At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Diastrous Quest for the Sweet Life is Jennifer Criswell’s memoir about her first year in Montepulciano during which her dream of expat life meets the reality of everyday challenges and results in sometimes funny, often frustrating, always lesson-filled situations.
Straightening my aching back, I gazed out over the rolling fields of lush green vines ripe with bursting dark purple grapes.
At least you’re in Tuscany. At least you’re in Tuscany, I repeated. My mantra.
But not even reminding myself I was toiling under the infamous Tuscan sun could save me from strongly considering fainting, stabbing myself, or at the very least, shamelessly feigning heat stroke now that I had reached day four of harvesting.
What would Lucy Ricardo do?
She was the only character I could think of who could’ve gotten herself into such a mess. Or maybe the blazing September sun was addling my brain. I’d signed up to work the vendemmia—the annual Sangiovese grape harvest in Tuscany—out of an innate sense of misadventure coupled with a desperate urgency to earn some money. Like Lucy, I’d managed to blunder my way into one of Italy’s most venerable traditions in wine-making and was now floundering to find a way out. Sadly for me, my episode didn’t include hiking up my skirt and stomping grapes. Nor was it only a half an hour. Or particularly funny.
Instead, I was part of a squadra of twenty who were handed a pair of clippers and a bucket and told to start cutting.
For ten hours a day.
I bent back to my work now, a romantic sigh escaping me. The first day had been such an adventure. What does one wear to pick grapes? I’d wondered, as I plucked colorful T-shirts, a hoodie, and two pairs of jeans from my cluttered wardrobe, modeling them on in front of my full-length mirror.
“Faticosa,” friends had warned me over and over again. The work is tiring. Pshaw! I needed money. I’d ignored the small brown spiders that leapt into my bucket and only screamed once when swarmed by bees, angry that their fruit was absconding without their permission. I’d felt such sweet satisfaction as I’d filled bucket after bucket with fat purple grapes.
Then I woke up on day two, and everything hurt. My back was spasming, and my hands were so sore from gripping the clippers I could barely make a fist.
Aha! Now I knew why old Italian women were always portrayed as hunched over: they spent their days picking grapes. The only things keeping me from staying home were my pride and, of course, my circumstance. After five months in Italy without work and a spectacular breakdown in the middle of the main street, both money and pride were in short supply.
So I wondered, What would Lucy do?
A booted toe kicked the bucket next to me. “Andiamo! Forza!” Let’s go! Come on!
I smiled gamely at Ernesto, the vendemmia leader, even as my body groaned, and hauled myself up to resume my place just as he told someone that rain in the forecast meant a pause in the vendemmia over the next few days.
“Excuse me, did you hear that?” I asked the woman on the other side of my vine. My Italian had improved, but this seemed too good to be true.
“Yes,” she smiled at me through the foliage. “And we get paid today.”
Halleluiah! Ignoring my blisters, I hacked at the overgrown vines with vigor. The grapes twined over their wire supports, creating a tangled mess; locating the point to snip required surgical precision. But by now, I was pleased to find I could do this with some confidence. I was sticky with grape juice, a bee was caught in my hair, obviously confusing my tangled mess with its hive, and the growing heat of the day was determinedly focused on my sunburned shoulders, but I didn’t care.
A few more hours and I’d be done…for this week. With a few more euros in my pocket, my Tuscan adventure would continue at least a little while longer—and I’d worry about next week, next week.
That’s what Lucy would do, right?
Jennifer Criswell is a lawyer-turned-writer who chucked her legal briefs to pursue her love of writing after a life-changing trip to Italy in 2001. Jennifer lives and writes in a small hill town in Tuscany with her sidekick of a Weimaraner, Cinder.