Urbino letter XXI from Michele

(November 22, 2018) -- Our travels from Urbino are almost complete. Most of the students have elected to spend their now four-day weekend in the city, but of a few of the most dedicated peripatetics have opted for a lightning-bolt-fast trip to London and will be coming back on two different trains today, a Sunday.

We will pick up where we left off tomorrow, back to classes and work in the studio, but I’m happy to slow down for a day and enjoy Urbino’s embrace, if one can be hugged by a city. In this place I think it’s possible.

I’m taking a dawn walk out to the ramparts below the Palazzo Ducale; it’s become a favorite perch to watch the morning light trace the contours of hills and rooftops and probe the valley floor below.

The air is full of mist and the distant view is something I haven’t seen here before, a low bank of clouds has enveloped the mountains across the valley and is moving over them, like sea foam rolling over the sand.

Fog is arriving from two directions, its movement accelerated by some minute barometric change that breaks down all resistance to its bilateral conquest of the valleys, and now, of the lower town below me. The dark hilltops, stitched to the sky by lines of black cypress trees have become islands in a soft white sea.

Overhead is the bright blue dome of early morning but clouds and fog are reaching for everything in sight. Tendrils of it are falling around my legs and brushing over my shoulders. I’ll soon be up to my collar in it. I can feel the mist on my skin, it’s as light as the kiss of a ghost.

My rampart has disappeared and now I’m in a cloud, it’s like standing in the sky.

I’ll walk over to the loggia housing the Café Basilli in the little Piazza Della Republica and watch Urbino yawn and stretch and wake up. Families are walking by on their way to Mass or to find a newspaper. Older and younger Urbinese are doing what I’m doing, having morning coffee outside in the arcade in front of the café. We can’t sit at tables lining the street anymore, they’ve been removed for the pending winter, making competition for the remaining sheltered seats more acute. A group of students asks for the extra three chairs at my table, all the better to enlarge an impromptu symposium at the table a friend is holding down for his classmates. I’m happy to surrender the spare seats, now later arrivals won’t be looking daggers at me for keeping all four seats to myself.

Older couples are flipping through giornale or books, leisurely draining cups of coffee or chocolate, or sipping Aperol spritzers, despite chill in the air.

I have my favorite spot, wedged between the piers that shelter the arcade, and for all I know, hold up the roof of the world.

The youngest waiter arrives with a tray, café lungo to jump-start my sluggish motor and a still warm cornetto, shedding its brown skin on a white napkin on the plate. I’m glad to see he has survived his first weeks on the job, he seems calmer and not flustered, he knows what he’s doing now thanks to the coaching from the two older waiters I’ve watched every Monday evening.

I was a little shocked by the brutality of his initiation by the café owner. I couldn’t understand why he would hire an adolescent waiter and then treat him so badly in front of all the customers. If he didn’t think the poor kid had the ability to do the job in the first place, why take him on?

That question answered itself last night. As I was approaching my table an enormous Mercedes glided to a stop opposite the café, the driver, the owner, exited and so did his passenger, the boy-waiter, his son.

The two older waiters confirmed this with eye-rolling certitude. Yes, the trial period is something they are all sharing, like it or not. Like so many enterprises in Italy, the café is a family business, the kind of place visitors and natives are most likely to encounter. It’s not very likely that I’ll ever be at a Fiat board meeting, to watch Agnelli offspring being shouted at by their relatives, but these scenes play out in thousands of cafes, corner grocery stores, gelaterias, and gas stations every day. At least in places like Urbino, chain-store enterprises are making little headway against family ownership and pride. I hope that never changes. The brow-beating is an odd form of love and concern, the next generation has to be capable of carrying on.

I disagree with the pedagogy on display at the café, but not with the tradition it represents.

More indulgent parenting is on display in the Piazza. Two young families have stopped to chat, parents to parents, and primary school children to their schoolmates. A little boy fiddles with the button on his father’s overcoat then buries his shy face in the garment. His father opens the coat and lets the boy inside, as if it was a warm tent. The boy hugs his father around his waist without interrupting the conversation for a second, it was a natural and protective gesture, instinctive and without affectation.

Another father is talking to a white-haired couple, his parents? His boy is quietly standing next to him, gazing up at the adults. The father starts running his fingers through the little boy’s hair, it seems to calm him, and produces a smile.

A somewhat older father is arm and arm with his wife, with his spare arm thrown over the shoulders of his adolescent daughter. They are walking abreast, perfectly matching each other’s stride. It doesn’t matter if they have a particular destination, for now at least, they’re together.

There’s a rival café across the piazza, in the seemingly endless arcade that stretches down the Via Sanzio. Its proprietor keeps a pair of small bicycles in the café for his grandchildren. One is a boy, about five, and his older sister, who is perhaps eight, they have markedly different navigational styles. The girl rides her bicycle at a stately pace, her nose slightly elevated, as if she was a titled equestrienne in search of a stirrup cup and the dogs. She rides back and forth the length of the arcade, then does a slow loop around her grandfather’s tables and dismounts, usually to a waiting treat brought out by her grandmother.

Her brother jumps on his bicycle and races the length of the arcade, as if to gather momentum, which is in fact exactly what he’s doing. He shoots out of the arcade between two stout columns and then orbits the fountain for a few circuits before reaching escape velocity and arcing right into the middle of the crowd. Everyone knows the little bicycle and its pilot, so they simply part, like the Red Sea, and let him find his promised land on the cobbled uphill path in the direction of the Palazzo Ducale. Conversations resume as if nothing at all had disturbed the Sunday peace.

In a few minutes he’ll return, reverse the trajectory around the fountain, and disappear into the arcade, again without even riffling the crowd. I’m amazed that such a small cyclist has such balance and coordination that he does this without training wheels. And without critique.

There’s another side to Italian parenting (and grand-parenting) which is completely different from the waiter’s initiation. It’s indulgent and patient, protective and enveloping without smothering. There’s warmth in touch and closeness which doesn’t need verbal communication to support it. If you are inside your father’s warm coat on a foggy morning, does he really need to say anything?

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

View a photo gallery contributed by students studying abroad during the Fall 2018 semester.