The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 4

San Michele in Borgo, Pisa
Top section of San Michele in Borgo, photographed from across the Borgo Stretto (which means “narrow village”)

The Professor without a Classroom

The next morning was cool, with perfect blue sky. Polly stood at her window watching her new neighbors heading off to work on foot and motorini—motor scooters—and in little cars like those still lining both sides of the street. How lovely it was to be about to head out for the day herself, and how strange that she should feel enthusiastic at the prospect of school. She liked her school back in New York well enough, some subjects anyway. But just last week she had celebrated the last day of the school year with the same enthusiasm as her classmates’.

Mme Meringue was nowhere in sight. After quickly swallowing the light breakfast of a brioche and orange juice that her landlady had laid out for her in the kitchen and then washing her plate and glass in the sink, Polly closed the front door behind her and tugged to make sure it was locked. She was used to a heartier breakfast and hoped there would be time for a snack later in the morning. Lasting until lunch without a rumbling stomach would be impossible.

Polly walked down her street and then turned the corner to Via Cesare Battisti. She almost passed the nondescript entrance to the Scuola Linguistica per Stranieri a Pisa—the Language School for Foreigners in Pisa. The small sign for the school was at the bottom of a column of similar small signs announcing the presence of various offices and agencies.

The floor of the tiny entrance lobby was made of blue and white tiles forming a swirling mosaic. A travel poster of the Leaning Tower hung on the far wall. Just around the corner and up three stairs waited an ancient elevator, but Polly chose to walk up the five flights to her school, past the closed doors of the offices and agencies, one to each level.

The door to the Scuola Linguistica was open, however, and signor Poletti, the school administrator, was inside, working at his desk. Throughout Polly’s summer of language lessons, signor Poletti would nearly always be working at his desk or sitting there talking with students and teachers. He proved to be kind, reserved, and efficient, even though he usually seemed a little hassled from his worries of one kind or another.

Sono in anticipo,” said Polly—“I’m early.”

Non troppo,” he answered—“Not too much”—and showed her into one of the classrooms, where a copy of a multiple-choice placement test had been put at each seat around tables arranged in a large square. Out of the window she could see the Carrara Mountains in the distance, the white marble at their summits glinting in the morning light. A ceiling fan spun slowly.

Polly usually worried a lot about tests—she hated them—but for some reason she was now calm and confident. She hadn’t even been nervous about walking into the school and announcing herself to signor Poletti, and she wasn’t nervous about working her way through the test choices—the answers she knew, those she thought she might know, and those about which she hadn’t a clue. She just ripped along, not second-guessing herself. It was nice to experience what it must be like for some of the more happy-go-lucky kids in her class, the ones who didn’t care if their grade came back an A or a C. No doubt having spent part of the past evening with a spirit girl had changed her perspective a bit. At the very least, everything now had an edge of unreality, as if she were casually watching her experiences from outside herself.

After the multiple-choice questions came an oral interview with one of the four young women who would teach the four course levels. Polly hadn’t had much chance to hold real conversations in Italian before her trip, just the stilted ones with her classmates in signora Martinelli’s course and a couple of after-school chats with signora Martinelli herself. But she’d been getting along okay in the language for a couple of days now—not to mention her conversation last night with Sofia. So at least she didn’t have to try to make her brain switch gears the way she did back home when she changed classes from English to Italian.

The young man ahead of her came out from his interview, and the teenaged girl in line behind Polly said, “Go on!” But Polly waited to be called in, hoping that this girl who was now looking so impatient wouldn’t be in her class. The other students waiting for their interviews or chatting in the office area ranged from a few boys and girls about Polly’s age to adults at least the age of her parents.

The examining teacher finished making her notes and signaled Polly’s turn. The teacher was pretty and proved to be an expert at relaxing jittery students by sticking with the simple questions: where Polly was from, what her interests were, how much Italian she’d studied. Polly saw her write “3” next to her name on the roster.

The first morning of school was over. Signor Poletti reminded her to return after lunch to meet her new class.

Her first stop outside was the café on the corner—the Bar Allegro—for a slice of spinach omelet wrapped in thin focaccia dough. She bought a second slice and a bottle of mineral water to save for lunch later. It was only 10:30, and she’d be hungry again by early afternoon. Polly thought it was funny that perfectly proper establishments for a light meal or for coffee or juice were called “bars.” Just about everyone Polly saw at the bar was drinking coffee and eating some kind of pastry. Given Italian breakfasts, it was no wonder to Polly that the other patrons, too, needed a snack about now.

Most of the customers stood at the counter to eat and to drink their beverages, and she joined them, trying to look as if she did this all the time. She’d been cautioned that sitting at a table and being waited on would double or triple her bill.

Leaving the bar by the door opening onto the boulevard that led to the train station, Polly saw five of the African merchants Mme Meringue called extracomunitari. She recognized the man she’d exchanged buona sera with the evening before, and there next to him was Charles. He spotted her, and they waved to each other before she turned away from the station to head toward the Arno River and the bridge leading to the Borgo Stretto, a street that was closed to cars.

Polly had plenty of time before she was due to meet Sofia. She spent the next two hours wandering along the Borgo Stretto—glancing into café-bars and shops—and exploring the even narrower side streets and alleyways. The medieval buildings had pink, red, and purple flowers flowing over their balconies. Down at the end of one narrow street she found a pretty church that was hundreds of years old, and wandering farther still, she stood in front of the Teatro Verdi, Pisa’s opera house. Polly imagined walking inside with a ticket in hand for an opera performance. She would wear her green velvet dress and her new shoes with the little heels.

Sitting on an opera-house step, Polly ate her lunch and continued to daydream about attending a performance inside.

She looked at her watch and saw she was due at her appointment with Sofia in ten minutes. Hurrying back to the Borgo Stretto, Polly started to stiffen inside, anticipating Sofia’s strident voice in her ear at any moment.

Polly had earlier located the Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo and so returned there easily, but so far Sofia had not made her presence known. Standing on the steps of the church was a tall, slender woman who, after a few moments, began reciting in a voice as loud as Sofia’s: “Ah, Pisa, you bring curses down upon the people of your beautiful city!”

The woman delivered these surprising lines as though she were an actress in the Teatro Verdi opera house. She flung out her arms on “Ah, Pisa,” paused, and pointed her finger at a startled tourist trying to take a photograph of the church from across the narrow street. “Even though Count Ugolino betrayed you and your castles, you should not have condemned his sons to such a fate,” she continued sternly. The tourist looked around to see who else was paying attention, spotted Polly a few feet away, shook his head, and hurried up the street. The orange and white cat sitting on the steps beside the woman was a more appreciative audience. He regarded his human companion as if he admired her dramatic skill.

Apparently finished with her recitation and now commenting to the cat, the woman said in a more conversational tone, “My dear Dante, you write beautiful words but sanction curses that are undeserved!”

“I see you’ve found Mirella,” said a voice that was becoming familiar but was now unusually quiet—just a whisper in Polly’s ear. Polly jumped anyway, in spite of having been expecting Sofia for several minutes.

“What’s she talking about?” Polly whispered back, trying not to move her mouth. She didn’t want anyone thinking she was as odd as the lady on the church steps.

“She’s reciting Dante’s Inferno,” said Sofia, forgetting to continue keeping her voice down.

A woman who had paused on her way up the Borgo Stretto glanced around. “Very good!” she said to Polly, assuming Polly to be the source of the young voice. “You’ve been paying attention in school. Too bad she’s crazy,” the woman added, pointing to Mirella. “She must have paid attention in school, too.”

Mirella had sat down next to her cat. She pulled back her long gray hair as though planning to wrap it into a bun but then let it fall in disorder over her shoulders. “They refuse to listen to me,” she said audibly to the cat, who continued to look attentive. “No one cares about anything anymore—not about my Dante, my Pisa, or even the truth, and certainly not about literature, which carries truth even when it speaks falsely.”

“Mirella loves Pisa, too,” Sofia said proudly.

“Shh,” Polly whispered to Sofia after the woman who’d spoken to her had gone on. People will think I’m talking to myself. They’ll think that woman and I are a pair.”

“You could do worse.” At least Sofia made the retort quietly. “Look, Act Two’s beginning.”

Mirella didn’t seem very young, but she rose as easily as a girl and smoothed the neatly pressed denim skirt that came down nearly to the top of her sandals, which looked too big for her slender feet. The cat turned his head as if for a better view.

With her palms up, Mirella thrust one arm forward and the other out to her side and declaimed in a clear, powerful voice that sounded on the verge of tears:

Amid the desolation of a city
Which was the cradle and is now the grave
Of an extinguished people, so that Pity
Weeps o’er the shipwrecks of oblivion’s wave,
There stands the Tower of Famine.

Mirella dropped her head and spoke just loudly enough to be heard: “Dear young Shelley. You, too, speak falsehoods against the city that welcomed you.”

“That’s Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Tower of Famine’ she’s reciting now. He was a famous English poet, and he lived right here in Pisa for a while, down at the end of this street.”

“Yes, of course I know he was a poet. I’ve heard of Dante, too, for that matter,” said Polly, still a little hurt by Sofia’s “you could do worse” comment. “What’s the cat’s name?”

“Byron. I guess you know he also wrote poetry—the real Byron, not the cat. The real Byron once lived around the corner. He was a great poet but a little nuts. People say sometimes he rode his horse right in the front door and up the grand staircase. People didn’t even behave like that in my era.”

“Where does Mirella live?”

“In a tower—don’t look so startled—not my tower. It’s another tower, over near la Sapienza—that’s part of the University of Pisa. There are lots of towers in Tuscany; you should know that by now. Most of them in these parts are square, not round like my tower. Look, I hate whispering, and you look pretty funny trying to whisper without even moving your mouth. After your class, meet me in front of Santa Maria della Spina—that’s the tiny church right next to the river.”

Polly didn’t feel she was being polite to stare, even though Mirella acted as if she were on a stage. Still, Mirella seemed largely oblivious to the small audience of passersby that had formed and was now dispersing. Having finished once again with her recitations, she sat back down, smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt as she had before, and said something more to the cat, but this time she spoke so softly that Polly couldn’t understand the words. Byron rearranged himself as if to go to sleep, but his eyes remained open and alert and seemed to be studying the comings and goings of the lunchtime crowd along the Borgo Stretto. Suddenly he sat up straight and said, “Meow!” as if he meant business.

“Woof,” said what sounded like a small dog who also meant business, but no dog was in sight.

“Kinzica, get back here!” Sofia hollered, causing two more passersby to turn and look at Polly, wondering where the dog was that she was calling.

“Woof, woof,” said Kinzica, louder still, and then, “Woof, woof, woof!”

Byron clearly had a low tolerance for rudeness in dogs. Ever so slowly, with disdain in his expression and every move, he rose to all four paws and arched his back, his raised fur making him look twice his size. Then he bounded down the steps of the church.

“Byron!” Mirella called after him. “Come back! Leave Kinzica alone!”

Byron ignored her and rushed into the street, hissing and meowing as he ran.

“Woof, woof, woof!” repeated Kinzica.

“Stop it, Kinzica!” scolded Sofia in a voice as loud as her dog’s. “Leave Byron alone!”

“Where’s the dog?” asked a woman who was among the half-dozen people who’d paused to see what was going on with Mirella’s cat.

“I don’t know,” answered Polly, wishing she were somewhere else.

“But you were just talking to it!” said a scornful-looking teenaged girl who turned to the boy with her and said, “She’s as crazy as the old woman!” She gestured toward Mirella but then shrieked and grabbed her friend’s arm as Byron ran to within six inches of her feet, stopped as if he had slammed on the brakes, and began a cat fit such as Polly had never seen before. He pounced, spat, hissed, swished his tail, ran back a few feet, ran forward again toward the cowering teenagers, and nearly completed a back flip whose ultimate lack of success broke the rule about cats always landing on their feet.

“Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!” said Kinzica as if she were laughing.

Byron righted himself, and with as much dignity as he could scrape together, gave one last ferocious hiss and turned toward Mirella, who had continued calling him to her during his tantrum. With his tail in the air, he walked haughtily up the church steps and sat down behind his human.

“Woof,” repeated Kinzica, but this time Byron did not take the bait.

“Now don’t be mean,” Sofia said as well as she could, given her own laughing fit.

In spite of herself, Polly was laughing so much her stomach hurt.

“Well I’m glad it’s funny to you,” said the teenaged girl. “I think you’re weird. You laugh so hard you sound like two people. Come on, Paulo,” she said to her boyfriend. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I think you have a problem, dear,” said the woman who’d asked where the dog was. “You’re a talented little actress; your barking sounded quite real, but why do you need to call so much attention to yourself? And to torment that poor cat so!”

Embarrassment stopped Polly’s laughter. It was only her second full day in Pisa, and already she was afraid she’d ruined her reputation and would be known forever around town as the “barking American.” She tried weakly to defend herself: “It wasn’t I!”

“You can’t have been looking at Polly if you thought she was doing the barking!” said Sofia, making matters much worse.

“Of course not! I was watching that poor, demented cat,” said the woman before she’d had time to analyze the situation. But then she added, “Who said that?” sounding half angry and half alarmed.

Without responding to the woman or glancing at the other stragglers who’d been watching Byron’s cat fit—and hearing a conversation with more speakers than visible people—Polly abruptly turned and headed back down the Borgo Stretto toward the Arno River.

She reached the bridge across the Arno that linked the Borgo Stretto with the Corso Italia. Like the Borgo Stretto, the Corso Italia was a shop-lined street set aside for people on foot, bicycles, and motorini. Polly was relieved when she had crossed the bridge and could once again feel anonymous. Dodging tourists and motorbikes, she hurried down the full length of the Corso, past inviting stores and café-bars, to her afternoon class.

Polly climbed the flights of stairs to her school and was sent into the classroom for level three. A friendly young Kenyan named Simon, who would be known in class by the Italian version of his name, Simone, pronounced “See-mo-nay,” sat down next to her on the left. A pretty longhaired Polish girl—Anna—sat to her right. The three chatted a little; both of her neighbors seemed to speak better Italian than she did. They sounded more secure. Oh well, she’d do her best.

The ceiling fan creaked. This was not its first summer. Brown shutters softened the sun’s glare and traffic noise as Polly and the others held conversations on topics assigned by Elena, their kind young teacher. Elena called the students “ragazzi,” kids—much more pleasant than the “people” that had been her past-year homeroom teacher’s favorite term, as in, “People, please pay attention!” Elena was wonderfully interesting and encouraging. Polly was thrilled; as the words flew, she understood almost everything.

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