He walks by twice a day, usually carrying a small bag of trash but always puffing on either a pipe or a cigar. Not having a job, I’ve fallen into the domestic position of staying home every day trying to figure out how to get excited about cleaning. We’ve got just the one car with no plans for another, since we only plan to be here for eighteen months, so Chris takes it to work most days. So I’m here, sleeping late most days and shuffling around the apartment, writing or rearranging something to make myself feel productive. The front door to our apartment is around the side of this block of four apartments, but across the front are glass doors that I like to leave open during the day. With no air conditioning, the only saving grace during the summer is the hope of a breeze, and living close to the sea, we usually get some kind of air movement most of the time, even if it’s hot air. Heidi likes these doors, because open, they give her free reign over our postage stamp size front yard, full of massive pine cones that’ll dent the crap out of any unsuspecting car parked beneath. We’ve been lucky and have never caught one in the head, but we keep our fingers crossed. So Heidi likes to lay on the red tile of the narrow front patio that stretches the width of the apartment, taking in the neighborhood and sometimes barking salutations to the people who pass by on the street. One thing I really like about this place is that no one gets up in arms over a baking dog. It seems generally accepted that a dog barking from its own yard is a natural and expected phenomenon, which sounds strange, but never in the States did I not find myself rushing to hush an excited Heidi, apologizing for the annoyance to whomever was at the receiving end of her exclamations. When someone walks past our gate here, they usually stop because Heidi is a pretty dog, laughing at her barking, and reach through to pet her.
But not him. When he walks by, one eye scrunched mostly shut, Heidi launches from her place of rest on the patio and he keeps shuffling on. She jumps at the gate, begging for his attention, but he takes a puff and keeps moving. Sometimes he grumbles at her; sometimes he just ignores. I’ve named him Grumpy Old Man, for obvious reasons, and have actually come to look forward to his passingsby.
I didn’t have the courage to speak to him for a long time, but after mastering a friendly greeting from the open doors of our place when people stopped to pet Heidi, I decided it was time to befriend Grumpy Old Man and make him accept us as his neighbors with kindness. The first time I spoke to him he was actually in our shared dirt driveway, inspecting some trimming that had been done on his side of the fence, talking to the gardener who was working there. Heidi, now faced with a stranger on our actual property, went crazy barking, sticking her nose under the metal railing, sniffing furiously at him. This was my chance to, upon coming outside to investigate all the commotion, toss out a casual hello. And I did. “Buon giorno,” I said with a big smile, then waved my hand at Heidi in an attempt to hush her. Grumpy Old Man gave a wave and a nod. Then he smiled. He motioned toward the gardener’s work and I nodded, something I’d gotten really good at as a foreigner here, while inside I was doing the nerdy happy dance, having made contact.
The next week I was washing dishes when someone awoke Heidi’s inner guard dog, and when I poked my head out to make sure she hadn’t actually scaled the gate, I gasped the way you might upon seeing a baby horse take its first steps. It was him, and he’d stopped! Not only had Grumpy Old Man stopped at our gate to speak to Heidi, he was smiling and barking back at her. And then, as if this weren’t huge enough for my little world, he reached through and pet her, all the while she was jumping for his hand, turning around and whimpering at him with joy. I almost squealed, but kept myself hidden so I could continue to watch. That was the day our interaction changed with Grumpy Old Man. He came to speak to Heidi every time he passed, leaning down to talk to her, sometimes barking a little, then chuckling to himself as he went on his way. One afternoon I was working in the yard when he passed, and when he stopped to say hello to Heidi, he talked to me, too. Of course I initiated but he asked what Heidi’s name was and where we were from, and low and behold, he spoke English! He wasn’t fluent, by any means, but he spoke well enough for us to carry on a friendly exploratory conversation about life in Bella Italia, bad drivers, and pets. I also learned that Grump Old Man’s real name was Alberto. And it was done. We were friends.
After that day, whenever I saw Alberto passing or petting Heidi I gave a friendly wave and called out a greeting. His smile and wave back gave me a warmth I craved living in this new place so far from home.