Living in Italy

THE POLICEMAN AND THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Between 2008 and 2013 I lived in the hills of Northern Tuscany and wrote about my experiences. If you love Italy, or would like to experience it , this may be entertaining.

From my house to town takes about twenty minutes in the car, winding down the hairpins of the mountain road and into the valley. Although its origins are medieval it isn’t one of those picture post card Tuscan towns, but rather a mix of ancient and modern, stretching out along either side of a river and connected by four bridges. 

The main piazza is like the town itself, sloping gently down from one end of a long rectangle to the other, very broad and quite impressive. Saturday is market day, traffic is diverted and it fills with stalls selling clothes, household goods, fabrics, cheese, hams, honey, plants, fruit and vegetables. The town fills, people meet and greet, and it’s a busy hive of activity. I was circling the stalls, feeling particularly happy to be out and about on a bright sunny day, and pleased with the chunk of parmigiano I was about to buy at the cheese stall. 

I slipped my hand into my bag, and… no purse. Apologising, I stood back to think. I tried a few halting words of Italian to try and explain, but they they kept coming up with another variety of cheese. Finally, it was understood that I had no purse, and handing back the cheese I set off to back track. No luck.

What to do. I paced the piazza distractedly. I had taken out six hundred euros to pay a bill, and there were all my cards, driving licence, etc. I decided to go to the police station and report it, there was just a chance. As I reached the top end of the piazza, my eye was caught by a policeman, resplendent in his immaculate uniform, bending down to pick something up. As he straightened up I saw that he had my purse in his hands.

In the time it took for me to make a bee line for him through the shoppers he had opened the purse and was looking at the picture on my driving licence. I rushed towards him shouting “it’s me!” He recognised me and smiled a welcome, “Ah, Signora…” I was so relieved I hurtled at him and threw my arms round his neck, hugging him tight for a moment. Taken aback, he gently loosened my grasp and bringing my hands down from his shoulders said gently “a little control, I think, Signora”.

I thought this was a bit rich coming from an Italian. But when I was recounting the story to a friend she said  “this is a little place, market day, the poor man is surrounded by everyone who knows him, all his wife’s relatives, and before he knows it there’s a woman draped round his neck.” She had a point. Of course there was no money left, but all my cards were there, and as he said, “don’t worry, God will bring you some more money.” I could have kissed him for that, but just managed to think better of it.

The bureaucracy involved in becoming a resident in Italy is pretty daunting, and it took weeks and a lot of help, but finally I was nearly done. To complete my new set of credentials I needed an Italian identity card, and for this there had to be three photos. I assumed I would have to find a booth and put up with looking dreaful, but a friend told me about the photoshop in town where I would have excellent service and infinitely better results.

It looked like any other modern photo shop, lots of posters, bright lights, all sorts of cameras. I approached the man at the counter, mid fifties, tall with dark hair, slightly bent forward, and smiling a welcome. I expected that once he knew all I wanted was identity card portraits it would be quite quick – sit there, look here, click and that’s it. But it couldn’t have been more personal.

He nodded, beckoned me to follow him to the corner of the shop and drew back a curtain, ushering me through the archway into another little room. We were communicating largely by mime, something I found Italians took to well. Taking a paper hankie from a box and looking in the mirror on the wall, he gently dabbed his cheek then patted his hair, indicating that I might like to touch up a little before we began. He then discreetly withdrew, pulling the curtain behind him so that I had privacy.

Peeping through the curtain a couple of minutes later, he saw I was ready and came back in, opening his hands in front of him approvingly at the sight of me, “bella, bellissima, Signora…” I felt quite lovely. Then he positioned me in the chair opposite the camera tripod, gently moving my head just a touch this way, then that, with infinite care as if I might break. Finally we were ready, he smiled, and I couldn’t possibly have done anything else.

He took four different shots, moving me just a little between each, then gestured for me to stay comfortably in the chair whilst he developed them, which only took a couple of minutes. Then he placed them on the counter and we both bent over them whilst I chattered away in English about the merits of each, forgetting he wouldn’t understand much. But his eyes responded to each remark.

Finally I pointed to my favourite and he beamed – we agreed. He printed copies for me, and whilst he was completing them I looked in my handbag for the last one I had left of those I had brought with me from the UK. I put it on the counter and gestured, look, that is so bad, and yours is so good. As he peered at it his face changed to utter distaste, and summoning a little English he said “Signora, that is from a…a… slot machine”. I put it away quickly. A gentleman and an artist, and the photos cost me less than those from the despicable machine.

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