He was not tall, but definitely dark and handsome. Both mature and wise, an old soul (sixty three years old to be precise) with a sense of humor that I am sure I would have appreciated, had he been able to speak more than a few words of English.
We met my first week at the vineyard and when he drove up in a battered two-door Fiat, his round pudgy face lit with a wry smile and obscured by a Nintendo Mario style moustache, I knew our time together would be memorable. His name was John Paolo.
For five weeks we toiled together between the vines. Slowly, and in his case arthritically, walking down each long row, tying up the young vines, pulling weeds, and chasing lizards. It was hard work, but John Paolo knew how to make the time go by quickly. Early on in our budding relationship he tried to teach me Italian and I reciprocated with lessons in English. Andrew, our fellow worker and itinerant chef, taught John Paolo swear words and how to comment on the weather in English. Soon, a query directed at John Paolo as to how hot it was, would elicit the cry, “HOT AS BALLS!” shouted joyfully across the green swaying fields of vinery.
He was no stranger to romance and four decades of marriage and numerous grandchildren had in no way curbed his womanizing ways. Soon I was not Laken, but Clara Bella, named after the animated character wed to Goofy in the Italian version of the Disney cartoon. The appeal of such an association was lost on me, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.
When we worked side by side, he would hide chocolates on his person and wait until I faltered or began to look fatigued. Then with a flourish and slight bow he would produce the tidbit and hand it to me delicately with a quiet, “For you.” One day while we ate lunch in the fields, John Paolo walked over to an apricot tree, picked several of the fruits, and returning to the group tenderly handed them out to us. That evening when we were reprimanded for stealing fruit, not one among us had the heart to betray John Paolo for his chivalrous gesture.
Unfortunately for John Paolo, my attentions were directed elsewhere. It was Tom, the twenty three year old intern and future porchetta salesman from the States, who I’d been chasing after since first arriving at the vineyard, and who had proved invulnerable to all my conspicuous flirting and gratuitous use of innuendo. Tom was also not tall, but was closer to adolescence than senility, which I find unbearably attractive in a man.
Thus the days went by. I made eyes at Tom, John Paolo handed out chocolate and compliments in Italian that no one understood, and the world went round.
Our parting was bittersweet. We spoke last at dinner the night before I left for a new farm in Pisa. John Paolo asked why I was leaving and I told him I that I had had enough of grape vines, and mosquitos, and the way my whole body had begun to smell like sulfuric pesticide. That my departure coincided with the arrival of two very blond and very leggy Lithuanian girls to whom Tom seemed particularly fond was not mentioned. Showing a surprisingly adept grasp of the English language, John Paolo secured my ever-lasting esteem by saying that the Lithuanian girls were not good workers like me because they were too, “dainty”. Not for the first time, I considered what a nice and astute gentleman John Paolo was, and what a shame it was that he was married and sixty-three.
The next morning at the train station in Pisa I met Giacomo, the 50-year-old, translator, chicken enthusiast, father of four and sole proprietor of the olive grove where I would be spending the next two weeks. I was the only worker at his farm and therefore the sole recipient of his lavish attentions. The afternoon of my very first day of work he offered to give me a ride to the beach. I was quite surprised to find that his chosen mode of transportation was motorcycle and that I was expected to ride pillion and, “hold on tight!” On the way he made small talk, shouting over the roar of the engine, “When I wear my helmet, people think I am a boy” and, “You are a serious student, that is why I like you.”
At the beach, I watched in amazement and horror as my new host proceeded to strip down to his underwear, dive into the ocean, and then try to coax me in with him; telling me that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a swimming suit on because well, neither did he!
I resolutely remained on the beach and tried to look fetching as I stared longingly at the scores of hot, young Italian beachgoers lounging on every side. My reverie was soon broken as Giacomo, determined to enjoy my company, emerged from the water and lay down beside me in all his hairy glory. Soon he was talking about how much he loved coming to the beach, how he loved sailing and how his wife didn’t enjoy sailing at all, and how I was such a nice girl.
The beach slowly emptied as we sat together, watching the sun sink into the sea. Soon there was nothing but the sound of the waves and the faint twilight glistening off of Giacomo’s tiny black speedo. And it was then that I decided it was time to give up on my dream of a summer of Italian romance.
Laken Hottle was raised on tall tales and hymns among the rolling hills of West Virginia and completed her undergraduate education at Brown University with a concentration in Slavic Studies. She has studied in Russia, worked on a vineyard and olive grove in Italy and weeded a garden in Ireland. Contrary to her expectations none of these experiences prepared her fully for her eventual release into the wild.Her plans for after graduation include more travel, whistling, knitting, and puns.