La Settimana Bianca

It’s all down hill from here.

“I’m not doing the course,” said my daughter, Giorgia, as we pulled out of the driveway, headed to the Dolomites for our annual ski vacation, known in Italia as the “La settimana bianca,” or the white week.

We were four families vacationing together in Folgarida. After cursing my way through a 45-minute line for the lift passes–“Why the hell don’t they sell them on line?” I blurted out at one point to the crowd. “They do!” came a random answer–we took the gondola up to the ski station, where I bought a brioche, wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it in Giorgia’s inside pocket, in lieu of the leisurely breakfast on the panoramic terrace I had promised her. At 9:15a we were finally in line for the chair lift up to the ski school meeting point, where parents were dragging and shoving their kids through the crowd calling out, “We’ve got a 9 o’clock class!” By then Giorgia, through tears, was alternately begging to “Ski with Mamma, just for today” and lashing out at me for being “The worst mom in the world.” We got off the lift and headed down to the meeting point, Giorgia snowplowing behind me, yelling and crying, across the path of an instructor who smiled in our direction. “Ah,” he called out, “first day of the season.” Once we parents had left our children with their maestri, we skied straight into the nearest café and huddled by the fire over our second and third coffees, waiting for the mountain to thaw.

village of ArgentieresI learned to ski at 25, when I was just married and living in Munich, 45 minutes from the Alps.  My then husband was German, and had skied as soon as he could walk. His mother had tried to put him in a ski course at age two or three, but he would hang back and then ski off on his own when no one was looking. So his parents kept him with them, hiking up from the cabin they rented and skiing down from wherever they got to, ski lifts being luxuries they never even considered.

My husband took me to Kitzbühl, one snowy, windy morning in 1995. I had told him, honestly, that I had first skied at 16, but not told him, somewhat less honestly, that I had last skied at 16 as well. I rented skis, and we got into the cable car. The way he tells it, I grew greener as we rose through the air. Outside at the top, I could not see my hand in front of my face thanks to the fog and snowfall. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “It’s all down hill.” Somehow, I made it down, and over the years we were married I followed his smooth turns down some of the loveliest mountains in the world, in Germany and Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy.

Before we had children, we took to renting an apartment with three or four other couples, in Lech, in a modest, well-kept chalet called Haus Angelika, where the owner brought us a basket of fresh rolls for breakfast. The Germans (everyone in our group except me) liked to be at the ski lifts when they opened at eight a.m. From the first run of the day, our friend Stefan skied in front leading the line of us, up and down, turning, over the moguls, deep in the rare powder there was, down those wonderful wooded trails so common in Austria, up to the fireplace-heated huts for a sausage sandwich and a radler at lunchtime and back out into whatever weather there was to ski until it was dark. Those days, I thought of nothing but going along, feeling the mountain under me, absorbing it, pushing back against it, breathing the stinging cold or damp sun, never covering the same trail in a week, twenty days a year until I was six-months pregnant. There was real après-ski, too: glühwein and more radlers at the lamp-heated outdoor bars at the bottom of the slopes, dancing and shouting to the Tyrolian schläger, then walking home to our apartment, to a pot of spaghetti, wine and more dancing.

We occasionally skied elsewhere: in Cortina, where sport seemed beside the point, whereas wooly boots and the latest Montcler were de rigueuer for lounging in the sun, and where I learned there is no minimum age for a fur coat; in France, joining friends in “Cham,” as the Brits call it, for invariably great snow on the Mont Blanc, ski school that lasts all day (unlike in Italy where parents want to oversee the midday meal), and expensive, soggy pommes frites for lunch; in Switzerland, where no matter which week you go, a third of the cantons have spring break so the lifts are clogged and the best fondue places packed.

view of Alps from top of Chamonix gondolaAnd I skied again in Austria, with a different, Italian husband, a second daughter and an Italian granny who cooked and babysat and straightened up that same apartment I had shared all those years before. In the intervening seasons, Lech had grown more expensive and more popular, a double-edged sword, it was explained to me by a friend, one of the German group I had skied with there, who had married a Lech mountaineer and dairy farmer and now lived there year round. She had two daughters, three and five, who refreshingly had yet to don skis. There was now a mountain-styled Humvee to take us to the restaurant in the forest that before had been served only by cog railway or horse and sleigh, and chalets for twenty-thousand dollars a night. Haus Angelika remained—clean and bright as ever—only we played cards and sang the children to sleep instead of dancing into the night.

In Folgarida this past winter, I sent my older daughter, Charlotte, to ski with the guys, while we moms took our time on the slope, stopping to chat or admire the view every few hundred meters. Two minutes into skiing, my cell phone rang: Charlotte had already lost them. “Too slow, Mom, I’ll see you all at lunch.” At the rendez-vous to pick up the younger children from their courses, I caught Giorgia shushing down toward me, jacket flapping open, although it was 20 below zero. “I forgot to close it after I took out my snack,” she explained, and went on to say a boy we knew was in her same course. “A cry-baby,” she offered, “and a slowpoke too.”

Last March, I skied for a weekend without the kids, in Val Gardena. It was strange to be so free, used as I was to scanning the slopes for them. There were no drop-off or pick-up times to respect, no one to hand out chocolate to on the lifts, no extra sweaters to carry in the afternoon, no one who complained of the cold, or wanted to ski an extra run after I was all but exhausted. It was a perfect weekend: fine snow, plenty of sun and a friend who knew the mountain, such that we skied without stopping all day long, like we had in Lech all those years ago. I found myself thinking of Folgarida, though, and of the last afternoon of the trip, when I had skied, for a while at least, with my older daughter. On the last run of the day, she took off, light on her skis, and slipped down over the crest of the slope. Though she hardly seemed to be moving, she was gone in a flash.


Autumn in Tuscany–with and without Thanksgiving.

By now, the persimmon trees have lost their leaves, so the branches, covered in hundreds of round, orange-red fruits, stand out against the often-grey sky. The grapes and olives are harvested, but it’s too early to start pruning vines or trees. Leeks and fennel grow, without much attention, in the vegetable garden. We’ve eaten, for the time being, enough grilled mushrooms, mushroom pasta and mushroom risotto. It has started to rain, and it is the time of year when the thick-walled farmhouses feel colder than the scirrocco-driven dampness outside, so we come in, light the fire, drink tea and play briscola.

playing cards
Tuscan playing cards

On weekend mornings, we hear the dogs and gunshots of the hunters in the fields and woods around us. A friend brings me a piece of boar, which another friend makes into sausage and salami for us to hang in the cellar and eat this winter. Someone else brings chestnuts to a dinner party, and we sit up late around the fire with a good excuse to drink lots of wine. The ash of the fires and the dogs’ now always-muddy feet are reason enough to ease the housekeeping standards. Continue reading “Ringraziamento”

Bambina at the Beach

While the Americans and northern Europeans flock to the Tuscan countryside, the Tuscans head for the shore.

girls at beachThe Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.

Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:

Continue reading “Bambina at the Beach”

Agriturismo Galore

“Agriturismo” in the good old days.

Table, fireplace
One of the apartments in the early 1990s.

“Put it in the tourist apartments!” was the solution when any ugly, cheap, useless piece of furniture or décor was found in the tower or barn or basement at Poggiarello. It was the early 1990s, and agriturismo was a new vacation idea, devised mostly by the English, who wanted to spend time on a working farm, joining in planting or pruning or harvesting and cooking for themselves, while enjoying Italian country life at the fraction of the cost of a hotel. We were a long way from the designer-decorated, Jacuzzi-outfitted, air-conditioned standards of a typical Tuscan house rental today. At the time, the Italian government offered funding to property owners who would restore buildings and open an agriturismo. Needless to say, anyone with an empty chicken coop found a way to access the money, and within a few years, guest houses opened all over the region. Continue reading “Agriturismo Galore”