It was rainy that evening as Polly, Flora, Charles, signor Luigi, and agente Barto, accompanied by Sofia, ate their pasta slowly and waited for signor Varelli to arrive at the small restaurant where he was known to take his supper nearly every night. On the wall above their heads was one of the Case-Torri Contest posters.
There was still no sign of signor Varelli by the time signor Luigi and agente Barto were asking for a second cup of coffee and the dessert plates had been cleared. “Maybe he’s not coming,” said Polly, feeling disappointed and thinking she was stating the obvious. “I’m going to have to go soon. When I called Mme Meringue to tell her I wouldn’t be home for supper, she made a big thing of being back by dark.”
Agente Barto whipped out his cell phone. “Minou, as you know, Polly is here at the restaurant with me and some friends. Our dinner is taking longer than expected, but don’t worry. I’ll see she gets home safely.” He snapped his phone shut. “Voice mail can be useful,” he said. “Your landlady must not be home herself.”
“I think Mme Meringue is watching her television at this hour,” explained Polly, who thought to herself that long after dark, Mme Meringue would probably still be watching television, but Polly didn’t want to risk any trouble with her landlady now.
The group had finally given up and had just asked their server for the bill when the door to the restaurant opened again. At first Polly didn’t turn around; she’d had so many false alarms already this evening. But Flora, whose back also was to the door, had not given up and so turned and spotted their quarry before the men did. It was Sofia who got the words out first: “Here he comes.”
Signor Varelli chatted briefly with the restaurant owner and then started toward a free table in the back. “Hey, signor Varelli,” called out agente Barto as if he’d spotted his best friend. “I was just thinking about you! Have you signed up for the contest?” He gestured toward the flier on the wall. “The word is, if you enter, you’re a shoo-in to win.”
Signor Varelli took in the composition of the table of diners and then looked suspiciously at the announcement. “What are you trying to pull?” he said unpleasantly, looking into each of their faces by turn.
“Pull?” asked agente Barto, the only one of the group to be able to claim more than a nodding acquaintance with signor Varelli. “I hear Mirella’s done a wonderful job decorating your tower. Did you see that the contest winner will have a permanent bronze plaque mounted on the wall? The plaque will explain that the tower has been judged the most outstanding in Pisa.”
Polly thought she could see signor Varelli trying, but failing, not to be tempted.
“Humph,” he said finally. “We’ll have to see. Humph,” he muttered again as he continued on past them.
“He’s taken the bait,” said Sofia a little too enthusiastically.
“Shh!” Flora said impatiently. “He’ll hear you!”
“He’s too lost in a daydream about winning that plaque.” Sofia did speak at a more subdued volume.
“Now all we have to do is organize the contest for real,” said agente Barto, looking a little worried.
“That won’t be a problem.” Signor Luigi sounded confident. “I have someone in mind who does excellent bronze casting. He’ll do a good job on the plaque, and I have some friends at the university who will help us out. No matter they’re in the chemistry department and have no more knowledge of décor than the rest of us: they’ve got academic titles.”
“It’s pretty late for us to be calling on Mirella now,” said Flora. “She told me she gets up with the birds in the summertime. And I’d better get going.”
Sofia said, “I showed up uninvited about this time of evening once and was told it was too late for guests of any sort. Mirella was playing her harpsichord. She’s touchy about anyone hearing her.”
“I don’t have class tomorrow since our teacher has a family commitment. Do you want to meet me at Mirella’s at nine in the morning?” Polly asked Flora and Charles, and of course Sofia.
“I’ll be there,” Charles agreed.
“Me, too,” said Flora.
“Me, too,” added Sofia.
Signor Luigi and agente Barto kindly paid the bill for the young people, even though Polly, Charles, and Flora all tried to insist on paying their own way.
“Feel like walking?” asked signor Luigi. “Or would you rather take a bus?”
In spite of the drizzle, they walked through the darkening city.
“See you tomorrow,” Flora called as she reached the door leading to her apartment.
As the rest of the group walked on with Polly, agente Barto talked about how fond his son had been of Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. “He won’t admit it, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for Minou, too, and she for him. I just wish she—and I—could motivate my Enrico the way Gustavo could. I don’t have the secret.”
The next morning, Flora and Charles were already standing beside Mirella’s door when Polly arrived. “We’ve had five people glare at us when they walked by, and two women clutched their purses. Did they think I was going to spirit them off their arms?” Flora asked mildly.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re not late. It’s only five of nine. The reactions are just business as usual for me—and for Charles, too, I bet.”
He nodded and then said, “I wonder where Sofia is?”
Flora pulled hard on the bell beside Mirella’s door.
They waited a minute, and Flora pulled the cord again. “Mirella never goes to the Borgo Stretto this early.” Flora sounded a little worried, and Polly felt her heart beat faster. “She promised to wait!”
“She promised not to pack up her house,” said a loud voice. “But she didn’t really promise to wait herself, and she’s not here! I saw her on the train to Lucca. She has two big suitcases with her. She wouldn’t even talk to me. She just kept shaking her head. I think I know where she’s going—it’s where she went for a few days after she was fired—but I’ve got to follow in case that changes. Can’t explain now—I’ll be back! Be at the Bar Allegro at noon. We can go to the station from there.”
Polly, Charles, and Flora walked as fast as they could to signor Luigi’s shop to tell him the news. “Signor Varelli has already called to register for the contest,” he reported. “Wouldn’t he be surprised if he knew he was talking to me. Now try not to worry too much. Sofia could locate someone in the middle of the Amazon.”
“I just feel so sorry for Mirella. She thinks no one wants her. I know how that feels.” Flora sounded bitterer than she usually let herself be.
The three young people were seated at an outdoor table at the Bar Allegro and were part way through their focaccia and acqua minerale when the air positively crackled with energy and Polly sensed the chair next to hers was no longer empty. “She’s checked into a convent guest house,” announced Sofia. “The next train to Lucca is in twenty minutes.”
“Let’s go,” said Charles. “I was going to work this afternoon, but I’ll ask Salime if he can watch my stuff, too. He’s a fan of Mirella’s, just like the rest of us.”
Polly would have enjoyed the leisurely ride on the little green local train to Lucca if she hadn’t been so eager to reach Mirella. Sofia had assured them that Mirella had left her home intact, but taking two big suitcases with her suggested Mirella expected to stay in Lucca for some time. Polly didn’t want Mirella to have to wait a minute longer before having her hope renewed. “Why don’t you go on,” she said to Sofia, “and tell Mirella about signor Varelli and the contest.”
“I want you guys to be with me when I do,” said Sofia. “We need to be able to pick up Mirella’s suitcases and take her and them right back with us before she can give up again. And have you ever seen me carrying suitcases? Now stop worrying so much. Mirella’s in a nice place. She’s a tough lady. She’ll be meditating and reading Emily Dickinson. She always reads Emily when she’s feeling alone because Emily was a recluse and considered a bit odd herself. Now let me tell you about Lucca,” and Sofia launched into a description of the tree-lined wall around the city, the bell tower for San Martino—the city’s cathedral—and the cathedral itself. “That campanile was built more than 100 years before I was born, only it was for defense then, not bells. And wait until you see the cathedral! It was built a little after I came along, and of course it’s not as beautiful as our cathedral, but it has some really cool carvings.”
“You should hire out as a tour guide,” said Flora.
“I will,” said Sofia, adding, “just as soon as the world gets over its hang-up about tour guides having bodies.”
Polly had only half listened to Sofia’s commentary, but it had helped to pass the half-hour trip. From the station they needed to go through an opening in the city wall to reach the main part of the city. “Okay, Sofia, where do we go from here?” asked Charles.
“The convent is just beyond the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro,” Sofia said and went on to explain how the piazza had kept the shape of the Roman amphitheater that had once been on the spot. “I’m just as glad I don’t remember anything about those times. At least you don’t have gladiators now, not that there’s been a whole lot of other improvement in how people act.”
“We have some good people now, just the way you did in the 12th century,” Charles pointed out.
“I guess you’re right,” agreed Sofia, sounding less than enthusiastic.
The convent doorbell was beside the iron gate in a fence softened by draping vines of pink flowers. A nun opened a second-story window. “Buongiorno,” she called, “un momento.” She was dressed in a long white habit trimmed in black. Polly thought she resembled a movie nun, leaning out of her perfect convent. It was tidy and rectangular, almost like a house drawn by a child but made pretty by the yellow-cream stucco, brown shutters, somewhat battered palms framing the building, and big clay pots holding more pink flowers.
In spite of her eagerness to reach Mirella, Polly felt soothed within the tranquil convent grounds. The nun held the front door for them. “Attenti ai muri”—“Be careful of the walls”—she said. “We can’t repaint often.” She eyed the energetic young people a little nervously but then led her visitors up two flights of carpeted stairs with a polished-wood banister. “Signora, you have guests,” the nun called after rapping on the door to room seven.
Polly heard someone hurry to the door, which opened quickly. “Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Mirella. Polly thought she looked relieved, as well as pleased. Byron stepped from behind Mirella and gave a friendly meow. Past Mirella, Polly could see a twin bed covered by a blue-plaid spread, a white tile floor, a modern wardrobe and bureau, and a small picture of the Madonna on the wall. After a moment, Mirella told them, “I first hoped you wouldn’t find me, and then I thought I couldn’t stand it if you didn’t. I had faith in our Sofia, but I’m so glad to see you. I’m sorry I put you to all this trouble. Once I got here, I felt like a fool, but then I didn’t have the strength to do anything except sit here and read Emily Dickinson.”
“I’ll leave you now,” said the nun. “If you need anything, please ring the bell in the front hall.”
“I just can’t face getting my hopes up and then having everything fall apart again,” Mirella said after she had been filled in on the contest.
“With signor Luigi and agente Barto involved, you’re bound to have a really good chance,” said Polly.
“They can’t completely rig it because there will be at least a couple of other judges, but they’re friends of signor Luigi’s, and besides, you deserve to win,” said Flora.
“But you haven’t seen the other tower homes,” Mirella observed.
“They’ll make sure your tower wins in some category, even if they don’t award you the very best overall,” Charles assured her.
“Let me get a word in edgewise,” said Sofia. “Mirella, there’s a note on your kitchen table from signor Varelli. It says he has decided to let you stay for three more months—not days, not weeks—if you promise to have your tower in tiptop shape for some special visitors who will be inspecting the tower on July 13. What a creep! He can’t even admit his true purpose.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that on the train?” asked Flora irritably.
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Sofia said smugly.
“Signor Varelli is not at all a nice man.” Mirella shook her head. “I would feel sorry for him if I possibly could for being such a block of ice. He’s still going to throw me out in three months, and he probably won’t wait that long—just long enough to get his plaque and then decide what new infraction I’ve incurred. He’s pretending to give me three months so I’ll think he’s suddenly being reasonable and then put a lot of effort into spiffing everything up.”
“But it will still give us more time!” argued Flora. “The contest is two weeks away, and we can accomplish a lot in two weeks!”
“I think I’ll just stay here until the contest,” said Mirella. “The apartment is in good shape. I don’t know what else I’d do, except a little dusting. I’ll be too sad at home knowing how inevitable the end is. I’d kept my spirits high, figuring something would happen to let me stay, even though I didn’t know what. I guess I sort of thought signor Varelli was just hassling me to try to make me keep a lower profile, but now I see he really hates me and will find any excuse to make me move.”
“Mirella,” Sofia said sternly, “do you remember the time you told your class the chief lesson from literature is to hold our heads high and express our special qualities and talents, no matter what, no matter how great the scorn?”
Mirella nodded her head slightly.
“Well I remember, too,” Sofia continued in the same authoritative tone. “And how can you express your true gifts and nature hiding here in this convent room, I’d like to ask you!”
“You’ve always been an inspiration to me, Mirella,” Flora said sincerely. “When I sit playing my accordion and passersby make rude remarks about Gypsies, I think of you proudly reciting on the steps of San Michele in Borgo. That picture of you in my mind makes me sit up straighter and play better in spite of the taunts, or even because of them.”
“I admire you, too, signora,” Charles said shyly, and Mirella began to sit up a little straighter herself.
Polly and Flora took turns carrying one of Mirella’s suitcases while Charles insisted on carrying the other all the way back to the station. Mirella held Byron in a travel case. The cat was heavy, so she kept switching hands, but she wouldn’t allow Charles to relieve her of the burden. “You have a heavy load as it is,” she said. “I had to hire a taxi to take me to the train and then from the Lucca station to the convent. I hated spending the money. You are so kind to help me.”
Sofia kept up a running commentary about the buildings they passed and was disappointed when no one else wanted to stop to visit San Martino’s cathedral. “The luggage and Byron will be okay in the church while we look around,” she urged.
“We’ll come back together soon. How about next Saturday?” Charles asked kindly, and the others agreed.
“I’d like to walk along the city wall, too, and visit Puccini’s birthplace. I’m going to see his opera Madama Butterfly at the end of August,” said Polly.
“Yes, you’ve told us,” said Flora, but not unkindly.
“At least three times,” Sofia added less gently.
They were plenty early to catch the late-afternoon local back to Pisa. But when the time came, they found themselves standing with several other hopeful passengers next to an empty little green train with no engineer. Over the loudspeaker, a woman announced their train as “in partenza,” but it didn’t look in partenza to Polly. Sofia let out a shrill whistle that made the rest of the passengers turn toward their group. The other four hushed her, hoping to discourage a repeat. She didn’t whistle again, but a small dog began barking insistently, throwing in a howl now and then for emphasis. None of the other passengers could find the dog, in spite of a lot of craned necks—not to mention the hisses coming from Byron inside his case—and the level of confusion on the platform rose steadily.
“When did Kinzica show up?” Flora asked softly.
“Just now,” said Sofia. “She missed me.”
“Well, keep her quiet,” Flora retorted.
A young man who turned out to be the conductor hurried toward them and was berated by one of the waiting men for being late. The conductor started to offer excuses but then glanced up and noticed the absence of an engineer. He did a pronounced double take. Much hand waving began among the male passengers together with the conductor, and a half-dozen cell phones appeared.
Ten minutes later, the phones and gestures still had not roused an engineer, so like the other waiting passengers, Mirella, Charles, Flora, Polly, and Sofia resigned themselves to taking the next hour’s local to Pisa.
“On my own, I’d be back there already,” Sofia reminded them.
“Let’s wait inside the station,” Charles suggested. “Maybe we can find a quiet corner. We’ve attracted a bit of attention.”
“Guess whose fault that is,” Flora said snidely. “Big surprise.”
“Maybe there is something I should do to get my tower ready for the contest. What do you think?” Mirella asked as the train was gliding to a stop at Pisa Centrale.
“Nothing!” chorused Polly, Flora, Sofia, and Charles.
“The girls told me all about your tower,” Charles explained.
“You were right: It’s already perfect,” Polly asserted.
Flora nodded. “Just add even more flowers. We’ll get them for you.”
On Sunday morning, Flora and Polly pulled the rope hanging from the bell next to Mirella’s ancient-looking and slightly battered front door. Polly soon heard Mirella on the stairs behind the door. She was smiling as she greeted them. “I saw you coming,” she said brightly. “I was out on the balcony watering my flowers. Polly, Flora, Sofia, won’t you come in?” she greeted them all, not even questioning whether Sofia was present. The tiny entrance foyer held a bench with red cushions, a clothes tree, and a brass umbrella stand.
Mirella led the way up the flight of stairs to the kitchen, which was as white and cheerful as she had described to Polly. A large blue plate with a sunflower on it had been mounted on the wall over a cutting board; other blue-and-yellow ceramic plates and bowls and pots of red geraniums decorated the white shelves, counters, and round kitchen table. Byron was crunching cat food in a corner of the room. He looked up briefly to see who had arrived and then went back to his food. Evidently Sofia had not brought Kinzica. Through an open door, Polly could see the small balcony and so many red and purple blossoms that she wondered where Mirella sat.
“It’s beautiful!” Polly said sincerely.
“Yes,” agreed Mirella. “I love it here. Have a seat, girls; that includes you, Sofia,” she added, gesturing toward the chairs around the table. Polly wondered how often Mirella had even one visitor to use her extra seats.
Polly studied Mirella when she thought the older woman wouldn’t think she was being rude. Mirella’s expression was a mixture of happiness—perhaps at having visitors—and sadness, especially around the eyes, which looked a little puffy to Polly, the way her own did on a morning when she’d had a cry in bed the night before.
A reason for tears was soon clear. “I had a note from signor Varelli. He left it on my kitchen table sometime yesterday.”
“On your kitchen table?” asked Flora in an indignant tone of voice. “He walked right into your home when you weren’t here? Not even our landlord does that. We find stuff taped to our door, but he’s never had the gall to barge right in—at least I don’t think so. If I ever so much as suspected he’d been prowling around!”
“He’s probably too scared you Gypsies would hex him or something,” commented Sofia.
“Gypsies don’t put hexes on people!”
“I wouldn’t mind having signor Varelli scared of me,” commented Mirella. “It is technically his place, not mine, but it always felt like mine. But not so much anymore. Now he wants me out in two weeks.” Before the girls had a chance to express their outrage, she asked, “Do you want to see the other rooms?”
As she stepped aside at the top of a flight of stairs for the girls to enter the living room, Mirella said, “Polly, you can see I meant it about purple being my favorite color!” The wallpaper background was violet, and when Polly examined the embossed design, she saw it depicted peacocks in various poses. Some had their multicolored fantails open. Other birds held their tails closed and long behind them and seemed to strut across the room. A pink fringed throw covered Mirella’s large armchair in front of the window overlooking the street, and similar throws in a half-dozen shades from lightest pink to deepest purple covered the sofa, three more chairs, a small lamp table, and the back of a beautiful harpsichord.
“A harpsichord!” Polly exclaimed. “I didn’t know you played.”
“Just for myself,” said Mirella. “I keep the window closed. I’m not nearly as good as the man who plays Puccini on his piano.”
“It’s so nice in here,” said Flora. “I like it even better than our apartment.”
The bedroom, another flight up, was just as appealing, to Polly’s mind, with a high four-poster bed covered with the pink and purple quilt that Mirella had described when they had first met. Mirella’s mother had been a talented artist. Her embroidered scenes from Pisan history looked almost like miniature oil paintings.
“See the picture of my tower with just three levels done!” Sofia said excitedly. “And there’s Kinzica ringing the bells to save the city!”
The bedroom’s pink walls were decorated with about two-dozen old photographs. The largest was a wedding picture of a handsome young couple. The woman looked almost exactly like Mirella, only younger.
Mirella noticed where Polly was looking. “Those are my parents,” she said. “They were so young and beautiful then. I miss them.”
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Polly asked, wondering why she hadn’t thought more about Mirella’s family before.
“I had a sister, but she’s gone, too. Here we are together in this picture.” Two dark-haired girls close in age looked out of a small, faded color photograph. Mirella was unmistakable as the elder. Both were dainty and smiling. Polly was struck by how completely alone Mirella must feel, lying in bed in this little room with her lost family surrounding her.
Mirella seemed to have felt her thoughts. “I miss them so much, but they’re not really gone. I sense them all with me. And I’ll see them again.”
Mirella’s white dresser was similar to the one in Polly’s room at Mme Meringue’s, but here it looked pleasing rather than stuffy. The top was covered with little silver and glass jars and with a delicate garnet-and-pearl necklace laid out carefully.
“That was a present from my parents on our last Christmas together as a family.”
A white wicker rocker with pink and purple cushions sat in the corner next to the larger of the room’s two windows. Polly looked down to see the street that circled the side of the tower; the street then continued almost straight out from near Mirella’s front door.
“The bathroom is in here.” Mirella flicked on a light and stepped back out so the girls could look in at one of the smallest bathrooms Polly had ever seen. The white tiles gleamed, and the white fixtures, while old, shone brightly enough to have just come from the store. The bar of soap on the sink was purple.
They had only begun to sip their tea back in the kitchen when the bell at the front door rang, and then rang several more times, as if someone were trying to pull it off its mounting by yanking the rope. Everyone was silent, and Mirella looked frightened. The ringing stopped, and a man’s voice carried audibly through the heavy door and up the stairs: “I know you’re in there. Open up or I’ll come in anyway!”
Mirella chose opening the door to her visitor herself. She ran down the stairs, as light on her feet as a young girl. Mirella must be in great shape, Polly found herself thinking, with a flight of stairs in between every room in her tower.
Polly heard the front door open, and the gruff man said, “It’s about time!” Did he think Mirella should have been waiting on the other side of her door in case he happened to stop by?
“Won’t you come in, signor Varelli,” Polly heard Mirella say in a polite but rather tight voice.
“I’d say so! As if I need to wait to be invited into my own tower.”
Two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, Mirella’s light and quick, signor Varelli’s heavy and slower. Mirella appeared several seconds before her guest.
He had yet to take a step into the kitchen when he spotted Flora and Polly. “Students!” he hollered. “Gypsy students!”
“You remember Polly from America,” Mirella said politely, “and Flora—her friend and mine.”
Signor Varelli ignored the social conventions and said harshly, “I’ve come to be sure you received my message yesterday. I gave you two weeks to find new quarters—under the circumstances, a generous offer—but only if,” his voice underscored the word, “you called no new, untoward attention to yourself and you refrained from tarnishing my reputation in any way. And that includes not running a school out of my tower!”
“At the bar with you, we did discuss the possibility of a school,” said Mirella, her voice under control, “but I will take no action without your approval.”
“No action!” signor Varelli shouted. “What do you call having two students seated right here under my nose at the kitchen table?”
“They are not my students,” Mirella said in a patient tone of voice. “They are my guests.”
“Guests! What would a woman of your age be doing entertaining child Gypsies and foreigners?”
“Only one Gypsy and one foreigner,” said Sofia, prompting signor Varelli to whirl toward Flora.
“Don’t contradict me, young lady!”
“No sir,” Flora said meekly. When signor Varelli turned back toward Mirella, Flora gave a glare that was clearly meant for Sofia.
“Because you have blatantly violated my generous terms, I will now expect you out in three days, not two weeks. And if you are still on the premises in four days’ time, I will have you arrested for trespassing.”
“But I am not running a school!” Mirella said with some desperation in her voice. “The girls just came to visit me. You don’t see any books or papers, do you? How could I be conducting a class?”
“Do you take me for a fool?” At the sound of fake coughing, he stopped and whirled on Flora again. She had an angry expression on her face, but Polly knew she hadn’t made the noise.
Flora took the blame anyway, which told Polly a lot about her desire to help Mirella. Usually Flora wasn’t the type to take the blame for anybody’s sake. “Sorry,” she said softly. “I swallowed wrong.”
Signor Varelli glared again and then continued. “I will not be hoodwinked. Do you think I haven’t heard you shouting poetry at the top of your lungs over at San Michele in Borgo? ‘Isn’t that your tenant?’ someone asked me just this week when you were up there hollering something about standing and waiting, or whatever foolish lines you were quoting from that idiot Dante you like so much. How do you think I felt? It was the last straw. I will not be made a laughing stock!”
“You were listening,” said Mirella with a little smile. “Just a couple of points: First, Dante is sometimes wrong, but he wasn’t and isn’t a fool by any measure. Second, I wasn’t reciting Dante at the moment you mention; it was Milton—‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ I wish I could serve by doing more than standing and waiting for people to listen to our great authors,” she added to herself.
“Whatever.” Signor Varelli’s voice was still twice as loud as it needed to be. “Don’t try to change the subject. The point is, why would you need books and paper for teaching when you must have about a hundred books memorized, the way you go on day after day?”
“It’s nice you are a regular, coming to hear Mirella,” Sofia said quietly in a good imitation of an American accent.
Signor Varelli responded by glaring at Polly this time. “Don’t be an idiot. People tell me what she’s up to. I try to avoid the Borgo Stretto completely as much as I can. How do you think it makes me feel?” he asked again. “My valuable and historic tower is inhabited by a woman so crazy she was fired by that hotbed of radical academics, the University of Pisa. Even they wouldn’t put up with her, but you think I should?”
He paused for a moment, during which the others remained silent. “Anyway, I don’t owe you any explanation. Be out in three days or you’ll be doing some explaining yourself—to the law!” He rose, stomped out of the room, and started down the stairs.
“Goodbye, signor Varelli,” Sofia called cheerfully.
As soon as they heard the front door bang closed, Flora said angrily, “Sofia, stupida! You just made things worse for Mirella.”
To Polly’s surprise, Mirella said cheerfully, ”You kept him on his toes, Sofia.” She giggled for a moment, but then her expression sagged and the giggle became a sob. “He wouldn’t have changed his mind no matter what we said or didn’t say. Even after yesterday’s note, I still had a little hope something would work out, but that’s gone. I have to start packing—but how can I bear it? Will you girls help me? I know I couldn’t stand it alone.” Another sob escaped. The tears were flowing freely now. “Where will I go? This is my home. It’s so perfect here.”
“Don’t start packing yet,” Flora said resolutely. One reason we came is to tell you signor Luigi and agente Barto are still trying to figure something out. They’re getting together this morning to talk over ideas.”
“I don’t think anything will work now,” said Mirella. “You heard him. He doesn’t care about facts or human decency. All he knows is I might sully his sterling reputation.”
“Some reputation,” said Flora. “I vote for him as the meanest man in Tuscany. But promise you won’t start packing until signor Luigi and agente Barto or one of us comes back to talk to you. It’ll be by tomorrow, at the latest. Promise me you’ll wait.”
“And try not to worry too much,” Sofia added kindly. “Just because you can’t see a way out doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”
“I’ll wait to pack,” said Mirella. “But it won’t work. I was naïve to think I could just be myself the way I wanted to be as long as no one was employing me and I didn’t break any laws or hurt anyone.”
Polly said, “We’ll stick by you. Please don’t give up. Try to keep busy meanwhile, to keep your mind off it all.”
Mirella nodded, but Polly thought she looked more discouraged than ever.
Late that afternoon, the signs went up all over Pisa:
As soon as he saw them, the barman called, “Ciao, professoressa! How’s the poetry these days? Ciao, Byron!” It seemed that inside the bar, at least, Mirella was both known and liked. Polly was especially surprised to have the cat so welcome at this establishment, whose walls were filled with posters of quotations from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“And whom do we have here? A young niece of yours, professoressa?” Finally someone—besides Mirella’s mean landlord—who didn’t already know about Polly before she’d been introduced.
“Signor Dante, this is Polly. She’s from America. The poor girl is staying with Minou Meringue for the summer.”
“Oh she’ll be fine there; don’t worry. Mme Meringue is a nice enough lady—if you’re not a Roma, or a street merchant, or. . . .”
“Or a little defiant of expectations,” Mirella finished the sentence for him.
“That’s a good description. I like it—it’s classy, like you, Mirella. And now what can I get for you ladies? It’s on the house to welcome our American visitor. Will you each have a grilled-egg-and-cheese panino?” To a young barista he said, “Laura, get a saucer of cream for Byron, will you?” Knowing that in little more than an hour she’d be sitting down to cena with Mme Meringue, Polly reluctantly declined the panino.
When they had taken their tea and Mirella’s sandwich to a table and Byron had settled underneath with his special treat, Mirella said to Polly, “This is one of my almost-favorite places in Pisa.
“My favorite place is obviously the Leaning Tower, but I have several co-almost-favorites. First is the tiny balcony outside my kitchen—lots of red geraniums out there, too, and purple bougainvillea; I don’t hold with purple and red being clashing colors. I have only just enough room on the balcony for my flowers and a tiny glider. I sit there, gliding back and forth and watching the sky spread evening across the city. A man on my street plays the piano. He always plays behind closed shutters, but I know who it is because I overheard someone who pointed to him and said, ‘That’s the man who plays so beautifully.’ From my balcony, I can hear the arpeggios of ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ and pieces like that. He loves Puccini best; I can tell; I love Puccini best, too.” If she hadn’t been unwilling to interrupt, Polly would have said that Puccini was also her favorite. “When my pianist plays his opera arias, the vocal parts sing through the keys.”
With a distant look in her eyes, Mirella stood. Byron took his cue, as well, and walked out from beneath the table to stand beside her. The other patrons turned to listen and watch as Mirella began: “Walking in Pisa, I am the phantom girl in the Leaning Tower grown old, but not beyond redemption. I am a temporarily embodied spirit, still barely visible, visiting the places of the heart.
“From behind a shuttered window comes piano music. As I listen, I dream your music and I are within my home: in time I rise and, passing through the cool white kitchen, step onto the balcony, fragrant in the early evening with the bitter scent of geraniums, their colors sweetness to the eyes as your melodies are to my ears, my soul and mind.
“To my right is the graceful Arno; the hills toward Florence fade to silhouettes in the sunset sky. And your music holds me to the balcony when I would otherwise float among the scenes and vapors, the soft evening sighs of the city.”
The patrons applauded as Mirella and Byron sat down again. “Beautiful, just beautiful, Mirella,” called a grandfatherly man.
“Brava, brava!” agreed a young woman holding a toddler on her lap.
“Bis, professoressa!” a handsome man in a business suit cheered, calling for an encore.
Polly glanced at Mirella’s face and saw joy in her eyes. “These people love you. Why don’t you always perform here where people like hearing what you recite? That was so pretty just now. It was your composition, too, I think?”
Mirella nodded but didn’t answer Polly’s other question for several seconds. Finally she said, “I’d like to recite here all the time. It’s nice to be welcomed instead of scorned, but these patrons already love literature and the world of ideas. That’s why this is their regular bar. Signor Dante holds book discussions one night a week, and sometimes poets give readings here. It’s others I need to reach.”
“But surely new customers come in from time to time, and you’d become famous for your recitations, especially your own compositions. You’d be the star attraction. This could be your literary salon!”
“Signorina Polly, you paint a pretty picture, but I think I would feel limited here, just waiting for someone new to wander in and stay to listen. The regulars already hear me plenty. I’ll give it some more thought, though. The idea has certainly crossed my mind, but it sounds too easy. Let’s see if Sofia has any luck for me. Teaching eager young people would always make me feel my days matter.”
The trio sat silently, the two humans sipping their tea, Mirella finishing her sandwich, and Byron still making small lapping noises under the table. Outside the Borgo Stretto swirled with the early evening passeggiata—the nightly outing for pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders steering their motorini around the tourists. Well-dressed Pisans mingled, called to friends, cut their bella figura—wearing their style and good looks with pride—and streamed on to leave space for the next wave of revving motors, exuberant youth, and forceful age.
Eventually Mirella said quietly, “Shelley once lived upstairs in a palazzo at the end of the Borgo Stretto, and he looked down on a passeggiata like this one. It was the tradition then, too. Perhaps it brought to mind a skylark, the West Wind, and the consolation of solitude within the company of many. Beyond the Borgo Stretto, as for us, the tower held itself outside gravity’s grasp, leaning toward the soaring earth of marble mountains.”
“You are a great artist, too, Mirella.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
“I need to go now to get to cena on time. May I come visit with you again?”
“I will expect it. Perhaps you and Sofia and Flora will stop by to see me in my tower. Come, Byron; we also need to be getting home.”
Polly walked with Mirella and Byron as far as the Piazza Vettovaglie. The fruit and vegetable sellers in the piazza were chatting with their friends at the neighboring stands as they closed them for the evening. A teenaged boy with a guitar sat on a wall by the square, strumming and singing in a rough, earnest voice—obviously admired by the three girls sitting at his feet. “Silly girls,” Polly said to herself as she returned to the Borgo Stretto and turned toward the bridge and home. She contrasted the girls’ fawning look with the love in Mirella’s face when she’d spoken of her lost Lorenzo.
Polly stopped briefly at Mme Meringue’s to drop off her schoolbooks. She was relieved that her landlady wasn’t at home, so no explanation of where Polly was going was needed.
When Polly reached San Michele in Borgo, Mirella and Byron were already on their feet. Mirella spoke to anyone on the street below who cared to listen: “I want to be the tower, and you the cathedral, and you the baptistery—harmonious, sharing space and time, each quietly complete. If you ask, I will speak of my history, my vision out over the Tuscan hills and red roofs, the individuals and generations I have watched and known.”
Almost in unison, Mirella and Byron sat down on their step, and Polly began the climb to join them.
“That was beautiful,” Polly said when she reached Mirella. “Who wrote it?”
“I made it up, and it’s true; it’s exactly how I feel, about the tower, about me, about how I want to relate to other people.”
“Have you written it down?”
“No, I’ve never said it before, although I’ve been thinking about it, composing it in my mind.”
“It’s so pretty. Could you write it down for me?”
“I’m sorry but no because I can imagine what Sofia would say. She wouldn’t be happy if she knew the whole truth about how I feel. I took the risk of sharing my tower piece because I assume—and hope—she’s off hassling signor Varelli. Not only do I consider the tower as much mine as hers; I even see the tower as my alter ego, sort of my totem. Did you know you Americans almost blew it up near the end of World War II? You thought it was being occupied by the enemy. But the tower has always found a way to survive, and so will I, until its time and my time have truly run their course.”
“Don’t look so worried,” she added. “I haven’t lost all touch with reality. I’m just telling you how I feel. You asked why I’m so attached to Pisa, and the tower is a big part of it. Many evenings I sit on the cathedral steps next to the Leaning Tower and watch night settle as the tower lights deepen, showing the way for tourists still climbing to the top.”
“Yes,” said Polly, “I saw the tower like that the first night, when I visited Sofia there.”
“Then you know how incredible it is. The tower is like a lighthouse for me. I imagine it keeping me from crashing as I navigate my life.
“You know, everyone is always wanting to fix me, just as everyone kept trying to fix the tower—and ended up making things worse and worse, until just recently, when they finally got it right—but they haven’t gotten me right yet. And Pisa herself isn’t right yet, either, just as nowhere is right without revering our great writers, our artists and musicians, our sages from the past, and the present, too, all those who can bring us together—in peace.” Mirella looked both sad and angry. Polly also heard determination in her voice.
Mirella sat quietly, looking down at her lap. When she looked up again, she asked Polly, “Don’t you have anything that you identify with so closely it feels like part of you?”
Polly thought for a moment. “My room at home, I suppose. We were going to move last year but ended up staying. I would have felt I was leaving part of myself.”
Mirella nodded but continued to reflect on her own situation: “Maybe I am crazy—though I know I’m not nearly as strange as people say, just a little dreamy, perhaps, but I like being that way. Anyway, I know buildings can’t come back as people—and besides, the tower doesn’t need to come back because it’s still here. Yet somehow my spirit is tied to that tower. I suspect Sofia knows more about why I have such sensations, but she probably wouldn’t explain if I asked. She likes to think of the tower as all hers, but hasn’t she noticed all those tourists tramping up and down the steps every day? It’s not exactly undiscovered territory. I wish I hadn’t forgotten so many details about the times that came before I became Mirella.
“For those times and present times, I love Pisa as much as my life, but Pisa worries me. Even before my unfortunate experience with the rettore, my literature classes were getting smaller each term, and I don’t think it was from dissatisfaction with my teaching—the rettore acknowledged I can teach circles around just about any other professor. No surprise: I was there, an eyewitness to the roots of our greatest literary creations. Some of my students were there, too, but I’ve been over that, how no one else, almost, seems to have the vaguest notion of his or her very own past.
“The University of Pisa is still a mighty institution, but the arts are getting less and less attention. Everyone seems to think science and mathematics have all the answers—plus computers, of course. Head knowledge, all of it, and of absolutely no use without the intervention of the spirit. I’m not talking about religion, really—not about mass and rosaries and priests and all that, anyway—but about connections among people, and with the earth and all living things. Forget that and we’re just machines, no longer human.”
Mirella suddenly seemed self-conscious. “I’ve been talking too much. I’m sure I’ve bored you. You’re a very polite girl to have stayed and listened. May I offer you a cup of tea in the bar on the corner? It’s called ‘Dante,’ and the owner’s name is Dante—no relation that I know. But as is appropriate, they serve me and don’t act as if I’ve come to beg from their customers.” Mirella added quickly: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the Roma, the Gypsies, as Flora is proud to call her people. Have you gotten to know Flora very well yet?”
“Yes, she’s great. But I still don’t know where any of us fit into this project of Sofia’s. I get the part about stopping Mme Meringue’s campaign to remake Pisa in her own image, but do you know what else Sofia has in mind? Why all the secrecy?”
“I’m not sure precisely what she’s planning—Sofia makes things up as she goes along. And she likes a bit of drama, our Sofia, so she keeps some things to herself—such as exactly what she has in mind for me, too. But I have a general idea because she knows my dream so well. And Sofia’s a bit transparent, no pun intended.”
“You’re right about the drama, that’s for sure. What is she planning for you, and where do I come in, in these ideas of Sofia’s—that’s what I want to know!” Polly felt herself getting worked up.
“I may be able to give you a better answer to that last question when I get to know you better, but as I say, what she has in mind for me is pretty easy to guess.”
“Doesn’t it bug you having her manipulate things that affect you?”
“If Sofia can help me make my dream come true, I’ll forgive her all her meddling and manipulating, but I do anyway. Sofia understands that I live to teach. That’s what I’m doing now when I recite here. And to tell you the truth, some of my classes weren’t any more attentive than the people who hear me now. But like then, a few do pay attention, even still. In trying to help me resume my teaching in a more regular way—that’s what I think she hopes to do—Sofia is being my guardian angel, as unangelic a girl as she is. But she’s not being one hundred percent altruistic, either, you understand. She’s always wanted to go to school, and if I were to open a little school myself, not only folks like Flora—she hates her school now—and Charles could attend, but Sofia herself could also do so openly.”
“That’s a wonderful idea! But how can I help?”
“Let’s not worry about all that now. I believe in Sofia. She’ll come through for us folks outside the status quo, and my intuition tells me you’ll be a wonderful help. Did Sofia tell you her story?”
“Some of it, but she wouldn’t say what happened in 1180.”
“She doesn’t like to tell people herself—she hates dealing with their reactions—but she doesn’t mind anyone knowing if he or she finds out from someone else.
“When work on the tower halted in 1178—it wouldn’t resume for nearly a century—Sofia’s father went on to Lucca to work as a stonemason there. Sometimes he took Sofia with him because she loved the craft so much she wanted to be a stonemason herself, even though that was an impossible dream.”
“Yes, she told me about that.”
“Sofia’s father held Ghibelline political views. One day a Luccan stonemason who was a Guelph picked a fight and punched him. Sofia was watching and tried to intervene. The Luccan pushed her away, and she fell; they’d been high up. Her father never worked again because he blamed himself, and he died a broken man.
“Sofia, as she is now, stayed near her family and tried to encourage her father through his nighttime dreams, but he thought the dreams were only wishful thinking. It’s partly in honor of her father that Sofia has followed the fortunes of Pisa and the Leaning Tower over the centuries. Her father still feels too much pain about his life—he never has come back for a new one—to stay closely tied to the region. But Sofia has made herself one of the guardian angels of Pisa itself, as well as of people like Charles, Flora, and me. It was prejudice that killed her and ultimately her father, and she is spending forever fighting all kinds of prejudice.”
Polly’s admiration for Sofia rose with the details of her story.
“Don’t get me wrong. As I said, Sofia’s no angel in the ordinary sense—she’s mischievous and feisty—but she truly wants to help those she likes. Her heart is in the right place.
“Now how about that cup of tea? Hardly anyone in this whole country drinks tea, but I do—green tea—it’s very wholesome and clears the mind to study and learn, and to watch, too. I learn so much by watching.” Mirella was off on another of her tangents. Polly didn’t feel awfully hopeful about ever getting the tea. “Take your Mme Meringue, for instance: I watch her, and it’s not always a pretty sight, even though she’s about as sincere as they come—sincere and utterly wrongheaded. She goes tramping around this city like some undisciplined Saint Bernard trying to save souls by preaching nonsense and driving everyone nuts. She’s not any more tuned in to what matters than are those physics professors at the university who think any kind of brain other than theirs is no brain at all.
“Hence my troubles. I want to bring literature back to the Pisan people. They need to be thinking about the ideas of my Dante and our Pisan visitors Byron and Shelley—those dear boys behaved just terribly, but they had exquisite minds, too. Their words are an important part of our Pisan legacy—now nearly forgotten. That’s where I come in.”
Mirella’s thoughts had wandered back after all: “If you’re ready for your tea, signorina Polly, follow me.”
Mirella rose and started down the steps, with Byron at her heels. Mirella’s legs were longer than Polly’s, and Mirella had the strong strides of a young athlete, even though Polly figured she had to be a lot older than her parents. Along the Borgo Stretto, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. Perhaps Mirella did fade back into the ordinary population of the city when she wasn’t performing on her church-steps stage.
Polly struggled to keep up with Mirella and Byron. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the Bar Dante.
The group that Polly found already assembled at the Bar Allegro would have seemed to most people to be an unlikely gathering. Sitting with Flora were agente Barto, Mirella, Charles, and Charles’s landlord, signor Luigi. A man whom Polly had never seen before was standing next to one of the two empty chairs, and Mirella was making introductions.
“I’d like to introduce you to my landlord, signor Varelli,” Mirella said brightly, as if she were introducing one of her closest friends. “Signor Varelli, I understand you already know agente Barto from coaching the youth soccer league together.
“And this young lady is Polly. She’s here from America.”
Signor Varelli looked less than enchanted to make Polly’s acquaintance but gamely shook her hand.
“Piacere,” he said as each of the others was introduced in turn, but he didn’t really look pleased, and he didn’t offer his hand to either Charles or Flora. After meeting signor Luigi he added, “I have to get back for an appointment at five.” He looked at his watch.
“It was such a coincidence that signor Varelli happened along just when some of us were saying we’d like to go visit him,” Mirella said cheerfully.
“I don’t even know why I came here,” muttered signor Varelli. “This isn’t my usual bar. I’ve only been here once before,” he added with a tone of wonderment. “Suddenly I had a desire for their mushroom focaccia. It was strange. I found myself walking here, all the way from home.”
Polly was pretty sure about the mysterious force that had inspired signor Varelli’s presence. She wasn’t sure how a visit from Mirella and her friends assembled here might have addressed Mirella’s landlord problems, but Sofia must have arranged for him to visit this bar on this particular afternoon. She noticed that the itinerant merchants and several Roma children with accordions under their seats were spread out at the four closest tables. Polly waved at Salime when he looked in her direction. Signor Varelli looked distinctly ill at ease; he pulled out his chair but sat down on the edge, as if wanting to make sure he could hop right back up if necessary.
“It was lucky we saw you so you could sit with people you know,” said Mirella, still with a bright tone.
Signor Luigi picked up the conversation. “While you’re here, we have an idea we’d like to talk about with you.” He glanced toward the police officer, who nodded in agreement. “As you know, signor Varelli, our Mirella is a wonderful teacher. She’d still be teaching at the university if it weren’t for a couple of small-minded administrators.”
Signor Varelli muttered, “Had a pretty good reason for letting her go.”
Signor Luigi ignored the comment and plowed ahead. “Some of us were wondering if you would consider letting Mirella stay in her tower but double her rent payments.” Signor Varelli looked up with interest. “In exchange, she would open a small school in her apartment.”
“A school?” The thought of a school obviously dampened the landlord’s happy anticipation of higher rent. “I don’t want some young ruffians trashing my property!”
“No, no. No ruffians, just eight or so very carefully screened young people. You would become widely recognized for your civic-mindedness, your contribution to Pisan society.”
“Humph,” said signor Varelli, without completely dismissing the idea.
“You see, the students would be the very best of deserving young people, like our Flora and Charles here.”
“No Gypsies!” Signor Varelli practically shrieked. He pushed back his chair as if about to bolt.
A dog barked. Signor Varelli’s eyes searched the ground surrounding the tables. The rest recognized Kinzica’s sturdy voice. Finding no dog in sight, signor Varelli returned his gaze to signor Luigi.
“We should introduce signor Varelli to Sofia,” thought Polly. “If he thinks Mirella is unusual. . . .”
The landlord looked as if he’d already seen a ghost. His momentary indecision was gone: “No school! A school is out of the question! The tower is a private residence only! And no Gypsies for any reason!” He turned to face Mirella. “If I find you’re entertaining Gypsies, you’ll be out even before the end of the month.”
Agente Barto spoke up: “But Flora here shares our concern about the thefts of which some of our Roma neighbors have been accused.”
“Accused! It’s not as if there were any doubt!” shouted signor Varelli.
“Consider what it might do to benefit our Roma youth if an influential girl like Flora received a topnotch education. She could become a mentor for her entire community.”
Signor Varelli shoved back his chair still farther and stood up. “Absolutely not! I’m a busy man. I don’t have time to sit around listening to nonsense. And you remember, Mirella: one step out of line and you’ll be out long before the end of July. At any rate, I’d start packing if I were you.” He turned and strode across the street before heading north.
Everyone sat in silence watching him go. Finally signor Luigi patted Mirella on the shoulder. “We’ll think of something yet; don’t you worry.” But Polly thought he looked as worried as everyone else.
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.’”
“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.
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?”