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The Italian Lesson [Installment 8]
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.