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This is the beginning of my fifth season in questo bellissimo valley—Val di Santa Caterina, Toscana—and although I have been here for quite a while, it is only now that I'm feeling quite pronto to write a diary and share my thoughts, and my ideas, and the little life lessons that I have gleaned from my very own corner of Paradiso.
And what a corner of Paradiso it is! Val di Santa Caterina is one of those terribly beautiful unspoiled valleys in Toscana where the locals still farm, the land is still worked, and the Italians continue to live a simple peasant existence like they have done for hundreds of years. It is just too, too divine!
We are also lucky enough to have a small, yet vibrant, expat community in the area, which—thankfully—consists mainly of us English, although there are a few Australians, some Belgians (who keep very much to themselves) and the odd German (whom everyone tries to avoid at all costs!). But the social life is mainly made up of us Brits, who are nearly all writers and painters or just artists in general.
My little spot, Casa Mia, is a very large, converted gentleman's country villa and has to be one of the most fortunato finds of one's lifetime! Perched on top of the hill, handily near the road, it has been sensitively restored by an English developer, who has been living near Florence for seven years and very much knew what he was doing. With new terraces and a new sun-soaked terra-cotta roof, Casa Mia has vistas galore and none of the drawbacks of any of those very old properties. Also, because I used a developer, I was lucky enough to avoid all that well-known Italian inefficiency when it comes to doing up a house. I mean, why put oneself through the terrible hell of carpenters not arriving, plumbers overcharging, and all that, when you can get a place, move in more or less immediately, and set about putting in those little touches that make a villa a home?
And so, for the past few years I have enjoyed welcoming guests into my lovely casa. It gives me great joy to share my little corner of Paradiso with visitors from all over the world. I enjoy being generous with my views, my villa, my little bit of heaven on earth where the birds sing and the sunflowers grow.
As I said, this is my fifth season, and I must confess that I feel ever so much at home here. It is lovely, really, how much the people have taken me to their hearts. I am very much part of the comunità. Some would say an essential part of it! At the risk of blowing my own trumpet (which would be very unattractive), I can safely say that nothing really happens here without me or my highly motivational involvement! Quite what everyone did before I arrived, I shall never know!
Only last night at supper at Giovanna's (our local ristorante), Derek took my hand and announced to the table that from now on everyone should call me “La Contessa of the Valley.” It was terribly sweet of him, but after the way I ran last year's panto, I did rather reluctantly have to agree. In fact, the more we discussed my achievements in the valley, the more we all agreed that it was such a terribly good name. So “La Contessa di Val di Santa Caterina” it is, then! What a mouthful! I wonder if it will ever catch on?
But there are more pressing matters at hand. My daughter is arriving this afternoon. There is much to do. Casa Mia is in need of a good spring cleaning before my summer visitors arrive. I am so used to all of this now—being a hostess is more or less second nature to me. Making the beds, scrubbing the floors, clearing the terraces, and tidying the drive are all taken care of by my local help—which, of course, frees me to make things look authentically Italian, placing a bowl of lemons here, a bunch of wild flowers gleaned from the roadside there. Perfecto! Quite frankly, I'm so settled here I find it quite hard to think of my life before I left the U.K. behind, and made the heavenly move to Toscana. Home of olives, sunflowers, and tobacco. Plus, let's not forget, buonissimo cooking!
Bruschette di Casa Mia
I like to call these my little slices of toasted sunshine. I picked up this little gem of an idea from Victor, who runs the divine café at the railway station, and who charmed me with his perfect En- glish and splendid coffee when I first arrived here all those years ago.
Take four hearty slices of fabulously rustico Italian bread— handmade by your local baker. For those of you unfortunate enough not to live in Italy, and who do not have a local baker anymore due to Tesco and Sainsbury taking over everywhere, Marks & Spencer bread will do. But do try and source your pane from somewhere a little bit special as—take it from me—you really will notice the difference.
Lightly toast the slices. Then rub with fresh garlic (from your own garden would, of course, be preferable). Drizzle on the extra- virgin olive oil. Cover in tube of tomato paste. Grill until ready.
Serve on a sun-blushed terrace in a simpatico atmosphere.
Excerpted from Tuscany for Beginners by Imogen Edwards-Jones Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. The opening scene of the novel paints a very sympathetic picture of Belinda—a woman who sets out on an adventure in Tuscany after she has been humiliated by her cheating husband and so-called friend. Do you understand this scene differently after getting to know Belinda a little better?
2. After reading the novel, what do you think of the title Tuscany for Beginners? What advice would you give a friend looking to stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Tuscany?
3. Inspired by Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Belinda flees England in order to pursue her dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast in Tuscany. She insists upon creating the ideal Italian retreat for herself and her guests.How well do you think she achieves this? What are some of the ways she creates this experience for them? How is her experience of Italy more about being English in Italy than about how Italians live? In what ways is Belinda more English than she might want to admit?
4. Even when her business was not doing well, Belinda still insisted on turning away guests that were not up to her high standards. What do you think about her method of guest selection? Why do you think she was so discriminating?
5. Upon first appraisal, many things are not what they appear to be in this novel. Explore how your initial impression of Belinda, Mary, Lauren, and Kyle evolved as the novel unfolded. How do you think each of the characters would describe themselves and one another? Do these descriptions differ from how you would characterize them?
6. Explore the relationship between Belinda and Mary and between Kyle and Lauren. In what ways are they different, and in what ways are they alike? Why do you think Mary and Kyle fell in love so easily? Were you surprised that Lauren and Belinda were not aware of the love affair occurring right under their noses?
7. There is no shortage of food in the novel, and it reveals a lot about the characters.What do Belinda’s recipes reveal about her cooking skills and knowledge of Italian cuisine?
8. On the surface, Belinda and Lauren are almost polar opposites, but they also have much in common. Explore the ways in which the two women are similar.Why do you think they felt so much hostility toward each other? Do you feel that one is more to blame? Why or why not?
9. How is Belinda’s life in the Tuscan countryside portrayed before Lauren’s arrival? How does this event change the way in which you think of Belinda?
10. What do you think of Belinda’s nickname,“the Contessa”? Is it well deserved?
11. What do you think of Belinda’s diary entries, her aperçus? As the story progresses, how do they add to your understanding of her character? Compare Belinda’s portrait of her life with the way she is described by the narrator.
12. Belinda and her friends in the valley have a lot of stereotypes about Americans. What are some of these? How does Lauren compare to these stereotypes? What are some of the stereotypes about the Italians, the Australians, and any other nationality that come to Belinda’s valley?
13. Next time you’re in Tuscany, where are you going to stay?