Bronze Award in Culture and Ideas: Pricier than Prada

By Peggy Jaffe

At first I ignore the mail piled in the foyer, take my shoes off, and absorb the warmth of the terra cotta floor. Outside the living room window, a carpet of dandelions welcomes me like a light parade. How I love being in Tuscany in May—the lavender-laced air, hills stretching skyward, birds serenading amidst the hum of tractors.

While straining to keep my eyes open after yesterday’s overnight flight from L.A to Rome, I thumb through the mail. On top of the stack, thick with outdated TV guides and newsletters from the village church, is a bill from Siena Ambiente, the garbage company. I rip open the envelope, read the statement twice. What? 581 euros, just for bags? With my head throbbing, I phone Marco, my accountant, for an appointment.

That afternoon, at Marco’s office, we exchange the customary, “Come` va?’’ and “Bene, bene.” Our heels click on the granite as he leads me from the waiting area into his spacious, cantaloupe-colored office.

Once we’re seated, Marco says, “The post office was supposed to forward your bill for rifuiti here.”

“Exactly—this payment was due five months ago.” I hand him the statement. “How can a few dozen sacchetti cost over 500 euros? That’s equivalent to $800.”

He idly taps his pen against a marble paperweight. His eyes, a shade darker than his blue shirt, soften, but his words sound like a recording. “The fee is according to the square meters of the house.”

“Even for one person?”

“Doesn’t matter—ten people in one house would be charged the same. This is Italia.” He smiles as if this is as reasonable as ladling tomato sauce over pasta. In a deeper tone, he adds, “Remember, unpaid garbage bills are like tax evasion here.”

The thought of being on the Finanza Guardia’s “Wanted” list sends prickles down my spine.

“Siena Ambiente is only open from 3:00 to 6:00 Mondays and Wednesdays. I suggest you go there now.”

During the five-minute drive from Marco’s office in Montepulciano’s Piazza Grande, down a steep, one-lane road, my foot hovers on the brake pedal. Perspiration drips from my hands as I inch the car around one corkscrew turn after another high above the valley floor.

Once parked and feet on level ground, I square my shoulders and march through an arched stone entrance into Siena Ambiente’s modern headquarters. While waiting in line, a white-haired man rants to the clerk about charges on his statement. How reassuring to hear someone else with “garbage” issues.

After he storms away, shaking his head, I approach the clerk. She peers at my bill and then at me through her Gucci frames. “You must pay in your Municipio, Pienza.”

“On the statement, this is the address.”

“No matter, you cannot pay here.”

The next morning, I forsake my usual puttering amongst the roses, now brimming with white and pink buds, and leave for Pienza by nine. My car knows the way by heart. I whip around the first of six hairpin turns, vaguely aware of the cypresses marking the bends in the road. I hope I can explain the late payment without subjunctive verbs.

While walking along Pienza’s cobblestone thoroughfare, Corso Rosselini, past balconies of flowers and laundry lines flapping from second story windows, a store display catches my eye. I pause. There, among designer purses and scarves, is a pair of open-toe red leather Prada pumps. The price tag is two hundred euros less than my garbage bill. They are stunning. If only…I sigh and push on.

I huff up four stories of the town hall, my sandals thumping against the uneven stone stairs. Upon reaching the bookkeeper’s office, the door is locked. In the dimly lit hallway, the hours of operation are posted: Wednesday and Friday, 9:30 to 13:00. I should have known—Italia-today is Tuesday-chiuso-closed.

On Wednesday morning, I retrace my route. This time the bookkeeper’s door is ajar. A young woman, wedged behind a huge desk in a closet-sized office with a small window overlooking terra cotta rooftops, greets me with a cheerful, “Buongiorno.” She scans my bill, checks her computer, and then concludes, “This is not where you pay.”

“What do you mean?” I shrug in disbelief. “Why did that clerk send me here?”

“Possibly, she is incompetente.” A grin brightens her pale complexion. “The correct office is near the Church of Saint Agnese in Montepulciano.” Perhaps sensing my frustration, she adds, “You can pay at the ufficio postale in town, but you need cash.”

I yank the statement off her desk and leave with a curt, “Grazie.” From the town hall, I head to Monte dei Paschi Bank’s local branch. Along Corso Rosselini, I wade through throngs of German and American tourists. Any other time, I’d linger and be as charmed as they are by structures still vibrant after 500 years.

At the one open bank window, I place the slightly crumpled garbage bill on the counter for the teller to read. “I’d like to transfer funds from my checking account to pay this.”

“Please, your ID.” I pull my checkbook and passport from my purse. While the teller searches his computer for my account, I glance upward at the bronze crucifix on the wall behind him. If this is a sign assuring comfort or salvation, I’m ready. But once the teller lifts his head and speaks, I realize it’s not to be. “That transaction can only be done in Montepulciano, at your home branch.”

“Aren’t the branches linked by computers?”

“Yes, but I cannot help you.” He brushes me aside and motions for the next customer.

What a jerk. I shove the bill, checkbook, and passport into my purse and walk out on the verge of a meltdown.

Dashing back to the car, I’m barraged by scents of baking bread and simmering sauces drifting from windows above the shops along Corso Rosselini. My stomach is growling. As I pass Latte di Luna, a trattoria known for its succulent grilled duck, I almost cave in. But overriding my mounting hunger is reaching Montepulciano before 1:00, when commerce comes to a halt.

At three different points along the winding road from Pienza, men wave red flags for me to stop. I slow. There’s no construction. After proceeding a few hundred feet, I’m stopped again. What’s going on? The men are wearing chartreuse vests. On the back of their vests, c-r-e-w is emblazoned in bold black letters. That’s not Italian. Who are these guys? Why am I the only car out here? In the distance, I spot a man toting a video camera. With my foot glued to the brake, I yell out to the wind. “Come on, for godsake, let’s get moving. How can you close the whole road to photograph some poppies?” My hilltop village, a frazione or “suburb” of Pienza, provides the backdrop. UNESCO designated this valley a world cultural heritage site. “O.K., it’s beautiful, but come on already.”

Outside Montepulciano’s city walls, a sign reads: production of the Twilight Saga, New Moon, until May 30. That explains the guys in chartreuse along the road and the lack of parking here. White tents, generator trucks, trailers, fire engines, police vehicles, and more chartreuse vests cram the municipal parking lot.

While trudging up the road to the bank, the scent of roasting pork wafts overhead. Again, I suppress thoughts of food and quicken my step to reach the bank before the lunchtime closure. The New Moon cast and crew have overtaken centro. For the filming, large red banners adorn the town portal. Storefronts are veiled behind urns of blood red geraniums. Up ahead, an actress in a hooded blue cape poses below the clock tower.

The repeated chime proclaims half past the hour when I step inside Monti dei Paschi. What a relief to see the teller who usually handles my banking. He calls me to his window. “Buongiorno, Signora.” With one hand curled beneath his trimmed beard, he listens to my saga and then nods. “It’s true you must pay with cash.”

“Can I pay here?”

He clears his throat. “No. You have to pay at GERIT.”

My mouth drops open. “What?”

“It’s the collection agency for public services.” Pointing toward the street, he continues, “Turn left and go about two hundred meters—next to the Finanza Guardia.” He counts out five one hundred euro bills and four twenties and lays them on the counter. As I clench the cash, those beguiling red pumps in the Pienza shop window flash before me.

I dart through GERIT’s front door at 12:50, ten minutes before closing. There’s no one in sight. “Buongiorno, buongiorno,” I repeat with increasing volume. Finally a tall blond woman appears at the counter, takes my payment, and gives me a receipt two inches square with faint purple type. For 581 euros, I insist upon a legible document to certify that I have reached the finish line.

With a bonafide receipt tucked in my purse, I stroll back to my car. The street is empty now apart from the production company. As I cross in front of the Church of Saint Agnese, a lanky man strides past, presumably an actor. He is robed in black, his face chalk white, his lids ghoulishly dark, and his lips engorged and red. I find his appearance no more surreal than my eight hundred-dollar garbage bags or this three-day ordeal. It strikes me that the extraordinary is in fact ordinary in Tuscany. That is the reason I stay.


After 25 years as a clinical psychologist in southern California, the author moved to the Tuscan countryside, where she organized art workshops. She now divides her time between California and Tuscany.

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