Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 27, 2010
And suddenly, we’re in a frenzy of packing.
We’re just four suitcases, 24 hours and probably three or four nasty little squabbles away from leaving Italy and heading back to the States.
The month in Siena that seemed like such an endlessly long time, such a luxurious excess of opportunity, has turned out to be almost no time at all. We just got here and now it’s over.
That said, I do have to admit that we are not suffering from the usual pangs of a too-brief vacation.
I’m not frustrated that I haven’t achieved the perfect tan or learned to wind-surf or swallowed enough rum.
I’m frustrated because it’s just in the past week that I have finally figured out the mysteries of the clothes washer – until a few days ago, we had to start it and stop it by unplugging the machine. Now I can turn it on and turn it off – just like that! Snap! A small domestic triumph, but now I won’t have time to enjoy it.
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My wife is frustrated because, after weeks of intense study, she is finally able to understand the conversations of strangers in the street.
It’s not what they’re talking about that fascinates her – their conversations, like all of ours, are trivial and, when overheard in the street, mere fragments at best. “So I told her no. And she said …” Or, “I’ll stop here and get the milk. Why don’t you go on home and see if …”
Her triumph is understanding those trivial fragments in the once-opaque Italian language.
It’s more than just that. We’ve figured out where to buy groceries and mastered the challenges of shopping for produce in an Italian supermarket (very different from the way it’s done in the States). We know which brand of yogurt to buy. We’ve found our favorite gelato shop – and, for that matter, our second- (and maybe third-) favorite too. We know where to buy a bottle of water and where not to buy a bottle of wine.
All the little details that go into making a life.
We don’t know – could never know – every twist and turn of the medieval streets in this city, but on a daily basis we know how to get where we’re going.
We even have our own names for special places – the church, for example, that I call (with no disrespect intended) “Our Lady of the Perpetual Jackhammers,” because of the never-ending street construction in the piazza in front of the basilica.
Yes, it’s all trivial, I know – but that’s the point of living somewhere. Real life is really trivial. Home is wonderful, but home is also dull. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Living in a place isn’t “travel.”
Travel is a search for something new, some kind of adventure, some kind of discovery. When travel becomes dull and routine, it’s a failure. So you go home.
And living somewhere isn’t “vacation.”
Vacation is almost the opposite of travel; vacation is the absence of challenge and adventure. Vacation is relaxation. Vacation, in the literal sense, is being “vacant.” And, again, I mean that in the best possible way. And when your vacation is over, you go home.
I love vacation. I love travel.
And now, in Siena, I love being home.
In fact, we have just returned to Siena after three days in Umbria, our only real “vacation” (OK, make that “travel”) during the month. We did have a 36-hour trip to Florence and a similarly quick trip to Pienza, but on this trip – short though it was – we were really traveling. Four days driving, three nights in hotels.
When we first planned our month in Siena, we expected to make all sorts of trips around Italy: hiking Cinque Terre, taking an overnight train to Venice, overeating in Bologna, walking along the beach in the Maremma.
But we eventually abandoned those magical dreams and hunkered down in Siena to enjoy this one magical reality.
And so yesterday morning, as we left the medieval town of Gubbio (which we loved), we were excited to be heading home.
Home to Siena. To our own bed, our own kitchen, our own living room couch. Dull and safe and warm and welcoming.
But now, as I look out the window, I think what makes Siena feel most like home is the way the Torre del Mangia – an astonishing tower, built in the early 1300s and not much short of 350 feet tall, looming over the Piazza del Campo – reminds me of Mount Sopris.
Yes, I did just say that a manmade, 700-year-old, 350-foot tower reminds me of a vast mountain, 13,000 feet high, that has existed for hundreds of millions of years.
Here’s the point: We have lived in our house on Missouri Heights for close to 20 years. We are lucky enough to have a spectacular view straight across the valley to Mount Sopris.
I have never gotten used to that view. I never take it for granted. From time to time, during the day, working or reading or whatever I may be doing, I glance up at Sopris and I am always amazed.
But, at the same time, I know it’s there. I expect it to be there. I don’t feel as if I have to stare at it every minute of every day.
It’s not a special vacation treat. It’s part of my life.
In the same way, the Torre del Mangia has become part of my life here in Siena. Working or reading here in the apartment, I glance up and I am always astonished and delighted to see it. I don’t take it for granted, but I don’t feel as if I have to stare at it every minute of every day.
It is no longer a “sight” to be seen. It is part of my life.
And so, even though a mere month has proven to be far too short, Siena has become home, in a small, but very real, way.
We aren’t traveling here or vacationing here. We are living here.
And now we’re leaving.
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