“What do you do?” a man at the cocktail party asks me, glancing at my name tag.
Those four simple words and the answer they elicit could be a doorway into a meaningful conversation. “About what?” I want to reply, but I know that isn’t the question he thinks he is asking me. My thoughts were already falling back through time to the summer of 1998.
I landed in Bologna, Italy. I planned to cycle. Alone. To slow down, enjoy the scenery and sort out what I was going to do next with my life shortly after a divorce from my husband/law partner. No set plans, just a rough agenda of the areas I wanted to visit and a return ticket from Milan seven weeks later. I was free for, perhaps, the first time. It was exciting. It was intimidating. What have I done? No schedule, no goal to reach. Gradually, I eased into it.
Each day, I set my pace according to what caught my fancy. Perhaps I saw an enticing cafe where I could while away the afternoon drinking Prosecco and enjoying the sights of passersby, making up a story about the handsome older couple walking slowly, heads down, like their frowns, but still holding hands. My story drawn from what I could see, not so much what I overheard, since my Italian language skills were fairly pedestrian.
Another day, cycling on a red dirt road through a peach orchard, I was overtaken by the luscious ripe fragrance. I decided to brave a little of my scrappy language on the farmer, whose door I rapped upon, and asked for a peach – with a lot of gesturing and smiles. He filled the basket of my bike with those tender fragrant treasures and invited me to stay for lunch with his wife, who received me sweetly into a delightful farmhouse kitchen. Didn’t need much language to display my appetite or my appreciation. Let’s just say it was evidenced with gusto.
Over the next couple of weeks my language skills began to bloom a bit, as I had made it my business to try to learn ten new words of Italian every day. Unfortunately, they didn’t always go together and I never quite mastered the art of conjugating verbs, but usually when “Me want juice” came out of my mouth, with the words “per favore” (please) and a full smile, me thankfully got juice! I had begun to use my burgeoning language skills to acquire such things as an invitation to a Mozart concertina being performed by fabulous local musicians in the home of a newly made acquaintance from an inn I had stayed in. What a treat to hear them play 17th century instruments! They shyly bowed and then carefully stowed their instruments before accepting a glass of wine poured by the local vineyard owner, beaming over his own contribution to the pleasure of the evening. They exchanged mutual admiration for each other’s talents.
I began to observe this interesting exchange again and again with people as I cycled from village to town and beyond, a certain respect for the offerings of each person to the other’s life. It was even more obvious to me during a behind-the-scenes tour of an olive oil mill that a new English-speaking baker friend took me on. The full-bellied olive mill owner, who was more than happy to pantomime words for me to help me understand all that he was gregariously explaining about his work, obviously loved what he was doing. He called it his dance. Not his work. At first, I thought I had missed part of the conversation, but he explained that the way he coaxed the last drop of golden tantalizing oil from the olives was not by pressing them harder, but from engaging them in the dance of the mill, turning it round and round – just as he twirled me around slowly with my right hand in his high above my head, soon ending up wrapped in his gentle embrace with a peck on my cheek. Ah, that explained a lot to me about what I was experiencing from him as he talked about his work. It was as if he flirted with his work.
The baker had brought along a focaccia to share with his olive mill friend and me. Before long, I found myself on a tour of local craftsmen and women in the town – each contributing a little morsel to my understanding of their local economy. The farmer who grew the local wheat and red peppers in my tasty focaccia. The olives topping it were from the same grower from whose olives the miller had created the oil. Next stop, the cheese maker, disappointed that he couldn’t leave his little shop to take me personally to meet the owner of the cows from whom he acquired his milk, but assuring me it was always fresh and warm when he brought it home, which is why the cheese was so sweet and milky (decidedly unlike the hard, sterile shrink-wrapped Polly-O available in stores at home!)
Again and again, each of the many people I met along this afternoon journey by bicycle with my new friends, many of whom joined our little bicycle caravan to continue on to the next stop, touted the contributions of the others to the item they could easily have claimed as their own sole priceless creation. Nope, this was a community of interconnected people, each fully engaged in the work they were doing, and nourished by the gifts of the other producers around them. The olive grower saw himself as part of the miller’s business and of the baker’s and of the cheese maker’s. Interesting.
Just as curious to me was how they spoke of their work. They never called it work. They used precious words of affection for what they were doing. They called their peppers their “bambinos”, they called their cows their “darlings”, the miller called his mill his “old friend” – as in “my old friend and I dance our way into the hearts of the olive jewels”. I loved how quaint this was, the people so engaged with their work and each other. I chalked it up to village life. Secretly, a part of me wanted to stay wrapped up with them and their pleasure. I ached for it as I saw slivers of this connection to passion nearly every place I cycled.
Mid-way through my trip, I cycled to the ferry that took me to Venice, a bustling city that soon had me feeling more like my busy self. I phoned back home from my hotel room and spoke to my office manager, checking in on what needed my attention after nearly three weeks away. I was soon ensconced in my personality as an important lawyer again.
That evening, as I stepped out of the canal boat on my way to dinner, a little storefront window with a display of jewel-toned marionettes caught my eye. My fingers wanted to touch the delicate rose brocade of the jester’s hat on the one closest to the door. Passing through the narrow doorway admitted me to a shop laid out like a railroad house, a single narrow hallway with staggered rooms opening off the left and right all along the corridor. Each room beckoned with handmade treasures that made me let out the involuntary sound “ooohh” as I reached out to touch an iridescent plum colored hand-blown perfume atomizer or a bronze and burnished copper sculpture mounted on a slab of veined green marble.
It was that sculpture that led me into conversation well beyond my language comfort with the sculptor who emerged from a room of laughter at the back of the shop. She had a slender cylinder filled with limoncello in her left hand as she approached me. How lucky to get to meet the creator, I thought. I wanted to know more about the piece she had created and what the title card meant. The piece stood about 18 inches high and 7 inches wide with a clock face mounted in the center. Above the clock face, the bronze transformed into a spray of birds in flight, below the clock face the bronze and copper melted together and blended into a pile of tarnished copper and gold coins, with modern and ancient values embossed upon them.
She translated the words on the title card for me “il tempo e denaro e come si vola” … time is money and how it flys. I had to have it.
She wasn’t done with me yet, even after I made my purchase. As I followed her into the back room into the midst of laughter and overlapping conversation coming from the nine men and women gathered around a waist-high worktable covered with various ongoing projects, Nina introduced me as her new American admirer. A salute of limoncello-filled drinking vials welcomed me into their midst. And that is where I spent a good part of the next two weeks, building friendships with a collective of artists who had come together to share space, create and showcase their works. I expressed appreciation for the intricate skills they each displayed – the marionette maker with her fine beading detail on the costumes. “No,” she told me, “the costumes are made my Antoine, I only breathe the life into their strings and faces and hands and feet.” The costumed jester made its way home to my niece. Each of them, in turn, shared bits of their passions with me – how their work was not separate from that passion or from the heartbreak of their lives – but woven all together.
They were amused with my answer to their question, “What do you do, Denise?” Because their English was still growing, as was my Italian, I answered, “Io sono una avocata” (I am a lawyer). Donato chortled out the translation from Mariana’s quick outburst. “No,” he chided me, “they don’t want to know how you earn your money. They want to know what you do that comes from here.” Pointing to his heart. Oh. That. Hmmh, more stammering on my part. They chalked it up to my weak language skills. Me, too, except that I knew the language I wasn’t quite fluent enough in to answer their question wasn’t Italian. It was meaning.
I brought back with me many of their precious made-by-heart treasures. But the gift I treasure most is the question they asked that still moves around inside of me. What do you DO?
For years now, each time I hear someone ask that question, to me or I overhear someone else being asked it, I realize my own heart is listening for the answer. My ears may hear, “I am a doctor, banker, plumber, dentist …” but my heart is always hoping the answer will come from deeper within the person answering the question. Something real, like “I give children more time with their grandpa” (the heart surgeon) or “I provide shelter to women who would otherwise be at risk for the sex slave trade” (the banker financing companies who pay living wages to workers) or “I make sure tradition stays alive” (the plumber who works on Thanksgiving Day at no extra charge) or “I help rebuild young men’s self-esteem” (the dentist doing implant work for refugees once a month). By the way, those are actual answers that have come from the mouths of some of my clients as we’ve explored their questions about work.
I adored being in the company of my many friends there in Italy and they tried mightily to persuade me to stay and become their English-speaking business manager. For a long time, I regretted coming back home. Not anymore, because I have a real answer to that question now. Ask me, I’d love to tell you and to help you find yours.