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The Italian Lesson [Installment 3]
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.