Speaking of buying my daily bread, food shopping in Italy was also a major part of my early (and continuing) linguistic training. My first apartment in Rome was on Via Goffredo Mameli, just below the Gianicolo Hill, on whose lofty heights, Garibaldi had valiantly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to drive back the French usurpers in 1849. His headquarters in the elegant Villa Aurelia, built by Cardinal Girolamo Farnese around 1650, was battered badly in the struggle but was eventually bought and restored by a series of Italian Counts and finally by an American heiress, who ultimately donated it to the American Academy in Rome, which first opened its doors to scholars, writers and visual artists in 1909.
I had rented the Goffredo Mameli apartment from two San Francisco-based academics, who had advised me that there was a wonderful green grocer on nearby Via delle Cinque on the far side of Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. With only a few phrases of Italian with which to arm myself, I soon found my way to the small but over-flowingly abundant shop. Haltingly, I presented myself to the husband and wife proprietors as a friend of Kathleen and Arthur’s, and was met with a level of warmth and willingness to reach across language barriers that made me into a relieved repeat customer.
One day, returning from my Italian language class across the river in a palazzo on Piazza della Consolazione, near Campo dei Fiori, I raced across Ponte Sisto to get to my green grocer before the fatal Italian closing hour of 1:00 pm. But, in addition to vegetables, I also needed pasta, so first I rushed into the store across the street, where I purchased hand-made tagliatelle from the friendly patron. Everybody is nice on this street, I thought.
With only a few minutes to spare, I crossed the street and was met by my green grocer. Instead of his usual warm smile, I saw, instead, a very stern visage. Slowly, in deference to my limited Italian, he explained that the man from whom I had bought the pasta was his brother. How nice, I thought. Then, looking me straight in the eye, my green grocer continued, each word entering my brain with simple but piercing intention. “My brother was a fascist during the war. You are welcome to go to his shop or mine. But not both.” That day I bought history along with my carrots—and, ever afterwards.
That was the same week, I first heard (and suddenly understood) the elegant use of the subjunctive by my butcher.