The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 14

Words from the Heart

Halfway down the Corso Italia, there was Flora, playing her accordion with such relish that a small group of tourists had gathered around her, and her cup was three-quarters full of euro coins. She played as if she loved the music, and Polly knew she truly did.

Finishing the last notes of “Non ti scordar di me”—“Don’t Forget Me”—Flora called to Polly, who hadn’t resisted stopping for a moment to listen: “Polly, I was hoping I’d see you. How did you get along with Mirella?”

“I like her!” Polly moved closer so she could add, “She’s an interesting person, and really smart—not crazy at all, just what my mother calls ‘a free spirit.’”

“Like Sofia?”

“I guess my mother would say she’s the ultimate free spirit.”

“Did Mme Meringue yell at you when you got home yesterday? I’ll bet she warned you about the evils of the likes of me.”

“I thought she’d yell at me, but she didn’t. She was even nice to me, but pretty narrow-minded. There was a meeting last night after supper. I’ll tell everyone about it when we meet this afternoon. I’m late so I’d better run.”

When she turned away, Polly was surprised to see Mme Meringue herself approaching, heading up the Corso Italia in the company of two men and two other women. Because the members of the group were in conversation, Mme Meringue didn’t notice Polly, and to avoid her attention altogether, Polly backed up next to a store window, from where she could watch the progress of the little group. They walked straight toward Flora. So much for getting to class for now.

Flora had picked up her accordion again and begun the first verse of “Non t’amo più”—“I Don’t Love You Anymore,” by Francesco Paolo Tosti. Several more pedestrians stopped to listen, and Polly, too, was enjoying the song. Really, Flora did play awfully well, and Polly loved her repertoire. Polly’s parents both adored Italian music, current and past, and tenor standards such as “Non t’amo più” were more familiar to Polly than much of the popular music that thrilled her classmates back home.

Mme Meringue and her friends picked up steam as they got closer to Flora and then closed in with such speed that the members of Flora’s audience all took a step back, leaving space for the little gang to close ranks around Flora, encircling her to make it highly unlikely anyone else would be brave enough to put coins in Flora’s contribution cup. Polly felt Flora had to have noticed, no matter how intent she seemed on her playing, but she didn’t miss a beat and didn’t look up.

Flora finished the melody for the first verse and began the second. This time through, she was no longer playing a solo. Instead, she was accompanying a loud, almost-in-tune female voice that sang the words to the song with passion and conviction, especially when she got to

You are no longer my dream of love:

I seek not your kisses and think of you no more;

I dream of another ideal and love you no more!

How was it that a girl who had lived so few years on earth could feel such emotion? Or perhaps Sofia simply liked the song. It was sad but pretty.

Whether or not Mme Meringue and her friends liked the song, Polly couldn’t say, but its effect on them—at least its effect when sung by Sofia—was dramatic. Mme Meringue and her buddies looked rather wildly this way and that. Sometimes Sofia’s voice was behind Mme Meringue, but then it would come from well above Flora’s head. “Who’s that singing?” demanded Mme Meringue with a bewildered look on her face. “You’re doing that!” she said to Flora accusingly. Flora kept smiling and playing, and Sofia kept right on singing.

 

Polly was so preoccupied reliving the scene she’d just observed that she walked into the building housing her school and up the five flights of stairs without being the least bit aware of her surroundings, or even of the fact of climbing until she found herself entering her school. Still preoccupied, she pulled open the classroom door and took her seat, only then resurfacing enough to notice that her teacher’s “Sei in ritardo”—“You’re late”—was directed toward her.

Mi scusi”—“Excuse me”—she responded absentmindedly.

Polly remained with only half her mind in the classroom until she got caught up in an exercise describing the most memorable teacher they’d ever had, good or bad. Then it became such fun telling everyone about Miss Frost, her main sixth-grade teacher, that for the moment she forgot the rest of Pisa, everything outside her classroom. What a contrast Miss Frost was to Elena, who could be strict but loved to laugh and was encouraging to them all. Miss Frost, on the other hand, had to be one of the worst teachers in existence.

The very worst thing Miss Frost did was tell kids they weren’t any good at one thing or another. She’d told Polly she was a disaster at math, even though Polly had done well in it before that year. Now she hated it. Nothing Miss Frost said could ruin Polly’s love of languages, however. Sometimes Miss Frost’s grammar wasn’t so hot anyway, so Polly pretty much ignored her criticisms in that area. Miss Frost said “to he and I” when she wasn’t thinking, although she’d get it right and say “to him and me” when she was concentrating and talking to the class about prepositions and object pronouns.

Polly’s partner for Elena’s next exercise—about recipes from home—was Anna, the pretty Polish college student. She spoke such good Italian that Polly felt intimidated whenever she was paired with her. Things that Polly ordinarily knew flew out of her mind when she was with Anna.

But then Elena asked them what they liked best about Italy, and Polly again forgot her awkwardness and threw herself into the discussion. Elena said to her, “Why are so many Americans fascinated by Italy? I do think you Americans need to be less stressati—stressed—but you have a lot that’s great about your country, too.”

“I can tell you what my mother said. I think it also holds true for me, even though the words sound like my mother instead of me.”

“Tell us,” urged Elena.

“She loves the Italian sunlight and countryside. One time just seeing a calendar picture of a blue Tuscan sky and green cypresses made her cry. She said she cried because when she imagined herself inside the picture, all the pieces of herself snapped into place. That’s how she put it. I remember the words because they impressed me. I felt they carried something important about my mother. She said, ‘Inside the picture, none of me was left out, nothing was distorted or denied.’”

È una poeta, tua mamma”—“She’s a poet, your mama”—said Elena.

“I sort of feel the same way, too. Here, nobody takes me for an Italian, but at the same time, it’s okay to be me. Back home, the kids all pick on each other for every little thing. People are never good enough as they are. That’s how it feels.”

As if she were looking for the best way to put her thoughts into words, Elena paused for a moment before she responded: “But kids here can be pretty rotten to each other, too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a live-and-let-live world, with room for all types of people, as long as they were kind to each other?”

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