At Mme Meringue’s
After their visit to the Leaning Tower, Polly and her parents checked out of the Grand Hotel Duomo and took a taxi across the Arno River to Mme Meringue’s attractive home on a side street not far from the train station. The little yellow-stucco house was narrow but had four stories, with balconies on each of the top three floors. Tubs of tiny white flowers decorated the balconies, and vines with more tiny white flowers climbed up the ironwork and cascaded back down over the railings. On the lowest balcony, three yellow lemons peeked out of the leaves on a small tree in a clay pot.
The taxi waited while Polly’s parents shook hands with Mme Meringue and hugged Polly farewell. An African boy whom Mme Meringue introduced as Charles—saying, “Charles helps me out from time to time”—picked up Polly’s suitcases, waved away her father’s offer of help, and disappeared up a stairway in the front hall. Pleased to see someone about her own age, Polly wondered which country he was from and whether he and she would become friends. Polly’s parents didn’t have much time before their train left for Naples. “We’re sorry not to see your room, Polly,” her father said. “Mme Meringue, Polly has our address and phone number. She’s a good girl; I don’t think she’ll be too much trouble.”
Polly followed Mme Meringue and her small dog to the third floor—so much for any notion of sneaking out her window. Mme Meringue opened the door and stepped back for Polly to enter her bedroom for the summer. The room looked like the inside of a snowbank. The headboard on the bed was white padded vinyl, scalloped at the top and rising on each end to a little white knob. A thick comforter—white, of course—covered the bed, and on top of it Mme Meringue had placed huge pillows trimmed in lace. Polly walked over to examine the pretty pillows, which were embroidered with light-yellow roses. She couldn’t wait to climb up on the bed with a good book, but that desire was immediately squelched. “I know you won’t lie on the spread or throw your books on it,” said Mme Meringue. Her golden spaniel looked at Polly as if to say, “I’d never jump on the bed.”
Polly suddenly felt as though someone else had come into the room. Expecting to see Charles, she turned from the bed toward the door. But all she saw was her tall, stout landlady and the snooty little dog. Mme Meringue was pointing to a small desk with a matching chair. “Over here is a lovely desk for studying your lessons and writing to your little friends. I’ll bet mamma and papà would appreciate a letter now and then, too.”
The desk was as white as the bed and walls, except for gold trim along the edges and on the drawer knobs. The desk, a chest of drawers, and a freestanding wardrobe made a matching set, along with the enormous mirror framed in white and gold that hung over the chest. Over the bed, Mme Meringue had hung a picture of two little girls skipping between rows of towering yellow sunflowers. Yellow seemed to be the one bright color Polly’s new landlady would tolerate. Polly loved sunflowers as much as the next person, but she couldn’t see herself skipping through a field of them.
Really, the room was beautiful, if she hadn’t been afraid to touch—and cautioned against marring—just about everything in it. And how was she supposed to walk on the deep, white carpet without leaving dirty marks, no matter how hard she’d scraped her shoes on the front stoop? Mme Meringue soon answered that question: “In the future, you’ll want to leave your shoes down on the little mat just inside the front door. I’m sure your mother has packed you some lovely slippers that will serve well here at home.” So that’s why Mme Meringue was wearing bedroom slippers—with fluffy white feathers on the top.
The worst thing about the room was its failure to include a single bookcase. In fact, it only contained one book—a white-leather Bible on the bedside table, which also held a white lamp topped by a white shade decorated with pompoms. Polly supposed Mme Meringue would have had a problem finding enough white books to fill even the tiniest bookcase. That was okay; Polly had brought plenty of books with her, as her parents had grumblingly noted when they’d helped her with her luggage at the New York and Pisa airports.
“I’ll leave you to get settled. Cena will be at seven. That is a bit early, perhaps, but I understand you Americans eat your—‘supper’ is it?—practically in the afternoon, and I have some things I need to do this evening.” Mme Meringue’s accent was even more pronounced as she slipped in the English word among her fluent but—even to Polly’s unpracticed ears—French-tinged Italian. Polly was relieved that her landlady spoke slowly enough for her to understand without struggling. She’d been very worried before her trip about whether her own Italian would be up to the test of everyday use.
Polly’s school back in New York offered all sorts of languages, and she felt lucky to be heading into the eighth grade with three years of Italian already behind her. Her teacher, signora Martinelli, was Italian herself, from Rome, and she was the one who had done the most to help Polly fall in love with the language. Signora Martinelli loved music, too—opera, especially—and played recordings of beautiful arias for the class. Some of the kids mocked and pantomimed the singing, but Polly adored Italian opera and hoped to attend at least one during the summer.
As soon as Mme Meringue left her alone, and before she even thought about it, Polly pulled the book she was reading from her overnight case, slipped out of her sandals, and lay down on the thick, white quilt, her head against the luxurious pile of pillows. But her conscience quickly reminded her to jump up again and pull back the quilt. The blanket underneath was equally white, but Polly’s conscience didn’t bother her about lying on that and leaning back again against the pillows. She opened the book, which was by Bianca Pitzorno, her favorite Italian author, but didn’t read more than a paragraph before she fell asleep.
When she awoke, the soft light through the shuttered window told Polly the day was far advanced. After a moment of feeling disoriented about where she was, Polly remembered, glanced in haste at the clock beside the bed, and was relieved to find that cena was still half an hour away. She didn’t want to irritate Mme Meringue, especially the first day, and even more especially given what Polly had in mind for later.
Cena was in the dining room. A soup course had been served at the two places set with elegant silverware, delicate glasses, and linen napkins. Mme Meringue was already at the place at the far end of the table, which would have seated eight comfortably. She motioned to Polly to take the seat at the opposite end of the table. In contrast to Polly’s bedroom, the dining room was dark and formal. The massive furniture was intricately carved. A spectacular crystal chandelier hung so low over the table that it obscured part of Mme Meringue’s curly hairdo and made it look as if she were wearing an elaborate glass headdress. Polly imagined that Mme Meringue had eaten here with her husband when he’d been alive. Had he been called “signor Meringue”? she wondered. Could an Italian man possibly have the name “Meringue”? And was that smiling, gray-haired man in the portrait over the buffet cabinet her landlady’s husband? He had warm, cheery eyes. “Is that a portrait of signor Meringue?” she got up the courage to ask, indicating the picture.
“Oh no, my dear—I mean, yes, that is my husband, my dear Gustavo, but he was Gustavo Bonetti. Italian women retain their maiden name after marriage, although they are also referred to as ‘la signora so-and-so,’ according to their husband’s name. My dear Gustavo was always proud of me and liked to introduce me as ‘my wife, Mme Minou Meringue.’”
“He looks very nice, very kind,” said Polly, thinking that she, too, would keep her own name if she married.
“He was the kindest man you could ever imagine,” Mme Meringue said so softly and sadly that Polly thought for a moment she was about to cry. Polly wouldn’t have blamed anyone for crying from missing such a sweet-looking husband, not at all what Polly would have imagined proper Mme Meringue’s husband to be like.
Mme Meringue abruptly stood up. “I think I would like some more of that minestra. Can I interest you in another cup, Polly?”
As good as the soup was, Polly wanted to leave room for whatever was coming next. She’d been learning about Italian meals and their multiple courses, and besides, she was too preoccupied with all that had happened and all that still lay ahead for the evening to have her full appetite.
Charles was not around, and no other household members were in evidence. Mme Meringue served the meal herself, fussing over whether Polly was eating enough. Polly tried to reassure her: “Really, it’s so good! I’m not very hungry—maybe still a little jet-lagged—but I love the pasta! But really, I’ve had plenty!” Polly had to admit that Mme Meringue did have a talent for pasta, even if she were French instead of Italian. A tasty piece of baked haddock and spinach with olive oil and lemon juice followed the pasta course. Like the rest of the meal, they were served on fragile-looking blue and white china, which Polly imagined Mme Meringue bringing with her from France. And then she was happy to see that dessert was a dish of raspberries, which Polly loved, and a cheese plate she could safely decline. As much as she liked sweets such as tiramisu, she absolutely would have had to turn down a rich dessert.
Beyond the discussion of Polly’s appetite, the dinner conversation felt like a game of Twenty Questions, with Mme Meringue asking almost all the questions and sticking to such topics as Polly’s school, friends, hobbies, and house back home.
Polly offered to help with the dishes, but Mme Meringue declined, much to Polly’s relief because time was getting tight. “No, dear, I have my own system in the kitchen. There will be some little chores for you some other time.”
Polly announced a strong desire to take a walk. “My parents and I nearly always take a walk after supper in the summertime,” she said. The statement would have been true if she’d substituted “sometimes” for “nearly always.” She wasn’t a bit comfortable stretching the truth anytime, much less so early in her relationship with Mme Meringue, but she also wasn’t about to miss meeting Sofia at the Leaning Tower.
“As long as you don’t mind my not walking with you,” said Mme Meringue quite amiably. “I’ll give you a key—you’ll need it for the summer in case I’m out sometimes when you come home.”
Polly wondered fleetingly if she had imagined the whole encounter with Sofia or if someone were playing a trick on her. But how could that be the case? Not one to follow other people’s notions of what she should do unless she agreed the plans made sense, Polly quickly dismissed any question in her mind about why she was going along with Sofia’s demand to meet her at the Leaning Tower. Polly knew why she’d agreed. She had always thought—and hoped—there were people like Sofia around, but she didn’t know anyone else who’d actually had an experience like the one she’d had that afternoon. If Sofia existed, maybe Polly’s grandfather, whom she missed like crazy, was sometimes around, too, and even ancestors she’d never had a chance to meet. Here was an incredible opportunity to find out how these things worked.
Mme Meringue continued, “I might as well alert you now: I don’t like to be disturbed in the evening because that is when I study my Bible—and watch my television shows,” she added candidly. “You’ll certainly be back well before dark, won’t you? I can’t imagine your parents would be happy about your running around Pisa after dark. After all, you have to be up early for your class tomorrow. I don’t suppose you’d be in any actual danger if you stay in the neighborhood, but it’s simply not proper for a girl of your age.” Fortunately she assumed Polly’s compliance and didn’t wait for an answer before continuing: “And I will never trust those Gypsies and extra-comunitari. Pisa would be so much more civilized without them.”
“What are ‘extracomunitari’?” asked Polly.
“Outsiders, strangers, people from distant places.”
“Then I’m an extracomunitaria?”
“Why of course I wouldn’t call you that, dear! I’m talking about people like those African merchants who sell hats and sunglasses and all manner of other nonsense. I can’t even walk to the train station without passing a half dozen of them along the sidewalk. Charles—the boy who carried up your luggage—is an extracomunitario. It’s true that he’s quite a good young man, but I don’t approve in the least of his selling souvenirs with the rest of that lot. He’s hanging around with a very bad crowd, I have no doubt. Their businesses—if you can call a collection of trinkets laid out on bedsheets ‘businesses’—should all be shut down, even Charles’s. It would be for his own good to make him take up a respectable trade.”
“Does he have a family here in Pisa?”
“Of course not. That’s not the way they do.”
“He doesn’t look very old. How would he earn a living if he gave up his business?”
“I could find him plenty of work as a houseboy, the way he works for me from time to time, but he makes ridiculous claims about his souvenir trade helping people back home. I can’t imagine there’s much left over after Charles pays his living expenses. Enough about that; I’m keeping you from your walk.
“Here’s my extra key—but don’t lose it,” Mme Meringue added after taking the key from a shelf next to the window. Polly hated it when adults cautioned her not to lose things. Both of Polly’s parents lost things more often than she did, but they, too, were always telling her to hold on to this or that.
“Have a nice walk, and please be quiet when you come in.”
No problem, thought Polly. She intended to be very, very quiet. The late-setting June sun would have long since disappeared below the horizon when she returned from her meeting at the tower. She fervently hoped Mme Meringue wouldn’t be checking her room to see if she’d safely arrived home.
Polly walked the three blocks to the train station through the warm early evening, the sun casting long shadows over the Pisans and tourists out for an after-supper stroll. A few of the street merchants that Mme Meringue had called extracomunitari still had their wares spread on the sidewalk under the arcade along Viale Gramsci, the boulevard leading to the station. She smiled at a middle-aged man who was sitting on a folding chair with his back to the wall. He returned her smile and “buona sera.” Polly would have liked to look more closely at the sun hats he was selling, but doing so would have to wait for another time. She hurried on to the station—where, she’d learned from the desk clerk at the Grand Hotel Duomo, one could catch a bus to the Leaning Tower. Clutching one of the bus tickets her parents had purchased for her at a newsstand near the hotel, she checked the posted routes, located the right stop, and read the schedule. Another bus to the tower would be along in fifteen minutes.
To pass the time, she stepped inside the station, called Pisa Centrale. Sounds boomed and echoed, and the loudspeaker announced a train in arrivo and then another in partenza. Polly bought a copy of the newspaper Il Tirreno at the newsstand so she could practice reading more Italian and then headed back outside to catch the bus.
After crossing the Arno River near Santa Maria della Spina—a tiny church right at the river’s edge—the bus continued on through city streets until it stopped by the Porta di Santa Maria archway in the old city wall. Just beyond, looking like a fantasy painting in the low-angled light, was the Campo dei Miracoli with its baptistery, cathedral, and bell tower—the Leaning Tower. The tower was framed by the deepening blue of dusk and illuminated softly from within to show the way for tourists still inside at this late hour.
“It looks like a candle made of moonlight, don’t you think?” a rather loud voice said in her ear.
“Sofia? You scared me!”
“Sorry. It’s just so pretty; it makes me proud. And I could tell you were impressed. Come and sit with me on the steps on the other side of the cathedral. We’ll find a place that’s private so no one thinks you’re talking to yourself and calls the police to take you away.” Sofia’s cackling laugh was disconcertingly piercing, and two women standing nearby looked around at Polly. “Don’t worry, I’ll follow you. Just pick a good spot.”
On the far side of the cathedral, Polly was eventually able to find a place to sit on a step where no one was in easy earshot. She settled herself and listened expectantly.
 In Italian, titles such as “signore” (spelled “signor” before a name) are not capitalized.