Life in the hills of Italy seems so fulfilling for Frances Mayes, one might wonder why she would ever leave, even if, as she says, she can no longer sit quietly reading at the local trattorias and cafes. It was an ongoing search for places that feel as comfortable as her adopted Tuscan hometown of Cortona that inspired the grand tour at the heart of her latest book, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller. Fans of Under The Tuscan Sun and its sequel Bella Tuscany shouldn't despair, however, because Mayes also spends time in her beloved Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole—which is, as always, endearingly in need of attention (a falling wall here, a nest of mice there, water issues).
Mayes and her husband, fellow poet Ed Mayes, divide their time between Italy and America, where they recently relocated from the Bay Area to North Carolina. Though she has written a guide to infusing life with the style and spirit of Tuscany and developed a line of Tuscan-inspired furniture with Drexel Heritage, Mayes laughingly tells BookPage during a break from unpacking that her new house is merely "taking on the air of less chaos," rather than that of Tuscany.
Mayes and her husband made the move to North Carolina to be near her daughter and three-year-old grandson, Willie. "He's been to Italy five times already," she says. Last summer, the couple enrolled the youngster in a nursery school near Bramasole. "Of course he started picking up Italian," she says with obvious pride, adding that she would love for him to achieve fluency in the language, something to which she and Ed still aspire. Mayes says she wants to impart to her grandson a sense of being a world citizen.
This idea of belonging to the world is the central theme of A Year in the World. In fact, Mayes had originally planned to call the book "At Home in the World," but changed the title when another book came out with that name. Her finished book condenses five years of travel into one, arranged by month. In January, for example, Mayes and Ed are in Spain, where she is delighted by Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. In August, the couple joins friends in Turkey for an experience straight out of Agatha Christie—day tours of archeological sites, night swims in the Mediterranean and accommodations onboard a yacht. "Fortunately no one got pushed over," Mayes says with a laugh.
Mayes displays her deep talent for description throughout the book, whether in discussing scenery, shopping for tiles or simply retreating to her hotel for a candle-lit bath or curling up with a stack of books. She is in her element, as ever, recounting meals—even those she hasn't eaten. A visit to the Alhambra in Granada, for example, inspires the following reverie: "A few rugs, a pile of cushions, a brazier, and we'd be ready to rinse our hands in orange flower water, relax, and settle down for a feast of lamb tagine, stuffed eggplants and cabbages flavored with coriander and cinnamon, preserved lemons, chickpeas with saffron, and a pastry pie of pigeons."
Sure, most of us could do without the pigeons, but Mayes is an intrepid gastronomic explorer. "I feel like my whole appreciation of food has just expanded enormously because of these travels," she says. "To me, that is the quickest way into a culture: what they eat and how they celebrate and how they gather around the table and who's at the table. Those things reveal so much about values and family and friendship and just the everyday life in a place." In A Year in the World, Mayes' search for a regional cookbook in Lisbon leads her to a chef who gives her an impromptu cooking class, a slice of perhaps the best chocolate cake on the planet and a list of restaurants for sampling both authentic and extrapolated Portuguese cuisine.
These chance encounters and other little accidents of travel are another theme of the book. Whether it's a passport left behind, a hotel power outage, transporting goatskin rugs or a fortuitous Internet search for accommodations in Fez, Mayes and Ed carry on with a spirit that should inspire any traveler—actual or armchair. But for all of that, travel doesn't necessarily come easy for Mayes and she longs for a perfect pre-departure evening, right down to a skillfully packed suitcase, a good night's sleep and no mishaps.
Mayes faces a perennial tug-of-war between setting off or staying at home. Even when striking out on the ambitious itinerary of A Year in the World she had one thing in mind: home. "I went to places that I had always dreamed of as places to live," she says. "For me, it was an exploration of the idea of home. I decided to go to these places and see what it would take to be at home there." So she threw herself into her research, consulting both literary and nuts-and-bolts travel guides. "I love to read the poetry and the history, hear the music, and do all of the things that people who live there actually do," she says. A Year in the World is laced with those references.
This immersion ties into what Mayes refers to as the "arc" of travel, a cycle that begins before the trip and continues when one returns home with a memento or two and perhaps new friends. "People we met on our trip—the rug dealer in Istanbul, the chef in Portugal—they have both been to visit us," she says. "The chef came to Italy with his wife and stayed with us and the rug dealer has been to California two or three times. Lots of little correspondences go on; that's how the trip keeps on going."
Obviously another way the trips continue for Mayes is through her cooking. "The Portuguese soups, particularly, I have just grown to love," she says. "We've made quite a few of them in Italy." She pauses, then adds, "One odd aspect of living in two places is that the book you want is always in the other place, so I don't have the Portuguese cookbooks here." With those treasured cookbooks far from her new home in North Carolina, the American South has influenced Mayes' kitchen instead. "It's surprising how quickly I've started cooking the old recipes again," Mayes, a Georgia native, says. "I'm going to be paying for it now," she laughs.
After five years of travelling, she says returning to the South feels natural and appropriate; she feels right at home. And yet, Mayes is already preparing for more travels—following her book tour she'll be off to India.
Author photo by Edward Mayes.