The train winds its way slowly through the Tuscan countryside, stopping at every small station between Siena and Florence.  I don’t mind, because Tuscany in mid-March is like Rockford in mid-to late-May—an explosion of greenery, a profusion of brilliant yellow forsythia blossoms, a cavalcade of white and pink cherries in full bloom.  We pass small vineyards and larger orchards, the awakening vines and trees planted along rustic supports on both steep and gently sloping hillsides.  As we pass through each little town, I can’t help but notice the robust kitchen gardens, where chickens often wander among the mustard greens, some of which have already flowered.  In our week in Tuscany, temperatures have ranged from the low 40’s at night to the low 70’s during the day—perfect weather for spring greens and for planting.

The dulcet tones of Alice Drennan’s voice draw me out of my reverie: “What do you think will be growing in Rockford when we get back?”  “Nothing,” I reply, and I immediately regret the sharpness and shortness of my response.  Mrs. Drennan, a delightful 70-something widow from the south side of Chicago who is on her first Rockford Institute convivium, protests.  “When we left, my bulbs were just starting to come up.”  Mine, too, though only on the south side of the house, where the soil is warmed by the sun and the reflection off of the pale-yellow stucco.  What I had simply meant was that the first day of spring, when we will return, is usually too early for any real growth.  But my tone had betrayed a certain envy, motivated, at best, by my wish that I could be out in my own garden by mid-March, and, more likely, by a touch of the disloyalty that Tom Fleming has been railing against as we have moved from Pisa, to Siena, and now to Florence—measuring all other places through the rose-colored glasses of our latest infatuation.

For me, however, the high point of this convivium has been Siena, with its hills and late-medieval charm, but it was the first day in Pisa that moved me to these thoughts, as Tom, his wife, Gail, and I walked through an open-air market in a series of alleys off of the Borgo Stredo.  Here, where trash cans and wastrels would be tucked away in an American city, a dozen vendors peddle fruits and vegetables, each stall displaying a range of produce that entire American farmers’ markets couldn’t reproduce.  The overpowering scent of basil and perfectly ripened tomatoes—Romas and medium-sized variegated varieties similar to Brandywines, more green and pink than red, but no Beefsteaks—fills the air.  Behind the stalls, shops no larger than my office are tucked into the walls of the alley, with glass-front cases displaying massive cuts of marbled beef, pork loins, lamb, whole rabbits, and golden chickens.  Other shops offer aged parmagiano reggiano, pecorino, and other hard and soft cheeses by the etto (100 grams).  Wine shops offer an astounding selection by keeping their display of each variety to two or three bottles.  The walls of virtually every store are lined with cured hams the size of an Italian subcompact, bags of pasta in every imaginable shape, and baskets of dried porcini.

While we do not buy anything, it still takes us close to half an hour to walk through the market.  Stopping in front of a pasticceria to admire the fresh-baked bread and the panforte, a 13th-century Sienese confection filled with almonds, dried fruit, and spices, I say, to no one in particular, “It must be wonderful to be able to shop in a market like this.”  An American tourist, passing by, stops me cold when she replies: “I haven’t seen anything I couldn’t get in my hometown.”  She must be very lucky, I tell her, because I couldn’t find this variety of goods, and certainly not this quality, in all of Rockford, a city of 150,000 (half again the size of Pisa) that sits square in the middle of some of the best farmland in America.  She has heard of Rockford, and she laughs scornfully: “That’s why I would never live there.”

The scene comes back to me as I ponder my reply to Mrs. Drennan, and I realize that the edge in my voice was not there because I despise Rockford (as the American tourist does) nor because I wish that Rockford were more like Pisa.  Instead, I wish that Rockford were more like Rockford—like the Rockford that used to exist before Rockford College and “business leaders” and politicians abandoned downtown, and Wal-Mart and every other chain under the sun gobbled up the farmland on the outskirts of the city.  I wish that Rockford were more like the Rockford that used to exist back when America was still America—more rural than urban, more regional than centralized, more free than not.

I don’t regret not being able to buy a vine-ripened tomato in Rockford in mid-March; the climate of Tuscany (and points farther south in Italy) makes for a longer growing season than in the American Midwest.  What I do regret, however, is not being able to buy a vine-ripened tomato during August.  Because Americans refuse to content themselves during the off-season with home-canned tomatoes or dried Romas packed in olive oil or thin slices preserved in salt in crocks (or, even, doing without) and, instead, demand “fresh” tomatoes year-round, we are offered, year-round, tomatoes picked green off of Mexican vines and chemically “ripened” on semis on their way to the Rural Street Kroger and the Charles Street Schnucks.  As historian John Lukacs often points out, inflation is a phenomenon that affects more than money, and the ever-present tomato is virtually worthless (though not, of course, free).

Today, if Americans want to eat as well as Italians, they must grow their own vegetables, raise their own meat (or find someone to raise it for them), and bake their own bread.  Those are all worthwhile endeavors, but when you can no longer purchase a salt-encrusted ham from a grocer who is also your neighbor and fellow citizen (if not necessarily a friend), something has been lost.  The way to a man’s heart, the saw goes, is through his stomach; what if the saying applies to cities as well as women?