Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Route 28 Approaching Town

From East Ohio Street in driving rain

Downtown Pittsburgh emerges

Huddled under blanket of black,

Its skyscrapers, lit by stray sunlight ray.

For one bewitched instant,

The sparkling fabled Land of Oz. 

From behind Gulf's golden tower 

Koppers Building's dome,

A multi-carat diamond

Blinking with uncanny light.

Then the clouds rearrange.

Magic steals away

And leaves behind

Nothing but the gray of day.

Monday, May 4, 2009

An Evening With Giovanni

Sometimes, just before awakening fully, or perhaps in an idle, unprotected moment in the middle of my day, a longing sweeps over me to be back in that lovely land called Italy, whose beauty for me lies in her people.  I was lucky enough to have spent six months there when I was in my teens, and since then, no matter how often I revisit, I come home wanting more.  

Recently we were in Rome for five days, and when I think of that evening in Ristorante Giovanni on Via Marche, just off Via Veneto, I have to smile.  As I sat at table there, enjoying spoonful upon spoonful of tortellini in broth, my attention was riveted on the owner Giovanni, an elderly gentlemen with luxuriously full, snow-white hair.  There was something reminiscent about the way he circulated from table to table, greeting his customers as though they were honored guests in his home, exchanging a smile, a laugh, a word here and there with them.  At first I thought it was my own dear father he reminded me of, because my father similarly welcomed with true enjoyment all who frequented the small restaurant he had owned in Pittsburgh.  Yet, the more I watched Giovanni, the more I realized that he was familiar to me because, like my father, he was the quintessential Italian with a love affair for people.

As he approached our table, I abandoned my musing.  He must have heard me ordering in Italian, for he stood beside me now, and in his own tongue said, “But Signora, you are Italian, no?​​​

Continuing the conversation in Italian, I answered, “No, veramente sono americana, but my father came from Tuscany, from the province of Lucca.”

“Ah, Lucca!  Si, si!  I know it well,” he said.  “So tell me, then Signora, what lovely places did you visit today in Rome?”

“We visited il Vaticano.”

“And did you speak with il Papa?”

I looked for a hint of smile on his face, for the joke is that the average tourist doesn't rate seeing His Holiness, unless on a certain Sunday afternoon, such a tourist should be so fortunate as to be in a crowd of people in 

Piazza San' Pietro, in a crush of humanity so dense that if the tourist were to faint, he would not touch the ground at all.  Even at that, his view of the Pope would be that of a distant figure in sumptuous robes and mitered hat, with arm upraised, blessing the populace from a window high up in a building to the right of the square – the building that houses the offices of the Vatican and is the Pontiff's official residence.

I don't know what made me utter the nonsense I said next.  Perhaps it was the  twinkle I thought I saw in Giovanni's eye.   Perhaps I was just giddy with the pleasure of conversing like a native with a native Italian.  In any case, what I said was, “Yes, I did, in fact, speak with il Papa, and he told me, “Listen, if you happen to go to Giovanni's this evening, say hello to him for me.”

Giovanni gave me a surprised look.  “Oh,” he said, and walked away, which made me worry and wonder if I had misread what I thought were his teasing overtones.  Was he offended by my silly remark?  Did he think I was making fun of him?  I knew from a lifetime of living among my kin, that the one thing one must never do is embarrass an Italian with ridicule.  Even if it's all in jest, Italians do not lose face gracefully. It has to do with pride, which they have in abundance.  

My concern, however, was unfounded, for soon, to my great relief, Giovanni was back to continue our playful charade.

“We were schoolboy friends, il Papa and I,” he said.

Now I was the one to look surprised.  “You were?”

“Of course not!” he said, the twinkle in his eye obvious now.  “How could we have been?  He is tedesco , you know, not Italian.”   Then by way of putting aside our joking, Giovanni looked around our table and asked, “Your family, Signora?”

Si,” I said.  “My husband, and our daughter, and her husband.”

Smiling, he nodded to each of them, and said,  “Molto piacere.”   To me, he said, “Your daughter, Signora, she is bellissima.”

Grazie,” I said.

Striding around the table then to where my daughter sat, he pointed to two tortellini she had left uneaten and floating in a little bit of broth in the bowl before her.

Non sono buoni ?” he asked

Understanding what he had said, but only able to answer him in English, she said, “Oh no!  No!  They are really great!  But if I eat every bit of each of the many dinner courses served here in Italy, I'll go home fat as a barrel!”

He gave her a questioning look.

“I'll get too fat,” she said, puffing out her cheeks to illustrate.

Sternly he shook his head and, picking up her spoon, he ladled one tortellino into it and held it before her.  Like an obedient child, but not before rolling her eyes at me, she, who never, ever takes orders from anyone, opened her mouth and accepted the spoonful.  Without a word, he ladled the remaining tortellino onto the spoon and fed it to her.  Then, “Brava!”  he said, and with a flourish, clacked the empty spoon back into the bowl.

Timidly, tentatively, we smiled.  Then Giovanni laughed, so we four knew it was okay to laugh, too.  Then all five of us grinned at each other.  He knew we liked him.  We knew he liked us.  We were delighted all around

There in part lies the explanation for my longing