Someone was telling me recently about what he called an “out of body experience” that occurred while he was in Fiesole, the village that dates to Etruscan times and sits high on the Tuscan hills overlooking Florence. He was staying at Villa San Michele, one of the top hotels in the area, and was drawn to music coming from a large ballroom. Inside the room was a blonde opera singer, standing beside a pianist, rehearsing a performance.
My friend sat in a corner, the only other person present, smoking his cigar for twenty-five minutes while she sang popular arias from such works as Carmen and Madama Butterfly. Her voice was so lustrous, the occasion so special, it has become one of the most treasured moments of his life.
Tuscany is known for its beauty, art, and food, but for me it is just such serendipitous encounters that sets it apart from other travel destinations. My all-time favorite occasion came about when I happened to meet a Benedictine monk at San Miniato al Monte, a church on a hill on the other side of Florence from Fiesole. Nicholas was slight of build and must have been eighty, but his face was unlined. The small room in which we stood together was not just quiet, it was as if time had slowed down to match his measured pace. He was beyond serene; there was a stillness about him that was palpable. His shaved head gave added prominence to piercing eyes that seemed to say, “Look within me and see what I have.”
There was time for only one question. “What is it,” I asked, “that you enjoy about your life?”
There was no hesitation; his response was as rhythmic as the Gregorian chants performed there daily: “I am happy. I have my vocation. We live together and help each other. I live in peace and joy.”
Neither better poetry nor finer philosophy have I ever heard.