Year in year out, there was a turnover of objects in the shop. Gualverio might have discovered wooden begging bowls, or someone who made botanical prints. Once he brought two Sicilian puppets. An artist friend asked me to help out a struggling Rumanian artist who did traditional under-glass paintings of Orthodox saints.
In Perugia we discovered a lady who made lovely woodcuts of trees and scenery. The decoys in palm leaves came from near Lucca, as did the large yellow platters with a motif of simple brown dots although they were probably made in Puglia.
Leave Deruta pottery to the other shops, we thought. But we did discover an artisan who had revived the yellow earthenware decorated with a sunflower pattern and we stocked up on cups and plates and soup tureens. The traditional straw flowers and hats from Tuscany were also a hit. Adamo, who later became my second husband, was also a great help, in particular on excursions into the Maremma for olive wood bowls and stools.
Out on the square, the porticoed building next door, once a convent, was then the hospital.
Many of the doctors had been friends of Mario’s and knew I spoke both English and German. So when patients arrived whose acquaintance with Italian was limited to grazie and per favore, I was called in. Once the A1, the super highway of the sun, was finished with an exit at Orvieto, accidents occurring there would send the ambulance, sirens full blast, winding its way up to this city on the cliff. Mostly accidents were a result of speeding or impatience with the car in front, leading to an iill-fated attempt to pass. Aside from the occasional truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, the most memorable was one that involved a couple from Berlin. They had pulled over at one of the resting stops along the highway. Another car drove in and two men got out. They came over, apparently, the German driver thought, to ask directions as he leaned down to get out his glasses. One of the two men, thinking he was getting a gun, pulled out his gun and shot him. His wife tried to get out but the other man closed the car door on her leg. Later, in the hospital, in telling what happened, she said the one man was also quite humane and when he saw that the car door was hurting her, pushed it open a bit. I was called in to translate for the police and for the doctors and nurses, for only one of the doctors knew both German and English. Elisabeth, for that was the name of the wife, asked me to contact her daughter in Berlin, a young woman in the theater, and when she arrived I had her stay in my apartment in Orvieto. Elisabeth was soon well enough to travel and she and her daughter returned to Berlin. Her husband never fully recovered from this experience. Elisabeth remained in touch and would write every year, inviting me to Berlin.
Then there was the tenor who had been on his way to Rome to sing in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He was in the back seat when the car was rammed from behind and some of his teeth were knocked out – luckily they were already replacements. For him too it was a phone call to his friend in Germany.
One day the police stationed at the autostrada called, asking for help. They had picked up a young woman, wearing practically nothing, wandering along the highway. She was incoherent and wouldn’t let men get near her. They had put her in a hotel in Orvieto and bought her a few necessary clothes. She seemed to have had a fight with her husband and refused to continue with him, saying she would hitchhike back to Florence. A couple of truck drivers picked her up, and the rest can be imagined. She was even afraid that the opening for air conditioning in the hotel was bringing in gas and refused to eat or drink. At the psychiatric department of the hospital they were able to convince her that the apparently unopened bottle of mineral water was safe, and she drank some, unaware that it contained a sedative. She was then sent to Terni and released a few days later when she was her usual self. A year later she came back to Orvieto with some friends, bringing me a small thank-you present. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to return.
Then there were others. Like the Australian couple who had had an accident on Via Postierla in Orvieto since it was night and they were confused by the headlights of the car coming towards them, forgetting that in Italy one drove on the other side of the road. I hosted them overnight and we invited them to share our Easter dinner in Monterubiaglio. Turned out she was a doctor, from South America.
And there was Joseph whom I helped box an antique clock he had bought so he could take it back to Germany with him. We also invited him to share our Easter lunch in the country.
There were all kinds of visitors to my shop – sometimes ordering extra long tablecloths or bedspreads, whole dinner services in medieval patterns. One young German couple stopped on their honeymoon and fell in love with one of the Sicilian puppets I had hanging next to the counter. They kept returning , and in the end bought it, cutting short their honeymoon since they had spent all their money. I wrapped the puppet, around five feet high, in a blanket and it rode back to Germany, a special passenger, in the back seat of their car. I wonder if the police stopped them, thinking it was a body!
Come May there are the school trips. First graders generally get a one-day outing while if you’re in high school it may even be a week abroad. When the little ones arrive it’s like a swarm of insects as they race around Piazza Duomo and come up Vicolo dei Dolci. I had to keep my eyes open for small objects somehow made their way into small pockets. If too many disappeared, the teacher was alerted and the objects found their way back home. I’ll never forget the little boy out in the street, crying. He had had some coins knotted up in a handkerchief so he could buy his mother a present. The knot had evidently come undone and the coins fallen out. Sobbing, he told me his story as I tried to comfort him. What do you want to give your mother? I asked. He pointed to a small animal figure, which I wrapped and put in his hand. “Here, this is for your mom.”
There were many who came and took home a piece of Italy. People who wandered in and out: Italians, Germans, Americans. I soon learned that if they were Dutch it was best not to try and speak German with them. Some Americans would continue to speak a broken Italian even when it was obvious that I spoke English, in which case I would switch back to Italian. One morning three tall clean-shaven men in flowered sports shirts came in and asked if I had a holy water font. Which I didn’t have nor had anyone ever asked me for one. They were clearly priests – without their telling me. There was always something about priests, or for that matter about nuns, that gave them away. It was fun to try and guess where the Italians came from. Regional accents are part of who you are, whether you are an Italian from Genoa or from Palermo, and I suppose the same can be said of Americans, from Brooklyn or from the deep south. After all an Italian identifies first with his town, then with the province and then the region, before simply saying he is Italian. I could sometimes spot visitors from Perugia, only 80 km away, by the way they dropped the endings on their words. One got used to the Florentine aspirated c – hasa instead of casa. And if they were from the Veneto, there was a lovely lilt to their words. One I didn’t particularly like though was the Neapolitan. Of course if they were speaking Sicilian or Sardinian, I couldn’t understand a word.
In the beginning Orvieto didn’t have many who spoke English. The mayor sometimes called on me when he had special visitors. A journalist or a photographer might need help, as when GEO was preparing an article on The Saving of a Jewel after a landslide threatened to carry away part of the cliff and the Italian government set aside sums to shore up the town. A few foreigners also came and bought houses in and around the city and needed help with the notary in drawing up the contracts. Occasionally this led to life-long friendships, as when an Australian couple renovated a farmhouse in the valley across from the city and needed help with technical explanations. A friendship that has now lasted for over thirty years. Then there were sister cities, such as Aiken in South Carolina, and visits of delegations.
There were stories of all kinds. Perhaps the most amusing was that told me by two US military. They were stationed in Germany and had decided to take a trip down to Italy. Driving on the autostrada at a certain point they felt it was time for a break and left at a Firenze exit, stopping – well they had no idea where they were stopping. They got a hotel, strolled around the town, and then returning to the hotel, one of them pulled out the key, took one look and said: “Hey, Bill. We’re in Florence!” Lord knows what they thought they were looking at as they wandered around the cathedral and Giotto’s bell tower. Then there was the woman from the south, perhaps Naples, who asked me how come there were these animals on the facade of the Orvieto cathedral.
I rather imagine most Italians would have immediately recognized them as the symbols of the four Evangelists, the angel for Matthew, the eagle for John, the ox for Luke and the lion for Mark, but she evidently had no idea. I didn’t expect Americans to know, for occasionally I even had to explain what an apse was and that the cathedral was both Romanesque and Gothic and what that meant. On the whole, there was rarely time to get into longer conversations. Particularly during the holidays.
For shops like mine, holidays were first of all Easter, in particular Easter Monday, when no Italian stayed home. It was wrapping purchases, explaining things, ringing up sales till after eight in the evening. I had help and we were all exhausted by closing time. Although Ferragosto was also pretty busy. Particularly if it was cloudy and people decided it was not a good day for the beach. Ferragosto, mid-August, either the beginning or the end of a vacation.
The seventies were the best years. The dollar/lira exchange rate was in favor of the American visitors and at the time there were few shops catering to tourists, except those that sold the typical Orvieto ceramics with their medieval or renaissance motifs, made either in Deruta or most likely in China.
A typical day in the shop began once I had seen the boys off to school. A stop at Montanucci’s for a cornetto and coffee. Macchiato, per favore. That spot of foamy milk on top might almost be whipped cream. If I’m lucky, someone will offer. Once that morning coffee is gulped down, up to Via Duomo, cross the piazza and turn the large key in the wooden doors of the shop in Vicolo dei Dolci.
We haven’t figured out a better way, so the earthenware pitchers and pots come out to occupy their places on the shelves either side of the entrance, as well as down at the beginning of the street that leads in from the square. Shall I put out a glass vase or two? And on the bench I can certainly drape a shawl or a rug. The ox tassels get hung on the wrought iron hooks and by 9:30 I’m open for business. Most tourists won’t start arriving till around 11 though, unless they’ve stayed overnight and want to buy one last gift before returning home. They seem to come in tides – flowing in at around 11, and flowing back out around one or two. If it’s a busy day, lunch is a sandwich from I Fratelli where Emilio gracefully layers a panino with truffle cream, artichokes and prosciutto, a fantastic flavor combination.
The curious head at the entrance continues to spout water, always cold, where I’ll cool off by letting it run over my wrists later on when it gets hot. A tourist may wander up and ask where these pots come from. I explain that they are local, traditional, used to cook beans in over the embers, and that the shawls and blankets are all hand woven and come from Tuscany. I look down the street and see a lady I have, alas, dealt with before. She always insists on cutting prices so when she arrives, I put the price up a bit before reducing it for her. At the time the prices on objects were coded. The box of ceramic figures delivered yesterday has to be opened and put on display, with prices in code on each piece. Time passes. I sit at the counter at the back and work on a translation, a guide to Tuscania. I’ll have to check just what the facade of San Pietro actually looks like to make sure I’ve got it right. Sometimes a word you think you know doesn’t make sense in the context. Like forno which usually means oven but can also mean cavity or niche. Time passes. People show up and leave, sometimes with a purchase. Mid-afternoon. It’s gotten hot. There’s Pasqualetti across the piazza and I go and get a mint and chocolate ice cream, hoping it won’t melt before I finish it. The little boy who’s having trouble with his English at school comes for a lesson. How hard to get him to pronounce the “th” properly and explain that sometimes you have to turn some concepts upside down, as with the verb “like”. Before I know it, the piazza is empty and I can start taking in all those pitchers and pots. Lock up and go home. Make supper for the boys, make sure they’ve done their homework, watch a movie on TV and it’s time for bed.
With the passing of years, the shop got to be known, and not just to the stranieri. I had had it for over 20 years and could request a pension. My children were independent adults and it was time for me to do other things with my life.