Twenty-four years ago this week, I purchased the best gift I’ve ever given—a gift with implications for your very existence (not to mention pretty red-and-blue flower petal patterns).
It all began on Tuesday, December 7, 1993. Your mother and I were in Florence, Italy, finishing our studies abroad program there. We had been dating for just two weeks, but we were already pretty serious, having spent the last three months touring Italy together with a small group of fellow Americans (some of whom are pictured above).
For my part, I was already head-over-heels (as my mother had recently noticed). So much so that I agreed to walk with Mary to a pottery shop called “Migliori” that was a good thirty minutes from where we lived. I can promise you I had never gone so much as three steps out of my way to visit a pottery shop before.
When we reached Migliori, Mary pointed to a set of bowls and plates in the front window, all of which were hand painted with red and blue shapes that looked to me like whimsical flower petals.
“Those are the ones,” she said. “I love them.”
She opened the door with one hand and pulled me in by the other.
Inside were white lights, slate floors, and brightly colored ceramics of all shapes and sizes, from giant pasta bowls to tiny garden gnomes. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pieces, no two of which were exactly alike. Each was uniquely crafted, not in the manner of an amateur, whose pieces all come out slightly misshapen, but in the manner of a true artist, who varies her touch precisely to suit the surfaces she works on.
Mary’s eyes widened at the sight of it all, and she began to examine the collection closely.
I was mostly examining her, until I noticed an old woman behind the counter examining me. The woman was tall and slender and impeccably dressed, with a green-and-yellow scarf around her neck. She was eyeing me with something approaching suspicion, as if she didn’t trust the fact that she wasn’t yet sure what to make of me.
I nodded and said, “Buona sera,” the appropriate evening greeting.
She half-nodded in reply and left it at that.
For the next thirty minutes, Mary moved through the store selecting her favorite pieces—bowls, plates, cups and saucers, many with that same red-and-blue theme. Meanwhile, I watched Mary, and the old Migliori woman watched me.
When the time came to ring up (and wrap up) Mary’s pieces, we realized there was a problem: Mary was planning to travel to Prague with a friend on her way home to America. She couldn’t possibly carry all of the pieces she wanted. In particular, the cups and saucers she had chosen were simultaneously too delicate and too bulky for such a trip.
After an agonizing moment, Mary reckoned with the inevitable and decided to leave the cups and saucers behind.
“Oh well,” she said, and she asked the old woman to wrap up the other pieces.
Thirty minutes later we were home.
Forty-eight hours after that, Mary had left for Prague, and I was packing my bags for the journey back to Virginia. Before I left, though, I braved a cold breeze and a steady drizzle to make the walk back to Migliori.
I arrived just as the old woman was preparing to lock up for the evening. She stood in the doorway as I approached, once again eyeing me with suspicion.
“Le tazze,” I said. “Vorrei le tazze.” (“The cups. I want the cups.”)
For a moment, she looked at me like I was crazy—as well you might if a 22-year-old man approached you in the street saying “I want the cups!” in a strange accent.
Then the recognition dawned. First in her eyes. Then in a smile that nearly turned into a laugh.
“Per la ragazza,” she said. (“For the girl.”)
“Si, si,” I said.
She spent the next fifteen minutes carefully wrapping the cups and saucers for me, smiling and nodding all the while.
To this day, I don’t know how much of our story the old woman really understood. I didn’t speak Italian well enough to explain, and she didn’t speak any English. But evidently my actions didn’t need much translation.
As I handed her the money, she briefly took my hand.
“In bocca al lupo,” she said.
At the time, I didn’t understand this Italian idiom, which literally translates to “into the wolf’s mouth!” But I smiled and muttered “grazie” anyway.
I later learned that “in bocca al lupo” means “good luck.” It’s used in opera the way actors say “break a leg.” So, in a sense, the old woman was saying, “Good luck with your show, boy! Put on a good performance!”
The good news is, I did. Good enough, anyway, per la ragazza, with whom I’ve been crafting a life ever since.
We still have a Migliori cup and saucer, by the way. They look like this :
They’re inherently beautiful objects, no doubt. But they’re made the more beautiful, as all objects are, by playing a part in a much larger story—a story that now includes you.
Something to think about as you consider the gifts you most want to give, as well as the ones you most want to receive.
In bocca al lupo!