Luigi and the Signora
What level to begin on? Overview, zoom in on the details? But it is all
details, all dense-packed images tucked like receipts into various pockets
for dealing with later. It’s hard to separate what one saw an hour
ago from what one saw day before yesterday. Memories crowded together
like those millefiore paperweights or the mosaics on the floor of St.
- - -
Moving through the tiny alleys, bursting into squares that are not square,
but multi-sided, and filled with light even on the grayest day, compared
to the alleys you just left. We walked the labyrinth, walked all six sestiere,
the dense wrinkles of Rialto and the avenues of Dorso Duro, the public
park at the tip of the Castello and the stark Fondamento Novo in Cannareggio
to the north, where the hospital sits conveniently across from the cemetery
If we were in a labyrinth, then at its heart lay the Piazza Santa Maria
di Nuova, with Luigi’s bookstore and Signora Von Block’s
apartment around the corner.
- - -
We had walked and walked for days and days, and once or twice we’d
gone into a bookstore because I was on a mission. I wanted to see if there
were do-it-yourself business books here, like the ones I write. So far
I’d found nothing of the kind; the closest thing was computer books.
So I vowed that if we found one more bookstore, I’d burst through
the language barrier and ask about “fai-da-te”.
I had armed myself with a photo of myself with my books, and I pulled
it from my purse as I approached the store. It did not look promising
at the start; a shop so crowded, with so many of the books stacked, not
shelved. Half the store consisted of milk crates set outside, a crazy
mix of new and used books in many languages.
Coming from the light of the square into the dim interior, it took me
a few moments to realize there was no proprietor around. But then a man
came in the door—returning from wherever he shares espressos with
his fellow retailers between customers, a charming and practical custom.
I began my spiel, “sono una scrittriche, ho scritto quelli,”
offering my photo. “Fai-da-te, advertising, marketing,” stringing
together phrases, and hoping for sense. “Is there such a thing in
Italy?” He shakes his head, no, well maybe how-to for computers,
or study guides to prepare for state tests. He knows a woman, with connections
in publishing, perhaps she would know more... But really no, nothing “how-to” for
business here. (We are using perhaps 2/3 Italian and 1/3 English to accomplish
“Maybe I have your book,” he says, and takes me back outside,
burrows through a crate, and produces (in English) an outdated copy of
the Photoshop Bible. “No, sorry, not mine. Thank you very much.”
Then he points me to a lovely little children’s book, watercolors
telling a tale about a nymph and a catfish, with text in both English
and Italian. “Sit over there if you like,” he points to a
bench, “read it, if you like, you buy it, if not, enjoy with my
compliments.” Jim has found a Dylan Dog comic he wants to buy. I
look at the fairy tale book for a few moments and say “yes, I want
it, please.” As he gives us our change, he says, “I am good
at this, see? I don’t need ‘do-it-yourself’ marketing.” A
good chuckle shared; he has surprisingly light twinkly eyes set deep
in his olive face. I ask his name; Luigi.
Then as we are leaving, he says, “wait, let me try the signora,
she lives right around the corner. Maybe she can help you.” He starts
to leave. When I don’t follow, he grabs the shoulder of my coat
and makes to drag me along. “Venga, venga.” So Jim and I follow
him around the corner, where he rings a doorbell, exchanges a few words
with an intercom. “Ultimo piano? Si?” The door buzzes, and
Luigi says encouragingly “Ultimo piano, top floor,” then
takes off back toward his shop. There stand Jim and I, exchanging a look
like a couple of deer caught in headlights, before we push through the
We wind around two flights of steps in the shadowy dark, up past landings
crowded with dark furniture and plants, coming into light as we approach
the “ultimo piano.” I see an oldish woman in a wrapper leaning
over the balustrade.
“Se parla inglese?” I ask.
“I should, I’m an American,” she laughs. What relief!
She shows us in to her small living room, sits down, and without pause
begins to talk. Her husband was a writer, wrote books, magazine articles—whatever
work he found, especially if there was an advance, but that was long ago...
“We had wanderlust. We made Venice our base, but we went all over
“Sarah’s parents did that too,” said Jim, “They
were writers, travelled and wrote, around the south.”
“For Ford Magazine,” I volunteered.
She looked impressed. “We never wrote for Ford. The magazine we
worked for most was called ‘Mailman Stag,’ but it wasn’t
what you think. We wrote adventure, true crime stories. We’d hear
about a murder and we’d hop in the car and go off to interview
She told more tales, about more travel with a companion after her husband
died, and a more settled life in Venice, now that the companion has died.
I stole glimpses around the room—filled with books, plants, objet
d’art, and a stereo that must have been very expensive when it was
new, perhaps 1960. “And Luigi is always bringing me people like
you, people with manuscripts and ideas... he thinks I have more connections
than I have. I still know a few people in publishing in New York, they
take my calls—Venice has a certain cachet.”
I took this opportunity to pose my question, bringing out my photo of
me with my books. “Oh, nothing like this here, never,” she
said. “The Italian people are very clever. They figure things out
for themselves. They produced Leonardo DaVinci, didn’t they? They
will never go to a book for advice.”
“Thank you, that answers my question,” and I accept the verdict.
There will be no lucrative consulting ventures based on promoting my books
I offered her a business card, and the photo. “Add these to your
collection of strange people Luigi has brought you,” I said.
“Ah, Luigi... he likes to seem like he has connections, and he likes
to bring me people—sort of as presents.” She paused, then
“He could If I would, if you know what I mean.” She smiled
slyly. I was suddenly reminded of the way some people’s cats bring
them dead mice.
We thanked her again, backed out of the apartment and down the dark stairs
and back out into the light of the piazza and the dark of the alleys....
to walk and think about these two lives going on, in Venice 2001. Luigi
who could if Signora Von Block would. What a comfort that understanding
must be to them both.