As some of you are probably aware, my wife and I have been abroad for awhile. Happy accidents have conspired and we are now ensconced in a small apartment in Verona, Italy. We’re wedged in a picturesque, pedestrian enclave. The narrow, cobblestone streets are barely wide enough for one car, much less two, and traffic is moderated by strict municipal ordinances that limit parking and even access only to the lucky, well-heeled, and well-connected Veronese who inhabit the historic center of the city.
A half mile in one direction, tourists trudge, gawk, and selfie-stick the city to death, but here, on the street below, it’s often eerily quiet, with only the infrequent toddler chirping in garbled Italian with a parent or nonna, a patron or two at the local cafe, calling to a friend passing by, or two dogs getting to know one another.
With its medieval architecture, storied literary past (Dante, Romeo and Juliet, etc.) Verona is a fascinating city with its own unique culture. Nestled in the Veneto region, it is less well-known than its big sister, Venice, and hardly as international as its neighbor Milan. Still, visitors flock here continuously: for the opera in summer, the wine and cheese festival in the fall (deadly, I must testify), the Christmas markets in winter, and cultural and commercial events of every kind every month of the year.
The most surprising aspect for me, the armchair anthropologist, is the enormous amount of very discreet, even secretive, wealth that permeates the historic center. Subtle clues abound: the automobiles are, almost entirely, without dents, dings, or damage, and many are German. The restaurants are full of locals. Well-capitalized banks compete with centuries-old churches for space. Law firms abound.
The Veronese, for the most part, sport well-made clothing in navy blue, charcoal grey, or black. I’m not saying that this is this is the trending or predominant color palette of choice: this is their uniform. Every day. All the time. I am positively a garish peacock when I throw myself into my camel tan topcoat and venture forth into the sartorial sea of colors that absorb all light.
After a few weeks in the city and a considerable, circumspect assessment of the new American in town, a native Veronese confided in me when I mentioned this phenomenon. He alluded to the historical: in early centuries, the tax man in many parts of Italy would simply walk around a few times a year, make a visual inventory of the assets and luxuries belonging to a particular household, and present his bill accordingly. Those with impressive displays of wealth were often hit with a hefty invoice. Subsequently, the Italians have learned to hide much of what they own (legally and otherwise) while still managing to present a bella figura to the world at large.
My new acquaintance also articulated a nobler, more enlightened concept: with everyone dressing pretty much the same, it allows the less fortunate to preserve their dignity, while simultaneously allowing the very rich to preserve their anonymity. And make no mistake, many of the people in Verona’s historic center are very rich. “Think Switzerland rich,” confided a British acquaintance, who, as an investment advisor, was in a position to know.
The day after the United States presidential election, the temperature in Verona dropped ten degrees. Whether or not this was an omen remains to be seen, but it certainly was enough of a signal to the grande dames of the city to break out: it was, I told my friends back in America, the first day of fur season. Coiffed and bejeweled matrons alighted from their palazzos clad in the finest pelts the world has to offer and took their city, as if they needed to, by storm.
Where they go or what they do all day long remains a mystery to me, but they are fascinating, and sometimes dangerous when they ding-ding you from behind, their bicycle bell warning you to step to one side or risk being run over as they peddle pell mell through the streets. They are agile, healthy, alert, and independent, but one gets the distinct impression that they do not suffer fools, or daydreaming American writers, gladly.
Know this, however: they are not rude. Hold a door open, and a bouquet of appreciation tumbles from their lips with a smile, in soft, just-above-a-whisper Italian. Even gestures as small as stepping aside on the narrow sidewalks so they can pass without inconvenience, or without stepping into the perilous streets where Vespas and taxis whiz by, will elicit a grazie.
A generation (or two) younger, their female descendants often fall into what I like to call a DNA subset. The physical prototype of this twenty-something Veronese young woman is one with coal black hair and eyes, ivory skin, slender build, and facial features straight out of a Renaissance portrait. Clad in all black, all the time, she is animated with her friends and statue-like in the presence of strangers. Her gaze can be disconcerting, like that of an elegant, educated Morticia Addams. She, too, lives a this self-contained and self-sufficient world, where there’s always a moment to stop on the street and chat with a fellow Veronese. Time is rarely a concern for her. If it should ever become one, she will check her men’s stainless steel Rolex for clarification. She does not wear a full-blown fur. There is time enough for that later in life. For now, a practical cold-weather coat with fur trim around the hood (maybe) is more appropriate.
The men here, perhaps predictably and maybe sadly for our female readers, hold no such allure for me. Some resemble the broad notion of what Italian men look like: dark and striking. Many look like they could be natives of West Virginia or Montana. One marked characteristic of them is, though, their absolute refusal to consume conspicuously. Once again, it’s navy or black suits for the bankers (they are legion, easily identifiable, and move in small, ambling packs as they try to decide where they’re going to eat lunch each day) and charcoal grey for the clothing store owners and ateliers. Neckties are unanimously blue. Double monk strap dress shoes in black or dark brown dominate, as do all-weather boots when rain is on the horizon. Forget the gold jewelry. These men barely wear wedding bands.
Most tellingly perhaps is the bespoke shirt shop directly below our apartment. Six days a week, perhaps eight to ten hours a day, the three or four ladies of the camiceria (I can’t quite tell how many work there) meticulously cut, sew and craft top-quality, custom made shirts for the men of Verona. Prices are uniformly 300 euros per shirt, more for exclusive fabrics. Buttons are mother of pearl and extra thick. Styles are traditional, of course.
The funny thing is this: in the eight weeks that we’ve stayed here, I’ve only seen two customers actually inside the shop. Their clientele, I surmise, have already been measured and simply reorder at their leisure. Their shirts are crafted and delivered in the fullness of time. The only regular traffic in the place are the two dogs that belong to the seamstress. They lounge beneath the sewing machine, and, weather permitting, wander into the foyer of the building, greeting the stranger with timid wagging tails and happy faces. I pet them on occasion, asking them if they speak English, and nod through the half open door to the ladies, who I am certain do not.
The Americano, I heard one say to her coworker, without emotion, as she assessed a newborn collar. They smiled. And I smiled, too. The Veronese already knew I was here.