My scrapbook of Italian postcards ranks high on my list of conversation pieces.
“I’ve always wanted to see Venice,” says my neighbor Bill.
“Oh, the Bridge of Sighs,” says his wife Pauline. “I saw it in a movie once.”
Venice. Florence. Pisa. Rome. Four postcards to a page. A scrapbook of colorful wish-you-were-here attractions: churches, the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica, paintings by Renaissance masters like Giotto, Titian, Fra Lippi, famous statues by Michelangelo, and the Trevi Fountain, All there in my scrapbook.
I admit my collection is eye-catching, a memorabilia of my vacations spent in Italy from 1965 to 1995. But there is a second scrapbook I love more, one I do not usually share with others. It boasts no postcards to woo the eye of the italophiles who visit my home.
When Italy comes nostalgically to my mind, it is this scrapbook of photos I take down from my bookshelf and sit comfortably turning the pages.
If you look at these photos, you would see an Italian mountain looming in the background, a close-up of the Arno River Bridge, tables and chairs in the shade of an outside caffè in Savona, a parked school bus on a cobblestone street in Asissi. But the photos tell stories of the Italians captured in them.
As a tourist visiting Italy, I carry my travel guide of what to see or where to go, checking off each site after I see it and snapping a photo or purchasing a postcard for my scrapbook I show my friends. But I also make a point to wander down side streets far from the path tourists over-trod and lose myself where the true heart of Italy beats.
In one photo, set in a courtyard in Torino, old Signora Mafalda, surrounded by perhaps forty or more cats, stoops over and empties a large deep dish of red-sauced spaghetti on the ground.
“Why should these poverini, these poor creatures, go hungry? Is it their fault there is no work in Torino?”
In a short while the pasta is completely gone and so is Signora Mafalda, hobbling away with her empty dish.
On the Arno River Bridge a young woman makes an effort to smile for my camera, then rests her head on the railing and cries.
“Can I do something?” I ask in my faltering Italian. “Are you all right?”
“Signor,” she says, “Arnaldo left me for a street walker from Sardinia.”
I try to console her. “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” but the American idiom swims over her head. She corrects me. “In the river. The Arno, not the Sea,” then she stares down into the waters below. “Don’t worry yourself, Signor. No man is worth jumping in the river for!”
I look at the next scrapbook photo, then the next.
An April afternoon in the Piazza Cavour in Rome. Arm in arm men walk and converse, waving a free arm, decrying the foibles of the day. Women arm in arm as well. Laughing children chase a little brown dog. Padre Umberto plays cards with his assistant priests at an outside table. Salvo, owner of Il Bar Salvo, calls to the townsfolk strolling in the piazza, “Vinite, amici! Prendiamo qualche cosa di bere!” then adds, “Gratis!” Come, friends. Have something to drink. Free.
So many stories in that second scrapbook, not of stones or canvases, not of fine Italian cuisine or towers that lean or a city rising out or sinking into the waters. To me Italy lives and breathes in its people.
Returning the scrapbook to its high shelf, I see in my memory Signora Mafalda in the courtyard again. Cats surround her as she stoops as though she were a saint come to rescue them once more from hunger.
She lifts her head as I snap her picture and says, “Would the good Lord expect any less from me?”
Salvatore Buttaci is an obsessive-compulsive writer who plies his craft many hours a day.
His poems, stories, articles, and letters have appeared widely in publications that include New York Times, U. S. A. Today, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Cats Magazine, The National Enquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Thinking Ten, Pen 10, and Six Sentences. He was the recipient of the $500 Cyber-wit Poetry Award in 2007.
His new collection of flash fiction, 200 Shorts, is the new follow-up to his collection of 164 short-fiction stories, Flashing My Shorts. Both published by All Things That Matter Press are available at Amazon.com in book and Kindle editions.
Visit him at http://salvatorebuttaci.wordpress.com
Buttaci lives in West Virginia with Sharon, the love of his life.