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Keep the Rats Far Hence–new shoes, a dish of pasta, a vibe

It’s pouring rain when Tizi comes out of Marcello’s around 11:00 a.m. It’s her hair salon in Pesaro. Shortly after arriving in Italy, we go to Marcello’s, and she gets updated: the shampoo, the head message, the comb-out, the trim, the set, the poof agent, the anti-friz agent. All of Marcello’s ministrations which she so loves. During the cut I usually take a walk down by the sea or find a coffee bar and read the news. 

It’s raining hard today. I notice my old Rockports, they must be 20 years old, have sprung a leak. It’s one of the ugliest shoes ever made, but in an understated way, ugly that doesn’t call attention to itself. All these years it has pleased me to think that an Italian, any old Italian in this shoe-obsessed society, would cast a downward glance in the direction of my feet, notice my Rockports, and look up with barely concealed horror. Alas, I wore them long and I wore them well. 

Hard rain is in the forecast all day, so I go with Nickie to Globo and buy a pair of over-the-ankle boots, wondering, as I pay the bill, if this will be the last pair of shoes I buy over here. (There are moments one becomes conscious of one’s age. Yesterday, standing in front of the fruit and vegetable stand, up in the piazza, on one side of me, I would have once called her an old lady, wearing a plastic bonnet over her hair-do; on the other side, I would have once called him an old man, with a hat and cane. Both, I realize now, are my contemporaries.) 

The shoes fit great, look great, and will keep my feet dry. We meet Tizi at Zanzibar, the bar outside Marcello’s. Her hair is gorgeous. I tell her Marcello out-did himself.

“You really should have one of those things,” I say.


“In case of rain. In her purse my mother always had a plastic hair-do cover. It folded up like a pack of gum.” On her head, loosely knotted under chin, it looked like a wind-blown geodesic dome.

“I had one of those,” she says.


“We all had them. For when we got dressed for church and it was raining. Some of the girls ratted their hair. They didn’t want to spoil it.”

“Spare the hair. Spoil the rat.”


“Never mind.”

“All the girls,” she says. “All the ladies wore those things.”

It’s late enough, almost noon, I can have a glass of white wine while she and Nickie have a late cappuccino.


We have lunch at Gra!, next door to Rossini’s house. Gra! Which calls to my mind the paucity of one-syllable words in Italian. Ciao! Beh! Gra! Let’s see, there have to be more, many more one-syllable words. I make a mental note to be on the lookout for them.

On the menu are strozzopreti picchio pacchio. Later, when I check on the origins of that term, I learn picchio pacchio is a Sicilian dish, possibly a version of the sicilian pic pac (single syllables), reminding me of Tizi’s mother, who would refer to her speedy seering of a piece of meat in a pan for the kids as tric e trac (single syllables). 

Over lunch, we briefly return to the subject of rats. 

“Did you rat your hair?” I ask. 

“Sure, we all did.”

“But Tizi, rats.”

“I know,“ she says.

Tizi hates rats. Who doesn’t? But hates them with a shriveling sense of loathing and disgust. Any screen time given over to rats on TV or in a movie, she closes her eyes while I fast forward.


According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, there are 15 million rats in Rome (more rats than Romans), 13 million in Milan and 10 million in Naples. It sounds like they do a rat census.

In Rome they deal with three three types of “roditori.” Sewer rats, tree rats, and mice. Arriana di Cori, the journalist who has the rat beat, refers to the sewer rat’s big feet (ugh) and the tree rat’s invasion of homes by way of their roof tiles. It’s all terrible. But the idea of rats in trees is singularly unbearable.

To put this in perspective, in New York City they number the rat population at 2 million. They’re looking for a rat czar in NYC. In Rome they’re undertaking a program called “derattizzazione,” de-rattification.  Who you gonna call to unrat Rome? Rat busters.

Derattizzazione. That’s a lot of syllables. In the entire article, what I’m  looking for is not only a solution to the rat problem, though I devoutly wish that for all of mankind. I’m also looking for one-syllable words. They’re there, all right, the little words: articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, what we might call function words. Otherwise in Italian it’s two syllables or more, topo (the word for mouse), ratto, derattizzazione. 


You have to wonder: Why rat? 

How did a loathsome animal, universally reviled, come to be associated with a woman’s hair? With coiffure? 

When I consult Yesterday’s Thimble, the scholarly journal I turn to with questions like these, I discover that rats were useful for maintaining a high society lady’s high hair. The rat consisted of a mass of women’s hair harvested from a brush, collected in a net, pinned to her living hair, providing lift and height. So far so good. On the other hand, this too from rats in hair history: “The pomades to hold these styles together were made of beef lard and bear grease. Because these women paid a high dollar amount for the hairdos, they kept them for a week or two. The hair became rancid and would often attract vermin while the mistress slept. That is where the term, her hair is a ‘rats nest’ originated.”


When I get home, I look at my new shoes. I really look at them. They are a rat-colored shoe, I now realize. They look fine on my feet, but they could be browner or blacker; less rat. But they repel water, just as I wanted them to. The brand name is Grisport. It’s an Australian company whose manufacturing center is in Italy.  On the side of the shoe, emblazoned in yellow, is the word VIBRAM. I don’t know what that is. They don’t vibrate when I walk. Should they? On a very small metal tag attached to the side of the shoe I see Gritex. I can’t really tell if the shoe is made of leather or some kind of composite. You never know these days. Maybe Gritex is the shoe manufacturer’s version of naugahyde.  

I could have bought a different shoe, called Fighter. The tagline on the box read, “Specialized in the worst land.” I was almost persuaded. It would have been great to point at my shoes and recite that selling point. 

But I went with the rat-colored shoe, hoping for a vibe when I walked, on a shoe made to last.   

Tomorrow, haze and drizzile. Let it rain. But keep the rats far hence.

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