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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

We spoke on Christmas Day and as always, Umberto was pleased to hear my voice. His last words were a promise they would be waiting for my return: “Silvana, noi siamo qua, ti aspettiamo.”

His use of the first-person plural, “we,” referred to him and his buddy Virio. Actually, Virio was my buddy, too. In fact, they both took me under their wings in Montepulciano, Italy, shortly after I arrived alone there a few years back. I was eager, no desperate, to become part of the ancient Etruscan community where we had bought a pied-a-terre.

Umberto, who was 77, and 80-year-old Virio, were the perfect age for me, a middle-aged North American woman arriving alone on the scene. That’s because my husband, Graham, was on the other side of the Atlantic working to pay off our little real estate adventure. Finding myself on my own, I could hear the village rumour mill churning that a Signora d’una certa età had come looking to enjoy the juices of the local forbidden fruit. And while that was not true, the cold hard fact was that I was lonely and scared that I might fail Graham by not being able to create la dolce vita for us in this hilltop town nestled between the Val di Chiana and Val d’Orcia.

Virio was our neighbour living right below us and it’s through him that I met Umberto. Even though Umberto lived on the same street, it wasn’t until I started going to Virio’s shoe-repair shop that I actually got to know him. Virio was the town’s cobbler. His dimly lit shop along the main street was an important location. But you won’t find it on the tour guide or map because it’s not a visitor attraction. Rather, it’s a “mantuary” for the town’s retired gentlemen whose impatient wives have shooed them outdoors, with the instructions not to set foot back home until the church bell strikes noon, and guai, or look out, if they forget to pick up a loaf of pane for lunch.

Umberto wasn’t married. Never was. Virio was a bachelor, too. Even though I was the odd “man” out I started to take my seat on one of the faded, ripped-up leather chairs inside the shop. Neither had the heart to say they weren’t looking for testosterone-deprived members. But they sensed my need for companionship and guidance.

Umberto had been an accountant in Siena and took early retirement. In Montepulciano, he became the keeper of the keys to the ornately decorated church in Via di Voltaia. His routine was to unlock the wooden, 100-pound doors to the 17th-century Chiesa del Gesù at the crack of dawn; then close them at sunset after the 6 p.m. daily mass. It was at that mass that our friendship really took seed. I recognized him from Virio’s shop and started to sit next to him in his regular pew. After mass, I helped him snuff out the candles and turn off the lights before making our way home. Walking slowly as the Tuscan sun was setting, I peppered him with questions about the town and why its people were called Poliziani. Why is there a black market in Italy? Why is the Italian government constantly in upheaval? In turn, he answered each one with patience and wit.

From him, I learned the history of the streets of Montepulciano. That, for example, Via della Stamperia got its name because that’s where the local news printing shop was located years ago. Often during those walks, I would yawn. In the good teacher’s eyes that yawn turned into an opportunity to introduce me to a new word, the Italian equivalent: sbadiglio. And because he cared so much, he then would have me conjugate the present indicative of this tongue-twister of a verb: sbadigliare.

Along the way, we met other Poliziani, and being seen with him, a man whom the town respected and admired for his humility, gave me credibility.

At my doorstep before bidding each other buona notte, we were already making plans for the next day: whether to go to the weekly Thursday market together; meet at Virio’s shop; or drive to Chianciano for un gelato: pistachio for me, and the classic stracciatella, ice cream with chocolate chunks for him.

Our relationship was quite simple: He asked nothing, he gave everything.

That’s why the news of his death hit me so hard. It came to us in Canada, in an e-mail.

The subject line actually read: Gianni da Montepulciano. I immediately recognized the name of our neighbour and jumped to the conclusion that it was Gianni’s aunt who had died. She had had dementia for several years and was slowly declining. Then I opened the e-mail. Then I read the bad news.

Graham and I arrived back in Montepulciano that year nearly a month after Umberto had died. Our street was simply not the same. It would never be the same. The local Poliziani that I met either in church or on the street would stop me and offer condolences, saying, “siamo rimasti scioccati; siamo rimasti male.” It appears they, too, were as shocked and feeling as badly as me.

Then they offered me their condolences. Why? Because they understand that it was thanks to Umberto that this Signora d’una certa età and her husband are now able to enjoy la dolce vita here in this Tuscan hill-top town.

Caro Umberto. Thank you for the words and verbs. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t much later that his friend Virio passed away, too, from a broken heart.

Silvana Saccomani lives in Victoria.