By George Savino
The last time my friend Bianco came to visit from Torino, I took him for a bike ride along the lakefront path. He got mugged at gunpoint at 31st Street, and his bike was stolen.
Amazingly, he came back a few weeks ago. This time, opting for caution, we packed a picnic supper and hopped aboard a northbound Metra train to spend a quiet evening at Ravinia listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It’s hard sometimes to impress Europeans with the natural beauty and cultural sophistication of the Chicago area, but Ravinia and the CSO are an impressive combination. And I’d promised that people really listen to the music instead of yammering the whole time, that it’s even enforced–sentries walk around the park wielding signs that read, “Silence, please.” That amused Bianco.
We got there early enough to find space on the lawn near the pavilion. It was a perfect night–high clouds in a clear sky, a gorgeous sunset, a cool breeze rustling through the elm trees.
A few minutes after the concert began, a middle-aged woman in a caftan and espadrilles muscled in on our territory, plunked down two lawn chairs, kicked the edge of the unused portion of our blanket out of her way, and spread out a beach towel. Bringing up the rear was a man 20 years her senior, presumably her husband, sporting a panama hat and sucking on an unlit meerschaum. He had a three-year-old child in tow.
The kid started talking nonstop. When the woman shushed him, it wasn’t a quiet shush. It was a long, drawn-out “Honey, people are trying to listen to the pretty music. Isn’t the music pretty? Listen to the music, honey, like the other people are doing. That’s why we came here, to listen to the pretty music.” And she said it in a normal speaking tone, which did little to discourage the kid from talking loudly. I have no idea where the sentries with their signs were.
Later the kid starting whining for a drink of water. “I’m sorry, honey,” the woman said. “We don’t have any water.” She turned to her husband. “Darling, we don’t have any water, do we?”
“No, I don’t think so. Did he drink all the soda already?”
“Yes, I think so.”
And on and on and on.
I finally poked Bianco and said to him in Italian, “Give the little bastard a bottle of our water to shut them all up.”
Bianco offered the woman a bottle of water and said, “For the child.”
She just looked at him, blinking. Bianco said it again and offered the bottle again. The woman just kept staring at him, blinking.
I realized she probably couldn’t understand him, or perhaps she was wary. “Take it,” I said. “Water, for your son. It’s unopened.”
Her eyes never left Bianco. “Oh. Water. Thank you.” Then she turned to the kid and said, “Say thank you to the nice man, honey. He’s giving you some water. You can say thank you, can’t you? Come on, say thank you to the nice man, like a good boy.” Then she looked at Bianco and said, “Do you speak French?”
“No, I am Italian,” he said.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Torino,” he said.
“Darling,” she said, turning to her husband, “he’s from Torino!” Then she said to Bianco, “Where is Torino? My husband speaks French. Parlez-vous francais?”
“No, I am from Italy, from Torino.”
“Torino, in the northwest of Italy.”
“Oh, Italy,” she said. “What language do they speak in Italy?”
It was Bianco’s turn to stare and blink.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “What language do they speak in Italy?” I said.
“Oh, oh, of course,” she said. “What in the world am I saying? They speak Latin in Italy.”
Bianco’s mouth hung open, then he gave a weak smile. He looked at me, as if asking for help.
I closed my eyes, lay back on the blanket, folded my hands over my chest, and said, “Let’s all stop talking now–all of us, OK?–and listen to the pretty music.”