The day after our delicious feast of chicken with rosemary potatoes, I ventured downstairs to return the bowl lent to me by the little woman residing in the apartment below us. I rang the buzzer from the corridor and waited while no fewer than five deadbolts were unlocked from the inside. When she finally opened the door, a cloud of cigarette smoke billowed out into the stairwell from behind her petite silhouette. After a brief pause where she was registering who I was, she launched into a ream of salutations. I handed her the bowl and offered her a brioche I purchased from a corner pasticceria as a thank you for her generosity. “Di niente” she waved her hand in response to my verbalized gratitude. She then explained that she cannot have sweets because of her diabetes. Apparently, she keeps a very careful watch over her sugar intake but sucks on cancer sticks like candy. I kept this irony to myself figuring that in Italy, having diabetes is about as cruel of a punishment as having a wheat intolerance. If she can’t have cannolis, gelato, tiramisu, brioches, NUTELLA!!, should I really be criticizing her supplementary vice?
She invited me inside, or moreso pulled me inside and beckoned me to sit for a minute. These two commands I understood and complimented myself for doing so. At this point, I was seated at one end of her rectangular table and she was seated beside me along it’s adjacent edge. She took my hand, and started talking.
She talked to me for a solid ten minutes, stopping only to laugh, smile, or give my hand a little pat midsentence. I smiled and nodded, as she excitedly discussed, among many other things that I did not understand, the following:
· She is 84 years old. This is very old she says. (I agree because in smoker-years, this is equivalent to at least 97 years of age.)
· She has a bad leg as a result of a fall. Una gamba rotta, she called it. It causes her much pain, but she is still happy.
· She has bad hearing. (We had our suspicions about this fact. Refer to the previous post and my reference to her fondness of “Chi vuol essere milionario?“)
· She is sorry about the loud television that compensates for the previously stated hearing problem. To this, I responded that we are not bothered by the volume and that she shouldn’t worry. (Afterall, our apartment feels so holy on Sunday mornings when the background music for our breakfast comes from the weekly televised mass airing downstairs.)
· She is happy that Kevin and I are enjoying ourselves in Italy. She thinks Kevin and I are so young and sweet.
· She has lived in this apartment for 30 years.
· Her husband died 20 years ago.
This accounts for about 5% of our one-sided conversation. The other 95% of what she said, I did not follow. I have yet to determine whether my poor comprehension was the result of my still novice experience with the language or the fact that she was talking a different dialect of the language altogether. Many of the older inhabitants of Luserna speak Piemontese, not Italian. Whatever the case, there is one thing that I took away from this conversation that is universal between all languages and cultures, something that can be said without using any words…. my little elderly neighbor is lonely. Most of the older people that I walk past on the streets are arm-in-arm with a familial companion be it a son or daughter or grandchild. I know she is very popular among the other apartment dwellers, as she is constantly in their company. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder whether or not this sweet fragile woman has relatives to care for her. Sure, her leg may prohibit her from going for an afternoon stroll. But, does she have a person that visits her for an afternoon sugar-free caffe?
On my way out the door, my new friend thanked me for my company. I did my best to explain that the visit was mutually appreciated and that I would stop by again sometime. She asked if I liked wine and then prompted me to wait a second while she scurried back to the kitchen. She came back with a bottle of Vino Rosa and handed it to me. I knew that no matter how much I refused, I was leaving with that bottle of wine. Rather than go through that routine, I simply accepted it graciously. She was very pleased, said I was “bellissima”, and gave me a kiss on both cheeks. As I headed up the stairs to my apartment, she gave a wave and a “salute a tuo marito”, before closing the door. I grinned at the sound of the maximum security deadbolts being returned to their locked positions.
Once back inside my apartment, I reflected on the pattern of events that had just unfolded. I brought her a brioche to thank her for lending me the bowl. She refused my gift but gave me another one. Well, little lady, two can play this game! I will find a suitable thank you for that wine and your little bowl too. You have not seen the last of me!
* Yes, mom. The fact that smoking is permitted in this apartment indicates that there are NOT smoke alarms in the building. Please do not worry. The balcony offers a sufficient escape route in the case of a fire.