A few years ago my husband and I went to see a traditional Japanese Noh play at Carnegie Hall. To say we were completely mesmerized would be an understatement. Besides the main character’s elaborate makeup and gorgeous costumes, the incredibly slow motion of the play struck a chord with both of us. The stage was plain, and there were no large, overt movements, nor great dramatic climaxes throughout. Every movement from the actor was quiet, deliberate, refined and subtle.
We were told that well-trained eyes could tell a lot about the masked actor’s character while watching him walk across the empty stage. But we were not such skilled connoisseurs by any stretch. At best we could probably understand only a small portion of the play’s storyline, and yet, we came out feeling incredibly refreshed and spiritually energized.
For quite some time after that I kept wondering why I could be so enamored of a play of which I had so little understanding. I realized that it was not so much of the play’s storyline that had captured my imagination, but rather the setting. The stripped down stage, in my opinion, symbolized one of our greatest luxuries–empty space. It helped amplify the silence and stillness the Noh actor brought into his deliberate and refined movements. Later I learned that in Noh, dance flows organically from an inner spirit; it is as much about stillness as it is about movement.
What a remarkable concept, I thought. In today’s world of hustle and bustle, we all unwittingly fall victim to our beeping phones and blinking machines, which fill every moment with noises. If we can take conscious measures to try to open up a space inside our lives, we may bring a sense of tranquility and gain clarity and calm in an otherwise accelerated and rowdy world.
Perhaps with a strong desire to cultivate a sense of slowness and even stillness in our daily lives, my husband and I decided to apply this Noh ethos to our family trips. While we would continue to broaden our travel horizons by visiting more new countries with action-packed itineraries, we also wanted to root ourselves in a place that we could all enjoy going back to every couple of years, creating a home away from home. This would allow us to omit the need to run around and see new things, but focus on the familiar territory and dive deeper into our surroundings, so that we could unwind and recharge, and perhaps live like the locals for a few days. Italy, a place that we have been to many times, came to the top of our list that we thought we might be able to try out our goal to find stillness in travel.
One day I came across an ad in my school’s alumni magazine for a private villa rental in Tuscany. By its short description, the place seemed to be a perfect spot for us. It was situated in Rufina, a small town nestled in the outskirts of Florence. I fell in love with Florence during our first family trip in 2005. My husband on the other hand, has an even deeper emotional connection to Florence; he spent his senior year in architecture school in Florence, living with an Italian family and learning how to speak Italian fluently.
So I called the owner, a 70+-year-old American whose wife is a native Florentine. He explained that they spent most wintertime in their Tuscany villa and summertime back in the US, so the villa would be available for us to rent when we wanted it in early June. He sent me some material to read about the local towns of Rufina and Castiglioni, a hilltop hamlet in which his villa was physically located. Along with his material was a clip of a New York Time article written by one of its editors a few years back about her joyful stay in the villa while touring around Florence with her family. A photo of her young daughter having breakfast in a large rustic sun-lit country-style kitchen sold on me almost instantaneously.
That summer, we flew to Florence, hopped onto a rental car, and drove about an hour to our destination—Villa Castiglioni. We fell in love with it right away.
Perched in the natural landscape and with a sweeping view of the Tuscan mountains, Villa Castiglioni stands on fifty-six sprawling acres, and fifteen hundred feet above the sea level. It is surrounded by flower-covered meadows, fruit orchards, olive groves and a large vineyard. A stone driveway leads up to a two-story ocher colored square stone house. It has four double bedrooms and a large country-style kitchen. French doors lead to the garden under the shade of mature cherry trees. A beautiful outdoor terrace has a brick pizza oven and a cast iron grill for cooking and entertaining; it is the perfect spot to watch sunrises and sunsets or enjoy a glass of Chianti in the stillness of the gorgeous Tuscan landscape. The villa has two large wells on its property to allow it to be situated far away from the city services. A long, narrow and winding country road is the villa’s only connection to the town at the foot of the mountain.
Contemporary living is not quite up-to-date in the villa, as it has no Wi-Fi or cable TV. Instead it has an abundance of fresh air, blue skies, red twilights, starry nights, and stunningly beautiful views. With layers of pastel colors on the surrounding Tuscan mountains, all one can hear are birds chirping, roosters crowing, dogs barking and the wind whistling through the Cyprus trees. At night when lights are turned off, the bedrooms become pitch dark and completely silent. I remember the first night in the villa, my son, seven at the time, who had never encountered nighttime without streetlights in his life, was literally terrified, even if my husband and I were both by his side. Fortunately, he quickly adapted to his new surroundings.
The interior of the villa is nothing fancy, but rather more like a farmhouse. A large country-style kitchen takes center space of the villa. Copper pots and pans and ceramic platters adorn the walls, filling the house with a touch of rustic vitality. In the morning the kitchen became filled with the tantalizing aroma of freshly made Italian espresso that my husband loved to brew every day. In the evening the wonderful aroma of fresh tomato sauce, warm bread and olive oil permeated the air. To three urban New Yorkers, this kitchen became a happy reminder for what authentic homemade meals could be like—simple and intimate where the quality of the freshly grown local produce became a sumptuous treat for both the eyes and the taste buds.
Our connection to life at the villa extended beyond its ocher colored walls and stone terraces. Down the hill from our villa was a small farm where a friendly donkey lived in a shed. Every morning on our way down the mountain to the town, we would make a point to stop to greet him. As if anticipating our arrival, the friendly creature would walk up slowly to the gate upon seeing our car. My son would feed him with apples or hay every time we stopped by, much to the delight of both of them. These special moments of the sweet interactions between an urban boy and a farm animal linger in our memories till this day. They were wonderful celebrations of an otherwise rapidly disappearing rural world. I often marvel at how profoundly that lovely gentle donkey and our simple interactions with him have touched our lives.
At Villa Castiglioni, there was no sense of hustle-bustle, and our world of day-to-day tasks and chores felt like a universe away. In New York, I am always rushing–to catch a train, to go to a meeting, or to pick up my son from school. A part of me is always somewhere else, thinking about what the next task I need to take on. At Villa Castiglioni, I found that I almost never thought of Grand Central Station or Whole Foods Market. Instead, my whole existence focused on being in the presence. It was liberating.
Every morning we got up in a civilized hour. While my husband was brewing his beloved Italian espresso, I would warm up my body and soul with a few simple Yoga poses, jog or run a few miles up and down the narrow winding country road. Through forests, past olive groves and alongside grassy hills dotted with grazing sheep, I was always in the intimate company of the brilliant Tuscan sun. In the evening, I often carved out some time to put on my writer’s hat, dropping down a few lines of my random thoughts. With the gorgeous Tuscan mountains unfolding before my eyes, I was creating my own moments of “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
Interestingly a simple and un-hurried life did not bring boredom to us; rather, we became more engaged and creative. We did not crave our electronic devices, not even for a single moment. We read books, played card games, engaged in sprinkler water fights, strolled along the olive groves, and watched sunsets and sunrises from our bedroom. My son often sifted through the small treasures he collected during our daily exploration: olive tree branches, used train tickets, museum brochures, or unusually shaped rocks. In the evening we often finished our meals by eating fresh watermelons and having seed spitting contests on the terrace. Our giggles and laughers echoed along the layers of Tuscan mountains.
This is the story of our life at Villa Castiglioni, our home away from home, and our humble attempt to lead a simple and quiet life—a slower life.
As I write this blog about our travels to Villa Castiglioni, I have to admit, I sometimes feel like an idealistic fool. After all, we have chosen to live in a world where our days are structured towards racing and speeding from one thing to the next in order to achieve more and have more. One of the beauties of getting away and traveling is that it allows us to escape the motion and commotion of the world. It is much harder to achieve such tranquility in our daily lives. But if we can turn off our TVs and computers, put down our phones, take pleasure in simple family meals around the table, look up at the night sky to see the moon, listen to the birds chirping at sunrise, and walk through the soft grass of the park instead of the unresponsive concrete of the sidewalk, then we can wake up much refreshed.
Going back to the Japanese Noh play. Though the actor did not utter a word, and for the most part, just sat still or moved slowly across the empty stage, something in that stillness imparted a sense of his clarity and calm to me, and I found a sense of intimacy and depth that I would not have gotten from any other form of theater.
If we listen to music carefully, we may also notice that in many pieces of music, it is the pause and rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. So is in life.
While a world of silence and stillness may have become something of the past, or at best, is rapidly disappearing in the onslaught of electronic devices, finding ways to cultivate the sense of slowness has become vital. As George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher, once wrote: We “need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”
Perhaps we can all take conscious measures to try to open up a space inside our lives—to slow down and embrace the emptiness. The world could be much better and our lives could be much happier.