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Serendipitous Encounters In the Hills of Tuscany

Their path didn't cross ours until the last day of our Tuscan holiday. And then our paths crossed not once, not twice, but three times. All unplanned. Was this what Horace Walpole was the first to name serendipity? A much misunderstood word, which, I suspect, has more to do with discoveries than with chance.

Our hotel, a few miles below San Gimignano, provided a folder of leaflets about local forays, ``an itinerary of small centres.... Parts of a mosaic made of the artistic and ambient beauties of our region.''

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Since good choices make unexpected things happen, we chose Cellole e San Vivaldo. I admit that the choice was partly because these two places were near and we had done too many long drives already. But mainly it was because the folder's description was delightful:

``One of the most interesting sights ... is the romanic church `Cellole' just few Kms. away, on direction Certaldo-Gambassi. They finisched to build it in 1228 and it is much appreciated for his simple romanic architecture. Inside see the font: an octagonal shape realised on a whole block of `travertino' marble.

``A curiosity: the simple beauty of the church gave the inspiration to the musician Puccini, for his opera `Suor Angelica'....

``This country side corner is also lovely for walking-tours and pic-nic.''

We drove - with picnic - to Cellole. As we arrived, went up a winding and wooded road, parked on the edge of the cypress grove, and sat on a rough stone wall, a joint sigh escaped us. Here was the rural Tuscany of our dreams.

The church is tiny, made of well-cut stone, with odd unmatching pillars on each side of the doorway. It is a building without drama or sentimentality, and without a hint of tear-jerking pathos - so why did Puccini fall for it?

Of course he may - unlike us - have been alone on his visit. And he may also have seen this primitive church without the socks.

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At first I took these socks for warning flags. They were draped colorfully over a rusty metal grid propped across the open doorway, forbidding entrance.

But there were boots, too. They were on the ground and presented no obstacle.

And then there were two tourists who, it seemed, must belong to the socks and the boots.

They, like us, were engaged with a picnic - although they ate theirs on the ground, their backs against the church.

Near them was a small dog with a funny tail. His attachment to them had the adhesive look of long-term friendship. He sat and stared. Everything about him said, though silently: I love you very much. Very much. I quite like ham sandwiches, too.

He was not their dog.

A man appeared through a small door in a wall adjoining the church. He addressed the dog in urgent Italian. It was his dog, all right: It took no notice of him.

The man stared fixedly at us. Finally he withdrew through the door and closed it.

At this point, the woman spoke to the dog. She said a mere three words, kind but firm: ``On you go!''

I looked at my Scottish wife.

``She has got to be Scottish!'' I muttered.

``How do you know that?''

``Only you Scots say `On you go!'''

``On you go!'' whispered my wife.

The woman said it to the dog again. But it stayed put.

My wife (a teacher) whispered: ``I think she's a teacher.''

``How do you know?''

``The tone of her voice.''

* * * *

When the couple finished their lunch, they decided to have a siesta. He stretched out where he was. She moved into the shade and lay down on her side, her knapsack bulging so she resembled a Henry Moore reclining woman. Before he dozed off, he said loudly: ``I could kill for a large bar of Marks and Spencers fruit and nut chocolate.''

``English!'' hissed my wife.

``English,'' I hissed back, ``and chocolate with fruit and nuts! A man after my own heart!''

While they slept, we inspected the surroundings. The church was evidently under repair. From the barred portal, I could dimly see the octagonal font. My wife got busy with her camera. I went around the side of the wall to see if there was another way in. There wasn't, but there was an attractive view.

Wandering back to base camp, I found the chocolate man standing and talking to my wife. The Henry Moore woman was busy putting on her socks and boots. The man said: ``You sound as if you come from my part of the world.''

``Are you from Glasgow?'' I asked.

``Well,'' he said, ``I'm actually from Lesmahagow.'' (Lesmahagow is a small Scottish town about 25 miles south of Glasgow.)

``But we decided you were English,'' I said.

``You've been studying us!'' he laughed.

``Of course.''

''No, we're Scottish. But I've lived in London for a long time.''

* * * *

It turned out they were just beginning their holiday: a walking tour. Their boots were having to get used to their feet.

Now they had the afternoon to cover eight miles and reach San Gimignano for an evening meal. The cross-country itinerary provided was ``foolproof'' - virtually every step described. ``Can't go wrong,'' he said. ``Well, we'd better get going. Nice to meet you.''

Off they went. We all waved. They disappearing downhill to the left.

Two minutes passed. Then they came back. Once more they vanished - this time in the right direction.

``Foolproof, eh?'' I chuckled. ``I wonder if they'll ever find San Gimignano?''

* * * *

We hardly expected to meet them again, anyway.

But that evening, we drove from our hotel up to San Gimignano for dinner. We were looking for a new place to eat, walking up one of the steep streets of this hill town.

``Look!'' I whispered. ``They did find San Gimignano!''

``Good evening,'' I said loudly, ``and how are the boots?''

``Hullo! Oh, fine,'' said the man from Lesmahagow and London, and we all laughed.

My wife and I eventually found a new restaurant. The food was so good we wished we'd tried it before. It seemed strange that only one other table was occupied.

And then in came a man and a woman ... in boots and socks.

``Is the food good?'' they asked.

``M-m-m-m. You should try this,'' we said.

Our paths had crossed three times in half a day.

* * * *

Now we learned quite a lot about each other. Nobody else came into that restaurant, so we could chat easily across intervening tables.

We were wrong about one thing - though we had begun to wonder. They are not married, Myra and Jim. They are brother and sister.

But my wife was right about one thing - Myra is a teacher.

The two teachers were very soon talking shop. Myra was an assistant head in a primary school near the ski slope in Edinburgh. Both agreed that the government is steadily sinking the teaching profession into a slough of privatization.

But Jim was in favor of privatizing everything and said so. He maintained it was high time teachers ran their schools as if they were businesses. ``He only says it to annoy,'' said his sister.

So we all had a splendid argument and by the end of the evening parted - surely for the last time - with high amiability.

* * * *

We cogitated for some time about the photographs. Would it be stretching acquaintanceship too far to send Myra the one of the siesta of man, woman, and dog outside the church at Cellole? And how would we find the address of her school? Plus, we knew only her first name.

The education officer on the phone promised to forward an envelope if we sent it to her. She was not allowed by law to give out addresses. She would do her best.

My wife addressed it to ''Myra ?''

* * * *

Several weeks later, I answered the phone one evening.

``It's Myra from Tuscany.''

The photos had reached her. First, they had been sent to the assistant head of another school, also called Myra. This Myra had thought hard and eventually phoned our Myra. ``Did you have a holiday in Tuscany recently?'' she had asked.

* * * *

Of course, we all plan to meet up again, here in Scotland. But, Myra says, we have to wait for Tim to visit from the South.

Christmas cards have been exchanged, but now - a year later - we have still not had a reunion.

Ah well, perhaps some sorts of serendipity are best in Tuscany.

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