The Italian Lesson
By Mary L. Trump, with E. Jean Carroll and Jennifer Taub
PART I: CALABRESI
The last time I saw him, I wanted him dead.
Now here he was. Standing by the door, very much alive. When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see him clearly –– the muffled sounds of the EKG and the low thrum of the fluorescent lights made my head hurt and he hung back in the shadows.
Still, I thought I saw the corner of his mouth curved upward in the beginning of a smile, the kind of smile he flashed at me when he knew he’d won.
He moved toward the bed. I pretended not to notice and turned away as best I could, feigning disorientation. The closer he got the further away my life seemed. My life, the idyllic life I had built away from him, was slipping away. Then I remembered once wanting him dead—I had felt such horrible guilt afterward. It just wasn’t like me. But I was a different person now, to the extent that that’s possible. He reached for my hand and, before I lost consciousness again, I thought, “Instead of wanting him dead, I should have been more proactive.” And I felt no guilt at all.
“Ci vediamo, amici!”
“Close enough! A domani, ragazze,” Beatrice laughed over her shoulder as she and Isabella slipped out of the café together.
I turned back to Francesca. “What did I get wrong?”
“It’s nothing, Anastasia. Don’t worry,” she said, placing her hand on my arm. “It will come. Don’t think about it too much. You’ll just make it harder.”
I had been in Italy for two years, the last of them in Calabresi, a small hill town a few kilometers east of Florence. Even so, my Italian was a work in progress and I still mixed up words and mangled sentences. I’d spent the first year in lockdown in a country I was visiting for the first time; so that year doesn’t count—at least I didn’t think it did. But getting it right mattered to me. A person can get by in Italy speaking only English, but I wanted to do more than get by.
Francesca turned away to look out at the falling snow, her straight brow, aquiline nose, and strong jaw silhouetted against the amber glow of the gas street lamps outside. She turned to me, leaned forward, and whispered, “Did you see him today?”
“Can we get back to the lesson, please?”
I’d been reading aloud from an Italian young adult novel Francesca had brought from the bookstore she owned. “No! Abbiamo finito! We’re done” she said, reaching over and slamming it shut. “Tell me.”
She laughed, amused by the ridiculous American nickname I used whenever I felt flustered or annoyed. There was another hour to go before closing, but the snow, only a light dusting, had sent people home earlier than usual, and the café was almost empty. Still, Francesca looked around to make sure nobody was near enough to overhear us. She nudged my chair with the toe of her sleek black patent leather slingback and said, “Seriously. Dimmi. Tell me.”
“If you’re talking about Danilo, no, I did not see him today. Much more importantly, how can you possibly wear those things around here?” I pointed to her shoes. Calabresi, a town of steep stairways, narrow roads, and the aforementioned cobblestones, was not conducive to high heels, but Francesca managed somehow.
“Oh, cara, I’ve been practicing my whole life. But stop changing the subject! I know there are some things you don’t want to talk about, but you should know by now that you can trust me. . .”
I cut her off with a warning glance. The first time Francesca questioned my trust in her I felt guilty because there were certain details of my past that I needed to keep to myself. This time felt like a provocation.
Realizing she’d crossed a line, Francesca raised both hands. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That wasn’t fair. But unfortunately, I’ve known Danilo Scarpia my whole life and I cannot understand why he’s so interested in you.”
I looked back at her again, this time with a wry smile. She blushed and stammered, “I didn’t mean it that way. Any man would be interested in you. I mean, almost but, well, Danilo—"
“Scellarato!” What a scoundrel, I said in response, realizing immediately that I’d handed Francesca a reason to keep prying.
Instead, she paused, arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow, and pulled the book towards her. “Maybe we should get back to your lesson,” she said. “You curse like you’re a character in a Mozart opera.”
By the time the café closed and Francesca had gone home, I was much more proficient at swearing in Italian. Carmella, my manager, had finished up in the kitchen. There was nothing left to do but lock the register and turn off the lights. I stood behind the counter and marveled at the coziness of the coffee shop in the winter twilight, with its exposed brick walls, brass and copper fixtures, and well-worn couches and armchairs scattered among the tables.
A small apartment one flight above the café had been included in the price of the building I’d purchased a little over a year ago, which made my commute as simple as climbing the back stairs.
Although darkness had settled and the town was hushed by the snow, it was still early. But I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry enough to bother with dinner, so I made a small fire and poured myself a glass of a local Montepulciano. My tabby cat, Principessa, a gift from Francesca, made room for me on the armchair next to the window and fell asleep almost as soon as I sat down next to her.
This was my favorite time of day. I loved my employees, my customers, and especially my new friends, but I was still not entirely comfortable around people, partly because I could never be myself, not really. So much of what they thought they knew about me was a lie or, at least, not the whole truth.
I sipped my wine as the snow slowly covered the cobblestones and watched as passers-by struggled up the hill trying not to slip. This part of Tuscany didn’t get much snow and, having spent most of my life in New York, Boston, and the Midwest, I realized I missed it. I missed very little else. I had never felt as at peace anywhere as I did in Calabresi, even though I could never completely let my guard down.
The idea that Francesca still thought Danilo was up to something–or that his interest was somehow nefarious– tugged at me. In the twelve months since he first showed me the café and apartment—and after an awkward misunderstanding that had left some hard feelings on his part if not on mine—he had steered clear of me. Or so I thought. Still, I wasn’t really worried about him. I thought Danilo was harmless, if odd. But if there was a problem, if he was a problem, I would keep it to myself—and I would take care of it.
Francesca and I first met when I was still traveling to Calabresi from my small flat in Florence, where I’d been since the lockdown began, to oversee the renovations of the café. One afternoon, while the contractors were stripping decades’ worth of distressed beige paint from the original brick walls and I was poring through fabric swatches, she stopped by with her friends, Beatrice and Isabella, who also owned businesses in town.
They were there to encourage me to join the Women’s Business Owners Association. “If nothing else,” Francesca advised, “we can help you with the red tape. The zoning codes here are ridiculous.”
“Byzantine,” Isabella, a baker, added quietly.
Beatrice, who looked as if she had knit everything she was wearing (except her shoes), including the hair tie that struggled to contain her abundance of wavy brown hair, added that the organization had been very helpful in attracting tourists to her out-of-the-way specialty yarn shop.
The three of them came to the café a few times before the grand opening to check on the renovations’ progress, but although they were polite, even friendly, they seemed to travel in a pack. Unless they were at their respective businesses, I don’t think I ever saw them apart. That was one problem––I don’t do packs. The language barrier was the second problem. They all spoke English much better than I spoke Italian, but I wasn’t good at small talk in either language. I didn’t make much effort with them and, I confess, I didn’t feel the need to.
Even so, Beatrice invited me to join one of the knitting groups she hosted a few times a week at her yarn store, Maglia Uno, around the same time I moved into the apartment above the café.
I appreciated the gesture although I’d always been a pedestrian knitter, sticking to basic scarves and the occasional hat. But I did have a taste for eccentric yarns and especially for the colorways of the Japanese yarn-maker Noro’s Silk Garden with their unexpected and unlikely color combinations that somehow, when the knitting was all done, came together in the most stunning ways.
I also thought the knitting group would be another way for me to improve my ability to understand Italian. (This actually didn’t happen because they spoke so rapidly there was no hope I could follow their conversations let alone participate in them.)
To get me started, Beatrice had her niece, Gabriella, her assistant at the shop and university student, drop off a canvas tote bag with three oversized skeins of alpaca dyed a deeply saturated shade of midnight blue. There was no label but the yarn smelled like sheep and flecks of hay clung to some of the strands so I realized it had probably been recently spun and might even be from a local vendor. The quality and color of the yarn were so exquisite they left me excited to start knitting again.
Beatrice had also included the sweater pattern the group would be working from. I looked at it, understanding nothing until I realized the pattern and charts were written using Italian short-hand for knitting, purling, and slipping stitches. There were other terms and descriptions of techniques I wouldn’t have recognized even if they’d been written in English. Clearly, it was complicated; it would be a challenge . . . and I was intrigued.
At the bottom of the page somebody had drawn an arrow. When I flipped the paper over, I found a hand-drawn map with directions to the shop and a note that read: “GPS won’t work. Take a left at the lemon tree. Blue door.”
I checked my GPS out of curiosity and, apparently, there was no way to locate Maglia Uno. I wondered if it would be possible to find it even with Beatrice’s directions but fortunately, the map she’d given me was meticulously drawn—and the directions were in English.
The knitting shop wasn’t far from the café, but the route was so circuitous, and had taken me up and down—mostly up—so many hills, that I was out of breath (and felt completely lost) by the time I reached the lemon tree standing sentinel at the entrance of a narrow alley.
If I hadn’t been certain my destination was at the end of that dark passageway, vaguely creepy even on that cloudless summer afternoon, I doubt I would have ventured down it. The grey stone walls of the buildings on either side, stained and weathered by the centuries, soaked in what little light struggled through the thin slice of sky overhead.
After twenty yards or so, the path jogged to the left and I expected to find the shop door. Instead, I was standing in a surprisingly large, sun-filled courtyard overbrimming with potted plants and sunbathing cats. I squinted against the sudden brightness and wondered if I was imagining things.
In the center of the courtyard was a small marble fountain and the buildings surrounding it were constructed with blocks of travertine that shone almost white in the sun. Everything, including the tessellation of bricks beneath my feet, looked like it just had been power-washed.
Across from where I stood, another building, shaped like a turret, tall and rounded, with small windows located high up near its cone-shaped roof, rose above its neighbors.
Set within a moss-covered archway, three steps up from the ground, was a heavy oak door that appeared to have been freshly painted—and it was robins’ egg blue.
When I stepped through the door of Maglia Uno that first time, I felt as though I’d walked inside a multi-faceted jewel. Light streamed through the tall windows from all directions. Ten-foot-high shelves filled with skeins of yarn arranged by type and color wrapped around the walls. Several heavily lacquered pine work tables, scarred with scratches and gouges from inexperienced and impatient knitters dominated the center of the shop. Chairs and couches upholstered with leather and fabrics dyed with deeply saturated colors invited knitters to get comfortable, marvel, chat, and, above all, create. But despite the coziness, there was not a speck of dust floating through the beams of light.
There were six of us in the Tuesday knitting group, including me, Beatrice and Francesca (Isabella didn’t knit). Beatrice had us all working on the same sweater, from patterns she had tailored to each of our skill-levels. The group had welcomed me warmly, but after five weeks, I silently made the decision to quit. Beatrice was an excellent and patient teacher, but I’d fallen far behind everybody else, which I found frustrating; in addition to being out of practice, I also knit very slowly. I’d barely made it past the two-by-two ribbing on the front, while even the slowest of my fellow knitters was well into the body of the sweater.
The main reason I didn’t intend to come back, though, was that I could barely understand a word anybody said. Being part of a group that I couldn’t interact with made me feel more isolated than I had in a long time; I preferred to spend my time at the café. I had resolved that this would be my last day, but planned to leave quietly rather than share the news with everyone. I would text Beatrice later to let her know.
The group had just wrapped for the day, and I was standing at the table packing up, hoping to leave unnoticed, when Francesca approached me. We hadn’t spoken much, mostly because I usually ducked out as quickly as I could. That day, however, she seemed to have anticipated this. “You have the hands of a master knitter,” she said.
“Ah, but not the knitting of a master knitter,” I laughed, stuffing my skeins of yarn into my tote more quickly. “I have the hands of somebody who used to play the piano,” I said without thinking, then quickly held up the small piece of sweater I’d been able to finish, and said quickly, “Yet somehow I still manage to knit like a monkey.”
Because we were speaking Italian and not English, I actually said sciame for “swarm” when I meant scimmia for “monkey,” but she understood. Despite my nervousness around my new acquaintances, Francesca, Beatrice, and Isabella always took my lead, speaking whatever language I used. Based on their looks of studied patience when I spoke Italian, they clearly preferred having conversations with me in English.
“Would you mind staying here for a bit?” Francesca asked unexpectedly.
I looked around and pointed at myself, not sure she meant me.
“I thought it would be a good chance for us to catch up. Beatrice has an appointment in the city and she asked me to look after the shop for the rest of the day. This place is always quiet on Tuesday afternoons, so we’ll have it all to ourselves.”
Principessa stretched in her sleep, whiskers twitching to the rhythm of whatever dream she was having.
I smiled at the memory of Francesca’s thwarting my escape. I had been annoyed but I’d also felt a small tug of melancholy—Francesca, Isabella, and Beatrice shared each other’s lives so easily. I knew part of their implicit trust in each other must have been a function of growing up together in this small, close-knit community—Calabresi had a population of 25,000, fewer people than lived in the building complex in New York City where I grew up. But there was something else, something indefinable about the way they got along with each other—like siblings who had the extraordinarily good fortune to be best friends.
I had had a relationship like that with only one other person in my life and it was gone. Even though I now shared a similar closeness with my three new friends, I still felt the ache of that loss.
I sat up quickly to keep myself from going down that road. Prinicipessa meowed in protest so I gave the scruff of her neck a scratch and shushed her back to sleep. Outside the snow still fell.
Francesca’s out-of-the-blue invitation took me by surprise. I suspected that, much like the rest of the town, she was only interested in how I, an eccentric American, had come to buy the café in an all-cash deal.
“Sure” I said, instead of “Certo.” Francesca took this as an invitation to continue our conversation in English before I could take it back. I was a little hurt by how relieved she seemed.
“Good,” she said. “Here,” she handed me an elaborate decorated needlepoint cushion and waved me into a nearby rocking-chair.
After throwing her nearly-finished sweater onto the adjacent divan, an elegant and ancient-looking piece crafted out of walnut and upholstered with emerald green velvet, she said, “I’ll be right back,” and walked across the shop and into a back room. I thought I heard voices but she emerged alone a minute later with a bottle of Chianti, a waiter’s corkscrew, and two glasses. “I know it’s early,” she said, “but what the hell. If any customers come in, they can have some too.”
She poured us both a glass, the same lush burgundy of bulky merino yarn she was using for her sweater. She put the bottle on a battered oak trunk that served as a coffee table and sat on one end of the divan.
“Salute,” she said as she touched her glass to mine. And then, probably worried that I’d take that as sign to start speaking Italian again, immediately followed up with, “Cheers, as you say.”
Francesca put her glass down and removed the elastic band holding the high ponytail she wore. She shook her head a couple of times and ran her fingers through expertly highlighted, shoulder-length light brown hair.
Before leaning back, she slid off her sleek midnight blue heels and crossed her ankles elegantly. Picking up her sweater, she examined the last few rows she’d knit and sighed heavily. It looked perfect to me, so when she pulled out the knitting needle and began to rip out four rows, I gasped audibly. After she finished, she nonchalantly placed the open stiches back onto the needle, took a long sip of wine and said, “God, I hate knitting.”
An hour later, the wine was gone and so was my awkwardness.
“I wish we’d done this sooner,” I said.
“Ha! Not true.” Before I could say anything, Francesca continued, “It’s ok. I know you didn’t really like me—or us.”
“But I did,” I protested. Yet I blushed.
There was no point in denying it.
“I understand. It’s the three of us—we are always together, like a gang, yes?”
I hesitated and wondered whether I should tell her the other reason I’d never felt comfortable around her.
“It’s not the group,” I began. “I mean, it’s not just the group. That made it hard to get to know you, for sure. It always felt a bit superficial and I’m not good at that. But you, you—you’re so. . .”
I had been staring down at the floor, anxious about being too honest with her. I didn’t want to ruin the tentative breakthrough we’d made.
Francesca tensed up next to me. I glanced at her, and she looked as if she were bracing herself against a blow she wasn’t sure she could withstand.
I unconsciously put my hand on her arm. “Oh, my god, what’s the matter?”
She shook her head, as if snapping herself out of something. “It’s nothing. Nothing.” But the color had drained from her face.
“I was just going to say you’re into all of these things, like makeup and romance novels and shoes and the fucking Bachelor.” I was rushing, stumbling, just wanting to get the words out, not sure if I was making things better or worse. “I mean, you’re such––you’re such a girl.”
For a moment Francesca stayed very still. She looked shocked.
And then she burst out laughing.
It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.
Principessa stretched again and meowed at me sleepily, a hint that she was ready for bed. As I reminisced while gazing from the fire to the slowly falling snow, the town now quiet and dark except for the streetlamps, an idea slowly formed. Ever since I’d moved here, I believed the best course of action, the safest way to proceed, was to keep to myself, share as little as possible, work hard, and live a quiet life until . . . until what? That was the part I hadn’t figured out yet.
All of that began to change when the café became a community and my acquaintances became friends. It had been so long since I’d had either a community or friends that I’d forgotten that I was the kind of person who needed both. More than anything, I was beginning to remember who I used to be, before I lost myself.
When I arrived at the café the next day, my manager Carmela had already brewed the coffee, put out the pastries, and fired up the warming ovens, but there were no customers.
I looked at the clock. It was already 7:15. “Slow morning,” I observed.
She gestured toward the window. “It’s a snow day,” she said.
I arched my eyebrow with mock superiority. As somebody who’d grown up in the Northeastern United States, I had no patience for people who became paralyzed by a couple of inches of snow.
“You’d think this was D.C.,” I muttered to myself.
“Che?” Carmela asked.
“Never mind. But a snow day?”
“I know, I know,” she held up her hands. “This doesn’t happen often so we’re—what’s your word for wimp?”
“Wimp, actually. Yes, you are definitely wimps,” I laughed.
Business picked up over the course of the morning, with our regulars wrapped up against the elements and full of talk about the storm of the century. Someday I’d have to tell them about the blizzard of 1996 that hit when I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Over two feet of snow had fallen, burying cars and paralyzing the entire city for days.
But I didn’t have time. The idea I’d formed the night before had become a plan which I intended to carry out, and there was someone I needed to meet. Once Lucia, one of our servers, arrived to cover the lunch crowd, full of apologies for being late, her coat covered with snow as if she had slid her way to work, I ran upstairs to get ready.
I decided to start with Danilo. I picked up my phone, opened messages, and pressed the microphone icon.
“It’s Anastasia,” I dictated. “Meet me at 1:00 outside the San Pietro entrance.”
I left it at that. There was no need to elaborate—he had as many questions as I did. I knew he’d show up—assuming, that is, he wasn’t as much of a wimp as everybody else in this town when it came to braving the snow.
I wrapped an old scarf around my neck and put on my warmest coat as well as a pair of dark grey cashmere gloves that Beatrice had knit for me, with ribbed cuffs and delicate cables down the back. I grabbed a hat and, slinging my bag over my shoulder, tiptoed to the door quietly, so as not to disturb Prinicipessa, who lay curled on the chair by the window. I’d almost made it to the stairs when I realized that I’d forgotten my phone. Not the iPhone I’d just used to text Danilo, but a flip phone—that only one other person knew existed.
Calabresi, like many medieval hill towns, was ringed by a fortifying wall complete with turrets. Arched entryways with massive oak and iron doors that had long ago been affixed to the wall and rendered useless against siege, appeared at regular intervals. Porta San Pietro, where I planned to meet Danilo, was about twenty minutes from my café. The quickest way there was to walk through the Piazza Centrale, the heart of town.
The snow had stopped, but dark grey clouds still threatened so there were very few people in the streets; it almost felt like I had the whole town to myself. This didn’t happen often. With the exception of August, when nearly every Italian went on vacation, Calabresi was crowded with tourists year-round. Despite not having a spectacular cathedral or a world-class museum, a small monastery not far from the Piazza had been designed by a famous Renaissance architect. Plus, there were enough paintings and frescos by Renaissance masters scattered throughout the town’s palaces and churches to make it a destination: Calabresi was close enough to Florence to have benefitted from the extensive patronage of the Medicis. And then there was the light—especially in late summer and early autumn—that had painters and art students flocking to Calabresi twelve months a year.
I glanced at my phone; I had plenty of time to kill before my meeting and stopped at a small café where I ordered a Marocchino, a combination of espresso, hot chocolate, and milk foam poured into a cup dusted with cocoa powder and then sprinkled with cocoa powder or drizzled with chocolate syrup—in other words, liquid paradise. The bartender poured me a glass of water, and, as I stood at the counter waiting for my drink, I thought more about the plan that had fallen into place last night.
In the end it came down to whom I could trust, how far I could trust them, and what to do about the one person I definitely did not trust—the guy I was about to meet.
A niche was carved into the massive sandstone blocks of the wall on either side of every archway. Marble statues once stood watch but had been removed decades ago—either because they were damaged beyond repair or because they’d been deemed worthy of preservation in a museum. I had hoped to get there before Danilo, but he had already tucked himself into the niche to the right of the San Pietro archway.
When he saw me, he jumped off the plinth where the statue of some long-dead Roman general or Renaissance philosopher once stood.
“Why the hell did we have to meet here?” Danilo complained. He looked frozen like a statue himself and flapped his arms and stomped his feet to get his circulation flowing. His hat, complete with earflaps, was crooked, and he looked a bit like a child having a temper tantrum.
“I don’t really like being seen with you,” I said coolly.
He squinted at me and swallowed hard. “The feeling is mutual.”
In the warmer months, the grounds outside the walls are the sight of picnics, festivals, and open-air markets. Crude steps lead to the top of the ramparts, which had been turned into a promenade. With its views of the hills in the distance and neighboring vineyards, this was one of the most popular spots for painters to set up their easels. There were also plenty of benches for tired tourists to rest their feet. “Before we start fighting, can we at least sit down?” I asked, motioning to the nearest one.
“There’s snow on it. Besides, it’s too cold to sit.”
I looked at the thin layer of snow on the bench and rolled my eyes.
“Well, then, instead of fighting or sitting why don’t we get right to it—why have you been following me?’
He looked embarrassed—and then incensed.
“I have not been following you.”
“Danilo, I’ve seen you more in the last four weeks than in the six months before that. Even Francesca has noticed. She asked me if something’s going on.”
His body stiffened and he clenched his fists.
“There’s something about you,” he began.
I cut him off, “So I keep hearing.” Though my friends were mostly respectful of my unwillingness to share details about my past, even they took jabs at me sometimes. During dinner at Isabella’s apartment a few weeks earlier, Beatrice wondered aloud if I was a spy. She hadn’t meant anything by it, but I left soon after and avoided them for a few days, which probably did nothing to set to rest any of their lingering suspicions about me.
“I mean,” he stammered, “there’s something not right about the whole situation.”
“No kidding. Have you not been paying attention the last two years? Nothing’s right about anything.” In the moment, that felt true. I wanted to move on with my life but kept being reminded of the circumstances that had led to my being in Calabresi in the first place and how the excitement of my first trip abroad had turned into a nightmare of uncertainty and terror.
We had all been through versions of the same thing during the pandemic, but I was alone in a foreign country, separated from my friends. And I had lost my parents. In the midst of all of that, I’d chosen, whether out of bravery or fear I couldn’t say, to take a blind leap without knowing if I had the strength—or guile—to pull it off. Up until now, I had been annoyed by Danilo; now it felt as if he expected me to justify myself to him and it infuriated me.
“You know as well as anyone that I did the best I could in an almost impossible situation.” I’d raised my voice and Danilo took a step back. “In fact, I’ve told you more than you have any right to know. I have no idea what more you want from me. And I don’t care,” I continued before he could interrupt me. “The last ten years have been a nightmare. For everybody, yes, but I think even you would agree I’ve done more than my fair share of losing.”
Danilo suddenly looked like he had won the lottery, “Ten years, is it? That’s a very long time.”
“Two years, not ten. The two years since I came to Italy.”
Had I said ten years? Damn it. Damn him.
Not for the first time, I wished I could rid myself of Danilo. I’m not typically the kind of woman who goes around wanting to knock off every man she comes across. But there was something a little bit off about him: he stood too close when he spoke to you, he was formal and overfamiliar at the same time—he had a tendency to touch women in a way that he (presumably) meant to be courtly but always felt a little inappropriate. He was a vain man, keeping his almost black hair slicked back and his large mustache groomed to perfection. And he always thought the attraction was mutual—I’d found that out the hard way. I’d come to think that’s why we were here: It wasn’t mutual at all.
I met Danilo Scarpia the very first time I came to Calabresi. I was still living in Florence when the worst of the lockdowns ended and had begun contemplating my next move when I learned that a small building with a café on the ground floor and a small upstairs apartment was for sale. I’d never heard of Calabresi—there are dozens of hill towns in Tuscany—but the idea that it was both out-of-the-way and accessible to Florence appealed to me.
Almost certain that it was safe, or at least safer, to be out in the world again and that this was the opportunity I’d been looking for, I rented a car on a late June morning and drove from Florence excited, hopeful, and not a little nervous. Danilo wasn’t a realtor; he was part of the town’s historical monument security squad. But the owners of the property were friends of his family, and they’d entrusted him with showing it to prospective buyers on the extremely off chance there were any. After six months on the market, I was the first—and only—prospect.
Danilo and I introduced ourselves, a still-awkward exercise in not shaking hands, not getting too close, and not being able to see each other’s faces below the eyes. Danilo unlocked the door and waved me in, but didn’t follow me, which I appreciated. “I’ll be right here if you have any questions,” he said politely. “Take your time.”
I did. I looked over every inch of the café. I sat at all of the tables, and looked out every window. I inspected the kitchen to see what would need replacing and what I could salvage. I tried every doorknob and switched on every light. I walked up the back stairs to the apartment and found that it was furnished. I tested the couch and chairs and looked in the cabinets and closet. The appliances were practically antiques but they ran; the working fireplace more than made up for any deficiencies. I pictured what it would be like to make a life here, to run my own business, to find safety in obscurity.
I’d never been an impulsive person, had never made a move without anticipating every outcome or thinking about the implications from every conceivable perspective. But when I emerged over thirty minutes later, shielding my eyes from the late Spring sun that shone directly overhead, I said, without hesitation, “I’ll take it.”
Danilo laughed but when he saw that I was serious, he said, “Oh, well, of course. Come to my office and I’ll make some phone calls. The sooner we get started the better. It’s Italy—this could take a while.”
And it did.
I spent the intervening six months learning everything there was to learn about running a café. I hired contractors, found suppliers, figured out how to purchase and keep track of inventory, how to deal with payroll and manage scheduling. As the November 2021closing date approached, I made several trips to town to interview managers.
On those few occasions when I allowed myself an afternoon off, I spent time by the banks of the Arno watching the painters who set up their easels by the Uffizi. I even purchased a couple of small paintings, and imagined where I would hang them when I moved. I haunted the small shops of the Oltrarno, literally “on the other side of the Arno,” looking for trinkets and throws and pillows that would help make my new home my own. At the end of the day, I’d return to the room I rented in an unremarkable but clean pensione and continued to search for ways to improve the café when it finally became mine.
At the end of November, the papers were signed, and the deed was in my hand, and I replaced the old BAR sign with one that read Fondi Forti, which meant “strong grounds” in English. I appreciated the double-meaning even if nobody else would get it.
To celebrate, Danilo asked me to dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant on the other side of town. He apologized for the inconvenience but guaranteed an authentic Calabresi dining experience and promised to introduce me to some of the locals. Although I had been to town frequently over the last few months, I’d rarely left the café and had little opportunity to get to know my soon-to-be neighbors.
Danilo, already seated at a table, smiled when I entered and stood to greet me. His suit looked brand new—I had never seen him in anything other than his uniform or jeans—his hair was slicked back and his freshly polished shoes shone. Next to the table a bottle of champagne stood chilling in an elaborate ice bucket. His right arm was tucked behind his back, and as I approached, he revealed a small but clearly expensive bouquet of flowers.
“Buona sera! And congratulations,” he said. His smile widened. He walked towards me as I approached, handed me the flowers, grabbed my shoulders and kissed me on each cheek.
“Holy shit,” I thought. “This is a fucking date.”
I don’t remember the precise moment when Danilo realized that he had made a grave miscalculation, but I gave him plenty of clues. When he attempted to order for me, I turned to the waiter and said, “He has no idea what I want,” and then asked her some questions about the menu before ordering for myself. He kept trying to fill my glass and it wasn’t until I moved it out of his reach at the last second, causing him to pour champagne on the table cloth, that he stopped.
It was almost as if he’d read a dating how-to manual in a 1940s Reader’s Digest. Once we were mercifully finished with the meal, I declined coffee and dessert and decided to let him pay in order to avoid a protracted fight. I got out into the street as soon as I could and waved as I jumped into a cab that I’d ordered from my phone, which I’d kept hidden under the table, while Danilo was deep in conversation with the maître d’.
Our relationship, such as it was, had gone downhill from there. Since he lived on the other side of town and I was almost always working, we didn’t see each other much over the next six months. When we did run into each other, Danilo continued to be polite, if not friendly.
Recently, though, he’d begun to show up at the café unexpectedly and then we started crossing paths in places I’d never seen him before, like Isabella’s bakery or the sushi place around the corner from the café. But, even if I waved and said hello, he pretended he didn’t see me. It felt hostile. And now, here we were, standing outside the town’s ramparts having a fight the origin of which was a mystery to me.
“Danilo, I need to know why you keep thinking there’s something wrong.”
“You paid too much,” Danilo said simply.
“For what? The café?” I asked, completely mystified. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You paid asking price.”
“Nobody does that, especially not after that year. At least not without a little haggling, yes? Nobody was buying, and everybody wanted to sell. Then you, an American no one had ever seen before, come in flush with cash—that’s how you say it, right? —and you say, ‘I’ll take it.’ If you’d pushed back just a little, they would have knocked the price down 10%, 25%. If you’d put more effort into it, you could have gotten it for half. I know. That kind of discount would have shown how desperate they were to sell. By not even bothering to negotiate, you showed how desperate you were. ‘I’ll take it,” you said. Just like that.” He slid his palms across each other as if ridding himself of something.
“Danilo, we’ve been through this before. I told you why I came here. As for the rest, it’s none of your business.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
I’m always tempted to answer rhetorical questions like that in the affirmative. Instead I asked, “Why now?”
He cocked his head and gazed at a spot just over my shoulder. A car was coming towards us down the road. “Because,” he said, looking at me with his small, dark eyes, “you’re starting to get comfortable.”
I watched Danilo retreat through the archway. When I was sure he was gone, I sat heavily on the nearest bench. So, now I knew—Danilo didn’t just hold a grudge against me, he suspected me of something. Worse, he seemed poised to do something about it. But what? Why? And how could I find out?
Right now, though, the bigger question for me was whether I was I going to let him derail my plans.
I suddenly felt chilled. The wind picked up and more clouds had gathered promising a snow squall. The slowly rolling meadows fell away towards the distant hills, now obscured by the gloom; an occasional stand of cypress trees rising darkly in the fading afternoon light. Not another person was in sight, and it felt as though all of the inhabitants of Calabresi and the surrounding towns had retreated within their fortifications, determined to stay there until the weather regained its equilibrium.
I was relieved to be alone—I needed to think. But first, I needed to make a call.
I reached into my pocket for the phone I used for one purpose, flipped it open, and dialed the only number I knew by heart. I waited for the call to go to voice mail, and said, “Maria, it’s me. We need to talk. Now.”
The temperature had dropped again, so I wrapped my scarf more tightly around my neck and pulled my hat over my ears. I needed to think. Instead of doubling back through town, I decided to take the long way around the outside of the walls.
There are four main entrances to Calabresi; the closest one to the cafe, Porta San Sebastian, was exactly halfway around the circumference. The walk would give me plenty of time to consider my options.
By the time I reached Porta Sant’Angelo, I was halfway home. In the distance I thought I saw a small cow nuzzling the snow-covered ground next to a red Fiat. I started to walk towards her until I realized a tall man was standing in front of the cow, gesturing wildly. I was still too far away to understand a word he said, but he seemed to be imploring the cow to do . . . something.
Every time the man took a couple of steps toward the cow, she backed up. It looked like the two of them were dancing some kind of weird tango. I reminded myself that mirages only occurred in the desert. Didn’t they? I moved closer to the wall to give the couple plenty of room to work out their differences when I heard the man say passionately, “Prego, mia Bella. Per favore, fa troppo freddo per questo gioco. Dobbiamo andare a casa.” He spoke so quickly I wasn’t sure if he was telling the cow she was beautiful or if her name was Bella. I think he said he was cold and wanted to go home. She remained unmoved.
I should have minded my own business but the scene in front of me was so bizarre I wanted to see how the drama played out. I waved as I walked towards them and said, in Italian, “Excuse me, is there anything I can help you with?”
When the man turned to face me, he was blushing to the roots of his very thick, very dark hair. “Dio!” he cried, taking a step back. He put a hand over his heart, a bit dramatically, I thought.
“I’m so sorry—I didn’t mean to frighten you—or her.”
He looked at the cow and then back at me. “Oh, she’s fine,” he said in English, which I found annoying. “Unlike me she’s not easily frightened. She is, however, very stubborn. I’m having a terrible time getting her into the trunk.”
I looked at the tiny car idling nearby. I found I had nothing to say. I gave the cow a pat on the head and kept walking.
After I finally walked through Porta San Sebastian, I took a left turn, away from the café and toward Isabella’s bakery—I had a favor to ask her. It was located on a narrow street populated with a handful of specialty shops. Most of them were brightly lit and extravagantly decorated for the holidays.
It seemed all of the business owners in Calabresi were in competition for the “coziest shop” prize—including the optician. I’d never seen such attention to detail—and to the shopping experience—anywhere, even New York City, during the holidays. A few shops, including Francesca’s bookstore and, unbelievably, the optician’s, were lucky enough to have working fireplaces which they kept stoked on gloomy, chill days and all but the warmest evenings.
Isabella’s bakery was the exception. It was inviting enough, if a bit cool, with a rough-hewn walnut counter and matching molded stools. The plaster walls were a muted ecru and paintings by local artists had been expertly hung. The retail area itself was small—a display case with limited selection of baked goods and a simple espresso machine—almost an afterthought. The majority of the store’s square footage had been reserved for the kitchen with its industrial mixers, pans, and ovens, where every morning at 4:00 a.m. Isabella and her team of artisanal bakers made loaves of Italian bread, ciabatta, biscotti, baguettes, croissants, and, more recently (thanks to her new American friend), bagels, all of which she sold wholesale to restaurants, hotels, pensione (bed and breakfasts), and cafés (including mine) throughout the region.
Contrary to all appearances, my friend Isabella, a petite, soft-spoken, and reserved woman, was a powerhouse.
When I arrived, Simona, Isabella’s newest intern, was behind the counter—Isabella rarely worked out front—and I asked if my friend was available. I had never been in the kitchen. Practically nobody had, although Beatrice had forced her way in once on some pretext and said it looked like the nerve center of a high-tech pharmaceutical lab.
Shortly after Simona disappeared into the kitchen to relay the message that I was out front, Isabella pushed through the swinging door, which afforded me not a glimpse of the heart of her business, and smiled when she saw me. Her light-brown hair was slicked back in a neat ponytail and her executive chef’s uniform looked like it had just been freshly pressed. You would never know her day had started over ten hours earlier
“Anastasia!” she kissed me on both cheeks. “Ciao!”
“I know how busy you are” I started but she waved it off as if she had all the time in the world, which she absolutely did not.
She reached into the display case and grabbed a couple of cannoli, one filled with crema pasticcera (custard creme—my favorite) for me and one with ricotta filling for her. “I have a couple of minutes,” she said. “Let’s sit.”
When I left not long after, I was in possession of Isabella’s car keys—and a small bakery box with four cannoli shells and zip-loc bag filled with custard cream. We had a standing arrangement: she let me borrow her Alfa Romeo whenever I needed it (which wasn’t often) as long as she wasn’t using it (which was almost always) in exchange for piano lessons. She inherited a beautiful baby grand from her mother and hated the thought of either selling it or letting it sit unused.
After she learned I’d been a music teacher in another life, she asked if I’d be willing to teach her. I refused to accept money but was very happy to borrow her car on occasion. Isabella had enough talent that she came to enjoy playing. I loved teaching her because she learned so quickly but also because that one hour each week became some of the only time the two of us got to spend alone together.
I was only a few steps from the bakery door when my phone rang—my other phone.
I checked to make sure no one was too close, took it from my pocket once again and flipped it open.
“Ciao, cara. Are you OK?” Maria asked. She sounded worried.
“Yes. No. I’m not really sure. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to worry you but I need to talk some things through. I was hoping I could come visit.”
“Of course, dear. When can you come?”
A small group of tourists was leaving the leather goods shop across the street and others were approaching from the direction of the piazza. Although still cold and gloomy, the snow had stopped—Christmas was coming and shopping must be done.
“I’ve just finished running some errands and am on my way home now. I’ll call you when I get there, ok?” I snapped the phone shut and, before slipping it into my back pocket, turned the ringer off. I couldn’t wait to get back.
A couple of hours later I knew all about Bella’s history and I had learned some of Matteo’s as well. It turns out he had known Bella her whole life.
“I actually gave birth to her,” he said, with obvious pride.
“Are you a vet?” I asked. That would never have occurred to me.
“No, not even close,” he laughed easily. “But I’ve been working at the vineyard basically forever so I’ve taken a turn at everything at one time or another.”
Saying “at the vineyard” was like saying “at the Italian hill town” but I suppose it didn’t really matter which vineyard he was talking about.
“Her mother went into labor in the middle of the night and it happened so quickly there wasn’t even time to ring for the vet. She’d come earlier than expected and she was such a small, ugly little thing.”
“So, you named her Bella.”
“Yes. I always wanted her to hear people tell her she’s beautiful. She was very sick at first and I nursed her. Now we’re basically inseparable.”
“Except for those times she runs away.”
“Ha, well, she wasn’t running away. She just has an independent streak and likes to go wandering off sometimes. This is her first snow—I think she got over-excited and lost track of where she was going. I started worrying I would never find her—the vineyard is over 10 kilometers from here—but it turns out I’m also an animal tracker.”
“You are a man of many talents.”
He stretched out his legs and pointed at his boots. “Not really. Turns out it’s pretty easy to follow hoofprints in the snow. And she usually sticks close to the road—she’s very thoughtful that way.”
“How did she get home—and please don’t say you put her in the trunk,” I said raising a hand to stop him before he could make that mistake.
“Our manager, Jeanne, came to get her in the horse trailer.”
“You have a French manager for a vineyard in Chianti?”
“Jeanne is our secret weapon. I swear she can do anything. She knows the business better than most people who grew up in it.” Matteo spoke of her with such sincere, straight-forward admiration I was intrigued. “She had been working in Bordeaux for about ten years and, luckily for us, was looking for a change when our old manager retired. Guiseppi was wonderful but very old school and Jeanne came in and breathed new life into the place. Don’t get me wrong, we’d always been a well-oiled machine and produced a lot of decent wine—better I dare say, than this lovely vintage,” he said pointing to the now empty bottle.
“I’ll have to be the judge of that,” I said, as I opened the second bottle.
“I hope you will.” He paused, lost in thought for a second. “Anyway, Jeanne really shook things up. She’s extraordinary—as a person, as a boss, but she also has amazing instincts. She seems to know exactly when to push the envelope or stay the course.” He shook his head as if he still couldn’t believe his luck, “It’s really quite something.”
“She sounds like my friend, Isabella. She owns a small bakery in town and before I really got to know her, I thought that was it. I had no idea she basically supplies every hotel and restaurant in Tuscany.”
“You mean Isabella di Stefano? You know her? Wow. We have tastings and host the occasional event, so we’ve been buying from her for years. She’s an absolute legend.”
It gave me a warm feeling to hear my friend praised. Between that, his deep respect for Jeanne, and the almost impossibly sweet story of Bella I thought I might have misjudged Matteo after all.
He sipped his wine and asked how Isabella and I had met.
I gave him a brief history of how I came to buy the café and move to Calabresi. “I joined the Women’s Business Owners Association before I even got here. Isabella is on the Board so when I finally arrived, she invited me to the annual luncheon.”
“At Castello di Speranza?” he asked.
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“That’s our vineyard!”
“That’s the vineyard you’ve been talking about? Oh, it’s stunning!”
“I can’t believe you were there.” The idea seemed to please him and he smiled. I admit, now that I was sitting across from him, without distraction, I found him almost handsome. I had already noticed his thick, wavy black hair, but his eyes were expressive and the kind of blue that draws you in, if he looked at you a particular way. Which is how he was looking at me now.
We both reached for the bottle of wine at the same time and when our hands accidentally touched, I knew it was time to call it a night.
I stood up, more abruptly than I intended to. He jumped out of his seat. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine, fine. The day has just started to catch up on me. I’ve been up since five and then I had a really unsettling encounter with a guy and his cow.”
“I’m so sorry about that. I hope you will recover,” he said very seriously, drawing his perfect eyebrows together, which created an adorable furrow between those eyes.
“Seriously, though,” I said, to put things back on track—or derail them, “thank you for your help.
“And thank you for the company,” he said, somewhat formally. He wrapped his scarf around his beautifully shaped neck and put on the down coat I’d seen him in earlier in the day.
I walked him to the door but before he left, he turned to me and asked if it would be ok if he gave me his number.
“No,” I said to myself. “It is absolutely not OK.”
“Sure,” I said out loud doing my best to sound unenthusiastic, as if it were an everyday occurrence that I could either take or leave. He handed me his card. It was ivory and made of heavy linen stock, but other than his name, Matteo Vinci, the name of the vineyard, and a cell number, there was no other information. I realized I’d forgotten to ask what exactly it was he did, but I wasn’t going to ask now.
“It would be very nice if you call me, if you want. Or come visit us at the vineyard.” I wasn’t sure if he meant him and Bella or him and Jeanne.
I smiled noncommittally and, as he walked out the door, told him to drive safely. Every single one of my nerve-endings was screaming at me not to do what I knew with absolute certainty I was going to do. Because instead of closing the door behind him, I stepped outside and called, “Matteo!”
He turned towards me and looked expectant if not hopeful, the amber light of the streetlamp deepening the blue of his irises.
“Can I take you to dinner sometime?”
He nodded, as if afraid he’d say the wrong thing.
Before I could convince myself not to appear over-eager, I asked, “Tomorrow night?”
“Not now?” He managed to say the wrong thing after all.
I wasn’t sure if he was mocking me and I was just about to tell him to forget it when he rushed over and said, “Of course not tonight. It’s too late. Tomorrow night will be perfect. I mean, that’s fine. You have my number.”
I did, indeed.
Instead of using the café door, I went through the street entrance to my apartment right next to it. I felt like I was on autopilot, kicking off my espadrilles, pulling on my boots, and sliding my phone into my back pocket in quick succession. I checked the kitchen clock before running back downstairs.
It was almost 8:50. Beatrice and Isabella had long since closed their shops for the day. Isabella was undoubtedly asleep and there was no guarantee Beatrice would even be home. Because of the holiday, Francesca was keeping the bookstore open until 9:00, so that’s where I headed, running through the streets as if they weren’t slick with ice and snow.
I stopped at the entrance before going in; I wanted to make sure there were no customers inside. Francesca sat behind the register working on her laptop. Nobody else was there, so I assumed she was done for the night, which was confirmed when I tried the door and found it locked. I took a deep breath and knocked twice.
When Francesca saw me, she closed the computer and walked to the door quickly.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked as she stepped back to let me in, closing the door against a sharp wind.
I didn’t say anything right away. I wasn’t sure I could say anything.
I remained silent and she steered me over to a group of armchairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the fireplace. It wasn’t until I felt the heat of the flames reach me (of course, the fire was lit) that I realized how cold I was. I’d forgotten to put on my coat—and my scarf, hat, and gloves.
“Are you ok?” she said slowly with a raised voice, as if she were worried I might not be able to hear her.
I nodded slowly. She took a blanket off the chair next to me and wrapped it around my shoulders. She left for a minute and came back with a steaming cup of mulled cider which she always had on hand during the holidays.
She sat down next to me, took my hand, and said, “Anastasia, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I was suddenly so drained of energy, I actually felt like I had challenged a ghost to a duel and couldn’t yet be sure if I’d won, but Francesca wouldn’t understand what I was talking about if I told her that.
I clutched the warm mug in my hands and shivered. “Francesca,” I said, finally looking at her, “I think I have a date.”
“Prada,” Francesca said simply.
“That’s your answer for everything,” Beatrice countered.
Francesca shrugged and widened her eyes as if to say, “Am I wrong?”
“Isn’t Prada a bit much for a first date anyway?” Beatrice wondered.
“Do you have any Prada?” Isabella asked me.
I shook my head.
Isabella turned to Francesca, “She doesn’t have enough time to go into the city,” she said, always the pragmatist.
It was almost as if I weren’t there. As late as it was, Francesca had called an emergency meeting, which is why Beatrice and Isabella were now sitting with us in the bookstore arguing about how to “handle my situation.” I felt overwhelmed by my impulsive invitation to Matteo and found it comforting to have them take over.
“We can make time,” Francesca insisted.
“Why don’t we find out what she already has before going overboard,” Isabella said.
When I thought of the contents of my closet I panicked. “Maybe I should cancel,” I said suddenly.
“No!” Francesca said, with a bit more intensity than perhaps she intended. “I mean, it’s just a date.”
This was a pretty weak argument coming from the woman who had spent the last thirty minutes talking about my manicure, hairstyle, and makeup and who was just getting started on my choice of dress (it had the potential to be a very late night) and who knew as well as anyone else that I hadn’t even been within a million light years of anything resembling a date since at least since spring of 2020.
“Go,” Beatrice said. “You shouldn’t be alone.” Before I could object, she continued, “I’m just saying you need to start somewhere and, from what I can tell, Matteo is a pretty safe bet.”
“That’s romantic,” Francesca said, rolling her eyes.
“At least we know who he is,” Beatrice pointed out. “Carmela’s sister used to work with him, Isabella’s company supplies the winery, and, if it goes badly, he doesn’t live in town so you would never have to see him again.”
“Also not romantic, Beatrice,” Francesca said.
Isabella stood up and stretched her arms over her head. “I agree. I mean about Matteo’s being a safe bet. And, I have to go to sleep.” She gave me a quick hug. “We’ll talk tomorrow. And you do not have to wear Prada.”
She gave Francesca a warning look as she left, indicating that she should back off. And then, in the least Isabella gesture I’d ever seen, she blew me a kiss.
When I got home, I went straight to bed. Francesca and Beatrice agreed to come over to my apartment the next morning to help me figure out if there was anything in my closet I could wear. I think they also had an ulterior motive. I had noticed them exchanging worried glances while discussing how to plan for my date—not because I was woefully unprepared, but because they had never seen me so rattled. They had never seen me rattled at all.
I’d just turned off the light and was attempting to fall asleep when Francesca called to check on me. “Try box breathing,” she told me—seriously!—when I mentioned I felt too wired to sleep. She explained what it box breathing was and, after we hung up, I rearranged my pillows and sat up straight. I then inhaled through my nose for four beats, held my breath for four beats, exhaled through my mouth for four beats, held my breath for four beats. Simple enough. After a few minutes, I did feel more relaxed. But I really wished I had a Xanax.
I sat bolt upright, shocked awake from a fitful sleep, my heart pounding.
I picked up my phone. 4:12.
I had started having nightmares right after I’d arrived in Italy, and it always happened that it was 4:12 when I found myself startled from sleep. I didn’t know why. Sometimes the dreams were so real, several minutes passed before I remembered where I was, safe in my own bed.
But this hadn’t been a nightmare—this was the surfacing of a fear so deep I spent almost every waking hour avoiding it. I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing, but I didn’t like the images that lurked behind my shut eyelids. Hoping to dispel them, I threw off my duvet and swung my legs over the side of the bed in one swift motion.
I wanted a hot cup of coffee but thought I should leave open the possibility of more sleep so poured myself a glass of water instead. After pacing in the living room for a few minutes, I knew what I had to do.
E. Jean, Jen, and Mary so appreciate your subscription to Backstory Serial. Free subscribers will continue to receive new posts about recipes and knitting, but future installments of The Italian Lesson will only be available to paid subscribers. Thank you from all of us! Love Mary