The delicious slowing of time

For three weeks in July, I set my watch by the hourly bells of San Regolo's church clock. But that is not how you tell time in San Regolo.

The bells chime down the narrow streets, past stone houses, out over the surrounding olive groves, cypress tree columns, and vineyards of this tiny Tuscan village below Castello di Brolio. They give sonic texture to the day, but they do not constitute a timetable.

Life in the little town is paced by ripening fruit, weathering stone, and the rhythms of ancient custom. Time is a local phenomenon, not a universal constant, I have come to feel, now that I'm back home in a little village in Maine.

The courses of the midday meal at the Fabbri family's trattoria suggest another typical ancient order: Antipasti, primo piatti, secondo piatti, dolce. What is not inscribed on the menu, but assumed, is "tempo: lentemente." Leisure. Conversation. Fabrizzio will not even think about preparing the bill until you have asked for it. That is to say, meals defy haste. Signora Fabbri's zuppa di verdure and tortellini are to be savored. One bite at a time. They were made from scratch this morning. Lentemente.

After il pranzo, business shuts down in the early afternoon heat, as has been the custom for centuries. An anachronism, but another delightful pacing of the day. Even that village clock seems sluggish, resonating languorously in the heavy air, "the swale of the afternoon." Later, when afternoon merges with the time of day to greet friends with "buonasera," the older men and women of the village congregate outside the alimentari to talk, play cards, and watch young Andrea, the toddler.

He loves to explore their pockets and play with their coins, as the men ask him questions or teach him new words. One senses that they are the same villagers who have always gathered in this town square to appreciate the shade, the gentle breeze pushing up the hillside, the company of one another, and the child just learning to talk. Or just to gaze out across the vines. Lentemente.

The landscape viewed from the village square in San Regolo could be a medieval vista, so little has changed over the centuries. Every little stamp of land in these hills is growing a crop of some kind: grapes, olives, sunflowers, tomatoes, peaches, plums, lavender. This soil grows anything. The stone village itself seems to sprout from the hillside, as if planted there.

In fact, it is the land that is rooted in community, and community rooted in the land, a stewardship reaching back in time over a thousand years.

In such an old place, the very narrowness of cobblestone streets defies any intention of haste. Cars are prohibited and prohibitive. A city dating back 1,300 years has only had electricity and autos for the twinkling of an eye. The ancient Italian walled city may be wired to the information super highway - the medieval city even contains an Internet cafe these days: e-commerce in the shadow of the Duomo - but to get there you must walk at the pace of a medieval burgher. Lentemente.

The duomo and bell-tower builders were building for the ages. But this perspective is possible only to a person who has a concept of ready-mix concrete and building in haste. To duomo builders, stone set the speed of construction. And our several weeks amid the olive groves and stone villages has slowed our movement toward the speed of fruit ripening. Molto bene.

Our own adoption of lentemente means that we have accurately imagined the meaning of the past and present uses of this land. Even briefly inhabiting such a place of ancient history increases my capacity to appreciate the patience and care sewn in each field. It has taken many bells for my thought to ripen, this time spent sitting, gazing, in the afternoon. I cannot be a villager here, but I can learn to move at speeds no greater than ripened thought. Not slow, necessarily, but commensurate with understanding.

We, too, live in an old place, by American standards. The nearly 400 years of settlement in our town is hardly old to a resident of San Regolo - but the Italians would recognize some familiar patterns.

Settled in 1613, Castine is also a community rooted in its land, and land rooted in community. It is a place known for affectionate stewardship of forest, bay, and shore; of purposeful pacing of work; people gathering to sit and talk in the village square - the judge, the fireman, the marine engineer, the teacher. An August afternoon is paced by the speed of melting ice cream cones and creeping elm shade.

The comparison of home and abroad has also reminded me that it takes time to be familiar enough with a place to build community. That is, intimacy with neighbors and the association with a particular locale only comes from spending time slowly, commensurate with understanding. The neighborhood scale and pace of the old world, or New World, reinforces belonging and association; the time to take care of a vineyard or grove of trees, the time to conserve the land and the friendships by which one is nourished.

At home I may set my watch to the hourly bells of the church on Main Street. But my sojourn in the old world of San Regolo has encouraged me to adapt a different sense of pace. I like the notion of daily rhythms defined by tide or reddening tomatoes rather than the clock. Ripening fruit may be my new standard for "quick." Time is a local phenomenon, after all.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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