Discover more from Backstory Serial
The Italian Lesson [Installment 6]
Chapter One, Conclusion
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.”