Frances Mayes needs no introduction. Her New York Times bestselling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, which was also made into a featured film starring Diane Lane, Sandra Oh and Raoul Bova has been read by most, if not all, expats living in Italy.
For many, it was the validation that the absurd idea, “I’m going to live in Italy!” wasn’t all that impossible.
Almost 25 years later, Under the Tuscan Sun maintains its clout as a handbook to expat life in Italy, but more importantly, Frances Mayes is still in Tuscany writing about her life, offering intimate insights into a world that many people only dream of.
Although best known for Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes has had over twenty books published. Her latest works include A Place in the World and Always Italy, co-written with Ondine Cohane.
Frances Mayes has graciously taken the time to speak to Easy Milano to discuss life in Italy, lessons learned and what she’s working on next.
Featured here, Amie Louie, Founder of Easy Milano with Frances Mayes at Bramasole, her Tuscan farmhouse in Cortona.
For many, Under the Tuscan Sun has been a road map to living abroad. Although you do spell out the challenges in the book, what advice would you give the “discouraged expat,” the expat who is not seeing the rosy side of their new experience?
That happens! Once the initial delight and surprise wear off, many realize that Italian is not that easy to learn, making Italian friends can be difficult if you don’t speak the language, and those stone houses so cool in summer can be cool in winter, too. Best advice: Learn as much Italian as you can and make a big effort to attend local festivals, concerts, and events. Find an involving project, frequent places regularly so you’re known, organize a book club with other expats and read Italian literature, plant a garden, invite acquaintances over, and remember what inspired you to make this move in the first place. What were you seeking and how are you working to attain what you wanted? And sometimes, if nothing works after all these efforts, perhaps you just had a big adventure and it’s time to go home, wherever that might be.
Can you describe a typical day? How do you manage your day, work/life balance?
One thing I love about living here is that there is no typical day. I am an undisciplined writer, easily tempted to do almost anything other than write: cook, garden, hike, travel, entertain. My days usually involve a walk and listening to an audiobook as I walk, making at least one tasty recipe, coffee with a friend in the piazza, and reading. Writing comes last unless I am inspired or have a deadline. Somehow, I manage to write books; there is just a long gathering of energy by deflections then a rush of pleasure in writing.
Did learning Italian change the way you express your ideas as a writer?
As a writer, I am so locked into English. Italian is a life-long quest and a gift because there is an infinite amount to learn and I’ll never be done with it. I don’t have enough facility to think my ideas have been shaped by Italian but I enjoy trying to translate poems into English and feeling how slippery that can be.
A Place in the World explores the meaning of “home.” Is home defined as a place or a feeling?
Home, it turns out, is defined by places (plural) and feelings (also plural). In trying to find the meaning of home, I became more interested in the questions raised than in the answers. I’m exploring all the facets I have experienced around that loaded word home. Since I am a traveler and have made my living by writing about those travels, the airport has often lured me more than the pleasures of hearth and home. Much of A Place in the World walks between that dynamic of go and stay. Why go? Why stay? I loved writing about how food and memory connect, about the homes of my friends and how their interiors give such an intimate context for who that friend is. I explored the mysterious phenomenon of suddenly feeling at home in a momentary place and how those times usually signaled a life turning point. I dug far back to my original home in Georgia, and the dreamy North Carolina farm and garden where I expected to live forever. Most revealing to me are the last chapters, where my home in Italy is laid open to dissection. How can it be that a country not my own became essential, and what is it in the air and water that shapes the qualities that keep me here? I arrived at theories that surprised me. That’s a great thing about writing. You think you know where you’re going with a story, and you discover you aren’t going there at all. What’s the Yogi Berra quote? If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Frances Mayes spoke at an in-person event organized by The Florentine in June at Ruffino’s Poggio Casciano wine estate. Photo by @marcobadiani
Surely there have been many, but what is a key life lesson you have learned from living abroad?
Like many, I was raised to think America is the best. There are some zenophobic, small-minded, and despicable people in Italy, a political system that leaves a lot to be desired, and multiple complex problems, but overall, Italy is a more humane county, with a plenitude of generous and warm people, a quality of life that provides more satisfaction, and a safety net (health care, education, gun laws, abortion rights, vacation time) that an American cannot even dream of.
How has living in Italy influenced your personal philosophy?
A move to a new country shakes up your assumptions. You realize that you have to let go of what you thought you knew. If you’re lucky, and I hope I am, you learn to suspend judgment, to hold off on quick conclusions. This opens the mind. When that happens, many other aspects of living open as well.
Always Italy is about travel and Italy’s rich culture. What did writing that book lead you to discover?
I discovered what I already knew: Italy is endless. I traveled to every region. Loved them all! I realized I would be thrilled to live in Trento, the Salento, Siracusa, Torino, many places. Oh, Le Marche, Trieste, the Dolomiti lakes, Gaeta, Chieti, yes, endless. Like learning the language, the fortunate traveler will never reach the end of Italy.
What is your view on the new post-pandemic phenomenon, “revenge tourism”?
Totally expected. After being cooped up by Covid, everyone wants to assert their right to see the world.
Do you have a favorite place in Milan?
I am a fan of Claudio Sadler and his eponymous restaurant. Pinocoteca La Brera, of course, and The Prada Foundation are not to be missed. I really like the Museo del Novecento. The Duomo at night, the Galleria, La Scala! I can’t wait to get back to the fabulous fantasia pastry shops!
You seem unstoppable! What’s up next? Is the word “retirement” even in your vocabulary?
As long as fascinating projects continue to present themselves, I’m in. Just about to start a novel…
We look forward to reading it!
Learn more about Frances Mayes and her books on her website francesmayesbooks.com.
Article by Amie Louie and Celia Abernethy, Easy Milano
Images courtesy Frances Mayes, The Florentine
Bramasole, the Tuscan farmhouse that sets the scene for Under the Tuscan Sun. The villa is embraced by an olive grove where Frances Mayes and her husband cultivate extra virgin olive oil. Learn more on Bramasoleoliveoil.com
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Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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