The Flower Show


I see few people here. Apart from an occasional  “Buon giorno”  exchanged with a delivery man, and a few words addressed to my little dog,  I  rarely utter a sound. If I worry that I’m becoming a hermit, I drive to the local bar, share pleasantries with the barista over a cappuccino, and come away feeling reassured.

Which is not to say that I am without friends or family. I have extra bedrooms, and when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, hints are dropped.  I tell myself that I really ought to have a day or two of human conversation, not realizing that I’ve forgotten how to do it, and I issue an invitation. I buy extra food, make plans.

The friend arrives and I’m delighted. We haven’t seen each other in ages, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. I pour wine, set out snacks. We talk and talk. It feels awkward at first, then it feels worse. I begin reminding myself of appropriate phrases. “How terrific!” “That’s awful.” “I remember.”  I listen to her stories, having few of my own to tell. Slowly, the connections reform. I hear myself confide my most secret fears and deepest regrets and I am amazed at how easily I’ve revealed myself.  When the well, which had been overflowing with words, begins to sputter out, the conversation turns to gossip about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and I know it’s time to move along.


I always have a plan. This weekend, because there was a flower show in a nearby village, I could invite a friend. We had a place to go, an experience to share after all the talking.  Every excursion begins with a drive over the hills, breathtaking almost anywhere in Umbria. Then an unspeakably quaint village, where the narrow streets are swept clean, the windows and balconies overflow with petunias and geraniums, the children are adorable and the adults smile at strangers.  My guest’s enthusiasm infects me. I still long for silence but I remind myself that life is good. Even if the summer heat is ferocious. Even though my sciatica is killing me.

Growers have set up their wares along the maze of cobbled streets. A woman who specializes in carnations laments the drought. My friend is captivated by a couple who sell coffee made from aloe, by a man who crafts handmade shoes from hemp. I want a nap. I long for silence.

Later we sit together in the cool of my living room, working quietly at our laptops and I am content. This is the companionship I crave, the sweetness of sharing the same space without needing to comment, each of us respecting the other’s solitude.

Caught by the Carabinieri

August 24, 2017

One of the joys of living alone is the solitary drive. My little dog stays in the back seat without making a sound. She never asks where we’re going, whether we’re lost or how soon we’re going home. She has never voiced an opinion on my driving skills.

Someone recently mentioned that he had a home in Cesi. I’m still a newcomer here, still exploring. I had to look the place up on Google maps. It turned out to be 39 minutes away in current traffic conditions. The only traffic conditions we have around  here are behind a slow moving farm vehicle or empty road ahead. I had nothing much to do that day, so I put the reluctant dog in the car, plugged in my phone and followed the directions.

I don’t know how anyone can understand what the map lady says, because she’s programmed to mangle the names of all the Italian towns and streets. Cesi, pronounced chayseee in Italian, sounded like “Si Si” when she said it. I thought she was congratulating me on making the correct turns, so I got lost and ended up in Terni, which is a big town with big box stores and not the historic village I expected to visit. I apologized to the dog and headed home.

I told myself that I was enjoying the lovely scenery along the bucolic roads. At the end of a record-breaking hot and dry summer, what is affectionately known as the “green heart of Italy,” has become the parched and burnt heart of Italy, but there are  still some surviving plants in the fields, and  although many of the desiccated trees that line the road have become torches waiting for a match, there are still enough leaves left on some of them to provide patches of shade.


When I was stopped by a couple of carabinieri I was not alarmed. At this time of year, even the criminals are on vacation, so the cops keep busy by checking “revisione” stickers, which are awarded to vehicles who have successfully passed the biannual test for harmful emissions. Mine was up to date. I pulled over and lowered the window.  The carabiniere who poked his head in had a puffy face, a neat little grey beard and strikingly blue eyes. He tapped a finger on my  revisione sticker and told me to turn off the engine. I still wasn’t worried. I had all my documents. He took them and went off to join his partner who was leaning against the squad car under a shady tree, playing with his iPhone.

In the side view mirror I could see the officers consulting a manual the size of the New York City white pages, consulting each other, consulting somebody on an iPhone — perhaps a superior, perhaps a girlfriend, most likely the carabiniere‘s  mother. Half an hour later, blue eyes told me to step out of the vehicle and follow him. He explained that I had given him a photocopy of my libretto di circolazione, the document we call “registration” in the USA. I knew that. No one had every questioned it before. I had no idea where the original copy was. He handed me a long form on flimsy paper covered in tiny scribbling. The fine was €23,70 if I paid in the next five days, €44 if I didn’t pay on time, and heaven help me if I skipped out on the fine all together. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had 30 days to produce the originale of my libretto di circolazione or face an additional  €400 fine.  I told them that since this was such an old car, the original libretto was too frayed and fragile to carry around. I told them that I kept it in a drawer at home.  I was lying like rug.

At home I rummaged through my files in vain for the libretto originale.  Then I realized that the car dealership had never sent it to me. I had bought the car seven months earlier, they must still have it. After a great deal of explaining, the guy who answered the phone at the dealership found my file in his computer, but not the libretto originale. He told me to call back in five minutes while he looked in the archives. I called him back half an hour later. He told me to go the police and tell them that my libretto was smaritto, lost. Then he hung up.

According to the municipal website, the police station in my little village is only open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays from ten in the morning until noon. Two hours, two days a week. The next day was Wednesday. I went to the comune, the town hall. A couple of city employees were outside smoking. They looked over their shoulders at the door to the police station. Closed.  They thought it might be open on Saturday. Better go to the carabinieri office.

The village  carabinieri are quartered in a two-story 1950s-style apartment building, distinguishable from all the others on the block by a sign over the door and the warning “no parking – military zone” painted on the curb.  The gate surrounding the front yard was locked, the windowless wooden door was closed. I rang the button and waited.  Just I was about to retreat, a carabiniere opened the door and asked what I wanted. He told me the car dealer should have handled this. It wasn’t a carabinieri problem. Then he buzzed me in.

He was the Maresciallo Maggiore, the head officer, and he didn’t appreciate having to deal with bureaucratic paperwork.  For ninety minutes he mumbled “ah, Jesù” a lot and I mumbled back “grazie mille.” He examined my documents with a magnifying glass, and created new documents on his computer, while I got acquainted with  the artwork on the wall behind his desk, images Norman Rockwell might have painted of carabinieri in endearing poses. My favorite was a little boy trying on his dad’s military hat while the proud carbabiniere looked on.  Finally, the Maresciallo asked  if I could write in Italian. I had been chatting with him for an hour and a half, without convincing him of my literacy. The only thing I had to write was my signature on triplicate copies of a formal declaration that the original document was not in my possession, in exchange for which I received a temporary original. I was assured that I would be issued an official original within 45 days. Anyone who has lived in Italy for even a month knows not to believe promises of timeliness. Besides I only had been given 30 days to produce the document. Still, I felt victorious. In Italy, the smallest bureaucratic accomplishment is a triumph.

As I left I snapped a couple of shots of the carabinieri apartment building, but the Maresciallo Maggiore was looking out the window and he caught me. Apparentlhy, it’s illegal to photograph a military installation.