See You in the Piazza

The American writer Frances Mayes is best known for Under the Tuscan Sun, a 1996 bestseller about her restoration of an abandoned villa in central Italy that established Mayes as a connoisseur of the Mediterranean good life. But after that breakout book and several follow-up titles about Tuscany, does she have anything new to say? It’s a question worth asking, especially since the outsider perspective Mayes employed so well in her earlier work seems a little less plausible now that she’s had a home in Tuscany for a quarter of a century.

But as Mayes reminds readers in her new book, See You in the Piazza, Tuscany is but one part of Italy. Her latest travelogue focuses on Italian locales beyond what’s now her home region —- the landscapes she visits after “my husband, Ed, and I suddenly pack our little white Alfa Romeo and hit the road.”

See You in the Piazza is more than 400 pages, though Mayes suggests there’s much more to say. “To know Italy takes ten lifetimes,” she tells readers. “Each time I return, I feel the same excitement I knew in the first years of living here. So much to learn, and . . . surely I will begin to feel I’ve a grasp on the place. But Italy remains elusive.”

Mayes frequently dramatizes her narrative with italics, highlighting Italian terms that almost invariably involve food. The slight alteration in font sets up a Pavlovian response in the reader, whose mouth waters each time the text lightens. “I know all too well,” Mayes declares, “the Piemontese gianduia, the heavenly marriage of chocolate and nocciola, hazelnut.”

We learn of more unconventional – and less obviously appetizing — delicacies, such as “batsoà, an ancient preparation of pig trotters boiled for hours then deboned,” and “tapulone di asino. Donkey in a mince preparation . . . The tough donkey meat must be long simmered in wine.” The dish originated, Mayes is told, from early pilgrims to Borgomanero who were so hungry that they ate their pack animal.

Such anecdotes give See You in the Piazza the occasional quality of a children’s story – travel as an exercise in magical realism. “A storm hits as we’re leaving,” Mayes writes of her departure for dinner in Orta San Giulio. “We wait it out in the hotel’s castle wine bar, relaxing on the covered loggia with a Campari soda and a view of the wet lawns. Even the rain seems green.”

The scene evokes another bright principle of fairy tales – the affirming thought that ultimately, our heroine is more blessed than cursed. Mayes does, indeed, appear to lead a charmed life. Taken in large doses, See You in the Piazza, like her other Italy books, can seem like those militantly cheerful Facebook posts from people who insist, day in and day out, on having more fun than the rest of us. “The most vivid pleasures of Italy are often the simple ones,” she notes. “You’re installed at a table on a sun-drenched piazza. You have your notebook and the whole day. There’s nothing you must do except let that sundial cast its shadow on the next hour . . . let the waiter bring that second cappuccino before you set forth into the day.”

Here and there, shadows of a darker variety reveal that even the Eden of Frances Mayes has thorns. In Liguria, she and her husband shiver through their stay in a poorly heated guest room. In Lazio, their “blissful day ends at a terrible restaurant.” In Trentino-Alto Adige, a hotel that’s thrived without air conditioning for years now seems muggy, perhaps because of climate change.

It’s a reminder that even in ostensibly timeless Italy, life cannot reliably stay the same. That insight is perhaps the chief message of See You in the Piazza – and all of Mayes’ books. She dwells in landscapes that have stood against the centuries, yet remains alert to what’s transitory, nudging us to notice what’s beautiful or true or touching before it’s too late.

Mayes, who’s also written six books of poetry, crafts sentences that summon us to pay attention, a calling within reach wherever we happen to live. “The private moments,” she writes, “the little bursts of secret meaning that travel can give, the ancient light through the Greek columns at Selinunte, grazing the face of your child, casting her into the long historical span of time. Places give us these gifts, if we are ready to receive them.”