On the way home from lunch one day my husband and I saw a sign for Gaglione. We had just moved to Italy and had nothing better to do on such a beautiful summer’s day, so we followed the left tine of the forked road to see what kind of hamlet gets a name like Gaglione. It sounded to me like a pasta shape that might give one the heaves if she ate it.
“I hope no one’s coming the other way,” Chris said as our little Fiat, “the Marshmallow,” hugged hairpin curves on a road just wide enough to fit a farmer’s tractor. Sunlight streamed through the canopy of oak and chestnut trees, and we zipped deeper into the woodlands until finally we emerged at the crest of a steep hill.
From that vantage point we could see across the valley to Spello, the potted-flower capital of Umbria. It was there that we had dined at an outdoor café and spied, across the valley, a lonesome building with a supersized cupola perched upon a hillside. Now we were on that side of the valley, and I poked my head out of the car window to search for a roof that looked like an overturned teacup.
“There it is!” I said and pointed to the top of an embankment on our right. Chris pulled up to the empty, abandoned home and then quickly disappeared toward the estate’s belvedere with his camera. While he clambered onto a low stone wall to get a better look at the vineyards bathed in late afternoon light, I wandered over to a crumbling outbuilding. Maybe it had once been a chapel or a storage shed or a servant’s quarters. I circled the remains looking for a way to get inside to collect some clues.
The place felt lonely. Haunted. Maybe someone had died there. Certainly someone had lived there. How had they spent their days?
I turned to call for Chris, hoping he would join me in my little investigation, but instead I found a short, plump woman in a moth-eaten sweater, purple pants, and a pair of Jesus sandals. She stood practically at the end of my nose. A broad infectious smile spread across her face, and I was greeted by a mouthful of teeth that looked both confused and neglected.
“Scusi,” I said and stepped back.
“Buongiorno!” She giggled and raised her eyebrows, then she stood on her toes and teetered to and fro. I looked for Chris, but he was still gone, no doubt off to find the perfect shot of a rusted olive bucket or some flower sprouted from an old brick wall. I was going to have to talk to this stranger alone.
“Giorno,” I replied, hoping my tone would sound polite without encouraging further conversation. Judging by the woman’s response, which was rapid and nonstop, I seemed to have failed. Some sort of nozzle had been turned on and I had no idea how to turn it off. Comprehension on my part might have helped.
I like to pride myself on understanding a fair amount of Italian, enough to exchange basic pleasantries or even buy a hunk of cheese at the alimentari. The catch, however, is that my conversational partner must speak slowly. V-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Finding a leisurely speaker in this country, though, is about as easy as finding one who hasn’t heard of the Virgin Mary. I stopped to study the woman’s mouth, but it was no use. I was too distracted by the condition of her teeth.
“Non capisco,” I said, again hoping that would be the end of it. But she only took my hand and repeated herself. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders as the spray of verbosity and spittle continued. Finally, I caught a word—vecchio, that means old—and I was relieved I might have found a way to stanch the flow.
“Ah! Vecchio. Sí, sí,” I said. I thought we might end our little tête-à-tête there, but my sudden comprehension of the Italian language only made matters worse. She took my hand into both of hers and exploded into a frenzy of foreign words. How could anyone possibly talk this fast? It’s true that I myself have been known to prattle on—especially with the help of too many espressos—but even I, the one regularly reprimanded in grade school for being a chatterbox, could never dream of possessing such chinwagging talent.
By this time the woman was bouncing with the glorious news known only to her, and it occurred to me that this person might be a few spaghetti noodles short of a full plate. I lowered my eyes and nonchalantly tried to take back my hand. I didn’t want to slight her, but my palm was getting sweaty. Plus, I’d noticed a certain scent, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t mine.
“Quantos años?” she asked.
“Ah, quarto e cinque,” I said and held up four fingers followed by five. “Tú?”
She stole my hand back to hers, then moved the pair to her chest. “Setenté e seis!” She beamed liked it was the proudest day of her life. I couldn’t blame her. She didn’t look much over fifty.
“Bella nonna!” I said and patted her on the back. I discreetly wiped my palm on my pants and then folded my arms across my torso. Why hadn’t I worn something with pockets? Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris stealthily making his way to the Marshmallow. So far, he’d been expert at staying out of this whole bilingual, handholding mess.
Nonna untucked my hand from the bend in my elbow and held it in both of hers again. She may as well have handed me a live wire. Her whole body was aquiver and now so was mine.
“Are you OK?” I asked in English as we walked toward the car. She smiled at me like a six-year-old on her birthday. It was an endearing smile, despite the situation with her teeth. Her skin was clear, her brow free of furrow. And the sun lit up her eyes like smoked glass with black flecks. Where was this woman’s family, I wondered. Did she have a husband or was she a widow? When she was my age, did she ever think she would lurk around barren buildings, desperately seeking the company of strangers?
I guess what I really wanted to know was Could this happen to me?
Chris started the car, signaling that it was beyond time to go.
“OK, arriverderci!” I said to the old woman as I turned toward the Marshmallow. She grabbed my hand and looked at her watch. “Mezzogiorno,” she said. “A mi casa.” Possibly she was inviting us to her home for lunch. “Domani! Domani a media. Eh? Domani!” [Tomorrow at noon? Tomorrow!]
“Sí! Domani!” I lied with a smile and slipped my hand from hers one last time to open my door. I wanted to mean what I said. I wanted to go to her villa and see her surrounded by a large and loving family. I wanted to sip wine from the grapes they’d picked in their vineyard, salivate over a freshly slaughtered cinghiale and all the fixings crowded onto a charming old farm table. I wanted to share stories, laugh from my belly, and then hug them all goodbye, especially nonna, under the Umbrian sun.
I wanted the fantasy, not the reality.
I plopped into the passenger’s seat and quickly shut the door.
“Wow,” Chris said as he pulled onto the empty road and headed back to Spello. “That was really something.”
“Yes, it was.” I leaned out the window and watched the old woman as she stood in the middle of the road, waving with all her might until she disappeared into an indiscernible dot on the horizon. Awash with guilt, I thought of what my Italian friend Tony would have made of this encounter. “She’s been touched by angels, is all,” he would say. And then he would squeeze my hand.
Monica Graff spent two decades editing scholarly monographs for university presses before she decided to put down her red pen and pick up a black one. These days she spends her time exploring the world with her husband–which she blogs about at www.polebridgeyurt.com–and writing essays about things that make her say “What’s that about?” She lives in the off-the-grid wilderness of northwest Montana, where she started out in a yurt but now enjoys a much warmer cabin.