A Man Named Billy Wanted to Kiss Me

The Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Rivera where small villages hang off cliffs of granite and hover over the waters of the Mediterranean. The most famous towns are: Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. Painted vibrant pink, yellow, and coral, they string along the coast connected only by hiking paths. To reach them, visitors must park their cars high in the hills and walk down. Vehicles are not allowed in the villages, so unlike the constant and annoying buzz of the Vespas in Rome and Florence, all you can hear is the sound of daily life drifting out the narrow open windows of the tall houses connected to one another. Dogs stand in the doorways and peruse the tourists passing by, and children play ball in the piazza, often scolded by the elderly men who collect on park benches and tap the rubber ends of their canes for emphasis.

The first time I was in Cinque Terre, in 2007, I was on a day trip with Paul from our Mediterranean cruise. I half-listened to a guide explain that all house colors must be approved by a “Commissioner of Good Taste,” but what I was really doing was watching an older gentleman in an apron and baggy, worn polyester pants stand in his window frame and use an extended paint brush, like the ones kindergarten children use, to daub green paint onto the worn slats of the shutters of his house. They are open during the day to string laundry out to dry, but they are pulled shut at night to deter the mosquitos. He winked at me. Enchanted, I promised myself I would return to the Cinque Terre.

In 2013, my best friend Belinda suggested a trip to Cinque Terre. For the four years I lived in Tulsa while working on my doctorate, Belinda and I had tea most afternoons together. We nursed babies and commiserated on my miserable first marriage and her pie-in-the-sky (now deceased) husband. A friendship of thirty plus years, there is no one I’d rather go to Cinque Terre with–other than Paul.

“Are you okay, Paul? We can go together in a few years.” I saw him hesitate for a moment. Not to say yes or no, but, instead, thinking, ‘I don’t want to miss it.’

I was 46 in 2013. I am a firm believer that the most beautiful time in a woman’s life is when she is in her forties. Her lifelong friendships are made. She’s had enough relationships in her life that she knows a good man (or woman) when she has found one. She drinks champagne in her cozy pajamas, hands the car keys to her children trusting that someone will watch over them, willingly contends with an acquaintance about politics, mourns for longer than is necessary when her dog passes, and has discovered a moisturizer for life. She is not afraid any more.

I write this, and I fervently wish I was in my forties again—this time to savor the years like beads on a string that get lost one at a time until you only hold one or two precious ones clutched in your fist. If you still have them, hold them fast. You’ll need them in your fifties. That’s a whole other decade better addressed another time.

I was primed to meet Billy. Belinda, already in her fifties, knew so much more than I did in my forties. She knew that a Billy meant trouble. A Billy meant flaking paint on tall shutters. A Billy meant a lark is never just a lark.

Trattoria dal Billy sits on the top of Manarola’s largest hill. It has three levels: a few street-level tables, two inside rooms with a large open space from where you can see the sea and the sky meet, and a protected outdoor terrace with a rock wall that overlooks the steep vineyards. An almost vertical stone staircase, shaded by a lemon tree, connects the spaces together.

I don’t know what it was about that night that made me laugh with abandon, flirt without shame, put my glasses in my purse and lock eyes with a man who stared at me—Billy.

Billy was not much to look at. He was short, dark haired, and with a shadow of stubble on his cheeks and chin. He hunched over the reservation book and constantly conferred with his staff preparing tables and cashing out customers. His eyes slid to our table and in between plates of bread, fish, and potatoes, I blushed when I saw him whispering to our waitress with his eyes trained on me.

“He wants you to see a picture of him from his fishing days. He had curly hair.” She handed me a dusty 8×10 frame that had been propped up on a long shelf that extended across the room underneath the large, picture windows.

Billy’s photograph was faded with curly edges under the smeared glass. Without my glasses, I had to hold it close to my nose to see it clearly.

“Oh my,” Belinda said taking the picture from me and looking closely at it. She and I put our heads together and giggled. Out of the corner of my vision I saw Billy’s head snap up and turn to me. In the photo he was wearing a tiny, red speedo bathing suit and lounging against the side of the boat. His hair was indeed curly and long. He was holding it back with one hand and an easy grin was spread across his face. He was holding a giant swordfish and blood covered his hand where he gripped it tightly.

When I stood to return the frame, he motioned to us for a picture. Belinda and I stood on either side of him, and he put his arms around our waists. Just as we pulled apart, I felt a quick pinch of his fingers on my butt. Startled, I yelped.

“Watch yourself,” Belinda advised.

“It’s just innocent, B,” I said.

“Maybe to you,” she whispered.

Then the lights went out and the whole restaurant went dark. Voices started singing happy birthday in the kitchen, and as the waitresses entered the main dining room, they made their way to our table. The rest of the diners, now swigging the free grappa and limoncello being passed around the room, joined in the song. Although it was not my birthday, the girls set the cake down in front of me, and one of them leaned down and whispered, “he wants to kiss you.”

I felt Belinda’s hand cover mine, lightly like a piece of gauze applied to a burn. For a moment I knew what it was to be a comet streaking across the sky. It only happens in a blue moon; it’s never in the same place twice; it’s meant to be enjoyed for the moment, it’s never to be spoken of again.

“No,” I said smiling at her young face. “No.”

Now, in 2022, Paul and I are within a couple of hours of the Cinque Terre. “Let’s go to dinner there. I want to see Billy,” Paul jingled the rental car keys in his fist.

“I’m sure he doesn’t work there any longer,”I said.

“No, Kathi and Mike said he did when they were here in July. Come on.”

It was cold the night we went to Billy’s dal Trattori. I had only a cheap rubber coat I had purchased from Walmart to ward off the chill of the evening. The wind was blowing in from the water and even though we were far from it, I felt the salt brush my face like a kiss. We carefully walked down the steep steps, a few lemons still high in the tree above our heads. I had my phone clutched in my hand with the picture of Billy, Belinda and I saved on the screen. Nine years is a long time and many, many guests ago. I wondered if our encounter still occupied a part of his mind like it did mine. Unlikely.

We didn’t have a reservation, and I watched Billy and his head waitress argue over whether to give us a table or not. “I’m sorry, we just don’t have room for you,” she said coming back and speaking to us.

I held up my phone. “I met Billy nine years ago,” I felt a little dizzy balancing on the uneven stair. “I don’t think he’ll remember me, but I thought I would show it to him.” She took the phone from me and began to laugh.

“Eduardo, come here. Come see how handsome you were!” She held my phone to him, and he squinted and put his reading glasses on. He shook his head and spoke in rapid Italian. He shook his head again and threw up his arms motioning towards a table in the corner of the terrace. They seated us and I sat down stunned. He was not Billy, the owner of the restaurant. Nine years ago he acted a part that was not his. He waved his hands over the top of the restaurant like a conductor working his orchestra. Feeling sick, I realized I did too. We were both actors that night. For me, it defined the margins of my marriage and they are crisp, white, and well-trimmed like good sails on a boat should be. Paul took in the shock in my eyes, and I understood that moment of hesitancy he had when I left for Cinque Terre with Belinda. It wasn’t an issue of trust; it was a knowledge that a moment would take place that would change me in some undefined way, and he would not know how it happened.

It became so windy, we gathered up our things and prepared to go. Eduardo came out of the main building and motioned impatiently to me. He shoved two bottles of thirty-year aged balsamic vinegar glaze into my purse. He put an arm around my shoulder and another around Paul and nodded his head for a picture. I stood there, confused, my Walmart coat hanging from my hand and the precious balsamic vinegar bulging in my purse.

“Hey, now,” Paul said patting Eduardo on the back. “Don’t go pinching my butt or anything.”

I loved my husband so much in that moment.

Hubris on a Vespa

Hubris. I’ll be the first to admit that I think I can do way more things than I can do.

Like riding a Vespa.

In the final days before we left on our trip to Italy, I madly booked tours in the five locations of our trip. Food tours, a concert, and skip-the-line access everywhere because, in addition to having too much pride, I am also impatient.    

“Honey, I’m booking a Vespa and Wine Tasting Tour,” I yelled through Paul’s office door at home. He was working on his computer and whistling. The words were barely out of my mouth when the whistling stopped. I heard his chair roll backwards and the door creak open. I even heard Sibby shake her collar and get to her feet.

“Do you think that is such a good idea?” Paul leaned against the door frame of the kitchen where paper, my phone, and my computer surrounded me. He folded his arms across his chest. Any good marriage counselor will tell you that crossed arms means resistance to an idea.

“Sure. I can do it,” I said showing him the Budget Italy Tour picture of all the sweet, young people scootering along waving at the camera. The sun was shining, the road was empty, the medieval town, San Gimignano, beckoned in the distance. “It says we will ride to this town in the Tuscan Hills, taste wine, eat lunch, and then return back to the Vespa place.” Paul stood unmoved and Sibby, the golden retriever with a great deal of hair, lowered her butt to the floor. They both looked like they didn’t believe me. “Paul, I can do this. Everyone can ride a Vespa. It’s like a scooter.”

No, it’s not.

We pulled into the Mailbox Etc. store where the Vespa company rented a garage in the back. Five shiny Vespas were lined up outside the door. I looked closer and a black one had several scrapes on its sides and the front fender was missing over the wheel. Up close, it looked more like dirt bike than a scooter—just with tiny, cute wheels.  

“Okay, I am Vincenzo, I will be your guide today,” He walked the line of Vespas, pausing to run his hand across the gleaming silver chrome of the handlebars. “First off, I need to assure you can ride safely.” He gestured to the black one. “Get on.” Paul obediently straddled the machine with his feet on the ground, twisted the key, turned the handles back and forth and squeezed the brakes. He sat down on the seat and vroomed off to the end of the parking lot. He made it look easy.

“Okay, your turn,” Vincenzo pointed at me. “Pick one. Pick the pretty orange one.” I couldn’t move. Paul was circling the parking lot and doing that Van Disel move where you put your foot down and spin the motorcycle in a half circle.

“I can’t.” I stared at Vincenzo’s Sibby-like, brown eyes. “I can’t.”

“But you have paid?” Panic made his voice a little higher. “Your husband is ready.” He pointed to Paul who was just about ready to ride with no hands.

“I can’t.” Poor, young Vincenzo looked uncertain. Obviously, everyone he knew could ride a Vespa. I stepped closer to him and said in a low voice. “Look you don’t know me, but I promise you, I can’t do it. I would crash…like into something, not just myself.”

Sighing, Vincenzo waved Paul back. He had to whistle to get his attention, actually. My husband was bent with his chest to the handlebars pretending to be Tom Cruise racing alongside the airplane runway.

So, four Vespas left the Mailbox Etc. parking lot. Our teenage leader, Vincenzo, Robbie and Travis from Tennessee, and me and Paul. I rode behind Paul on the black, beat up Vespa. It was really not meant for two—at least the two of us.   

Vincenzo led us out to the highway where we rode in a line on the side of the road. We stayed on the white line inches from the shoulder. Cars whizzed past us honking, and good old Vincenzo and Robbie and Travis honked back. Paul couldn’t. I had his arm in a vise grip.

“We are on a freeway! What is that kid thinking?” I screeched in Paul’s ear.

“I am going to stop this thing right now and turn around if you can’t get a hold of yourself,” Paul snapped. Unlike when we drive together in the car, my mouth was directly in his ear even with our helmets on.

“What do I do? I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do,” I moaned over the buzzing of the Vespa motor. Vincenzo looked back and gave us a thumbs up with a big grin.

“Don’t move so much. Hold onto me. I have to balance both of us,” Paul talked out of the side of his mouth concentrating on the road. “Lean into me.”

“Okay,” I said and leaned forward to lay against his back.

“Ooh, that’s nice,” he said.

“What?”

“Your breasts,” Paul announced.

“Paul, that’s not even funny. This is dangerous.” I jerked back up as bits of gravel kicked up from under the front tire.

“Don’t move!” Paul grabbed both hand brakes. “No, it’s good. When you lean against me like that you don’t wiggle so much. Just stay like that.”       

We rode. I was terrified. I didn’t know where to hold on, and my short legs prevented my feet from resting on the platform behind Paul’s legs. I finally gave in. I wrapped my arms around my husband’s torso and clasped my middle fingers together over his tummy. I laid my chest onto his back and nestled my chin into his shoulder. We would have been the perfect picture for Budget Italy Tour’s advertisement.

We motored towards San Gimignano, and the road of the valley fell away. Carefully, I sat up and looked on either side of us. Olive orchards streamed down the hills like grey and silver smoke and curled against the land. Purple grapes, plump and full, on vigorous green stalks marched in leafed rows down the hills while the leaves of white grapes, softer and already harvested, sank into the soil ready for sleep. Cypress trees, tall and singular, paraded down the landscape.

It looked exactly like—Tuscany.

“Breasts!” Paul hollered.

“What?”

“Lean forward!”

We were on a steep incline and the Vespa was groaning under our weight. It slowed to 20 kilometers an hour and then to fifteen kilometers an hour.

“Should I jump off?” I yelled in Paul’s ear.

“No, just lean in, Honey. Lean in.”

We crawled up the hill at a tortuous pace. Cars six deep honked impatiently behind us and pulled into the center of the road to see if there was enough room to pass. Alas, there was not. Everyone, including Robbie and Travis, had to plod up the hill behind us. Vincenzo sat at the top of the hill waving the cars on, looking more like a safety officer at an elementary school than a cool Vespa wine tasting tour guide.

Hubris. It doesn’t matter who you are. It gets you every time.

Florence, You are Ours!

There are nights you feel like a princess, and you just have to go with it. My new dress and shoes—a silk gown with gauzy, see-through sleeves, the fabric scattered with blooms, and the length hitting above my knees just right, and then, of course, paired with four-inch-high Tommy Hilfiger wedges all made me feel willowy and sensuous.

“Wait up, Little Goat,” Paul called huffing behind me a good twenty feet. “My feet are hamburger, give me break.”

“Little Goat?” I laughed. If I had not been in such a good mood, it would have been a much different conversation.

“Yes, you are bounding around on your toes on those shoes. I just see you head bobbing up between all the people.”

“I can’t bound on my toes, wedges are platforms; it’s like regular walking just much higher,” I retorted.

Florence had changed during our five-day visit. The first day was ninety degrees and our cotton clothes clung to us in the heat and humidity. Tonight, the wind was brisk with a little bite to it. The air was clearer, and everything–the white façade of Santa Croce cathedral outside our porch, the thick, red tiles of the immense round dome of the Dumo, and the lantern-shaped lights on the street corners—stood out in stark shadows in the twilight.

I shivered.

“I wish you had a regular coat,” I told Paul as he adjusted the collar of the sports coat I insisted he bring.

I had told him, “You never know when you’ll need it for an event you hadn’t planned on.”

“What do we women bring for those moments?”

“A pearl necklace.”

“Why aren’t you wearing yours?”

I didn’t feel like it.”

And then, just like me not minding Paul calling me the Little Goat, he didn’t mind wearing the sport coat. He didn’t mind at all.

We should have been exhausted, in our pajamas, drowsing in front of the TV. In a single day we have visited the Uffizi Art Gallery, climbed the Duomo’s dome and bell tower, and now we were on the way to a Three Tenors concert. We sped through the streets where the owners of restaurants were pulling down plastic curtains to protect the diners from the wind. We were late for the performance. The proprietor at the bottom of our building offered to put our dinners in a warmer for us to eat later, but instead we jumped up from our table, grabbed hands and shouted, “We’ll see you for dessert, Ciao!”

When you start shouting the language of the place you are visiting, you’ve made it. Florence was ours.

The Uffizi Gallery, opened in 1560 when the local mafia family, the Medicis, started hauling in art they had in their palace and hanging it on the walls. Five hundred years later, the Uffizi is stuffed with art. Shaped like a horseshoe, two sweeping galleries are crowded with thousands of years-old marble statues and paintings of historically important Romans and Italians as well as the ubiquitous Madonna with Child. Who knew though, that most of the statues had been repaired over the centuries with extra body parts from defunct statues, and many of the works were painted by one artist but a different one had signed his name over the top after the painted had dried?

“I’d be pissed for eternity,” I said solemnly to Paul. “I’d find the faker and haunt him and his family forever.”

“Yep,” Paul patted my shoulder. “I have no doubt.” I’ve been known to wish for revenge.

Now is moment I have to apologize to Paul. I called him an idiot. He wanted to climb the 463 steps of the immense Duomo dome. Its real name is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, but she is called the Duomo. Massive, she dominates the skyline of Florence, and you can feel her ownership of the city. Calling them “interruptions and resumptions,” it took 150 years to complete the Duomo, and Filippo Brunelleschi, the final architect and builder, burned his notes and plans used to build the double dome (one inside the other to hold it together) making it a near impossibility for the current architects to figure out how to maintain the structure. Idiot.

Back to the other idiot. “We are fifty-five years old, we do not exercise AT ALL, we drink way too much wine, eat too much cheese, your blood pressure medicine had to be increased, and I am considering botox. Why do you think we should climb it?”

But we did. We used the same staircase the workers did all those generations ago, and at the top we saw the whole swath of Florence stretching out in red roofs, church spires, the glinting Arno River, and palaces on the hills in the distance. It was so exciting that, buoyed by our success, we dashed across the piazza and climbed the Bell Tower which was 414 steps. On our way down, the bells began to toll, and I felt like I was being rolled from side to side on an old ship. We passed the opening where we felt the powerful push of the metal bell through the air as its gong, gong, gong pulsed steady and unrelenting. Though my teeth were bouncing around in my skull, it was stupendous.

So, it brings me to the last event of our crazy day. I had bought tickets for a Three Tenors concert. Now I knew they weren’t the real Three Tenors—Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti—but I was hopeful it would be like Las Vegas where we once saw one guy who could sing exactly like Billy Joel and Elton John.

These guys? First of all, only one of them was actually on the cover of the program. The other two were subs. They sang for an hour and a half, and they were pretty good. I called one of them Hair Flipper because he liked to bend deeply at the waist and throw his head back, so his hair cascaded around him, another guy I nicknamed the Hulk, because that guy had a head like a boulder, and the last one I called Mike the Neighbor.

“What? He doesn’t look like Mike (our best friend),” Paul wrinkled his forehead and frowned.

“No, he looks like Mike the neighbor who only replaced half his roof and doesn’t mow his lawn,” I whispered.

“Oh,” Paul said nodding. “He does look like Mike the neighbor.”

They sang arias from La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. They entered the stage and exited the stage. Over and over.

“Why don’t they just stay up there?” Paul asked.

“It’s all about getting in character,” I sat on the edge of my chair. I just wanted to hear them sing Nessun Dorma—a song I first heard in 2007 and makes me weep every time I hear it. But it wasn’t to be. When people started leaving during the third version of The Marriage of Figaro, the three tenors hastily tied it up and bowed. Hair Flipper, the Hulk, and Mike the Neighbor. They held hands. Ooh, gross, I thought.

Giggling, we ran back through the cold where the owner of the restaurant called out, “You’re back! Come tell me about it!” We sat with him and drank Moscato wine and ate tiramisu while I told him all about my names for the three singers. He wasn’t offended at all.

So, we’re packing up. We will look like idiots once more as we wheel our four robin’s egg blue suitcases across the piazza towards the taxi stand. Florence has been glorious; Tuscany, we’re on our way…   

Sometimes Things Just Go Wrong

There are 5, 518 miles between Olympia, Washington, and Florence, Italy. The time difference is nine hours which means Paul and I have just a couple of windows of time when we can talk with our friends and family. Our house sitter, someone we have known for years, made some serious mistakes at our house, and, per our ADT alarm system, we realized people were coming over to our house all night long every night for five nights. On Saturday night alone, our front door was opened 19 times between midnight and six am.

Paul and I spent all Sunday in a tiny Fiat car with our six pieces of luggage piled to the ceiling behind us arguing over how to handle it. It was supposed to be a beautiful drive through the countryside from Venice to Florence, but we somehow got stuck on the autostrade, and all we saw were tall grey, metal walls and the inside of tunnels. Paul thought if we gave the house sitter a good chewing out, he’d snap out of it and get better. I didn’t think so. Something had withered inside me. My trust was broken.

We have no idea how many people went through our house, if they looked through our messy pantry with all the boxes of forgotten taco shells, laughed at the absurd number of pillows on my couch, upended a cup and saucer from my great-grandmother’s china and pretended to drink from it, or (bile races through my stomach here) slept in our beds. I don’t know if they looked at my photo albums on the living room coffee table and flipped through the pages, a drink in their hand or a joint pinched in their fingers and skipped to the end because they were bored.

I don’t know if they petted Sibby or pushed her away because of her horrible habit of jumping on people. I don’t know if Lily cowered outside afraid to come in but more afraid of the coyotes who have treed her in the past.

We talked to the house sitter, and he promised no more guests, he’d settle down, it would be quiet.

“Please send me a picture of Sibby and Lily,” I asked. “Please, so I know they are okay.”

When I woke up the next morning, there was no picture. I had no way of knowing if they were okay. I sucked in a giant gasp of air and fell into a panic attack where I couldn’t remember how to breathe. I say fell, because it is like falling. Air can only come in, the room spins, the dizziness makes me want to throw up, and my legs won’t work. The worse it gets, the more I panic, and I am convinced I am going to die. In the deep recesses of my brain, I remembered a trick someone had told me about.

“I7, 84, 46, 3,” I wheezed. Random numbers. By talking, I must breathe out. “64, 17, 32, 17, 42,” my shuddering slowed. Paul held my hand and looked at the floor. There was nothing else he could do. My breathing finally returned.

“You sure like the number 17,” he said rubbing my back.

All day I was as brittle as glass, and I stepped carefully on the cobblestone streets afraid I might slip into the cracks.

Operation Move Sibby went smoothly with the help of neighbors and friends. She is now staying with two other golden retrievers and I hope they are speaking their special language of limited conversation but lots of smiles. Lily is back home with three different families caring for her in the next couple of weeks.

I don’t know what you do to thank the people who saved the places of you that are the most vulnerable, the most exposed, the most naked. I will find a way. But it will have to be without words because if I had to speak of it again, I’ll have to start counting.

Perhaps you wonder why this hit me so hard.

In July, my son was diagnosed with cancer. I was there for the surgery, but he didn’t want us to miss our trip to Italy, so he and his family are weathering his bouts of chemotherapy alone. They are taking it one trip to the clinic at a time. He counts the days of treatment he has left. His goal to is to be well enough to shoot his bow during deer season November 1.

Having a child with cancer makes me feel like all the doors and windows of my house are open and I cannot return home. It makes me feel like my grandchildren have wandered into a cornfield and I can’t hear their voices over the clatter of the corn stalks in the wind. It makes me feel like a part of my body that became a part of his body betrayed us both. It makes me feel like strangers are idly riffling though our lives with little interest.

So, I guess you could say being unable to stop the violation of your home shares a whisper of a resemblance to being unable to stop cancer invading someone you love.

Every day since July 7, I have practiced self-talk. He will be okay. He is young and strong. The survival rate is over 95% with the chemotherapy. He will be okay. It is my mantra and I say it over and over again every day.  

Last night, as we walked back through the maze of streets, the hulking, silent Duomo brooding in the twilight and the Ponte Vecchio glowing in the last of the sunset, we heard the sound of music. We crossed the street and followed the sound of a single violin. We found the violinist in the piazza outside the shuttered Uffizi Gallery where the Birth of Venus lay sleeping inside.

He played for the crowd, he played for himself. He spoke little, but the music soared up between the walls of the buildings and seemed to weave its way between all of us sitting on the stairs. It grew darker until we could barely see him, but he continued to play. Paul and I left while he was still playing. I wanted to remember his music living and breathing, strong and knowing, healing and whole.  I wanted to remember that even though I could not see him, he played through the darkness.  

Negotiating the Unwritten Rules of a Venetian Bacaro (Dive Bar)

“No, no, Miss. Say it again.” Our tour guide, maybe eighteen years old with spiky hair and a chipped-tooth smile, pinches his fingers and thumb together, Bacaro!” He kisses his fingers and explodes them open in the sky. “Bacaro!”

“Bacaro, I say enthusiastically and kiss my fingers and watch them fall open like a drooping flower.

“Better, better!”

Paul and I are on the Definitive Bar Tour, advertised as visiting six bars with six snacks with six glasses of wine—all in three and half hours. Easy. The Klenks can handle that no problem.

We met Francesco in the university district where the Grand Canal opens up to the enormous lagoon of aquamarine water churning with the passage of speed boats, vaporetto (water taxis), gondolas, and tiny fishing boats manned usually by a young boy or two. Imagine a cruise ship and a canoe next to one another. It is stressful to watch, but so far, we haven’t seen any collisions or casualties.

We take off—Paul, me, Francesco, the tour guide, and a couple from Chicago. They didn’t talk the entire tour. I watched them chew and swallow—that’s it.

“Stop here.” Francesco left us in the middle of a street in Piazzale Roma with tourists surging around us. “Come now, now,” he waved from a tiny, low doorway between a lace shop and a hotel.

“Dive bar,” I whisper under my breath to Paul, as we squeezed into a narrow room with flapping posters on the wall and a table-like counter running around the perimeter of the room. Older men stood at the bar top eating bread with toppings without expressions. When they were done, they threw back a shot glass of wine and left greasy napkins that floated to the floor.

“Ooh,” I breathed.

“You can pick a cicchetti for yourself or I’ll select some for the group and we’ll all share them together.” The Chicago duo chose their own. Reluctantly, I wished I could read the Italian and know if I was choosing octopus or not.

The glass case was probably five feet long and filled with slices of French bread piled with meats, cheeses, spreads, and unrecognizable lumps.

“Cicchetti?” Paul asked. He totally massacred the word, but Francesco did not correct his pronunciation.

“Yes, yes. It is what separates Venetians from Italians. You will not find cicchetti, a small snack, in other places on your vacation.” He laughed. “Sir, I tell you what is here, and you choose. And then your wife.” He smiled at me.

Bud, if you want a tip, learn my name. Paul gripped my hand. Twenty years of marriage and he didn’t just read my mind. He heard it.

“Let me see what we have here. We have like your grilled cheese, I think.” He pointed to a fried bread sandwich. “But in Venice, we add a surprise, an anchovy in the middle and dip the sandwich in a batter to fry in lard. Delicimo!”

“Next one?” I inquired.

“This is Baccalà Mantecato,” he said pointing to crostini spread with a white fluffy concoction that looked like marshmallow. “It is salted cod spread.”

“Next?” I asked peering into the finger-print smudged glass case.

“Fior di Zucca, fried pumpkin blossoms stuffed with ricotta,” Francisco said meeting my gaze. “Very Venetian, you know.”

“I’ll try that one,” I spoke up. Paul picked one piled high with meat. We stood along the countertop and chomped on our cicchetti. Mine was creamy and salty and Paul’s took a bit more effort. He tried to eat it in several bites, but the meat was layered and didn’t pull apart well.

“Now the other part of visiting a bacaro, which now you should know is a local bar, is you drink a small glass of wine. Venetians pop into bacari all day long for a snack and a little glass of wine.” He carried four tiny glasses of white wine to us. Paul and I looked at each other. We tipped them back in one gulp.

“Very good. You drink like Venitians, no?” The Chicago couple drank theirs in sips.

“You can carry it, if you like,” he offered them. In Venice, you can walk with your drink. Never plastic, no.” he shook his head in disgust. You take a glass, you bring a glass.”

“These small glasses are for just a taste of the wine. When you order one, say ‘l’ombra bianco if you want the house white wine or l’ombra rossa for the house red. I’ombra means shadow in Venetian culture. It means the little shadow it makes in the face of the church.”

Paul and I looked at each other. All good information.

“So, this is called a desk.” He patted the scarred countertop. “A true bacaro has no chairs. You eat standing up and then go about your business. If you want to sit at a table in a bacaro, you pay two euros more each.” We gathered our stuff up and prepared to move along to our next five stops.

We ate Sard in Saor, crostini with fried sardines and pickled onions garnished with raisins and pine nuts in the Jewish ghetto. Throughout the centuries and during World War II, Jewish citizens were locked into a gated square each night in their neighborhood even though they spent their days building and working on Venice like anyone else.

We tasted glasses of fresh red wine that had been harvested, pressed, and immediately put into wine barrels for sale. It was delicious and reminded me of the fresh sangria I made at home.

The time flew by as we inhaled giant meatballs made of finely ground beef, egg, Italian bread, milk, Italian parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and some Grana Padano cheese. Then, it is fried not baked. We slurped tiny tastes of Tuscan wine.

By the time we finished olives stuffed with meat, prosciutto and gorgonzola, pecorino and sottocularino, we were stuffed. However, those miniature glasses of wine didn’t seemed to complete the snack.

We said goodbye to Francesco and the couple from Chicago. I did give him a tip. His enthusiasm was fetching, and his dimples were delightful. I still can’t say bacaro with conviction, and cicchetti is way beyond my pay grade.

The next day through, Paul and I confidently made our way to the glass case in a bacaro and ordered three crostini a piece. A pair of young women watched us as we pointed and selected our snack.

“Do you need to know what to do?” I asked.

“Yes, would you help us?” they said visibly relieved.

“Okay, pick out which cicchetti you want—that is the name for the crostini or a fried thing—and then tell them what kind of l’ombra you want, white or red. It’s a little glass of wine.”

“What about you guys?” One of them pointed to the large glasses of wine we carried with our plates and the table we had commandeered.

“Uhh, I paused. “What can I say? We’re as American as it comes.”