The Strade Bianchi

September 3, 2013

We arrived at our hotel tonight just before the aperitivo hour, as the sun was starting to lay low in the sky, children started kicking about the soccer ball, and the nonni began their passagiatti. We tidied up our days work — greased bicycle chains, prepared water for the morning – and retired to our rooms, quickly welcoming the reprieve of air conditioning and shade. 

Surveying my room, I didn’t want to touch anything for fear of soiling it; I smelled of sweat, grease, sun. It took a few moments for the bustle of the day to pass enough so that I could gather my things and shower, scrubbing the grease and smudge marks from my calves and forearms, the dust from my face, the general saltiness of a day spend spinning about around Tuscany in the last days of summer. Smells of cola, jasmine and rum filled the bathroom as my lather built and soon enough, I was clean. And hungry. And inspired. 

Leaving my little room behind — the sun peeking through the windows enough to illuminate the gold frames, mirrors and artifacts that adorned the walls of the refurbished farm-house I would inhabit for the evening — I stepped out and into the garden, ducked beneath the branches of the fig tree (not yet dripping with the bounty of purple fruits, but instead with green un-ripe ones) and onto the cobbled veranda in the backyard. Our little hotel here in Montefollonico was built into the hillside of the town and looks out over the entire valley, and Montepulciano beyond. The sun setting in the west seemed to spotlight this hill town now, turning the white stone facades to brilliant oranges, contrasted against the verdant olive groves and golden-yellow sunflower fields patchwork-quilted around its walls. I had to remind myself for a moment that I was actually in Italy, living this moment. Something about it was too easy, colorful, and content to be real, too simply beautiful to be mine. Too quiet not to be a dream, and my smile too big to be just a Tuesday at work. 

Today was the unofficial last day of summer in the United States, and we can certainly feel it in the air here as well . The sun’s rays aren’t so uncomfortable that we cannot be out in them, nor the heat so oppressive that we can’t enjoy the shine – the dry heat forcefully works on changing the leaves and the fields, coaxing fall and turning the soft wisp of springs green grasses to a coarse rustle as our bikes fly by on the white roads, the strade bianchi. The landscape is decidedly changing, slowly, subtly, but surely. Grapes are nearly ready to be harvested and soon too, the olives. Riding through the countryside, you can pluck handfuls of fruit, little figs, and even the last of the blackberries from the roadsides. On the menus, there aren’t any peas, or carrots, or strawberries to be found; instead, wild lettuces, green and purple figs, late zucchini flowers, and grapes baked into foccacia, roasted with cream, and soaked in honey are on offer — all part of the natural changing of things here. 

Leaving Montana behind a week ago was difficult; the tranquility of that place is immeasurable. The rocking chairs on the porch, miles of trails to explore, lazy mornings with cup upon cup of coffee, conversation or a whole afternoon spent either a.) biking our brains out in the forest behind the house or b.) baking my butt off in the kitchen to fuel the hunger that such exploring inspires. I love the way that Montana makes me feel, the peace it brings to mind. The way that we rise and set our days by the sun, and the contentment deep in my belly when I finally lay my head to rest at night. But I would be lying if I said that in that moment in the back garden here in Tuscany, that I missed Montana. I didn’t. I was very happy to be in the now of bell’Italia

The days here are much the same (and not all that different from what we do in Montana, by the way); I either spend all day on a bike riding, or in a vehicle supporting others riding bikes. We have cappuccino for breakfast, look at maps, ride a little, have another coffee, take photos, then lunch, ride a little more, have dinner, sleep deeply, repeat happily. For the next few weeks, it’s a routine that I’m very content to enjoy (possibly because it won’t last forever, I know.) 

In addition to leaving my “desk job,” we’ve officially left our place in the world behind. Literally, packing everything up for a two (or three? Or four?) month hiatus. A “gran giro del mundo,” a friend called it, and I guess it is just that in some ways. But even though we don’t have a home – literally – I don’t feel homeless. At least not yet, and I’m wondering just when that will set in. Instead, I find myself embracing the grey area I’m residing in now. Where I could work today, or not. I could eat gelato for every meal of the day, or not. Could ride my bike into the horizon…..or not. And there is no right or wrong reason surrounding any of those decisions; the variety of life, and of place reminds me that there is no black and white.

Just like in Montana – this place seems to keep opening more and more like a door the more I visit; my “first time around,” Italy seemed foreign, challenging, exciting, and new. When I visited this past spring, all of those emotions came rushing back for a moment before I slipped into the memory mode where I recall all the customs, regimens, and slowly embrace them. This time, I didn’t skip a beat; I seem quite able to relax and enjoy the pace of life, of meals, of the day, which makes completely overdosing on gelato, cheese, pasta, and wine altogether too easy, employing hand gestures all too easy, and driving like a maniac more appealing. And, it makes for a very relaxing stay in Europe (especially that I no longer feel I’m struggling with the language.)  

My rides are rarely done alone, but my meals are often experienced solo here — something I don’t mind at the moment because it gives me time to order anything I like, and to write about it (and anything else I’m thinking of) in my little journal. In the mornings, I spring out of bed excited to see what the sunrise looks like wherever we are — so many little towns in Tuscany, one by one by one at a time. And always I seem to be searching for sunflowers (girasole: literally turning to the sun); a friend informed me that the dried, drooping ones that have started to turn their backs to the sun – instead of their shining faces – remind him of being a little boy because the behavior of the girasole meant that school would start soon, and that fall would follow. I like this little anecdote and just can’t get enough of the yellow flowers, no matter which way they’re facing. Probably because I’m a little girasole myself just now.

In his book Raising the Bar (all about the start and growth of ClifBar,) Gary Erickson writes about the red roads — those marked on a map, and the strade bianchi, the white roads that aren’t designated, aren’t reliable, and basically ensure adventure. There isn’t anything secure or certain about riding on the white roads; you don’t know where its going, and you’re not sure if it will end in your desired destination so you’re bound to meet some treachery. This is most settling and exciting if you don’t actually HAVE a destination, and rather the intention of a journey. I’d like to think that we’re traveling on a strade bianchi now, without a road map to life, and figuring it out — hopping the big potholes, soaking up the views, and tasting the little morsels along the way.

So if you need me, that’s where you’ll find me. Here in Italy just now, in the middle of the journey, as fall falls upon us.

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