Novels

Thirteen Days in Milan

Chapter Three

Day One

 

Paolo de Matteo loved his ten-year-old granddaughter, Angela, so much that he bought her pistachio gelato every afternoon.

On their daily walks into Menaggio, Paolo and Angela left the family's hillside villa at noon to have lunch along the shores of Lake Como. They strolled hand in hand down Via Sonenga, a narrow, winding road through a neighborhood of modest homes and apartments. A block from their villa, Angela stopped at a small park where her friends, local boys and girls, played soccer and climbed on the playground equipment.

Angela waved and shouted, "Ciao a tutti!"

They waved back. "Ciao, Angela. Come va?"

"Tutto bene. Ciao!"

Along the route, Angela waved at Italian mothers hanging laundry on ropes strung across patios.

"Buongiorno, signora!" she called out.

"Ciao, Angela. Come stai?"

"Bene, grazie. Buona giornata!"

In the late summer weather, red, pink, and white petunias and geraniums spilled out of flower boxes on balconies and patios. Morning glory vines spilled over fences, and branches of lemon trees drooped to the ground, heavy with fruit. Ripe tomatoes, green bean vines, plump lemon squash, and purple eggplant hung in metal cages, ready for picking. The air was lush with the fragrance of basil, cilantro, oregano, and rosemary, which would flavor home-cooked meals that evening.

One garden had rows of grapevines with branches poking through the slats of a wooden fence. Angela plucked a few grapes and popped them in her mouth, letting the purple juice dribble down her chin.

"Oooh, these grapes are so juicy, Nonno," she said to her grandfather. "I love them."

Five minutes from the de Matteo villa, Via Sonenga merged into Via Monte Grappa, a steep road that led downhill towards Menaggio.

At the base of Via Monte Grappa, Angela and Paolo crossed the street and walked along stone walls of a medieval castle while enjoying the views of Lake Como's deep blue waters and mountains across the narrow channel.

They walked down a narrow cobblestone staircase between stucco-walled apartments, heading to Via Calvi and their favorite cafe on Piazza Garibaldi. They sat at an outdoor table under an umbrella and ordered from the waiter, who greeted them like members of his own family. Paolo chose his usual: shrimp salad, fresh Italian bread, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. Angela ordered cheese and prosciutto panini, pomme frites, and a lemon soda.

"Whew, it's hot today, Nonno," Angela said, setting her floppy sun hat and beach bag on an empty chair. Angela wore a different hat every day, all acquired by Paolo, who loved to buy her little gifts. "I can't wait to go swimming. Caterina and Maria are waiting for me at the lido."

"It's your last day in Menaggio, sweetheart," Paolo said. "Are you sorry to see summer end?"

"Oh, yes, Nonno. It's been the best summer ever! I love it here. You and Nonna have been so good to me."

"You have your bathing suit and towel in your bag?"

She slapped her cloth bag. "Right here. Do you have your book?"

Paolo patted his shoulder bag. "I always carry a book. I'm almost finished. I can read and watch you swim."

"Swimming in Lake Como's the best, Nonno. I hate our apartment swimming pool in New York. It's small and yucky with chlorine. All people do is swim laps. And no kids. How boring! Swimming in Como is fun."

"It sure is. I learned to swim at camp in New Jersey," he said, taking off his hat and sunglasses and wiping sweat from his forehead. "We didn't have swimming pools in Brooklyn when I was a boy. I couldn't swim until I was twelve years old. And look at you, you swim like a fish—and you're only ten years old."

"Eleven in December, Nonno."

Paolo reached over to pat her hand. "I'll never forget December 8. I was with your dad at the hospital, waiting for you to come into the world. I held you when you were only fifteen minutes old. As soon as you saw me, you cried. I thought you didn't like me!"

She frowned, a playful look in her dark eyes. "Nonno, you always say that! Of course I liked you. I just didn't know who you were. I was just a baby!"

When their waiter delivered lunch on large ceramic plates, Angela nibbled her panino and licked warm mozzarella cheese oozing between thin panini slices. "Oooh, I love cheese," she said, closing her eyes. "It's warm and yummy."

Paolo sipped his wine, savoring the soft citrus flavors rolling over his tongue. "I love my wine. It's yummy too."

"Nonno, you're funny," she giggled. "Wine and cheese are different! Wine is yucky; cheese is lip-smackin' good!"

Paolo chuckled, thrilled by Angela's playfulness. She beamed, delighted that she could make her nonno laugh, a jolly "Ho . . . ho . . . ho," a corner of his mouth curling into a Santa Claus grin.

Paolo was a bit like Santa, but more like an Italian version: not a big belly, and taller, with a barrel chest, long legs, and fluffs of curly white hair on his arms and around his neck. His once long, dark hair was stylishly clipped by New York's barbers to accent gray and white streaks that made him look like an aging Italian matinee idol from Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Paolo was as generous as Santa, giving Angela gifts, holding her hand on walks, and taking her to Menaggio's lido beach to swim with her Italian girlfriends.

Angela sipped her lemon soda and watched tourists strolling through the piazza wearing colorful short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and sandals, scanning menus posted outside cafes and trattorias. A few yards from their outdoor table, double-decker ferries were crossing Lake Como from Menaggio to Varenna or Bellagio, carving V's in the deep blue waters. Expensive villas behind gated fences were slotted along the steep mountainsides on both sides of Lake Como.

"Boy, the piazza's really crowded today," Angela said, dipping pomme frites into a mound of ketchup and stuffing them into her mouth.

"It's like this every August, the busiest month of the summer," Paolo said, pushing the olives to the side to enjoy at the end of lunch. "Hotels are full, waiting lines for the ferries, and more tour buses show up every day. A month from now, it'll be quiet and sleepy."

"Can we get gelato after swimming?"

"Of course, sweetheart. We can't go home without gelato."

After lunch, Paolo and Angela left Piazza Garibaldi and strolled along the embankment, where waves from ferries slapped against the stone walls. Angela tore crumbs of bread she had saved from lunch and tossed them to ducks bobbing on the waves.

The lake air smelled of the pizza and pasta being served at outdoor cafes, the rosebushes along the shaded promenade, and the diesel fumes from ferries. Paolo and Angela walked past the elegant Hotel Victoria, where uniformed valets were off-loading bulging suitcases from taxis onto carts and wheeling them into the hotel. In front of the Victoria, fronds of towering palm trees were fluttering in the breeze next to flagpoles with American, Italian, British, and Swiss flags.

The route to the lido followed along the embankment past parks, cafes, gardens, and a monument to Menaggio's women silk-weavers from back in the day when Menaggio had been a village of craftspeople and peasant families.

When Paolo and Angela reached the lido, Angela ran off to the women's locker room to change into her swimsuit. Paolo picked out a lounge chair and umbrella with a view of the beach.

Rows of beach towels were laid out on the lawn. Children and teenagers were sunbathing, laughing, and flirting, suntanned and without a care in the world. Paolo was reading when Angela dashed out of the changing room and dropped her bag next to his chair. "Ciao, Nonno. Ci vediamo dopo!" she said, running off with another girl, both speaking in Italian.

Angela's swimsuit accented her long, tanned legs, arms, and bare midriff. She danced across the lawn like a ballerina, her feet barely touching the ground. When the girls reached the beach, their girlfriends jumped up from their towels and hugged them, giggling and energetic as puppies. They sat down on their towels, eyeing young boys diving off a platform and whooping and splashing in the waves.

Oh, the children, Paolo thought. They're so happy and full of joy. He envied their youth, knowing that in a few years they would know struggles, disappointments, and frustrations. Enjoy happy times now, children. Life will get complicated soon enough.

Paolo admired how Angela looked like her mother, Sylvia, when she was her age: stunning good looks, lanky limbs, sensuous dark eyes, and long, silky black hair. Angela would be a beauty—just like Sylvia.

The wine was making Paolo drowsy. He put his book on his chest, took off his sunglasses, and closed his eyes, listening to the children playing, the ferry horns honking, and the waves lapping on the beach.

Paolo loved family vacations on Lake Como, returning to the homeland of his mother and father. After he had made his first million on Wall Street, he had bought his first Menaggio villa, eventually trading up to the present luxurious three-story villa with a wine cellar, enclosed garden, and balcony looking over Menaggio and Lake Como.

After forty years as an investment banker, Paolo was one of the highest-paid executives in his brokerage firm. But he was weary of the grind of long hours, endless meetings, and constant stress. He was ready to retire so he could spend more time in Menaggio and indulge his hobbies of painting watercolors and collecting Italian antiques.

This was a bittersweet day for Paolo. His family would celebrate his sixty-sixth birthday that night. Tomorrow, Sylvia, Angela, and Sylvia's fiancé, Cole, were leaving for Milan and Paris before returning to New York.

Farewells and birthdays were sad occasions for Paolo. Birthdays marked another year passed, and Paolo wasn't sure how many more he would have to enjoy his family. Farewells were sad because loved ones were departing. He and his wife, Harriet, would be alone, a feeling they liked less as they aged and their health deteriorated.

After Sylvia, Angela, and Cole returned to New York, Harriet had a doctor's appointment about her worsening MS. Paolo had another checkup scheduled in connection with the quadruple heart bypass surgery he'd had two years before.

Paolo was also concerned about Sylvia and Cole's pending marriage. They had met at a New Year's party, had become engaged in June, and were getting married in October. Too much, too fast.

Sylvia had been divorced for five years. Cole was also divorced, and his preteen son was living in Chicago with his mother. As a conservative Catholic, Paolo was opposed to divorce for all the stresses and complications it caused families—especially children. Like Angela.

As Paolo dozed off, worries about health and family returned like they did every night. Too many situations were out of his control. And Paolo liked control.