“Some hats can only be worn if you’re willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you’re only a step away from dancing.” ― Neil Gaiman
Lucca, Italy. My eyes scanned my surroundings—the perfect mix of residents and tourists—always on the lookout for interesting subjects that make a story, paint a picture, draw me in. I saw him as I was making photographs of a sculpture in one of the many piazzas: navy blazer with a matching jaunty navy beret, mahogany-handled umbrella, 70-ish. Perfect. He walked through a doorway that I subsequently realized was a church. So I waited for him to exit. And waited. Multiple people had come and gone: what was taking him so long? Was he the monsignor or something? The light was changing and I wanted his photograph. I walked into the church. It was small and the pews were empty. My eyes were drawn to the left and I saw him, lighting a candle. Then he sat in front of that candle and he began to cry. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and wiped his eyes; he came here prepared to be emotional. I wanted to run to him, to comfort him, to tell him I understood. But I stood frozen, feeling like an emotional intruder. I felt his energy. I watched his lips move. And I felt that he was very strongly communicating with someone with all the love and grief and longing in the world. I imagined it was his wife. It was beautiful. Lovely. Powerful. Raw. As I felt the hot sting of familiar tears well in my eyes, I turned and walked out.
I felt horrible, like I had somehow stolen his moment. But then I realized that I noticed him for a reason, and that I hadn’t stolen his moment, but I had silently participated in it.
“Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?” – William Blake
Shortly thereafter, there he was again, walking along the street toward the main piazza. Lucca is not a big place, and unlike Venice, has a visible population of residents. I watched him stop and speak to his friends, smiling and gesturing like a proper Italian. I imagined they were talking about what each of them had done that day, all the crazy tourists, what Luigi and Franco were serving at the local restaurant that night.
“If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world.” – Francis Bacon
The next day, I was working on photographing a wildly uninspiring flower bed when I wrapped it up and headed to the bistro where I had spent the previous afternoon. A few steps into my walk, I saw him out of the corner of my eye in a pizzeria. Tweed jacket, brown beret, in a pizzeria. I glimpsed all of this as I walked past, so I stopped and backed up, just to be sure. There he was, the jaunty man, looking in a mirror and adjusting his beret. He looked at me and I smiled. Broadly. I couldn’t help myself. “Buono sera,” I said, as I held his gaze. He paused briefly before his eyes crinkled at the corners and he returned my smile, followed by a quiet, “Buono sera.” Sweetest face. I had an unconditional urge to step closer and hug him, but imaginary headlines of “Crazy American Woman Arrested for Unsolicited Affection” and the like were running through my mind. So I walked on, smiling to myself as I stopped to photograph a statue in the center of the piazza, when it hit me: I HAD to try to talk to him. I was certain he didn’t speak any English, but I had to know for sure. I ran back to the pizzeria where I had seen him only moments before, but he was gone. My eyes darted all around the square where he had spent so much time around the day before. He was nowhere, and yet he was everywhere.
“For a split second they stared at each other. A fleeting, lasting moment. One person noticing another person out of a whole crowd of strangers.” ― Alexandra Potter
I sat at the bistro with a glass of prosecco, feeling the effects of my sunburn as it settled in on the back of my neck, and re-acknowledged that “if only” are two of the saddest words ever paired together as I thought about all the things we might have said. But in my heart, I already knew every intimate detail of the conversation that never was.
“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.’” – Kurt Vonnegut