Pisans Seen and Unseen
“Have you seen that book about my tower?” said a big voice next to Polly. No one else was around, and besides, she’d already spent enough time with Sofia to have recognized her voice anywhere from New York to Beijing.
“I looked at it yesterday. It’s beautiful.” Thinking about how Sofia wished she had chiseled some of those beautiful designs, Polly felt a little sorry for her
“Did you see the carved animals?” Sofia sounded wistful. “There’s even a dragon. I like the ram best. Our family had a ram, and my father made that relief sculpture a portrait of our Rammy.”
“Your father carved the ram?” asked Polly, amazed to have discovered that someone she actually knew had such an important achievement in her family history.
“Woof,” added Kinzica, as if to announce that she, too, was here this afternoon and feeling proud of her family’s patriarch.
“Be quiet, Kinzica! They don’t like dogs in here—invisible or not!” Returning to her usual authoritative tone, Sofia added, “It’s time we were heading down to the bar—the Bar Allegro, right next to your school.”
Polly still found it odd to be heading to a “bar.” She found it odder still to be walking with a girl and dog she couldn’t see. Polly asked hesitantly for fear of being rude, “Who are those children playing accordions? They don’t seem to be having a very good time.”
“They’re Roma—Gypsy children. They come here sometimes—especially when it’s damp, like today. Most of the summer they’re at the seaside. Flora’s here a lot of the time, though. She’s who I want you to meet next. I thought we might see her along here. Maybe she’s playing farther up the street today. Anyway, she knows to meet us at the bar.”
After they’d crossed the piazza at the end of the Corso Italia, Sofia directed, “Go into the bar and ask for mineral water or juice, or whatever you like. Then go to one of the tables outside under the arcade. Try to pick one away from other people so we can talk before Flora shows up.”
“You’d make a good drill sergeant,” said Polly.
“What’s that?” asked Sofia.
After Polly had paid for a bottle of grapefruit juice and a slice of focaccia, she sat down in a wicker chair at an empty table. At the end of the boulevard she could see the train station, but the African merchants were not in their usual places under the arcade shared by the bar. Polly pulled her sweater around her to block out the surprisingly cool, damp air.
“What’s it like going to school?” Sofia startled Polly by asking—in what, as usual, seemed like an unnecessarily loud voice. “Of all the zillion things I’ve done and places I’ve been, that’s an experience I can’t duplicate. Girls in my day didn’t go. I do visit lots of classes, that’s for sure—my favorite is architecture—but I can’t grasp the whole experience. No one ever calls on me—well, hardly ever. Mirella did once. She kind of forgets that not everyone knows I’m about—just the cool people. Mirella’s cool—different but cool. But some completely uncool girl in her class said, ‘Sofia? There’s no Sofia in here! Don’t you know our names by this time?’
“Homework is another thing I miss doing,” Sofia added. It sounds so interesting. But I can’t very well lug around a backpack, can I?”
“Homework is something I’d be glad to give up,” said Polly, “except once in a while in a subject I really, really like.”
“You’d miss it,” Sofia said with certainty.
Polly was eager to bring up another subject while she had the chance. “My Italian teacher said we’re going to be studying some famous Pisans in history—a girl named Kinzica, just like your dog’s name, a San Ranieri, and someone called Santa Bona. Do you know anything about these people?”
“I didn’t personally know Kinzica when she first became famous. Her heyday was before my birth as Sofia. She was a really big heroine, and still is in many people’s minds. Do you want to know the story, or have you already heard it all?”
“No, Elena just mentioned her.”
“About a thousand years ago, the Pisans and Saracens were both big powers and vied with each other in conquering land all over the place. Well, in 1005, the Pisan fleet was off trying to regain some lost territory when the Saracens landed right here on our coast. One night they sneaked into town in a section that wasn’t very well defended because, after all, lots of the men were away. Young Kinzica—her whole name was Kinzica de’ Sismondi—saw the Saracens and began ringing the bells in one of the towers so loudly that folks woke up, armed themselves, and drove off the invaders!”
“For someone who says she’s not into time, you surely know history. How do you know she was real—that someone named Kinzica really saved the city from a Saracen invasion? My teacher thinks there’s some question about whether such a girl ever existed.”
Sofia’s voice conveyed the height of indignation: “Do you think I’m real?” she asked in a tight tone.
“Of course I think you’re real! I’m having a conversation with you!”
“Well then you’ll have to believe Kinzica is real because I was having a conversation with her yesterday, and I’m not any more inclined to imagine I’m talking to someone when I’m not than you are. Even though I wasn’t around here when Kinzica spread the alarm, Mirella was. This was before she was Beatrice, of course. Whoops—I was supposed to let Mirella tell you that, but you probably aren’t up on Beatrice, anyway, so she can explain.”
Sofia continued as Polly struggled to keep up with her explanations: “As far as being other people in the past goes, Mirella doesn’t have great recall—although she’s a thousand times better than most people. Most people don’t have a clue about whether they ever saw the earth before they were born this time around. Mirella does remember some of the really big things she experienced, and Kinzica ringing those bells and saving the day definitely qualify. Why do you think I named my dog Kinzica, and why has my dog stuck with me all these years? Like the girl Kinzica, we love Pisa and are determined to save it from harm!”
“Okay, I believe you.” Polly silently asked herself, “Should I?” and then resumed aloud, “So what do you know about San Ranieri and Santa Bona? I noticed they were from about your time.”
“Let’s clear up this time thing—now is my time as much as it is yours.”
“But to answer your question, San Ranieri—Saint Ranieri to you—died only eight years before I was born. But I know firsthand he truly was a saint who worked miracles because he cured my zio Roberto—Uncle Robert to you—who had been bedridden for years and just kept getting weaker and worse to the point everyone had pretty much given up. But zio Roberto asked to be taken to see San Ranieri where he was living at the monastery of San Vito.
“San Ranieri put his healing touch on my uncle and blessed him, and sure enough, by the next day he was stronger, and he kept getting stronger every single day—so much so that eventually he was able to go back to his work on their farm. He’d had to rely on his son and other relatives and neighbors to tend it, and that had been a great source of sadness and shame to him, even though he had no reason to be ashamed of what he couldn’t help. By the time I remember him, he was strong and healthy, and he stayed that way for my whole life. I must have heard the story of San Ranieri’s cure a thousand times—all my relatives were so proud of the connection, as well as grateful.
“Santa Bona, on the other hand, was only eleven or twelve years older than I was—except that she was already acting like a saint when she was a little thing, before I was born, and no one ever accused me of being a saint! So I’ve just gotten to know her since, well, you know. When I was incarnated, she was always traveling here and traveling there on some pilgrimage or another. And let me tell you, traveling then was nothing like what it is for you now—no cars or trains and airplanes, that’s for sure—but now she does a lot to help out folks who travel in such contraptions, especially flight attendants and people like that, to help them do their job and keep everyone safe. I’ll try to introduce you to her when you’re ready to fly back to New York, if you haven’t already met her by then.”
“Hi, Polly! How are you doing, Sofia?” said an attractive, deep woman’s voice.
Polly looked around her but saw no one who could qualify as the speaker.
“Santa Bona!” shrieked Sofia. “We were just talking about you!”
“I know. I was hanging around seeing how everyone was doing in this neck of the woods when I realized I’d become a topic of conversation. How flattering! I’m not usually a topic of conversation, you know, except for a few minutes of history in one schoolroom or another. I can’t stay—I need to head to the airport—but I wish you a wonderful stay here in Italy, Polly. Sorry, I have to be off now. See you, Sofia!”
“She sounds so normal,” said Polly.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Normal—for a spirit?”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, compared to what I expected for a saint.”
“Oh that. People have the wrong idea about saints. You’d like San Ranieri, too. He’s a lot of fun.”
“How could there be two saints from this one city right around the same time? With all the millions of people we have in New York, I don’t believe we’ve produced a single saint since anyone I know has been around. Maybe I’m wrong about that—I don’t much keep up with saints—but two from one fairly small city seem like a lot.”
“I’ve been telling you, Pisa is special—although we’re probably not producing very many saints right now, either. These times are pretty complicated. Not that my original era wasn’t: you should try living with no electricity and no running water. And not that I’m making excuses for bad behavior. Before we get off this subject of famous Pisans—not that I want to cut it short, but Flora should be here soon—I should remind you: the one and only Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, but that was almost 400 years after I was born. I hear people talking about him as if he were ancient history. How do you think that makes me feel? But I don’t stay upset for long because, as I mentioned, time is not the same for us as it is for you folks with earth bodies. But we won’t go into that again. It’s way too hard to explain.”
“But don’t you ever get bored? I mean, it’s an awfully long time since the twelfth century. Do you always have some sort of project going?” Polly’s questions continued to tumble out. “Who were you working on last year? Have you worked with a tourist before? I get so frustrated because you don’t really explain things!”
“Slow down! People in your situation. . . .”
“You mean alive?”
“Okay, I know, but it’s different. Let’s not fight.”
“You’re the one who was grilling me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just get so puzzled about everything.”
“As I was trying to say, you aren’t supposed to understand some things completely while you’re doing a life. I have to follow the rules.”
“You? Follow rules?” said a pretty, dark-haired girl as she placed a small accordion under a chair next to Polly and sat down. Polly had been too intent on her conversation with Sofia to notice the girl’s approach. “Hi, Polly, my name is Flora. I’m a Gypsy! I’m not supposed to say ‘Gypsy’ to most people, but Sofia says you’re okay. She’s told me all about you.”
Wondering what “all about you” involved, Polly simply said, “Hi, Flora—why can’t you say ‘Gypsy’?”
“It’s supposed to be demeaning to my people, but I prefer ‘Gypsy’ to ‘Roma.’ After all, not all Gypsies are Roma, and I want to feel connected to my people from all times, everywhere. When I say ‘Gypsy,’ I see swirling colors in the skirts of dazzling, dancing women. That’s the kind of Gypsy I intend to be.”
“Flora lives up to her name. She’s a bit flowery, isn’t she?” said Sofia. “But that’s okay.”
“At least I’m not transparent. Got you!” Flora giggled.
Ignoring the dig, Sofia instructed, “Tell Polly your philosophy about having fun.”
“It’s true. My goal in life is to have fun. That sounds pretty shallow, I guess, but I don’t care because I know I’m not shallow. Instead, I’m on to something important.”
“She’s as much of a teacher as Mirella is. She can’t help herself. It’s in her soul.”
“I want so much to be a music teacher. I think I’d be pretty good because I figure out how to make practically everything fun—or at least interesting and full of drama. I have lots of problems—big problems—if you look at my life in the ordinary way, but that’s not the way I look at it. After all, how many girls get to be a Gypsy in Tuscany—an exotic beauty (that’s what I call myself, even if I have to skip a few details) here in the beautiful city of Pisa? The two beauties—Pisa and her Gypsies!”
Polly said somewhat timidly, “You make it sound exciting; isn’t it hard sometimes? I saw a taxi driver refuse to pick up a Roma, I mean Gypsy, family at the train station.” It was difficult for Polly to say “Gypsy” because she was afraid the word was hurtful to some Roma, but she honored Flora’s wishes. “They looked like a nice family, and they were angry about what happened. I don’t blame them.”
Just then, a middle-aged Roma woman approached the people at a table a few yards away. As Polly and Flora watched, the woman was rebuffed. She started toward the girls, but seeing Flora, smiled and waved and then turned to go inside the bar.
“Situations like the one with the taxi driver shouldn’t happen, but when most folks see a Gypsy, they immediately check for their wallet. I don’t believe in stealing, myself, pretty much whatever the reason, but I also don’t judge the Gypsies who do because some of them have a pretty hard life, and who knows how deep their need may be to find enough money to take care of their family?”
Flora continued, “My parents have always spoken out against stealing, and begging, too. They don’t think the excuses for it are enough justification, usually. ‘Stealing,’ says my papà, ‘is only for life-and-death cases, or nearly so, when no other alternative exists.’ My mamma sells roses to the tourists, and I play my accordion for the money people put into my cup. I’m pretty good; I like playing. For some of the other kids it’s just ‘squeak, squeak, squeak’ because they hate it and want to be playing football—which I think you call ‘soccer,’ Polly—or just about anything else besides the accordion. But even though my papà works hard at all the construction jobs he can get, we still need more money most of the time for the five of us. My two little brothers are too young to earn money any decent way, but I hope they’ll like music the way I do. Mamma has a beautiful voice, and sometimes she gets to sing ballads for the tourists—and gets a lot more money than usual for her roses.”
Sofia added, “To hear that mean Mme Meringue tell it, every single Gypsy anywhere—including you, signorina Flora—is just a dirty, sneaky, thieving outcast. In her mind, you’re even worse than her opinion of the African merchants—extracomunitari to her. For them, she at least makes an exception for Charles.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Flora. “If I ever do take up stealing, I’ll practice on her. I don’t just get mad at people like her for my own sake; I get mad for my family, and my zio Romeo and zia Maria, and nonno and nonna, and lots of my friends, who are honest people, too, and proud to be Gypsies! Sometimes people ask why mamma and I don’t wear normal clothes all the time so we’ll fit in, but why would we want to deny our heritage—and all the colors are so pretty and make a kaleidoscope when we walk and dance.”
“Flora, you’re getting worked up! People will start paying too much attention to us, and when they realize there are three different voices at this table, they’ll accuse you of being a ventriloquist Gypsy and decide that’s the worst possible kind.”
“The way they think I bark like a dog?” asked Polly pointedly, but Sofia ignored her.
Instead, Flora said, “Sofia, if you’d learn how to speak under a roar, we’d have less to worry about. But what I want to say, Polly, is I love Pisa, even if a lot of Pisans don’t seem to love me. It’s my city as much as theirs; why shouldn’t I hold my head high? I have lots of friends—other Gypsy girls and boys, but non-Gypsies, too. It will be fun having you here this summer. Maybe you’ll decide to stay! Why don’t you convince your parents to buy a little place here; some Americans do, you know.”
“I think I’d like to stay, at least part of the year. It’s good that you and Sofia have each other.”
“Some people would call Sofia an unusual friend since no one can see her, but she’s a good sort, even though she can act a little stuck up, calling the Leaning Tower her tower and airing her knowledge.”
“Hey!” said Sofia.
Flora laughed and went on, “But she really loves Pisa, too, and sticks up for people like Mirella, Charles, and me when lots of folks don’t have the courage.”
“Do you live near here?” asked Polly.
“My family and I live in a little apartment over a store on the Corso Italia. Come along; I’ll show it to you.”