ong before Frances Mayes, there were the British.
Royalty, artists, writers; families with governesses and nannies — they all came to Cortona. The Etrusco-Roman hill town offered the landscape, solace, and quality of life akin to a remote Cornwall village, but with the flair and flavors of Tuscany. Both before but particularly after World War II, Cortona was a favored English destination. The English bought homes and kept gardens, had local staff and friends. They also transferred some of their rituals, gradually smoothing out the corners (as expatriates do) and learning to blend in.
Brits still live here, of course. Only that they don’t call attention to themselves the way many other foreigners do. They are a circle, and somewhat closed. I know because I recently tried to organize a book club for English readers under the aegis of The Florentine newspaper.
By chance (during a stint as court-assigned interpreter for the justice of the peace in Montepulciano) I met the “publisher” of a local, old-school newsletter. As a result, the Tuscan Times Book Club received a short write-up. Apparently, the post-publication buzz went like this: “Who is this Oonagh Stransky? Why doesn’t anyone know her?” And my favorite: “Where on earth does she live?” Because, as always, home says it all.
Then, from what I’ve heard, everything went downhill. “Why do we need a book club? I’m not a book club person. Why would I want to sit there listening to other people’s ideas?”
The two ladies who eventually showed up for the first meeting couldn’t have been more delightful: sharp and funny. One of them — I’ll call her Z. to respect her privacy — took me under her wing and decided to introduce me around.
First stop was an art exhibit opening by two local artists who’ve been living and working in the area for a number of years. There were more English speakers present than in a piazza in Florence. They all knew each other, of course. And they probably all knew about me. I didn’t mind. I’m used to stepping into worlds — and then removing myself from them.
I’m an observer. It’s how I was raised. As a child, I lived in Beirut and Jeddah. My father was adamant about living amidst locals. We never lived on a compound; we always tried to blend in. If this meant sharing a bomb shelter with locals or having the muezzin just across the street, so be it. It also meant having a pita baker next door whose sons became friends with my brothers, and a neighbor who raised gazelles and peacocks. Yet we conserved our rituals: breakfasts of toast and jam, planting morning glories in the small plot of soil that we called a garden. Sunday outings. Barbecues of black-market meat. Camping trips in the desert.
Thanks to this formation, I now enjoy watching how groups of people live, what makes them bond, what makes a group. I’m a sort of accidental cultural anthropologist. The British in Cortona are worth studying. They preserve jams and secrets. They’ve planted roots into Etruscan soil and flourished. They appear and disappear — ironically, swiftly, and with as much Marmite as they can carry.