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Made to Last–the water, the fabbro, and tonino guerra

When we arrive in Serravalle, the village Tizi is from in San Marino, and open the apartment, as soon as we’ve wheeled suitcases through the front door, I drive down to the street below the building to turn on the water. To do that, I visit our tombino. Our little tomb. There are four of them next to the building, what we would call manholes in American English. Inside them are the waterworks, a line, a valve, and a meter for each apartment in the building. In our tombino, six lines, six valves, six meters. To each meter a metal tag is attached; on ours, written in black Sharpie ink, Canducci Luigi. I gently open the value, the needle on the meter spins a few times, and we have water.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

The rectangular tombino cover is iron. It’s heavy. For years I would look for a piece of re-bar that Luigi Brocchi, one of our neighbors in the building, hung on the edge of a retaining wall close by. When I started turning the water on and off, Luigi showed me how to pry open and lift the tombino cover with the re-bar. I proceeded to do so every time we came. Then one year the re-bar was gone.

That Spring day when I parked the car, Serravalle was wet from recent rain. The asphalt pavement around the tombino was wet and dirty. To lift the cover, I got down on all fours and used a heavy screwdriver Tizi’s dad kept in a drawer up in the apartment, a tool ill suited to that job. As I was straining, struggling, and cursing, trying to get a purchase on the edge of the cover, a guy walking by gave me a hand. We talked for a minute. He pointed at the slots on two ends of the cover and said, “Qui ci vuole una chiave.” You need a key.

I asked, Where do I get one of those?

He said, “Deve trovare un fabbro.” You need to find a fabbro.


We have stores we return to nearly every time we come to San Marino. We cover a fifty mile radius, crossing into Italy every day. That year we planned to go to Gambettola, to the Pascucci store, a forty minute drive from Serravalle. Pascucci makes fine linen tablecloths with hand-stamped designs in blue and rust and red and green ink. They’re beautiful works of art that Tizi loves. The images are evocative, the fabric thick and sensuous, the craftsmanship historic. They’re not cheap. 

One year on the beach I bought a cheap imitation, brought it home, and presented it. Tizi shook her head. It was . . . a cheap imitation. Arguably junk. But useful junk. The dimensions were odd, not quite a square, not quite a rectangle; a square-tangle. We used it for everyday. We didn’t love it. 


Fabbro is a word I loved immediately. 

I knew it from my undergraduate days. T.S. Eliot dedicated his poem “The Wasteland” to Ezra Pound, “il miglior fabbro,” echoing a line from Dante’s Purgatorio, referring to trovatore Arnaut Daniel, “Il miglior fabbro del parlare materno,” the better poet in the mother tongue. Six hundred years later, in contemporary Italian, fabbro refers to a guy who works with iron, sort of like a blacksmith.

Where would we find a fabbro? In the Pagine Gialli? 


In the house I grew up in, there was a kitchen drawer. In that drawer were placemats. They were plastic, with a spongy surface on the underneath to keep them from sliding around on the table. They were decorative in a planty, floral kind of way. After dinner, you wiped them off with a damp sponge or dish rag and put them back in the drawer. Convenient. Simple.

In the house I’ve lived in for decades now, in marital bliss, I’ve never eaten off a placemat. Tablecloth, yes; placemat no. Much of that time, the majority of the time I would say, I’ve eaten off the ersatz linen tablecloth I bought on the beach and, even more often, a tablecloth-size blanket. Yes, a blanket. We have three of them, navy blue in color. For our 36 x 30 inch kitchen table, they’re the perfect fit. Where do you get a blanket that size? 

On overseas flights. 

We disagree on the source of these blankets. I say United; Tizi says Delta. 

Lightweight blankets, made of hi-tech, water-resistant, vomit-resistant, quick-wash, wrinkle-free fabric, durable enough to circumnavigate the globe many times over, they make better tablecloths than blankets, something one of us, Tizi I would say, recognized on a long flight years ago. Before we landed, she spirited one into her carry-on. Then came another flight, we filched another blanket. Then another flight, another blanket.   


“Do you know a fabbro?” I asked Tizi’s Aunt Teresa. She seemed like a good source. For whatever you wanted–wine, anice liquor (mistrá), sausage, eggs, rabbit, woodwork, painter, locksmith–she had an omino, a little man who had the stuff or did the job. She did not know a fabbro. 

Every time we’re in San Marino we go to a store up in Fiorentino. It used to be called Simply. Now it’s Superstore COAL Alimentari, a dreadful name. It’s kind of like a miniature Meiers or Walmart. We go there to buy reading glasses and sunglasses. The guys at the counter are generous and, in time, have come to recognize us. They will adjust the fit of glasses we bought in prior visits and seem casually interested in our story, the San Marino lady with the American husband. 

This year while we tried on glasses, we asked if they knew a fabbro. They did. In Fiorentino. Five minutes from the store. They gave us very specific driving directions, with many helpful hand gesticulations for curves and stops and continue on, and finally, there on the left side of the road (the funny Italian left hand gesture, thumb down, four fingers waving as one to the left). I drove right to it, a small industrial-looking building with a large wide garage door, closed.

The thing is, if you’re not cool with placemats, which Tizi is not, you want a cheap everyday tablecloth. The fine linen washes well. The guys at Pascucci in Gambettola or Marchi in Santarcangelo, they say go ahead and use bleach. Bleach will make the blue even more brilliant. It does. But still… 

A bit of ragu drops from your fork. 

Worse, a glass of red wine tips over.

Or worst of all, a splop (a portmanteau our son invented, combining spill and plop) of ketchup or mustard lands on the linen.

You gasp, you wince at the sight of it.

This year at Pascucci we see wonders. In the studio, the laboratorio, they’re working on prints with traditional Romagna imagery–roosters, grapes, grain, pitchers. Also some pieces with drawings and paintings by Santarcangelo di Rimini screenwriter-poet-painter Tonino Guerra, on tablecloths, aprons, bibs, and placemats. 

“Placemats?” I say to Tizi, pointing.

“Yes.” She shakes her head, meaning that we are not using placemats. “We have some of those.”

“We do?”

“Adele gave them to us a couple years ago.” Adele her childhood friend who visited us in the US a few years ago.

“Where are they?”

“I put them away. I don’t remember where.”  


We returned to the fabbro’s shop, twice. Still closed both times.

There was no rush. I used the delay to mentally rehearse my explanation in Italian. A few years before that I had presented my argument about a parking ticket in the office of a uniformed police captain in Pesaro–I think he was called colonel–having rehearsed my speech for days. And got the fine reduced by 50 euro. I’d never met a fabbro, but I suspected this would be less stressful. Acqua (water), strada (road), tombino (manhole), coperchio (cover), chiave (key?).

I’ve learned not to puzzle too much about words and their meanings. Chiave is the word for key. You have a chiave for your house, a chiave for your car. It’s also the word for wrench. To loosen a nut on a bolt, you need a chiave. How can a wrench be a key? Now manhole lid lifter-upper was also a key. Ci vuole una chiave. Okay.

Third time was a charm. The fabbro was in.

In a large open space on the other side of the garage door, he and his colleague were bent over a few lengths of steel rod, arc welding. I was interested, but I didn’t look. You’re not supposed to look at welding. He was fifty or sixty, wearing overalls. He pulled off his helmet revealing gray hair neatly cut. He was fit, trim. Out of overalls he could have looked like a professor or a dentist.

It was late afternoon, too late for buongiorno. I said buonasera and launched into my speech. Acqua, strada, tombino, coperchio, chiave. I had cobbled together an explanation: A chiave that would fit in the slot on the cover and enable me to lift it.

He understood immediately what I needed.

I’d come thinking maybe I could get a chiave made before we went back to the US, so I would have it when we came back. That was a few weeks off. He set down his welding wand, yanked a piece of scrap iron, a long rod, from a pile, and cut a half meter length of it. He cut two more lengths, one for a handle, one for the tee to fit in the cover’s slot, welded those to the longer rod. It took two minutes.

“Like this?” he said. 

I was happy. He was happy. We talked for a while, about his work, about the San Marino woman and her American husband.

I keep the chiave behind the refrigerator in the apartment. I guard it jealously.  Everytime I use it, gripping its handle I feel like I’m shaking hands with an excellent fabbro. 


That day at Pascucci, standing in their laboratorio, we chatted with the proprietor. Tizi pointed to a couple items with the Tonino Guerra images she admired and we bought . . . placemats. In the next room, the work went on, intricate, painstaking. The younger craftspeople worked at it, inheritors of the art.

“Placemats,” I said. “Really?”

“To give away when we get home,” she said.

They went home with us. I never saw them again. On the flight we inspected the Delta blankets, a shade of blue neither of us liked. Fortunately the ones we heisted years before were made to last.

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