Escaping to Italy was the easy part. Figuring out how to stay forever is where the adventure begins...
When disheartened American Jacoby Pines arrives in Italy on vacation, he has no idea that a family photograph from the previous century would start a search for ancestry through the streets of Florence and the hills of Tuscany.
Jacoby's quest includes encounters with a septuagenarian ex-pat, an elusive heiress in hiding, a charming Australian museum guide, a Pearl Jam-crazed artisan shoemaker, malevolent hunters, a needy border collie and one very large wild boar. Along the way there are magnificent, wine-soaked meals at every turn and immersion in the sensory splendor and la dolce vita of Il Bel Paese.
At the end of the novel, on the morning of Jacoby's dreaded return to America, a chance of remaining in Italy arrives in stunning news from abroad. But is it too late?
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Jacoby Pines arrived in the south of France with his fiancée of two years, six suitcases, and a secret from the previous century. He also had a hangover. Unable to get comfortable during the overnight flight from New York, his plastic cup was repeatedly filled with Burgundy by the Air France flight crew. Claire curled up next to him right after dinner service, and slept for the rest of the flight with her head propped on his shoulder. Five of the six suitcases, the leather Dunhills, belonged to her. Jacoby's piece of luggage was a crappy Samsonite filled with most of his clothes and a few other belongings, including his secret: a photograph from 1939.
On a bench in the parking lot of the Nice Airport, under a swimming pool sky, Jacoby tried to rub the nagging ache from his temples. Claire stood before him, erect and alert, her long hair, an auburn cascade spanning the slope of her slender back, blazed in the morning sun. She sucked a Gauloises down to its filter, flicked it to the curb and strutted, cocky as a house cat, into the rental car kiosk.
Through the window of the rental office, Jacoby watched Claire's hands flail as she spoke her fluent French, creasing quick smiles of charm and flashes of occasional impatience, pausing to toss her hair like a cape, gesturing towards the fleet of cars in the lot and the paperwork on the counter that connected her to a young male attendant whom she was surely turning to mush. Jacoby shook his head as Claire rolled out of the kiosk like a goddess of victory with her playful affectations on full parade. Jacoby was awed by her confidence and competence, not to mention her work ethic and ingenuity; he wasn't crazy about how dependent upon Claire he was, financially and emotionally, and especially since his recent collapse in New York that cost him his job and had brought them to Europe for what was to be a year abroad, of first escape and then recovery: both his. That was the plan, but he had the kind of doubts that kept people up at night, even after way too much wine.
* * *
Jacoby divided the suitcases between the trunk and the back seat of the sparkling, midnight blue, four-door Volkswagen Passat.
"So, whaddya think?" Claire asked as they settled into the leather seats and Jacoby aroused the purring engine before maneuvering through the parking lot. The new-car aroma was almost too much for his heightened sense of smell.
"Not bad, I guess," Jacoby said, adjusting to the feel of the standard transmission, slipping through the first few gears with ease. "If you're into, you know, really nice cars."
"Brand spanking new," she declared. "Just arrived from Germany yesterday. Or was it the day before "
Jacoby laughed. And it really was an incredible car, feeling more BMW than Volkswagen to an American driver. The dashboard lit up like a rocket ship. The leather seats firm yet soft. The power and luxury inspired some adrenaline, which helped with his hangover.
"He wanted to give us a Ford Escort or something American," Claire continued. "Two-door. I told him that I was sorry, but considering the length of our arrangement, we needed an upgrade to the newest sedan in the lot or we'd simply take ourselves and our one-year of business elsewhere. I even threw in some absolute bullshit about choosing to rent in France over Italy due to our status as loyal Francophiles."
Claire smacked her thigh, and Jacoby smiled along with her silly pomp as he shifted into third, feeling the torque of the large engine made to European standards. They were getting along nicely, like they used to, and this soothed him some, eased his anxiety over the whole trip: his relationship with Claire, and his secret agenda with the hidden photograph.
"I can only hope you've taken care of your part of the planning with equal aplomb," Claire continued in her faux-majestic tone, touching Jacoby's forearm playfully, despite the decidedly un-playful manner in which she complained in the past about the renovated barn he'd rented for them in the hills just south of Florence, which Claire dubbed "no man's land"and nowhere near the area she wanted, 20 kilometers to the south in the heart of Chianti country where her English cousins had vacation homes in an area overrun by so many Brits that it was referred to sardonically as "Chiantishire."
Claire imagined some private apartment carved out of a Chiantishire villa, on a lush property with a communal pool and amenities (like laundry and Wi-Fi) and prepared meals made by local hands; a spot with easy access to a well-known village, equal distance to the cities of Siena and Florence. A Tuscan paradise.
Didn't work out that way. She'd put Jacoby in charge of finding a place, and he had generally chosen the hills directly south of Florence to avoid being neighbors with Claire's cousins and countrymen - he'd see plenty of them anyway - but his specific reason for renting in this area was the photograph recently found in a box of his mother's who had died when he was very young. He hadn't thought of her much when growing up, but her absence was present in the sadness that shaded his father; in the melancholy that tugged his face, slowed his walk, tempered his smile. He had died the previous summer from what Jacoby believed to be a 30-year case of broken heart blues.
Jacoby, the only child of an only child, handled all arrangements and matters of the estate, which were meager. His father was a fickle academic who moved them around a lot and never invested in property or saved much for retirement. He died in a cottage owned by the college in western Massachusetts where he'd been teaching classics for the past three years. And it was in that cottage, going through his father's things, that Jacoby found a small metal box which held some women's jewelry, letters too faded to read, and a worn photograph of a woman in an elegant dress furled out around her on the lawn of a grand estate. The back of the photo read: Villa Floria-Zanobini, 1939.
The metal box and its belongings were the only things Jacoby retained from the cottage. He gave the jewelry to Claire and kept the photograph to himself. It was all he had left, his inheritance. And when Claire, a travel writer, took an extended assignment in Italy a year later, he suddenly thought of the picture as more than inheritance: It was fate. Maybe.
Jacoby researched the name of the villa and found nothing: no family, no history, no address; only a reference on google maps to an unspecified location in the hills directly south of Florence. The area was definitely not a Tuscan paradise, only a smattering of small, unknown villages. The most luxurious accommodation Jacoby could find was a renovated barn behind a villa in the hills above a tiny village named Antella.
Claire hated the name of the village, and the idea of living in a barn; but she got over it for the most part as the trip loomed and other arrangements took focus, including a night in a swank hotel on the Italian Riviera she'd arranged for immediately after their arrival in Nice to pick up their car, which Jacoby steered toward the airport's exit, ignoring her quip about the barn and "equal aplomb."
Claire flipped off her flats and tucked her heels on the leather seat as she fished her phone from a Vuitton bag and attempted to program the GPS system. The airport's exit was marked with a maze of signs pointing to destinations in all possible directions. Claire punched away at her screen and cursed under her breath. Lack of cellular service made her bonkers. A car honked behind them. Jacoby lowered his window and motioned for it to go around.
"Christ," Claire muttered and poked away.
Jacoby resented Claire's impatience. To him, it was absurd and unproductive and the byproduct of privilege, though he had to recognize, painfully, that her impatience had increased in the months since he'd lost his job in spectacular fashion and failed to find another. The months he'd spent essentially in seclusion in Brooklyn, where his confidence faded and his rhythm faltered into a bleak morass which prompted the year they would spend in Italy as a way to change the scenery and inspire Jacoby to get his life together. The idea of a year abroad was amazing not to mention ridiculously privileged - and Jacoby was grateful for Claire's support and inspiration, but he hated feeling like a charity chase. And he also feared how this was going to turn out if he couldn't get his shit together or find any long lost family in the hills south of Florence. Neither scenario seemed likely.
As Claire tapped at her cell phone, Jacoby scrambled to be of use.
"The highway runs along the coast, right?" he asked, turning his head toward the open window.
"Yes," Claire responded without looking up.
"Then it's that way," he said, motioning with his head to the left.
"How would you know?"
"I can smell the sea," he said with a modest shrug. "It's on the breeze coming from that direction."
Claire tossed her phone in the bag, faced Jacoby with a titled smile and wagged a single finger.
"You are an olfactory genius. Did I ever tell you that?"
"Once or twice," Jacoby said, feeling a bump of confidence as he released the clutch and shot the car down the exit ramp towards the crisp blue horizon over the Côte d'Azur.
It was a curious thing about Jacoby and Claire's relationship. Even though she was passionate about food and wrote about it often, the one who had eaten in some of the world's finest restaurants, he was the one with the fully developed palate, a gift of sorts he had for as long as he could remember but never really took notice of until Claire made such a fuss. His father liked fine food and loved to cook, so they took meals out together often and ate well at home, with wine at dinner since Jacoby entered high school, and these engagements were the most stable part of his adolescence, a regular experience of pleasure in an otherwise unpredictable and often lonely campaign; but, if forced to remember correctly, Jacoby could trace his first recognition of smell, and its connection to taste, to the Nabisco factory behind his childhood home, in the small hills beyond an open park that he would visit with his mother as a toddler. It was his only memory of her, not so much her appearance or her voice, but the pleasant aroma that lingered when they were together. And while he didn't consciously miss his mother, the smell of baking cookies always made him want to cry.CHAPTER 2
"Whooooh!" Claire screamed as they joined the rushing traffic on the auto route which ran along the Riviera's French side.
Jacoby ratcheted up the gears and joined the flow. The road wound through the cliffs above the sea. It felt like a Grand Prix race event, with cars jockeying and rushing and blasting through the tunnels carved through the steep mountains. Claire kept her window down and her feet up on the dash as the wind had its way with her hair. Jacoby felt macho and European, shifting gears and switching lanes. His head began to clear.
The mid-morning, weekday traffic mellowed as they swept past resort towns officially still in the off-season, past the fairyland of Monaco. Claire soon tired of the road rally and curled up in her seat for a nap. Having been raised between London and Manhattan, Claire didn't like driving. She had a license, but never a car. When they went places on weekends, usually to the second homes of her city friends on the North Fork of Long Island or in the upper Hudson Valley, Jacoby arranged the rental car and did the driving, much of it while Claire slept, as she did now - while crossing the border from France into San Remo on the Riviera's Italian side. At least she didn't sit in the back.
Within an hour, cruising at a high speed along the Italian Autostrada, curling around the coast, past beckoning port cities of Savona and Genoa, Jacoby took the lone exit for Rapallo. He admired the baroque facades of faded pastel buildings that lined the quiet streets canopied by towering palms and umbrella pines. Slowed to a speed for observing, his first hard look at the beauty of Italy excited him so profoundly his teeth began to chatter. It seemed surreal - so casually spectacular.
Signs for the Excelsior Palace Hotel led to a tree-shrouded cliff under the horizon. After many stops and quick turns, the humming Passat with a sleeping passenger and a wide-eyed driver entered the hotel's property and maneuvered up a winding drive bordered by Cypress trees toward a majestic palace that yawned toward the sky. At the top of the drive, a box-hedged parking lot awaited, manned by a valet in a formal coat and top hat. Jacoby, awed by the depth of the hedge's green below the sapphire sky, dazzled by fatigue and pulsing awe, lost track of his feet and fumbled with the clutch as the tires crackled over the surface of sea stones. He panicked for a moment but recaptured his faculties, keeping the clutch in as the car rolled to a stop near the valet stand, where he, with great focus and attention to breath, turned off the ignition, slipped the gear-shift into first, and jammed the emergency break. It felt like a moon landing. He inhaled and exhaled slowly, then gently shook Claire's leg.
"We made it," he said. "We're here."
Claire snapped from her snooze and stared through the passenger window, her eyes blooming like morning glories.
"Oh my God," she sighed. "So beautiful."
The lobby was wide and polished, of marble and light and mirrors. It smelled of flowers and citrus. The far end of the room was almost entirely of glass. Below the cliffs, the sea spread towards the horizon beyond a perched terrace and pool area. A jagged path led down to a small, stone beach. As Claire checked in, Jacoby stood by the wide windows and tried to make sense of the view. His rapid blinks could not alter the magnificence of what was before him. The light, in particular, seemed surreal, unfiltered, extending over everything. So peaceful. So beautiful was this world. He was afraid to move or it all might disappear.
Something poked the back of his knee. Jacoby broke from his trance and turned around. Claire held the room key in one hand and a giant cellophane wrapped basket in the other.
"A gift from Mum," she said, her voice slipping into a selective British accent.
A handsome, uniformed bell hop stood behind her, their bags stacked neatly on a carriage.
"Shall we?" Claire asked.
Their room, on the top floor, was modern and modest in every respect except for when the curtains were drawn to reveal a staggering view of the property below and beyond, of cliffs and trees and hard blue sea. Claire snatched an ashtray from a night stand beside the double bed and slipped outside while Jacoby found the glistening bathroom, which he put to use, including his first encounter with a bidet. He came out shirtless and ready to pronounce his affinity for European bathrooms to Claire who sat on the bed in her red bikini, one of her five suitcases opened on the floor with its contents strewn around the carpet.
She tore open the cellophane with a sharp incisor and dumped the bounty of the basket on the bed cover: a bottle of Prosecco, vacuum-sealed prosciutto and cheese, olives, dried lemons and fresh figs.
Jacoby twisted off the seal on the Prosecco and eased out the cork. Pop! It hit the ceiling as suds roiled over the lip. He handed the bottle to Claire who quickly brought it to her mouth.
They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom and crawling on top of Jacoby to kiss his neck and chest as he unfastened and lowered his pants, using his feet to remove them as Claire snapped off her bikini top and fell on him in a once familiar manner.
Jacoby considered Claire very sexy. Never a fan of boobs - which he found cumbersome and clumsy - Jacoby adored what Claire called her "pecs" and especially how she often displayed them through an opened-third button of a dress shirt or plunging neckline or barely covered in a bikini top that could fit most tweens. Claire in exercise gear of spandex tights and half shirt with her mid-drift exposed was often too much for him to bare.
The session in their hotel room above the cliffs of Rapallo was particularly vigorous and equally as rapid. It was the first time they'd had sex in a long time, and Jacoby felt a strong sense of relief at having bridged that gap. He also felt really tired - the physical and emotional exhaustion of someone who'd been drinking too much and sleeping too little not just the previous night but for the previous months - and as Claire climbed from the bed, sleep covered him like a cape.
He dreamed a familiar dream: a recollection of the actual moment, at home in Brooklyn, sitting on the side of his bed in his underwear, when he realized a text message he'd intended for a coworker had been sent to his entire team, including his new boss, who was the subject of a barb that in a rational world would be considered inappropriate and maybe unfortunate, but - in a hyper-sensitized, outraged America - destroyed his career and reputation. In his dream, still in his underwear, bedside at home while Claire snoozed behind him, Jacoby is besieged by a mob of social justice activists who would have once, and rightfully so, considered him one of their own. And before they pounce, just before he always shutters awake from his nightmare, Jacoby notices his father off to the side of the mob, in the corner of his bedroom, looking forlorn, as if his perpetual melancholy wasn't from being a widower but from his only child being a disgrace.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure"
Copyright © 2018 Andrew Cotto.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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