It sure as hell didn’t start like Under the Tuscan Sun.
I may have had all the clichés that accompany your typical romance film heroine. Young, unattached and female? Check! Alone in a foreign country with lofty dreams about changing the world? Check! Stupidly unable to resist the wiles of a charming local boy? Check!
But as promising as it all sounds, my girl-meets-boy travel story’s never going to inspire a sickly sweet film with Diane Lane. There’s no sugar-coating it. I got set up on a pity date. More than 16,000kms from my home in Melbourne, Australia.
Being Australian, I thought packing up all my belongings and volunteering to teach English in Italy sounded like a fantastic thing to do. So I signed up to go to Manciano, a small country town in Southern Tuscany. Population: 5,000. Population under-70: 200 (fifty of whom were the meanest beer-swigging 15-year-olds I have ever met).
My self-inflated ideas of being fluent in Italian died within 24 hours of my arrival. Burst by the town’s bus driver, who sounded-out the Italian word for bus, ‘È autobus bella’ with such a sneering look of superiority that I was left under no further illusion.
My dreams of being the world’s best teacher also died that day. How was I meant know a class of three-year-olds would be more interested in covering themselves in paint than listening to me rabbit off the colours in English? They definitely didn’t mention anything during the one-week, how-to-teach-kids crash course I received before I left!
Wise to my increasingly desperate desire to abandon my post, the local family I was staying with decided I needed a ‘friend’. So they talked a young man into taking me out. They may have even paid him. I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t complaining either. It was the only contact I’d had with a person old enough to use scissors in months.
After that, everything changed. He taught me to see the Tuscans’ almost violent rejection of unseasonal produce as proof of their respect for proper tasting food, rather than an annoying obstacle that prevented me from eating pumpkin in summer.
He made me appreciate the minute differences that separate Manciano from every other nearby town. The way they add carrots to their ragù, when everyone else doesn’t. The way they say “andiam” (let’s go), when everyone else says “andiamo”. The way they proudly define themselves Mancianesi first and Tuscans second.
That’s the funny thing about being with someone who lives in another country. You don’t just fall in love with them. You fall in love with where they’re from.
You learn to love spending every Friday night at the town’s birreria, even if you don’t like beer, because that’s where you hear the best gossip and meet the funniest locals. You get into heated arguments with people who dare to suggest that Manciano’s soccer team is rubbish, even if you know they are and never really understood the rules of soccer anyway.
Three years ago I would have told you to run as fast as you could away from Manciano lest you get sucked into the monotony of country life. Now I can’t get enough of its quaint stone houses, its venerable medieval castle and the seemingly endless green fields of olive groves and vineyards that stretch out from every angle no matter where you look.
I’ve become besotted with this unpretentiously beautiful corner of Tuscany and it’s all because someone pitied me enough (and may have been bribed) to take me out and show me the hidden beauty of his home. So I guess my story could be a sickly sweet chic flick starring Diane Lane. But only if she could pull off a convincing Australian accent.
This guestpost was written by Elisa Scarton – an Australian journalist who came to Tuscany to teach English and quite simply never left. Foreigner-turned-local, she now writes a blog about Tuscany and the Maremma, a corner of Tuscany that is particularly close to her heart, in hopes of inspiring other intrepid travellers to get a taste of ‘la dolce vita’.