From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 3
The Quest
Quixotic pursuits have led me into all sorts of strange and wonderful adventures throughout my life. The quest of finding the impossible dream, a house with a view that met our stringent criteria, was the equivalent of playing the lottery against all odds.

But adventures are worthy pursuits unto themselves, and self-imposed challenges make the journey all the more worthwhile. On weekends when I was not the duty Officer on call at STRATCOM Headquarters, Sue and I would load up either our Volkswagen minibus or our 1968 Ford Bronco (if we were heading for the mountains). Our load included a case of surplus C-Rations, our baby daughter Anne, and our Weimaraner dog, Lady.

Very few things create more interest among Italian people than babies and hunting dogs, especially a breed that is extremely rare in Italy, as ours was. Arriving at any populated spot, the dog, the baby and even the Bronco with its V-8 engine and hood-mounted air horns would draw a crowd.

Within minutes, we would be invited into a home or a bar for a glass of wine or a coffee. The dog would be patted and examined from all angles, and both the baby and the dog would be told or asked a variety of things.

Che bella bambola! Come si chiama la bimba? Quanti mesi ha la bimba? Hai fame? Cosa mangi? Che bella cagnolona! Che razza di cane è? È buona per la caccia? Dove abita lei? Possiamo offrirLe qualcosa da bere?

(What a beautiful doll! What is the baby’s name? How old is the baby? Are you hungry? What do you eat? What a beautiful big dog! What breed is it? Is it good for hunting? Where do you live? Can we offer you something to drink?)

These were the days before the real estate trade was formalized, except in larger towns and cities, so any properties that might be for sale were unlisted. Since there were usually no “for sale” signs posted, it was necessary to ask around if there were any properties for sale in the area.

Americans looking for houses to purchase in a small town raised eyebrows and wrinkled foreheads. Sideways glances and much whispering would follow and then the questioning. Why on earth would an American want a house in Tuscany? Half of Tuscany had been abandoned after World War II by Italians immigrating to the Americas to find employment and a better life. An American family wanting to purchase an abandoned house without electricity or running water was unheard of except in the immediate vicinity of Florence, San Gimignano, or other popular tourist destination.

We had an easy answer that would bring smiles and nods of approval. “La nostra bimba Anna è nata in Italia, e per questo, noi pensiamo che sia importante che la bimba abbia una casa qui quando vorrà venire in futuro di visitare il suo paese natale.”

(“Our baby Anne was born in Italy, and for that reason, we think that it is important that the baby have a house here for when in the future she wants to come to visit the country of her birth.”)

Much head scratching would ensue. Unintelligible jabber in local village dialects would follow which was accompanied by very animated gesturing of hands and arms. Then came arguments about what was and what wasn’t for sale as well as what might be in the future. Finally, we would be told about or shown a house or two, with much speculation regarding the asking price. There was speculation also about how to find the owner or owners who may have emigrated to Brazil, Australia, Canada, or America many years before.

Even as late as the early 1970s, there were numerous small settlements in Italy without automobile access. Those villages that had had strategic value in World War II were accessible by jeep, as the mule paths had been upgraded during the war by either the Germans or the advancing American armies. Once we traveled for miles on a rather primitive one-lane dirt road in a very remote and deserted part of Tuscany. Finally we came to a little shop at the tiny village of Miemo. When we went inside to ask directions, the proprietress was amazed to learn that we were Americans. She raised her hands to her forehead exclaiming:

“Dio buono! Non ci credo! Gli ultimi Americani che sono passati per questa strada sono venuti sui carri armati.”

(“Good god! I don’t believe it! The last Americans who passed by on this road came in armored vehicles.”)

I replied, also quite amazed: “Quando successe?” (“When was that?”) It turned out that the year was 1944. We were the first Americans that she had seen in nearly 30 years.
Even had there been a house for sale in Miemo, (we didn’t ask), the village was far too remote and isolated to meet our criteria. I suspect, however, that today a house in Miemo, would be considered quite en vogue.

Nowadays, there are a few Italian villages such as San Fruttuoso, where the visitor must arrive by water as there is still no road. However, San Fruttuoso is a popular tourist destination near Portofino, so even in the 1970s, a house there would have cost a small fortune.

A flight over certain parts of Tuscany, would likely reveal entire tiny hamlets where no one has stepped foot in years and to which there has never been a road.

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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