I spent last week in the countryside with my extended family, doing something as close to camping as it will ever get for us.
And it’s not really close to camping at all: vacationing in a rented Tuscan villa lost in the mountains about an hour’s drive from Florence. The villa was gorgeous, the view breathtaking. There was a private pool, state-of-the-art kitchen, and a multitude of comfortable bedrooms and full bathrooms. But the very limited internet connectivity, bad cell phone reception, remoteness from a grocery store, well-water (undrinkable for several of us, including an aunt on immuno-suppressants due to a kidney transplant, two very young children, and two people with gastro-intestinal issues (including me, who still managed to get a mild case of food poisoning elsewhere)), and lack of a clothes dryer and air conditioning made it pretty rustic for my comfort-, convenience-, and cool-air- obsessed, staunchly urban family. Our Italian ancestors were farmers, but they'd come to America and quickly adapted to a life far from the countryside. This kind of living is no longer in our blood.
Still, while I’d had my trepidations, none of us were overly upset about the lack of our habitual creature comforts – and really, how rotten would we be if we complained when we were in such a lovely place, and all together?
The absence of air conditioning, which my Aunt C. once qualified as “like camping” (even if you live in a Parisian apartment), made us open doors and windows that otherwise probably would have remained closed. Mountain breezes kept us cool during the day. Bugs came in and out as much as we did. Clothing that would have been dried in a dryer, was now tacked up on a line overlooking a plunging view into the valley below. We marveled at how fast the hot Tuscan sun could do the job of a machine – just about as quickly, in fact, if you hung your clothes out in the early afternoon.
As the week went on, we began to get closer to nature. We started to learn the times of day when the cicadas would make their twanging music, which sometimes seemed near-deafening in our isolated temporary home. We no longer needed to check the weather; looking off the mountain, we could see the sky all the way to Florence. Our skin seemed to feel the slightest difference in temperature, so that, while the Tuscan heat remained, we could still say that the end of our stay was a few degrees cooler than the beginning.
One evening as we set the table for dinner outside, I even found myself, arachnophobe that I am, staring up at a nearby spider, finding something charming and relatable in how she seemed to impatiently wind some long-unmoving prey into a neat ball, as ready to eat as we were down below.
As much as I admired and wondered at the cities and villages we visited, I also came to thrill at these connections with the natural world.
And yet, I was easily reminded of why I don't mind living so distantly from nature, why for me, the most truly relaxing setting is an artificial one. Our garden, for example, was full of lovely-smelling lavender whose buds attracted flocks of butterflies in dozens of colors. But that same lavender made my eyes itch and tear, and those butterflies weren’t the only insects attracted to it. Bees and wasps angrily confronted us whenever we passed by their favorite place.
For every butterfly or soft breeze, there were prickly bushes and mosquitoes whose bites made our skin redden and swell up. It was easy to appreciate the thick stone walls that kept our bedroom cool, until, a few days after our arrival, the boyfriend saw a scorpion near our bed. We couldn’t catch it, and so it remained our roommate, the most unnerving kind of roommate I can think of – even more so than the fat black spider that I turned to see sitting on the wall just beside my pillow one night (that incident also made a bad housemate of me; my scream woke up not only the boyfriend – who had to catch the spider and put it outside - but also my Aunt J., who’d been soundly sleeping in the bedroom beside ours).
The sun dried our clothes and made it possible for us to swim and take lovely pictures in the places we visited, but it also burned our skin and took away our energy. The small family of shrews frolicking on the creek banks of the nearest village was adorable to watch; the flies that seemed to be omnipresent gamboled just as energetically, buzzing always in our ears and jumping on our food, our hair, our clothes.
It seems that loving nature is a matter of balance or detachment. In the city or the suburbs, you can remove so many natural inconveniences. It’s an easy life that way. But in the country, you have to accept everything. If you truly love nature, you have to love it all, embrace it all, love - or at least tolerate - the spider and the scorpion and the fly as much as the trees and the birds.
People often point out that nature is cruel. I feel like she's also hard to have a peaceful relationship with. I want to love her completely, but while I know I’ll continue to do whatever I can to preserve and protect her, I’ll never be able to live with her in harmony.
When we got back to our apartment yesterday, I found that whenever I was doing a stationary task, like washing dishes or brushing my teeth, my eyes were involuntarily darting around, searching for spiders or scorpions on the walls. My ears were pricked for the acute hum of a mosquito. I’d realize I no longer needed to do this, and I’d relax.