Monday, October 4, 2010

Alberto, part 2

It was the Tuesday of our one week Tuscan vacation this past September, and there had been very little discussion of how we would be spending it: Tirrenia.  The old neighborhood, our first real home together.  And as it was only the first week of September, the summer market was still hanging on, and this meant not only could we do a little stall browsing, there'd be the chance of running into some old friends.  Guy was one, a Senegalese street vendor with whom I formed a kind of friendship with, who returned to Tirrenia every summer for market season on his sales route through Europe.  Him, I'll get to in another post, as he'd already moved on to Pisa by this time.  Another was Alberto, aka, the Grumpy Old Man of Via dei Biancospini.  This one is for him.

One of my very first posts to this blog was about Alberto, a neighbor of ours while living in Tirrenia.  (Want a refresher?  See )  Reading over it now fills my chest with emotion because he really was an important part of My Italy then, and always.  After Chris and I moved to San Piero a Grado ten minutes away to a bigger and better-maintained house, I usually ran into Alberto on Tuesdays in the summertime at the morning market.  He liked to buy a rotisserie chicken from the roasting van that always set up there in case anyone dropped by over the weekend.  He told me he liked to have something tasty ready to go, to share.  Once or twice he treated me to a cappuccino and we chatted a while at the small cafe at the back of the loop where the market sets up.  He refused to let me pay him back, so one time I treated him to a cafe AND a pastry, playfully ignoring his protests and attempts to reimburse me.  Running into him was my favorite part of the Tuesday market.

The last time I saw Alberto before this trip was at the Italian American Carnival held every July on the American base nearby.  It would be our last summer living in Italy and we decided to finally attend this annual event.  I spotted him walking in front of us, then took off from Chris and a couple of our friends to catch up, calling out his name.  He turned and opened his arms to receive me, smiling and kind of chuckling at me.  We kissed our hellos and spoke for a minute; he loved attending this carnival each year.  That was two years ago now.  I'd always regretted not going back by the old neighborhood before we moved to tell him goodbye, and to thank him for all he'd meant to me.  Which brings us back to the Tuesday that began this piece, Sept. 7, 2010.

We'd walked the aisles of the market with friends, but no Alberto.  We walked up to the beach to talk lunch with some from the group who'd spent the morning in the sand with the kids, before heading back to the center to meet up with an American friend living in Tirrenia for pizza and pasta.  And though I'm tempted to follow this tangent, I'll have to save Jim for another post, as well.  After a nice, long, Italian lunch (close to 3 hours, including the stroll towards Jim's house and our car) Chris and I drove up to his old office to visit a few old colleagues before they left for the day.  By the time we left there, it was six o'clock.  Marcella at the office assured us an unannounced visit at this hour was perfectly acceptable, so we returned to Tirrenia to knock on an old friend's door.

Although we'd lived beside him for two and a half years and knew very well where Alberto and his wife lived, I questioned myself as Chris and I walked up the drive that lead around to their half of the house.  Was this it?  Chris didn't know, but I did so why so nervous?  Part of me worried he wouldn't remember me.  It should be said that last I'd seen Alberto his wife was in the hospital for her heart, and both of them were pretty advanced in years.  Maybe they didn't live here anymore.  Or maybe... so I rang the bell at the side of the gate and held my breath.  A loud and sudden buzz made me jump and the gate swung inward.  I stepped cautiously in and followed a short stone path around the gate.  Just then, Alberto opened the patio doors and looked out at me.  His expression went from neutral curiosity of who was ringing his bell to a wide-eyed kind of surprise, immediately followed by a great, big smile.  He stepped out and raised his hands, almost shouting hello, and I walked swiftly to him, embracing him and matching his smile.  "You remember me?" I asked.  "Of course, how are you?" he replied.  My heart was bursting; it was almost like seeing my grandfather again.

Teresa and the fattest cat ever

Alberto didn't let Chris get away without a warm embrace, too, and he called his wife, Teresa out of the house to say hello.  I'd never met her before, but had listened to Alberto worry over her health in the past.  She looked radiant to me, and we all kissed hello and sat together at their patio table talking for the next two and a  half hours.  After refusing cafe, cappuccino, wine, water, and a shot of some kind of liquor, we finally accepted a small glass of beer to put our old neighbors at ease.  We toasted to old friends and talked about life.  They have the fattest cat I've ever seen, and we laughed over his girth and looked at a photo album they'd kept of him since kittenhood.  They showed us pictures of their kids, all grown, and their beautiful lone granddaughter.  Alberto talked about his daughter's dog he often walks, and asked about Heidi.  When I mentioned how I never saw him without a pipe in his hand or in his mouth, he promptly retrieved pictures of his extensive pipe collection at their apartment in Florence.  There are many things Alberto had in common with my own Papa.  Conversation was a little bumpy since Alberto's English is limited and my Italian is quite rusty, but we managed just fine.  There was a moment when Alberto disappeared into the house suddenly, emerging with an Italian-English dictionary to help us avoid confusion.  It was sweet, and I was so glad we decided to stop by.

Before announcing my intention of getting pictures of and with them, I took a moment to clumsily stumble through something I very much wanted Alberto to understand.  I explained how it had been difficult for me in the beginning, living here in Italy far from home and family, alone most of the time and struggling to make being a foreigner regular life.  I talked about how I first saw him, this grumpy man passing by each day, grumbling at Heidi on his way to the dumpster, pipe in mouth.  And then I told them both how much it had meant to me when we finally started talking, and how Alberto had become an important part of my day, becoming a source of comfort and familiarity, something I needed very much at that time.  They listened and I said as much of it as I could in bad Italian, feeling very self-conscious all of a sudden.  And then I thanked him for his friendship and he squeezed my hands until they hurt.

They tried to feed us dinner, as anybody would around here, but not wanting to put them out but also not wanting to insult them, we lied and said we were meeting up with friends.  We took some pictures in their garden and I embraced Teresa goodbye, so glad to have finally met her.  We exchanged mailing addresses with promises of writing and sending pictures, and Alberto walked us to our car out on the street.  I was filled with such happiness that we'd come, that they'd been home, and that we were able to spend some time with Alberto and Teresa.  On the street Alberto squeezed my hands in his again, pulling them right up into his chest, and we kissed goodbye, right cheek, left cheek.  He grabbed a hold of Chris, gripped his shoulders, and kissed him the same farewell.  Then before we got into the car, he grabbed my hands and held them a minute one last time.  I didn't mind that he squeezed the blood from my fingers, because the dampness in his eyes looked like love.  He's a part of my Italian family, after all.

A couple days later we had dinner at Lo Squalo, a great ristorante down in the center of Tirrenia, owned and run by another pair of old neighbors from Biancospini.  When it was time to pay, we finally said hello to Christian, the owner, having not wanted to disturb him during dinner rush.  He spoke briefly of how everyone was and where we were living now, and it was nice to be remembered.  But the best thing Christian said was that Alberto had told him about us stopping by.  He said we had really surprised them, and it had meant a lot to him to see us again.

When we left Tirrenia that night to return to the villa in Lucca, I whispered goodnight to Tirrenia, and to everyone who made that place mean something to me.  This trip to Tuscany with such good friends would be filled with so much, but Tuesday evening at Alberto's will always be my favorite part.


  1. You have a great collection of friends all over the world! I love this story.

  2. That IS the fattest cat ever! Lovely story!