The season of vicarious wanderlust concludes with this tale from one afternoon in Venice, early March 2001.
By Sarah White
Moving through the tiny alleys, bursting into squares that are not square but multi-sided, we walked the labyrinth, 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 island.
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. (I authored Do It Yourself Advertising in 1993, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Marketing in 1997.) 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” (do it yourself).
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 this communication.)
“Maybe I have your book,” he says, and takes me back outside, burrows through a crate, and produces (in English) an outdated copy of The Photoshop Bible.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 door.
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 the world.”
“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 the eye-witnesses.”
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 here.
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.