Private Smiles

by Jess Mitchell

Tiana and I were about to leave one of Florence’s cemeteries after taking pictures of the weather-beaten gravestones when a man sat down at one of them with a toolbox. It awakened the curiosity in my fingers, and I grabbed at my camera.

“I really want to talk to him and see what he’s doing,” I said.

Tiana grinned at me.

“Then go over there.”

“All right. I’ll do it.”

I took a step and then doubled back to her.

“Can you come over with me and help?”

The man was engrossed in his work, bent over the tombstone. His glasses rested on the edge of his nose. He sat cross-legged on the ground. Despite the lines on his face and hands, he reminded me of a kid playing in a sandbox, the way he hunched over the tombstone with his tools, holding each one delicately in his thick hands.

It was like he was encased in a glass bubble with his own life, his own language, his own agenda. It wouldn’t be possible for me to enter it. But I walked towards him anyway.

Scusi?”

A part of me didn’t expect him to respond, as if my inadequate use of language couldn’t break through that glass between us. My stomach flipped when he turned so quickly at the sound of my voice. Gathering my thoughts, I stammered in Italian if he knew English, and he said no. With Tiana’s help, I asked if we could take a few pictures of him. I expected a scowl, but he shrugged, smiled, and said yes. I snapped away while Tiana talked with him. We learned he has a nephew who worked for the New York Times and that he was restoring a piece of a gravestone.

We said good-bye and left the cemetery. I felt triumphant. I had broken through that glass bubble and emerged with a story. I wanted to do it again.

A woman sat on a stool at the exit. She spoke Italian and held out a bowl that had a few small coins in it. At first, we passed her with a smile, but then the curiosity seized my hands again.

I grabbed at my camera and looked at Tiana.

“Do you think we could ask her?”

Tiana taught me the phrase “Can I take a picture of you?” in Italian and stood back as I approached.

I smiled and placed a few euros in her bowl. She nodded and said “grazie.”

I asked if she spoke English. She didn’t. Then I asked if I could take a picture of her. She said something to me and I whipped my head around toward Tiana, gesturing for her to come over.

Tiana asked the same question to the woman. She squinted at us with a smile still on her wrinkled face. We motioned the act of taking a picture. We said it was going to be private. It was for school. But she shook her head, smiled again, and said no.

Tiana and I left the church. The curiosity had left me hands. I hadn’t broken through the glass bubble with the woman. Instead, I was pushed back with a smile.

The experience at the cemetery reminded me that these people don’t owe us, students and tourists, anything. They aren’t obligated to smile for a camera. They aren’t required to share their life stories with us. We are strangers in their home. Some may smile, a few may share, but all must be respected. It is a reminder that though this city is international and caters to the distant traveler, there is a hidden, more private side to it. It is a privilege to learn about it, but it is not a privilege automatically granted to those of us who come with cameras and backpacks. Especially when we expect it to be.

 

Read an interview with Jess Mitchell here.

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