In the Summer of 2006, the day before I returned to New York after using my entire year’s vacation to study Italian at the Università per Stranieri in Siena, Italy, I took an early bus to Arezzo and spent the morning roaming the city taking pictures. After the cool early hours had morphed into lunchtime, I found a little trattoria on a small piazza where I could have a salad and a cold glass of Prosecco to ward off the heat that had begun to rise from the cobbled vicolos.
As the daily “riposo’ approached – between 1:00 and 4:00pm when Italians traditionally go home to prepare lunch before returning to work well into the evening hours – the only sounds to be heard came from a church where a funeral was about to be held. The grievers, mostly clad in black, filed past a hearse parked by the front steps, out of which was being lifted a coffin, its glossy ebony surface draped with a bounty of intensely colored summer flowers, their bright beauty a betrayal of the gray solemnity of the moment.
It was late August, and it was hot. Tired from walking, I wanted nothing more than to sit and pass the time watching the Italians be Italian, but I knew there would only be one bus back to Siena after riposo, and if I had any more wine there was a chance I would not be on it. So I pushed myself back up onto my blistered feet, downed the last sip of no longer cold Prosecco, and walked toward the church, its massive wooden and bronze doors shut tight against the blazing sun.
As the church bells rang, the driver of the hearse paced back and forth beside his funeral chariot mopping the sweat oozing from beneath his beret, and the old ones mingled with their ever present pigeon friends, some of them limping, some with damaged wings, all of them fighting over bits of pane tossed from little brown paper bags.
I walked up a vicolo that wound its way to the top of a hill, hoping for a higher view of the city, and turned into a small park filled with tall graceful fir trees enclosed by gorgeous old stone walls. A few tables were tucked here and there under the trees, at one of which sat a man staring off into the distance. I looked in the direction he was looking and saw nothing of particular interest.
Lost in thought and obviously peaceful and content, he made no move other than to occasionally raise his left hand to his mouth to take a drag off his cigarette. I watched him for a while, until I could no longer resist taking his picture. I sensed he was aware of my presence – he seemed to be aware of everything, in spite of his self-contained manner – and I wanted to take his portrait up close, but I felt given his quiet demeanor that it would have been an intimate breach.
I did not want to intrude without asking his permission, and I began to walk toward him. He turned and smiled, and I asked in Italian if I could take his picture. He nodded “Si,” uncrossed his legs, turned ever so slightly to his right and granted me the faintest of smiles. I said, “Grazie,” and worked quickly to capture his mood before it turned into something else, something less personal, something perhaps more designed to please a foreign woman with a camera.
I asked him if he would like to see the photo, and with another “Si” I sat down next to him and showed him the picture viewer. He studied it a moment, then turned toward me, smiled again, and nodded his head in approval before turning his gaze back where it had been before I interrupted his reverie.
He lifted his cigarette for another drag, inhaled, exhaled, and pointed to an old crumbling structure at the far edge of park. He said it was his home, that he had been born there some 75 years before. Then he turned and asked if I would like to see it. Surprised by his unexpected invitation, I said “Si, Si!”
He leaned onto his left hand and struggled slightly to get to his feet, and I realized that his entire right side was palsied. Yet he began to walk gingerly ahead of me with the confident stride of a proud man who knew no physical limitations. He had a decidedly mischievous air about him, a youthfulness that reminded me of a man on a date, and I walked by his side careful not to outpace him.
We went into an alleyway behind the house, which was faced with the same carved stone that surrounded the park, and through a gate from which he removed a locked chain. The entrance to the structure, raised up off the ground about a foot, was between two heavy barn-like doors, which he pulled opened and climbed through, gesturing for me to follow.
When I stepped over the threshold I was standing on expertly laid terracotta tiles in an interior perfectly renovated with the simplest of woods and stones. The outside of the house belied the roominess within, and the floor was so clean I wanted to take my shoes off to feel its coolness. But my host swiftly beckoned me through the rooms, his smile widening into a restrained grin as he pointed out the one in which he had been born, the tiny kitchen where his family ate every night, the old stove at which his mother had cooked.
Finally I asked his name and he said, “Maurizio. Sono Maurizio.” I wondered how many strangers had been invited inside, and for some reason wanted to believe that I was the only one. He described with great pleasure slowly restoring the interior over the course of many years all by himself, adding, emphatically, to make sure I understood, that he had had to choose between spending his money to fix the exterior or make the interior more livable.
He laughed when he said that buildings in Italy seem to last forever anyway, as though they have a kind of eternal life, and that therefore he had chosen to make the interior more comfortable for his old age. He added that he had wanted to preserve something that was left of his parents’ humble life, and that since he was alone in the world working with his hands was a happy way for him to spend his time and to exercise his weakened body.
I wanted to take more photographs but couldn’t bring myself to further invade his privacy in that way. And I was afraid that he would stop volunteering bits of information about his life if I were to replace the energy between us by what seemed to be the selfish act of picture taking so that I could record my last day in Italy. The house was cool, one of the benefits provided by thick old stone walls, but Maurizio offered me a glass of water anyway, and I stood in his kitchen, chatting amiably with him in Italian, not knowing whether it would be appropriate for me to stay or if perhaps I should thank him and bid him a grateful ‘Arrivederci!’
Recording the memory of his home with my mind’s camera, I looked up at the ceiling and goosebumps rose on my arms when I realized that it was made of pressed straw, which I had seen used only once before in the home my father, an architect, had built for my mother in New Mexico. My father’s Italian family had roots in Emilia-Romagna, and I knew he had spent quite a bit of time in that province in the late 30s before Mussolini came to power. I realized at that moment that the pressed straw ceiling he had incorporated into the kitchen he built for my mother was something he had discovered on that trip and brought back to the States with him.
Suddenly I felt like a fool, for as a young girl, whose childhood home was architecturally so very different from that of my more well-to-do friends, I could not understand why our kitchen ceiling was the only one with a pressed straw ceiling, something that seemed to have been brought inside by my father from our barn, which housed my parents menagerie of milk goats, guinea hens, chickens and naughty horses, and the floor of which was continually strewn with fresh straw. Straw, I thought, was for barn floors, not for kitchen ceilings.
I explained my discovery to Maurizio, who offered that a humble thing, when treated with respect, can be turned into something sophisticated. I conjured up the kitchen in the house I grew up in, describing it as having been stained a faintly rose-hued purple, perhaps my father’s personal artistic treatment of the humble straw, for the ceiling in Maurizio’s home was, well, the color of straw.
Money can buy expensive materials and beauty, but Maurizio, like my father after the War, when funds were not free flowing, had had to be resourceful and, like an alchemist, turn that which was base into that which would remain precious for a long time to come. I imagined that my father and Maurizio would have an animated conversation about many things, only one of which would be the many uses of straw. And I imagined that my mother, who had died two years before this particular trip to Italy, would have understood Maurizio wanting to preserve his parents’ home, for the barn that my father built behind our house, with stuccoed walls similar to those of Maurizio’s home, still stood behind my childhood home, inhabited only by the ghosts of the life my parents had built and shared.
The next day I would be flying back to the States, a country without the history of Italy and Europe, where the preservation and conservation of ancient edifices is the norm.
The next day I would be flying back to the States, where a house such as Maurizio’s would surely be neglected, dismissed, left to nature to colonize and do with as it pleased, or torn down altogether and replaced with a newer and better version.
The next day I would be returning to America, a young country, where there is little respect or interest in preserving buildings and architecture…or in nurturing the elderly.
I was sad to be leaving Siena, Arezzo and Italy. I wanted to remain there for months after my Italian course ended, roaming its vicolos and piazzas, opening myself up to more chance encounters like that with Maurizio. I had learned much about myself during the Summer, and that particular day I had learned something quite unexpected about my father, all because of an invitation from a man sitting in a park in Arezzo.
I told Maurizio I had to leave, that I had a bus to catch. I thanked him for letting me take his picture and for the great honor of letting me see his home, and I bid him farewell. He hugged me and made me promise that I would visit again should I ever return to Arezzo. I climbed over the threshold and back into the alleyway, walked back through the park and headed down the vicolo toward the bus station.
On the way my eye caught the poster for a film showing at Il Grande Cinema Ad Arezzo, Roberto Benigni’s 1997 tragicomedy, La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful), about a Jewish bookshop owner, played by Begnini, who used his imagination to protect his son from the nightmare of living in a Nazi concentration camp. The film was inspired by Benigni’s father, who had survived three years in Bergen-Belsen.
Making life as beautiful as possible no matter the circumstances, no matter how poor, no matter how old.
La vita è bella.
And it certainly was the afternoon I spent with Maurizio from Arezzo in the Summer of 2006.