Flashback: Signor VitaleBy
Vitale Rossi was the last luganegher (yoo-ghan-eh-GHAIR) in Venice, and his shop and workshop happened to be just across the canal from our first apartment. In the shop, he and his implacable wife Anna sold the myriad pork products he had created: prosciutto (cured and cooked), pancetta (smoked and otherwise), sopressa, salame, culatello, zampone, and so on. If it had been any relation to scrofa domesticus, it was fair game to him.
More important to me — as after all this time I still have only a cordial, if not passionate, relationship with swine products — Signor Vitale was my guardian angel. I deeply regret not ever having taken even one picture of him, but I doubt that a mere camera could have captured, much less conveyed, the profound kindness that radiated from his eyes, his smile, his follicles, his synapses, his DNA.
Back when I was totally new here, knowing nobody and speaking only the most rudimentary pidgin Italian, he would gaze at me as I attempted to order with the gentlest and most patient expression I’ve ever seen. If I came into the shop on the verge of closing time, at the end of a long and tiring day, and asked for a mere bottle of water or two rolls, in some silent way he convinced me that this transaction was the best thing that had happened to him all day.
There were many, many afternoons around 4:00 or so when I would go over to buy some fragment of something just so I could absorb for a moment his extraordinary aura. He would relax for a few minutes by expressing some opinion on the current state of anything, or relating assorted tidbits about his past, or about the business, or the finer points (explained very carefully but lovingly) of curing prosciutto. Occasionally he would take me back into the laboratory and show me the various pieces of meat undergoing treatments and processes involving smoke, salt, and time.
As a workplace, it couldn’t have changed much from the pork labs of the Dark Ages. But for Signor Vitale, raising a herd of Olympic heptathletes would not have required more devotion or given him more satisfaction than he felt every day as he tested and turned and smelled the progress of his assorted hanging hocks.
On dark, foggy winter nights, the light shining from the shop window was the only illumination on that entire stretch of fondamenta. It was the lighthouse of the neighborhood, in more ways than one.
As my language skills improved, so did our conversations, obviously. I still depended on the smile, but now was much more curious to hear his opinions and ruminations. He never disappointed me. Talking with him did me more good than five homilies.
One January morning I stopped in for something and there he was, alone. This was great — it meant he had a minute to “exchange four words” with me, as he put it.
I started: “Did you see the eclipse of the moon this morning?” (We had gotten up before dawn to go out and witness the event.)
He smiled. “I have to work.”
“Working at 4:30 in the morning??” I asked.
“I was sleeping.” His eyes smiled at me. I don’t know how he does it. If I were a pig, I’d say “Yes, come slaughter me. Just as long as you’re happy.”
I said, “Well, it was beautiful. We didn’t get up at 4:30 — we saw it from 5:30 to 6:00. But we’re up then anyway.”
He looked startled. “I get up at 6:30,” he said. “If I’m going to work a 12-hour day, at nearly 80 years old, I need to get some rest. No point staying up late or getting up too early.”
Which brought to mind the subject of age, which segued almost immediately into the topic of one’s departure from this life. The notorious exiled politician Benito Craxi had died of a heart attack the day before, and the funeral was today, in Tunisia. So people out and around have been discussing him, with heavy moralistic overtones (anything from “What a pity, he was a good, innocent person who didn’t deserve to die” to “What a crook, he should have died years ago”). No one, clearly, taking into account that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and whatever you do, your train is headed in the same direction as everybody else’s.
“Look at Craxi,” Signor Vitale volunteered. “”What use was all that struggling for power and money? There he is, dead at 66. Didn’t do him any good at all. You don’t need a lot of money in order to live.” He touched his forehead, to indicate that the only requirement was a functioning brain. “People need to learn to content themselves with what they have. We need to learn how to take life for what it is.”
“Yes, but he wanted to be big,” was my very unoriginal observation.
“You can’t be big,” Signor Vitale stated. “Or anyway, not past a certain point. You know the balloons kids have at the fair? They blow them up and blow them up to the point where the balloon can’t hold anymore and it explodes. The same thing for us. We can’t be big past a certain point. After a hundred years, nobody will remember we even existed. You know?” He seemed completely at peace with that fact.
“He wanted more,” I said, just to keep things going.
“Well sure,” Signor Vitale replied, one of his large, machete-like knives in his hand. “Mussolini wanted more, and he got it, too” — he made a thrusting motion with the knife and smiled seraphically. “Yep, he got more.”
At 6:00 the same evening I found myself back in the shop. Needed milk and butter. Signor Vitale was at the helm alone again, but this time there’ was a lady wearing an extremely gorgeous mink coat buying some milk and few other oddities. As I waited, I stared at the mink, struggling not to reach out and caress it — it was one of those furs that is so lush and gleaming that it not only screams “Money,” it also screams “Touch me.” I didn’t, but I stared.
When she left, I said to Signor Vitale, “Did you see that coat?”
He shrugged. “I’m no expert on fur.”
“I’m not either, but even a civilian like me could tell that it was something exceptional.”
He looked unimpressed. “Doesn’t it seem a little much, to wear something like that to go shopping?” I’ve gotten so used to see women here wearing fur coats, especially mink, that it hadn’t occurred to me. She has to wear something, after all. But of course he was right.
“Was it mink?” he asked.
“Indubitably,” I replied.
“I guess it usually is.”
“Well yes,” I said, “but there’s mink and mink.”
“I don’t know,” he went on. “Some people try to make themselves appear to be something greater than they are. Look at Craxi.” This was clearly the topic du jour, a very useful tool should you want to calibrate your personal values along with the barometer.
“He went so high, but people who go so high, who achieve all those glories, usually have humiliations to match. It’s better to be content with what you have. All that money. What was it for? He could still be alive” — he seemed to be implying that the desire for pelf was one contributing cause to the man’s demise. I didn’t know that “love of lucre” could be listed as a cause of death, but there was no doubt in Signor Vitale’s mind.
“The important thing is to love your work,” he declared, smiling that incredibly benevolent smile. His eyes beamed on me. I felt like a mink coat. “If you can work with serenity, you’ve got all you need in life. You need to be honest.” Evidently Craxi’s dishonesty — which he dishonestly denied, of course, up to the last palpitation of his flawed little heart — was another reason for his dying so young.
“What you need in life,” he continued, “is to work, to listen to the birdsong, to look at a beautiful woman” — he smiled, but seemed to sense he might be wandering onto tricky terrain, “to read a good book,” he neatly recovered. “This is what matters in life.”
These were clearly not opinions he was expressing, but facts. You can’t argue with a philosophy like this, especially when you know that the person expressing it spent several years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany during World War II, and raised four children, at least one of whom is a doctor, on the money he made from a batch of prosciutto.
Anyway, he was preaching to the converted. I had just noticed, crossing the bridge, the exquisitely pale, violet gleam of the winter sunset, and how the transparent sky was beginning to show tiny dots of stars. (I had also noticed a small water rat swimming sturdily from the drainpipe on one side of the canal to the other, leaving a perfect rippling V behind him or her. It’s all nature.)
I wondered if the woman in the mink coat would have noticed the same things, and if they’d have given her spirit the same lift they gave mine. Or does mink act as a sort of protective layer against more than mere cold? (Let’s be fair here, even philistines have to keep warm.) I have to watch out that I don’t fall into the mindset of those Russians who boast that they’re more spiritually alive than the materialistic clods in the West, even as they’re scraping the mold off their last piece of bread. It’s a very tempting frame of mind sometimes. The old “less is more,” but taken to metaphysical extremes.
This is the sort of musing that Signor Vitale almost always lures me into. Still, it so obviously works for him that you’re really, really tempted to believe it.