The sun is no longer the hot buttered pancake worshipped by the ancient Slavs: It has been reformed into an altogether more Christian, Lenten, and distant figure. The sea is still beautiful, though it too no longer moves with the same pagan frankness, its orgiastic, by turns manic and depressive, barometrically motivated summer feasts and famines having given way to that reflective coherence of cloistered life which a weekend visitor, who has not personally witnessed the seasonal conversion, is likely to misconstrue as stormy gloom. Wherever you look, royal aquamarines and emeralds in the Argentario’s crown are being switched for Siberian jaspers and beryls, and despite the cheering news that the substitution cuts down the cost of being embosomed in some of the most expensive nature on the Tyrrhenian coast, all the terraces are now emptying, Filipino maids are handing in the keys, and even I am making inquiries about where to go next.
Franco is working on it with all the aplomb of “Ci penso io!” for which the Italian service sector is justly famous. This is a combination of “I’ll see to it, just leave it to me, I have your interests in mind, everything will be taken care of, we understand each other, I know just what you’re looking for, don’t you worry about anything, I’ve got a friend, he has a cousin, they have an uncle” with the underlying sense of “And if in the end I should fail, we’ll have a good laugh about it, won’t we?” The hero of my last two letters from the Argentario, Franco likes to play the quintessential southern nepotist while achieving his ends by hard work, which he does in secret, and endless telephoning. Some years back, I read an article about a Robin Hood of a confidence man who ran an elaborate pyramid scheme for the benefit of the very people he was swindling all over America, so that a free car would be procured for one client at the expense of another, both clients having had to pay the price of a third client’s free pleasure cruise. This side of madness and the law. Franco is the nearest equivalent of that American: He has just sent faxes detailing my predicament to every real-estate agent in Siena while telling me that he is well acquainted with the city because he used to visit a girl there with splendid, let us say, results.
Last year, I made the mistake of telling the social grandees of Porto Ercole, who wanted to know whither their charming Russian acquaintance once the sirocco starts, that I wanted to spend some time in Rome or Florence, and that “Franco is working on it.” Franco? Ha-ha-ha, they laughed bitterly, that fellow Franco has a long arm, nobody can deny that, but surely not as long as their own Rome or their cousins’ Florence. Tee-hee-hee, tinkled a young Count Cucciolini. Hoohoohoo, boomed a Duke Ognibrontolo. Ho-ho-ho, hooted a Prince Dottodei Settenani. Why don’t I speak to their cousin, or daughter’s friend, or daughter’s friend’s agent? That would be wise. Because to rent a summer place, like all those despicable film producers and glorified grocers who are jacking up prices all over, a local fixer may be enough, but when it comes to residence in town, thank God one must still be presented to society.
I did speak to them, and the scenario was invariably the same. After a while, I began telling the grandees “Franco is working on if just to get their goat, so hilariously indignant and flustered they became at the thought of his arm lengthening, like the shadow of the specter that is haunting Europe, to reach into their ancestral domain and pocket a fat commission. Yes, I would insist with feigned bonhomie, Franco will find me a place, I’m sure. No, your friend’s cousin’s house didn’t work out, because first of all she is deaf, though not so deaf as to desist from bargaining, and secondly she said she didn’t want to move out because her mother’s things were in the house and she couldn’t bear the thought of other people touching them. But don’t worry. Franco will find something sooner or later. He says he is working on it.
No, that noble lady’s brother-in-law’s friend’s recommendation didn’t work out either. The place was too small and had no terrace, though like all the apartments in the inescapable scenario, it was tucked into an amazing Roman palazzo overlooking an architectural monument of still greater antiquity. It was a brilliant morning in early October, I stood by the window admiring the view and said I would take it, and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than the owner raised the price we had agreed on by phone just the night before. In her mistaken, though obviously not newly acquired, belief that useless information is a fair alternative to straight dealing, she explained to me that her ailing husband, who had just left for the airport, begged her, simply begged her, not to let anyone, not even the charming Russian acquaintance of her dear friend in Porto Ercole, have the apartment for less.
That evening, I’m at the bar as usual for an aperitif and a gossip with Franco. “Ah, pisellino,” he greets me, enjoying my customary uncertainty about whether a little pea is quite as endearing a thing to be called as the other little thing is offensive, “come andato?” The princess tried to pull a fast one, I tell him. “Did you show the old bag you liked it? You stood by the window and admired the view of some broken stones? Still greater antiquity? Nothing is of greater antiquity than la principessa, my friend! Pisellino, what did I teach you?” He gets up from the table and begins to recite: “Al contadino” (here he always raises the index finger of his right hand) “non far sapere” (pause) “come é buono” (mischievous twinkle) “il cacio con le pere” (triumphant laughter). Which, in the didactic style of another century, we may render as follows:
From farmer hide, lest he gets airs.
How excellent his cheese with pears.
Anyway, for this, that, or another reason it would by then be perfectly clear that yet another Roman palazzo, or yet another vaulted gallery with frescoed walls and a Jacuzzi, or yet another Fiesole villa with a musical fountain that is also a clock was but an unattainable social mirage, and the whole scenario would repeat itself, I goading the nobility of Porto Ercole with Franco’s ever-lengthening arm and they sending me on an ever wilder goose chase. Meanwhile, time was running out, and Franco seemed to be spending night after night on his many mobile phones without any apparent result.
Then one day in November, with the sirocco long in place, terrace umbrellas all folded, and even the bar officially closed except to make me a morning cappuccino, at last Franco ordered me into his Asti Spumante or whatever his spiffy car is called. We were bound for Rome, for the apartment—two terraces on two floors overlooking the Trevi fountain on one side and, no less crushingly undeserved, the Baroque facade of the Church of San Vincenzo on the other—where I began this correspondence last year. The owner was a very tanned middle-aged man, his hairy arms covered with interesting tattoos, who lived there with his wife, his two teenage sons, and his mother-in-law. While the elderly lady and her daughter, relegated to the kitchen background, were rolling the pasta and cutting the smoked pig’s jowl for an amatriciana that I will remember for as long as I live, the owner, the agent, and the little pea of a woebegone tenant were working out the finances with a broken ball-point pen on a paper napkin. This done, both parties licked their thumbs and, laughing at the grimy imprints, affixed them to the grand total with mock solemnity.
A contract? Aw, have another helping, my friend. A security deposit? Pfph, what for, I know where you live! How to pay? In sterline, of course, from beautiful foggy London with those marvelous bridges! When can I move in? As soon as we’ve moved out! And, as readers of this correspondence know, that’s exactly how it all turned out. And need I add what a fabulous boon it was, being able to ask all those Port’Ercole grandees to drinks on the terrace, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting to be asked the six-billion-lire question . . . and by the way how did you find this amazing place . . . oh, well, do you remember Franco . . . yes, well, but I told you he would find me something suitable in Rome . . . yes, he found it straight away . . . yes, a single telephone call. Curtain. A shocked audience. A huge line at the coat-check.
But what every picaresque social comedy needs is a sobering afterpiece. The tattooed owner of the apartment in the Piazza della Fontana di Trevi, as I learned by chance on my last day there, is out on bail and awaiting trial for his part in the assassination of an associate of the Vatican banker Calvi, the man found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London some years ago. On me personally this piece of news had the salutary, and not entirely familiar, effect of goading me to make sure that all outstanding utility bills had been paid, but as far as Franco is concerned, there is nothing more sinister here than a funny coincidence. And as the sirocco begins to bear down on the exposed village on the Argentario hillside, I can hardly wait to hear what this year’s frantic telephoning will bring.