So this is what it feels like to be a foreigner.
The people who live here, they see it in your clothes, in your walk, in the furtive movement of your eyes. As soon as you open your mouth, you seal the deal. You’re not from around here. At the grocery store in Borgo Maggiore the other day, words failed me. I was in the cookie section. I’d walked up and down the aisle three or four times looking for a breakfast item. There was a guy who worked there, shoving boxes onto shelves. I stopped next to him and told him I was looking for… There came a long pause. A type of… He waited, fidgeted, I pantomimed spreading jam on a piece of bread, which didn’t narrow things down much. In a panic, what I thought was: I might starve to death before I remember this word. He gnawed his cheek for a few seconds, then started ripping open another box on the floor in front of him when, at last, I got it. Crostini! Sweets in this aisle, he said. Breakfast stuff in the next.
A few minutes later, at the cash register up front, the woman who rang me up asked if I have Sma. It was a new word, kind of an ugly word. It sounded like a skin condition. I repeated it, putting a question mark after it. Sma? I said. Thanks, I feel just fine. The joke didn’t land. Not even close. And why would it? She rang up the last of my items, scowled at my credit card, and slapped a receipt in front of me to sign.
The local word for us is forestieri: strangers; people from the woods.
The locals would do well to be suspicious. This trip I’ve come with a view to a kill.
When my father-in-law sold his stake in the family home over here to his brother, he walked 200 meters down the street, probably that same day, strolled into a new condominium, and bought a two-bedroom apartment. It was 1966. Among the virtues of this apartment are the street-level front entrance, which meant no stairs to climb when you come home laden with groceries, and a panoramic view of the mountain from the back of the apartment. In San Marino everyone wants a view of the mountain and the hilltop city with its three towers. You stare up into the face of something silent, awesome, eternal. When we arrive, the first thing we do is roll up the heavy serrande shutters, throw open a window, and, well, behold the mountain.
A few years ago we had my wife’s friend Alba and her husband Fiorenzo over for dinner. I cooked, served; they talked.
“Let me get this straight,” Alba says. “Your husband cooks?”
I set down dishes of pasta, penne in kind of a modified arrabiata sauce, with a little local sausage squeezed out of its casing, minced and cooked into the sauce.
Fiorenzo forked some, examined it. “Arrabiata should have pancetta.”
Modified, I said. We had something like it in Tuscany.
We ate. The three of them talked children, local politics and the rotten economy, the error of American foreign policy.
I brought out rabbit alla cacciatore, a few side dishes.
“Isn’t he good?” my wife said.
Fiorenzo forked some, examined it. “We don’t put olives in cacciatore around here.”
Alba said, “Cut it out, Fiorenzo. It’s good.” She looked at me. “It’s good.”
Fiorenzo gazed across the table and out the window. “You have a great view of the mountain in this apartment.”
“It’s one of the reasons Daddy bought it,” my wife said.
“Yes,” he says, “but you’re going to have to cut down that tree.” He called it a pianta, a plant.
Right, there is a tree.
It’s a shaggy pine. Not a lot of branches. Picture a long-waisted scarecrow wearing a skirt. Right now its head and arms partially block our view of the three towers. In thirty years this tree has gone from a twig to five stories high. Its skirt gets higher and fuller every year. Down the hill below the tree is road, a school, behind the school on the upward slope of the hill is a park and what they call a pineta, a full square mile of coniferous trees. It’s designated by government as a no-build area, a green zone.
Add that to the virtues of this place: all that permanent flourishing green behind us. Who would miss one tree? Would that be such a great loss?
So this year, I contemplate an action. A hit.
My wife says one morning, “Let’s go down by the sea today.” We alternate. One day we walk up the mountain, another day we drive down to Rimini and walk down by the sea.
“Sure,” I say. I’ve been looking out the window, past the tree. If I lean out the window and bend hard to the right, I can see two of the three towers.
“The tree,” she says.
“Yes, the tree.” It bothers her too. I know it does. “Nails might do it,” I say.
“I’ve heard you can kill a tree by hammering rusty nails into it.”
“You’re not going to do that.”
“Every year we come, a couple more nails. Pretty soon it’s an ex-tree.”
Of course she says no. She loves a tree. Even a view-obstructing tree. And there’s probably an ordinance.
In the course of our walk I say, “What about salt?”
“What about salt?”
“Someone was telling me a good way to kill a tree is salt. You empty one of those big bags of salt, like for a water softener, around the base of the tree. Add water, wait a while, you get fire wood.”
“You would do that?”
It would have to be a covert operation. I could pull up next to the tree in the car in the dead of night, salt the tree. Circle back through town, come home and go to bed.
“And where are you going to get a bag of salt?” she says.
“I know a place.”
“What, Obi?” Obi is Italy’s Home Depot. They must have bags of salt.
After the walk, we stop for coffee in the old city. I have a few shirts I need to exchange. I really thought I was a medium. At home I cinched medium a while back. In the store a few days ago I tried on one of the shirts, buttoned it, stood there regarding myself in the mirror, front view, side view. It looked okay. It felt okay. I bought three. Back home, I dressed in one of them for dinner. When I sat down the buttons pulled, and I suddenly felt ample and very full-waisted. Large is medium over here, my niece tells me, medium small. So actually I bought small. That’s good to know.
Return means one of those encounters with an official person, a clunky explanation in my risky Italian. The young woman I present myself to in the front of the store is dressed in tight black. She has short brownish hair plastered back, with dabs of blue in the temples. I lay the shirts and my receipt on the counter.
“I made a mistake,” I say. “Too tight.” I turn sideways and foolishly trace the silhouette of my belly.
She tells me to go get the merchandise I want, bring it to her, they will exchange it.
I follow her directions. The transaction proceeds swimmingly until she asks if I want… something.
She repeats the word, a little louder. Of course louder doesn’t help. I still have no idea what she’s saying.
Finally she says: “Do you want these?” She holds up the hangers.
“Attaccapanni?” I say.
“That’s the other word,” she says. “We say gruccie.” I could see her thinking: foreigners.
“Done?” my wife says when I join her in the bar.
I would have to work alone, go to Obi by myself. My wife will not be complicit in this act. I’m looking for salt. A big bag of salt. Maybe there’s another word for that, too. I begin to consider the weight of the bag, picture hauling it out of the trunk of the car, the pile of salt around the base of the tree. There may be a better way.
Just before we left, my neighbor Therese back in the US was telling me about an earlier residence and her perfidious neighbor. She had a pool, this neighbor, and Therese had a tree, a gorgeous leafy maple. The leaves and the seed pods, basically any and all tree droppage naturally found its way into the neighbor’s pool.
“She was a terrible woman,” Therese said.
I could sort of imagine.
“I went away one week,” Therese said, “and when I came back, the leaves on my tree were all pale and dropping. It was July. My tree was dying.” She called a tree doctor, who examined the tree and pronounced it dead. “It can’t be saved,” the doc said. “You ask me, judging by the look of the base of the tree and its bark, someone poured Round-Up on it.”
“Can you imagine?” she said. “What kind of a person kills a tree?”
She was devastated, of course. A tree is a thing of beauty. And the tree was there before the pool, long before. That should count for something. Like the mountain, I think, was there long before our objectionable tree.
I would look in the Obi garden section. I would ask for Round-Up (or whatever they call it) or something similar. What’s the word for weed killer? for poison? It would take some explaining, some gesticulating, and probably that could be my undoing.
Suppose I were to succeed. I carry out the hit on the offending tree, it withers and dies, and someone not only notices and takes offence, they take action. The San Marino tree dottore or dottoressa comes, draws his or her inevitable conclusion. This tree has been offed. An investigator takes up the case, goes around and makes inquiries at places like Obi.
Have you sold a considerable quantity of Round-Up (or whatever it is called) lately? Has there been anyone, you know, suspicious or strange in the store?
Well, now that you ask, there was a forestiero in here asking for Round-Up (or whatever it is called). He talked kind of funny is why I remember.
How much did he buy?
Enough to wipe out half the green zone.
Can you describe him?
Short guy, in his 60’s, a little bit of a gut. He was wearing Khalkis and a shirt that was a size too large.
Must be an American.
They would get me in the end. I might be back in the US already, safe, shielded from prosecution, unless there are extradition agreements between San Marino and the US for crimes like planticide. They would get me, and I would have succeeded in becoming persona non grata, the forestiero who kills trees; making life difficult for all the other foreigners, too, affirming the stereotype: sneaky, inscrutable, capable of skullduggery.
So I stay the execution, decide to make the best of things.
Sometimes you just have to tolerate the intolerable.