, including handwriting. I have always enjoyed Francesca's handwriting, particularly the unusual way she writes numerals. When I got to Italy, I was surprised to find that her numerals aren't unusual at all. In fact, everyone writes just like her! I don't know why this surprised me. Once I stopped to think about it, I realized that of course each culture would teach handwriting in its own way. (I had noticed before that native speakers of Mandarin Chinese tend to have distinctive handwriting, but I figured that was from adapting the rules of writing characters to the Roman alphabet.) I told Francesca that everyone's handwriting in Italy seems to resemble hers. She replied that to her, the handwriting of all Americans looks the same!

We got everything ready and set it aside, because then came a very a very special event: Mike McAteer and Arnell Ando asked Alexandra to perform their handfasting ceremony. Mike and Arnell were legally married a few months ago, and were treating this trip as a honeymoon. So what better time for their spiritual ceremony. I got the impression that it was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision, and there was some running around by the participants, gathering flowers and supplies, and last minute writing of vows.

The ceremony began at sunset, standing in a circle around the stone table on the patio behind the Torre del Vescovo. Looking out over the patio you could see the most breathtaking view of the Tuscan countryside (no less spectacular for being matched by equally spectacular views everytime we turned a corner). Still, no one was looking at the view that evening.

A ritual like this was a new experience for Georg, Francesca, and myself, so we felt all the more honored at being asked to witness Arnell and Mike's marriage. I was a little concerned that we might be asked to participate in a manner that would mess things up, due to our ignorance of paganism. Of course my concerns were groundless; I should have realized that Alexandra would never put us on the spot like that.

Brian supplied a bunch of flowers picked around the castle, and talked a little about the meaning of each plant. He also gave Arnell and Mike lovely ivy wreaths to wear on their heads. Alexandra sprinkled the flowers with water she had collected all over the world, and then Maria walked around the circle with sage incense while Alexandra addressed the four directions.

I've been lucky enough to attend a few weddings of different denominations: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, secular, Thai Buddhist. I can unequivocally say that this was the most beautiful marriage I've ever seen. Alexandra was so natural and comfortable, even cracking a joke, without sounding flip or diminishing the ceremony in any way. I think (if I may be candid for a moment) that sometimes religious rituals can develop an ultra-seriousness, a sense of self-importance that seems a bit pompous to me. There was no trace of that here; instead it felt perfectly natural and honest.

Brian read a poem in Italian and then in English, and Arnell and Mike spoke simple, beautiful vows for each other. I know that I wasn't the only person in the circle moved to tears by the beauty of sharing this moment. Then after Arnell and Mike had declared themselves husband and wife, a bag was passed around, and we were each asked to draw a coin and a card from Storytellers Tarot -- I drew the Seeker (the Fool), which made me very happy -- and offer a wish to the couple. There were so many beautiful wishes. I think the loveliest was the wish that, in inevitable moments of doubt, they would remember the way they felt that night. And I was also amused by Georg's wish that they go forth together in tutte le direzione.

(Many times we saw signs that said "tutte le direzione" [in all directions]. The hill towns were full of winding, narrow, one-way roads, so the signs were intended to say that all traffic needed to go that particular way. But reading the signs literally, we were quite smitten by the invitation to go in all directions. How freeing! I think tutte le direzione has replace Durham Anima Hospital [a local vet that lost its L] as my favorite sign ever.)

After the ceremony we had a potluck dinner under the stars. Everyone brought wonderful food, and Cerrithwen and Bronwen Genetti even made berry pies with whipped cream for dessert! (That was why the Genettis trekked out to the special grocery store: to get pie plates and berries.) The pies were wonderful. I was especially impressed when Alexandra mentioned that they were unfamiliar with European measuring (they do it by weight, not volume) and had essentially had to improvise the crust recipe. What a lovely contribution the Genetti ladies made to our group.

After dinner everyone sat around for a while, talking and enjoying the evening. Sasha was the first to depart, and she made a grand exit, walking up the stone steps to the balcony and then serenading Mike and Arnell with a bit of an aria from La Traviata by Verdi, Act I, "E strano! E strano!":

"That love,
The pulse of the whole world,
Mysterious, unattainable,
The torment and delight of my heart."

Sasha prefaced her song with a comment that she couldn't sing very well. I don't know why she said that! Her voice was lovely, and the song was a perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Next: Our last full day at the castello; the Tarot Garden, and the Garden of Monsters.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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