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A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller Excerpt from A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller

by Frances Mayes

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ENVOI: The Riddle of Home

When I finish my travels, I will open the Yellow Café.

For now, I’m enthralled by the blue rowboat pushing off from Delos, the arrow-straight cypress-lined road into an Italian hill town set up on its perch like a five-carat Tiffany diamond, the spine-tingling muezzin call to prayer from a minaret in Antalya, way south in Turkey.

Unforgettable the evening light on the Bay of Naples as the boat churns away from the dock. When I can’t sleep, I visit Taormina’s flowering vines -- purple, ghastly magenta, hot pink. A woman in a housedress steps out and shakes a rug over the street below, oblivious of me gaping at her balcony. I run from the dust. Then I taste the sharp cheese in Scotland, where we picked our salads and beets in a walled garden that reminded me of a book I loved as a child. I think of my friends’ baby dipped in a vat of olive oil, the Greek church packed and sweat trickling off the priest’s beard. Constantine emerges screaming, and everyone smiles as he is held aloft, dripping in a shaft of sunlight. Later, at the baptism party men shoot off guns at the stars far down in the Mani.

When I’m driving or ironing, slide shows flash through my brain. A waiter balancing six plates of tapas along his arm; the painted acrobat vaulting over the head of a bull; Ed shouting Whoa and laughing as we careen along the Amalfi coast road; Willie, my grandchild, at two, referring to the piazza in Cortona as a party; slits of gray light angling into a castle bedroom in Portugal; cooking with Carlos and shivering as he pulls off an eel’s skin like a glove; sharing chocolate cake with a taxi driver; singing “Happy Birthday” in Istanbul as the hotel manager wheels in the surprise cake. He’d placed paper umbrellas in big fruit drinks. The ten thousand things.

Unpacking the oldest bags, I remember the empty beach in Nicaragua, when two men with machine guns guarded our swim on the deserted beach; I see a flash of my mother driving my sisters and me to St. Simons, me causing maximum pain by singing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” exulting that we were escaping my father for a month. And way, way back, the trips to Macon for shopping, when I was allowed to select a rabbit fur muff and my mother squeezed my hand in the unaccustomed traffic, making a red indentation where my bloodstone birthstone ring cut into my fingers. Daddy, I saw a blind man. He was selling pencils.

“Packing and Unpacking,” my father frequently said. That’s the motto of this family. Our forays were only to Atlanta or the Georgia coast, sometimes to Highlands and Fernandina -- a small radius -- but we did go. Always, I liked the infinitive to go. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s really go. Andare was the first verb I learned to conjugate in Italian. Andiamo, let’s go, the sound comes out at a gallop.

I was twenty-six the first time I went to Italy. I went for the art, but I liked the risotto and the shoes, I liked the slicked-back hair and the perfume of the men I passed in the street, I liked the waiter who put his hand on my shoulder when I ordered the osso buco, which I had never heard of. I was drawn to the Bologna arcades, where everyone was downing espresso in quick nips and visiting with their friends. “These people are having more fun than we are,” I said to my husband. Cultural analysis had begun. What makes them the way they are? That question is at the taproot of my travel quests. How do place and character intertwine? Could I feel at home here? What is home to those around me? Who are they in their homes, those mysterious others?

To find out, I rented houses. Although I love hotels, the experience of living in a house offers a chance to shop at the Saturday market, venture to the butcher, the flower shop, the mom-and-pop bodega, and the frutta e verdure. Suddenly we’re in a different relationship with the place, and when I stayed a few weeks, I became known by the neighbors and began to learn the rhythms of their lives. When you’re storing your onions, washing leeks, and turning the pages of a local cookbook, the aromas from your kitchen become a territorial marker. I live here. If only for a while. When the time to leave comes, often I am disoriented. The thyme I planted by the front door is flourishing. My own tender roots have invaded the foreign soil. The anguish of moving goes down into the bone marrow. Even when I want to move, the actual uprooting is traumatic.

* * * *

Ever since my first trip to Europe -- I chose Italy as the first country I wanted to see -- my profound desire for home, for the profoundly beautiful nest, the kitchen garden, the friends gathered at my table, for the candlelit baths, and the objects arranged and the books in order, and most of all the sense of this is my place -- all that has been at the mercy of an equal force, the desire to shut the door, turn the key, and go. Go. The domestic and the opposite. At the beginning of these travels I saw that as a conflict. Now I think the oxymoron is not a double bind but a way forward. Does the way forward imply the way back?

* * * *

The Yellow Café already has a location, just outside the town of ten thousand where I grew up in south Georgia. A sandy road turns off the two-lane highway into town and runs along a stand of moss oaks. You cross a low wooden bridge. In the black swampy water fed by a lively creek, I will get my crayfish. There’s the house, big, square, with gnarly wisteria raddled around the pillars on either side of the steps. The house is not yellow today but will be when I transform it. I already have the paint chip in my handbag, stuck between the pages of my passport.

From the broad open porch, which seems to float on a raft of daylilies, you enter a wide hall opening to two gracious dining rooms with tall, many-paned windows. The ample kitchen runs all across the back of the house. I will outfit it with the best brass-trimmed blue stoves and expanses of white marble counters for making pasta and pastry. My collection of antique painted tiles will be embedded randomly in the walls. The former living room becomes a wine library, where guests can sip an elixir from my cellar -- the raspberry ratafia invented by two women in a village in Abruzzo, or a sparkling wine I will make from local scuppernong grapes -- while their table is laid with antique linens I’ve acquired at Arezzo’s monthly antique market, and bowls of smoky blue irises with vinic scents. Gardenias and Casablanca lilies will be allowed only in the library, lest the guests succumb to their narcotizing perfume and forget to eat.

The rear screen porch extends the kitchen. Cooks can sit there and strip sugarcane or shuck corn or mix the spices they have brought from their countries. In the bottomless pond fed by a fresh creek, we’ll catch catfish and blind rockfish with rusty hooks dangling from their mouths. I will build a salt pool for shrimp, crab, and lobster, as in the old Tuscan villas.

My rooms are upstairs, and they feel like other manifestations of my body. Bookcases, stuffed with poetry and travel narratives, line the walls. The windows let in the blue light that filters through Spanish moss. Kelims from my travels cover heart pine floors, and on the beds I am torn between using luxurious Venetian silks and the country quilts I have stored for years in a trunk. In the wide upstairs hall my collection of ex-votos, amulets against the evil eye, and folk art gives me joy every time I walk by.

The other eight or nine bedrooms are for visitors and for the cooks who spend six months here, bringing their mothers’ recipes and their own culinary inventions. One room always is reserved for a poet who needs nourishment and the scent of gardenias rising from the old mother bush outside the kitchen.

Sunday-night dinners at the Yellow Café commence with a reading of poems in the library. Guests will bring their own favorites. Sunday night calls for a light dinner. It’s the beginning and end of the week. Also the copious noon meal on Sunday has driven everyone to their beds. But because all the food was so delicious, we rise and walk on the country roads, picking violets. After the poems perhaps tortellini in brodo, tender knots of pasta stuffed with chicken and herbs and floating in the broth made from an old hen. That’s a righteous dish in Tuscany. The salad garden yields all year in the benign climate, and several local women bring us field greens they gather. My hometown neighbors are avid to start a Faulkner reading club, and at the end of the table there’s talk of performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream out under the oaks on the solstice. One of the Methodist deacons rises and toasts, “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it . . .” So let’s leave it at that for this evening among friends: a fine plate of country Spanish cheeses, and a sliver of lemon tart that will invade everyone’s dreams in the form of a citrus grove in full frisson outside Granada.

One night a month is the concert dinner. My old friends from the Cortona Tuscan Sun Festival arrive, speaking Russian and French. They kiss hands and slightly bow; then they fill the twilight with Fauré and Shostakovich. Everyone shouts bravi, bravi. We dine late, and the good citizens of my hometown are shocked to drive home at two in the morning, sated with the cello rubbing against their oldest memories, my roasted vegetables, quail with juniper berries, mulled pears, and a little dessert wine that brought them a gust of wind from Pantelleria. In the mornings my neighbors will swing by for brioche and cappuccino, though some insist on the churros and migas I first savored in Spain. Such will be the enchantment of paradiso. They’ll start the day hearing a rousing piece by my friend Bobby McFerrin. The McDonald’s sausage breakfast and bladder-bursting cup of coffee will cease to be offered in the land. On holidays the cooks will turn out baskets of cheese straws, pannetone, pound cakes, caramel cakes, and tiny lemon tarts that I used to devour in a Provençal bistro with a gaslight outside. If you’d like a dessert to take home, you must order the day before.

* * * *

“Why south Georgia?” my daughter asks. “Why not in Cortona, where you have spent the happiest times of your entire life? Why not California, where you raised me and worked and have all those friends?”

“I don’t know. California doesn’t need the Yellow Café. California only needs itself. Cortona -- certainly not. They already have many places with a heartbeat instead of a marketing concept.” I’m not satisfied with my smart-mouth answer. I always try not to alarm my daughter with what I really feel. If I answered, “Because I am looking for the square root of light,” I might be alarmed myself. And the question burrows deep into the psyche. The real answer is home, the real answer is beauty. Living and travelling in Europe, especially Italy, I’ve lived in places where art and beauty buoy everyday life. And there I have felt the most at home. Home, where everything connects.

At the end of “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot proposed the idea that at the end of our voyages out, we return to our origins and understand the place for the first time. This idea is so often quoted that it must not be true. The easy and comforting sentiment feels like an old pair of cashmere slippers. I prefer to think of the end of exploring as an invitation to return to my origins and transform them. The prodigal, the wanderer, the minstrel, the one who took the first thing smoking on the runway at nineteen -- they already know the place. Those who stayed know less, caught as they are inside the crystal globe. Shake it, and the snow falls. I, a runaway, return in my coat of many colors to sweep off the family graves and create my café. The spices of Portugal, the music of Angel Barrios, the Venetian vellum book, the bells of Cortona: offerings. Why? Because I learned to stir the marrow into the risotto. Because of the place where my mind never comes to rest. Offerings to whom? To anyone who wants a handful of spring rain.

Think of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Everything that happened, on some mystic plane, still happens. The first events in your life slap you into the shape you take. The baby child knows within six weeks whether he can trust the parents. The temperature at the window signals bliss, boredom, or alarm. Going back in time is impossible because memory only has a line of front burners. But literally to go back to a place -- of course you can go home again, only a blowhard sentimentalist like Thomas Wolfe thinks you can’t. I always will be stepping into the same river. Fate decrees that I still love the high school boyfriend. I remember Nancy Lane wet her pants on the first day of kindergarten, and I felt her hot humiliation, the first blush of empathy in my life.

Of course, all roads lead to Rome -- or maybe its rhyme, home. This is the third angel I was promised at the beginning of my travels. The transforming angel: you go out, far out, and when you return, you have the power to transform your life. Roads always lead to Rome/home. They always have. In the far countryside of Tuscany, the big truck driver shouted out his window, “Dov’é Roma?” and I pointed south. It was only a general direction he was after. He could take it from there.

Bees navigate by a magnet in their heads. I have one, too, just under the pineal gland that looks so much like broccolo romano. Instead of true north, the magnitudes of attraction are multidirectional. During any airport delay, I study all the departures. What if I just chose one? Cairo, Mozambique, Catania, Dublin -- but I’m in Frankfurt with a ticket to Florence. Someday I will drop that ticket in the wastebasket, step up to the desk, and say, “One way to Zagreb, please.”

The lyrics of a torch song, a line in a book, a friend’s postcard, a glimpse out the window on the overnight train to Paris, a just-shucked oyster that recalls the briny air at Tomales Bay -- even an overheard word can trigger the magnet’s force, sending me to check my airline mileage account, propelling me to the computer to scout ticket prices, into the garage to see which suitcase has wheels ready to roll.

When I finish my travels, I will solve the riddle of home. When I finish my travels, I will know the answer. Then I will open the Yellow Café.

Cortona, Italy
San Rafael, California
2005

Excerpted from A Year in the World by Frances Mayes © 2006 by Frances Mayes. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.