Frances Mayes is the author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a bestselling memoir/cookbook/travel guide about her move from San Francisco, California to Tuscany, Italy in 1996. Her story was made into a 2003 movie featuring Diane Lane, and it inspired a number of her fans to travel or move to Italy.  She is now coming out with a second book this month called “Everyday in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life,” and recently talked about her life in Tuscany with CNN.com (you can read the full interview here).

Since Mayes has lived part-time in Italy for more than a decade, I wondered how her experience of Italy compares with that of a student traveler who is only in the country for a few weeks. My friend Jessica is a junior French & Italian Studies Major, Linguistics Major, and Global Studies Minor and went to Florence, Italy during a three-week study abroad May Session in 2009. I asked her to respond by email to some of the same questions that Mayes answered in her CNN interview. It turns out that Italy, no matter how long you are there, leaves quite an impression.

Q 1: Here in America, people view Tuscany as this magical place. What feeling did you get from it when you were there?

Jessica: As an Italian major, my experiences in Tuscany were surreal. As Mayes says, there is something magical about Italy. The entire country is completely seductive. The language seems to flow like velvety chocolate. When I first arrived in Tuscany, I was blown away by how old the cities are, yet the people are so modern. This doesn’t exist in the United States. In Italy, some of the buildings have been there since the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and I almost cried knowing I was tripping over the very cobblestones that once paved the streets in the time of Dante and Michelangelo. Every region of Italy has its own culture, its own language, but luckily for me Tuscany is where the Florentine dialect (a.k.a. Standard Italian) is spoken. As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Tuscans carry a deep-seated sense of pride and belonging for their homeland. This aura made the people even more interesting, and I was mesmerized by their style, gestures, and traditions. I can’t wait to go back!

Q 2: What parts of Italy did you most like to explore?

Mayes: It is still endless to me. I feel like we haven’t seen anything yet, it’s just a place where it will never run out on you. There’s always a new town with a new dialect and a different pasta and a different Renaissance artist. It’s an infinitely various place. I adore going to the south and Sicily and Sardinia. I’ve never been to the Aeolian Islands, and I’d love to go there. Venice, the most touristy place in the world, is still just completely magic to me.

Jessica: While in Firenze, we visited the nearby town of Fiesole, as well as the cities of Bologna and Roma. I couldn’t afford the extra trip, but several of my friends visited Cinque Terre, a collection of five villages along the coast with a breath-taking view and ancient terraces. The photographs were utterly beautiful. I wish I could have gone, and I encourage anyone with the opportunity to visit such beauty.

Q 3: Mayes describes the Italians she met: “The Italians have their priorities right: They’re driven, they do their work, but they really enjoy the day-to-day and they don’t put off the enjoyment of the everyday for some future goal.” What did you think of the Italians that you met?

Jessica: I suppose I can agree with her, to some extent. It’s very difficult to choose traits that characterize the “Italians,” because the people view themselves first as Tuscans, Romans, Sicilians, and then they define themselves as Italian. Their own definition of nationalism derives from their home region, not their nation state. In a slightly similar way, we as Americans sometimes define ourselves as Minnesotans or Wisconsinites before including the title American. That being said, the Tuscans I met are driven and focused on what is most important, like friends and family. They are extremely passionate about what they do, whether a profession or a hobby. The whole idea of a career and what constitutes “hard work” is a very different concept in Italy. They don’t tend to have a 40 hour work week, and they like it that way. An Italian’s job is only a defining label if they choose it to be so, unlike here, where the first question you may be asked by a new acquaintance is “What do you do for a living?”

Q 4: Mayes describes Italian life like this: “Every day centers for me mostly in the piazza, and this is pretty much true all over Italy. Everyone goes to the piazza every day. So people aren’t on their computers all the time e-mailing each other, because they’re going to see each other in a half an hour in the piazza.” Do you think that this is an accurate portrayal of Italian life? Did you have a different experience with students?

Jessica: Yes, daily life is much more personal. Supermarkets exist, but most Italians prefer to establish a connection with an individual vendor and frequent his or her shop. That vendor is always extremely passionate about the service he or she provides, and it isn’t uncommon for the customer and clerk to chat for what seems like hours. This kind of interaction is something more common to small towns in the United States, but Firenze is a bustling city. Yet, people continue to develop personal relationships with local businessmen, while avoiding franchises. That is something I really appreciated about the Tuscans. Also, the reason they aren’t on their computers all day is because Italians need face-to-face interaction. So much of the language relies on gestures, and there’s only so much an emoticon can do. The younger people I met do have Facebook and they do enjoy e-mail, but they still prefer talking in person.

Q 5: In her interview, Mayes mentions that, “I’ve loved reconnecting with that sense of community. You walk down the street, the people who own the shops are standing in the doorways, and you chat and you hear the news and you walk home.” Did you sense this same sort of friendliness and community while in Italy?

Jessica: Definitely. My apartment was outside of the city center, away from the noise of the tourists, and I was allowed to visit the local baker or fruit vendor only seconds from my front door. At first, the shop owners eye you up and down, not to be critical but because you are new and they are curious. If you take the first step and strike up a conversation (easier said than done), they instantly warm up to you. I also spent a great deal of time in the market place, where sometimes hundreds of vendors will set up their tent and display their wares. The market place is an excellent opportunity for practicing speaking Italian, because you are expected to barter with them for a more reasonable price. The only people who pay full price are the Americans.

Q 6: For someone who is visiting Italy for the first time, where would you advise them to go?

Mayes: I would definitely start in Florence, because that’s were the center of the Renaissance was and it’s still one of the most beautiful cities in the world. You could stay there for a lifetime and not learn everything about Florence. I would stay about three days in Florence, then I would probably travel an hour and go to Siena. After that, I would stay in the Tuscan countryside — Pienza, Montepulciano, Cortona — some small town for a couple of days. And it would be great to get over to the coast for a couple of days, maybe stop in Lucca and go down anywhere along the coast.

Jessica: Just go. If you don’t speak the language, it is easier to get around in more touristy cities like Florence or Rome, but you’ll also be surrounded by tourists. Instead of eating at the café immediately next to an important site, try walking down the street away from all the people. There you’ll find food much cheaper and service much warmer than all those tourist traps. While you’re enjoying your fresh sandwich and rich coffee, listen to the other patrons and observe the way they interact with one another. You’ll be able to see a lot more of Italy this way.

Q 7: Any advice to American visitors to Italy?

Mayes: If you learn 10 words of Italian, you can go a long way because Italians love to talk. If you just really make an effort to interact with people, they will be so responsive, and I think language is always the key to that. Just going there with the attitude of “I can meet some great people” would be the best way to go.

Jessica: Avoid the Australians. Seriously. I’ve never been asked to go on a pub crawl so many times (Plus the Italians think the Australians are obnoxious). My main advice applies to visiting any foreign country: broaden your thinking. Other people do not abide by the same social laws or cultural expectations. You might find it rude when Italians stare at you, but they might find it rude if you put your hands on your lap while at the dinner table. Not everyone will expect you to speak Italian, so don’t expect everyone to know English.

Q 8: Where else do you hope to travel beyond Italy?

Mayes: Most recently, Poland. I had a great time there, and it was just an eye-opener to be in that country. I love all of South America, I want to see a lot more of it. I love to go to France, and Turkey is one of my very favorite places. I want to go to India and Egypt — there are so many places I haven’t been.

Jessica: Everywhere! First, I intend to return to Italy to finish up that half of my major and do some field research in the linguistic structures of Italian dialects. Then I should probably go someplace where they speak French so I can cross off all my other French requirements. After that, I’m not quite sure. Ideally, I will travel across the globe before my days are up. I’m more interested in living in different parts of the world rather than merely traveling. Ask me again in 10 years and we’ll see where I am!

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