On my first day in Florence, Italy, three years ago, I went into a tiny gelato shop near the apartment I was renting for the month, and after I ordered gelato, reached into my pocket to pay, and realized I didn’t have enough. I struggled to explain this in my limited Italian to the shopkeeper, a friendly young man who listened perhaps for a second before he breezily said, “Pay me later,” in excellent English.
I admit I was stunned. I’d never met him before. But what was interesting to me was that as he said this, I thought, I will. And I did. For the rest of the month, I went back and bought gelato whenever I had the impulse. I’ve been invited back to teach at the program that brought me there for several years now, and I go back all the time to this little shop for gelato, also wine, which he also sells. I make a point of going even when I am put up in neighborhoods that are not near him. He remembers me with a smile, a look of recognition that I don’t get from most other places I shop, perhaps because I came back to really pay him that first time. I remember him because he trusted me. He remembers me because he trusted me and I came through.
Last month I was there again as his country and mine turned down dark roads to ethnic cleansing, and the purging immigrants, and I went in several times to buy gelato as a hedge against the despair I felt, and to think about why this was happening. I thought again about how easy it was for me and him to trust each other, and how it began with his extended hand.
A thought came. How to balance that delicate bargain against these larger betrayals? I know it’s not a simple question, and yet, I am still asking it of myself.
There’s a story my aunt likes to tell about me. I was visiting her at her home in Maine, and in the middle of the night, realized the doors to the house were unlocked. She lives next to what counts as a busy road for that part of the state. I was staying in her barn loft for ten days, working on a novel, and as I tried to go to sleep, found that I could not. When I asked myself why I understood that it was because I knew she left her doors unlocked. And so I locked all…