Sarah’s Tuscany: Camaldoli

This is the final story in my suite about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. It began as an experiment in writing in the second person, just to see if I could sustain it through one story…then two, then more. You decide if I was successful. Next week, I will reflect on what I’ve learned from writing this second-person experiment.

By Sarah White

Not knowing its name makes it difficult to ask for.

If it’s a place, you might be right there in the midst of it, and yet not be able to tell. The Camaldoli–even if you do pronounce it properly, like a Japanese stereotype saying “camaraderie,” (Ca-MAL-dol-li)–you will still likely earn blank stares. The Italians apparently do not go there.

Not that you and your companions failed to arrive–You did make it to the parking lot of the hermitage, a journey of some three hours down from your Chianti hills, across the Valdarno, and up into the Apennine Mountains. For an intense half-hour, you stood on the fringe of something deep and amazing and otherworldly as a cathedral.

But whistling out of that dark expanse came an ill wind. It suddenly seemed much wiser not to stay. What was it that scared you? Why, when you went into the little souvenir shop, did you not ask questions of the barrista? “Excuse me, what is there to see and do here?” As if you had finished your sightseeing, you bought postcards and pounded down warming espressos, then backed nervously out of the steamy realm and into the snow.

Perhaps it was the snow.

camaldo

Back in the Valdarno it had been sunny, brightly normal, a modern industrial string of towns along the river. But it is possible to drive right through fall and into winter. The sun gave way to clouds as the road wound up and up, more than 1000 meters gained from the villa’s doorstep. Spits of rain hit the windshield. You became aware: no picnic today. But it is beautiful, dramatic- vistas quickly opening and, just as quickly, lost in

The sun gave way to clouds as the road wound up and up, more than 1000 meters gained from the villa’s doorstep. Spits of rain hit the windshield. You became aware: no picnic today. But it is beautiful, dramatic–vistas quickly opening and, just as quickly, lost in mist. Rock-strewn meadows, tiny villages of somber gray stone, slate roofs, wood shutters, woodsmoke.

Just as you ascend from rain toward snow, you cross an invisible threshold. Now you begin to suspect–you must be in the Camaldoli. You feel that sensation from childhood when the family car finally swung into the entrance of the state park, the national forest, the nature preserve. A hush, an urge to cover your head, or kneel.

Maybe the feeling was first created here, eight centuries ago, when the vast forest tracts of the Camaldoli came under the care of Benedictine monks. Entering this forest you know instantly you are under a new authority. This forest is holy. Its acolytes are the hermits, the religious colony whose purpose is the care and feeding of this forest. Across the invisible threshold, the road seems uncomfortably temporary. It has only been borrowed from the mountain that slopes up to the left and drops away dramatically on the right. You find eerie beauty in every direction: on one hand the close-up understory and on the other the valley view.

Across the invisible threshold, the road seems uncomfortably temporary. It has only been borrowed from the mountain that slopes up to the left and drops away dramatically on the right. You find eerie beauty in every direction: on one hand the close-up understory and on the other the valley view.

 

Now the snow is beginning to accumulate. Something strange is happening to the beauty. There is a painters’ trick to make colors seem more vivid: a boundary of white or black is placed between each area, which keeps the colors from dulling each other by blurring with their complements. The white snow and the wet-black hemlock trunks are working that same trick now. The beech trees are as bright as candles lighting up the dark pine tunnel. Their rusty leaves litter the roadway, phosphorescent in the gloom.

The colors are liquid, nourishing as hot broth, but their warmth is too ephemeral. You need action.

Your pack can’t resist the call of the forest. Like satyrs, you leap down a pine-needle carpeted path beside a tumbling stream. The sound around you is the voice of God: high wind, loud water.

But you are a little afraid of God. When you burst out on the road again, Scott turns back to fetch the car, and suddenly you become frightened. Isn’t it taking him too long? No sound of the engine. But he must be coming! If he’d slid off the road you would have heard a crash. Suddenly an alien stand of trees threatens. Like God’s gatekeepers, they are eager to repel you–unnecessary interlopers that you are–not of their kind.

The last turn in the road brings you to a little chapel. It looks like a state park guardhouse, and like one it stands at an entrance to the Camaldoli. Carved over the arched door are these words: Santa Maria della Neve. Our Lady of the Snow.

You understand perfectly why someone felt inclined to build a chapel here, an urge unchanged by centuries. Grazie, Maria, deliver us from evil.

There will be no Camaldoli picnic for you, no tour of the monastery’s library, sanctuary, or typical hermit’s cell. Just the long drive back to the twentieth century, and benign autumn already in progress in the Tuscan vineyards.

Welcome home.

 

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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One Response to Sarah’s Tuscany: Camaldoli

  1. Douglas Elwell says:

    Sarah, I finished the Italy series in second person. I was surprised how I got accustomed to it and felt comfortable reading it. Well done!
    The Florence piece was my favorite with the music references. I loved the line: music carves memories deeper. I would have preferred deep, but the idea of music carving memories is great.
    Doug

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