Martin opened the glass doors and stepped into the foyer. To the right was a statuette about four feet high of a black man dressed in a bejeweled gown and turban. Beyond that a doorway into a long, rectangular dining room and just beyond that a small bar. To his right, a staircase that led up, presumably, to the rooms and directly in front of him a counter with a breezeway and a pass through. A man of medium height and build stood behind the counter. He had dark hair combed straight back, dark eyes set perfectly into his strong rectangular face, an aristocratic nose and firm jaw. He was dressed in a blue suit with a gray vest, and he wore a pair of pince-nez glasses on his nose attached to his breast pocket by a looping gold chain. He was studiously writing into a ledger and when he felt the breeze from the opened door he looked up and saw Martin. Martin stepped across the marble floor to the front of the desk, set his suitcase down, took his passport out, cleared his throat and said,
“I’m Martin Shaw. I believe I have a reservation.”
Signor Luigino Potente smiled faintly and held out his right hand. Martin extended his to shake it and caught the man off guard. They shook hands clumsily before Signor Potente cleared his throat and simply said,
Martin handed him his passport, and Potente scrutinized it for a moment before turning the ledger around and tapping it with his finger, indicating that Martin should sign it. When he finished signing his name, Potente took the pen, put it in his breast pocket and compared the signature in the ledger to the one in the passport. He looked up at Martin Shaw and simply said, “Grazie.”
“Can you tell me if there’s a restaurant nearby where I could get something to eat?” Martin asked.
Signor Potente cocked his head to one side and looked at Martin blankly. It was immediately obvious to Martin the Signor Potente didn’t speak any English. Martin spoke no Italian. They stood looking at each other for a few uncomfortable moments before Potente turned to his left and called out, “Maria!”
A young woman of approximately twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old stepped from behind the back room. She had dark, jet-black shoulder length hair, deep brown eyes, and the same fine features of Signor Potente. It was obvious that she was his daughter. She wore a white silk blouse, a dark skirt and heels. She stepped to the counter smiling and looked at her father.
“Maria, ask this American what it was he wanted to know.”
She turned to Martin and said,
“My father wishes me to ask what it is you wanted to know.”
“I asked him if there was a restaurant where I could get something to eat.”
Maria looked back to Signor Potente and translated. Potente nodded his head a said a few words back to her. Maria turned back to Martin and spoke,
“My father wishes to know if you want to eat a meal or, how do you say, a snack?”
Martin was a bit confused. Maria saw the shadow cross his face and added,
“It is only that he understands how travel can upset a stomach. If you wish merely a toast and coffee, I can fix it at the bar.”
The truth was Martin wanted more than simple toast and coffee, and yet he didn’t wish to be rude. He looked back to Maria and told her,
“That will be fine. Thank you.”
Maria turned and started toward the dining room. Martin began to follow her, but Signor Potente called him back. He said something else in Italian, which Martin didn’t understand. Maria stepped around the partition and told him,
“My father asks you to leave your passport so that he might record the information.”
Martin looked back to Potente before responding to Maria.
“Well, I’m not sure that’s a very good idea. I have been told not to give my passport to anyone, to keep it with me at all times.”
“Yes, Signor. I understand,” she said. “and it will be given back to you, but the information must be recorded for our registry.”
Martin was still unsure as to whether he should do it or not. He had been warned by the travel agent to be very careful of pickpockets and gypsies, to keep his passport in his breast pocket and to keep his jacket closed. The black market value of passports, most especially of Americans in Europe was a burgeoning one and having a passport replaced would be a lengthy and difficult process because there was no consulate or embassy office in Venice, the nearest was Milan. And that, he knew, was three hours in the other direction by train. But he was in a hotel, he had no reason to believe that they would do anything untoward with it and Mariahad just told him it was policy.
“Have a little faith.” He thought to himself.
He turned back to Signor Potente, handed him his passport and then followed Maria into the small bar. She motioned for him to sit at one of the tables near the glass partition that led to the sundeck just out front into the right of the hotel. He sat at the table and pulled his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket with his lighter, looked to Maria as she was fixing his coffee and asked,
“May I smoke here?”
She waved a hand and fairly laughed as she said,
“Certainly! It is possible to smoke nearly everywhere in Venice, but you will wish to refrain from doing so at the boat stops. It is not allowed there. Also, it is not allowed to smoke inside the boats, only on the ends or in the middle where it is open. But beyond that, there are very few regulations that would prohibit it.”
Martin lit his cigarette and as he did so, Potente stepped through the doorway. He moved to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. Martin offered him a cigarette; Potente held up a hand and declined. He called to Maria,
“Due, per favore.”
Maria busied herself making a second coffee and putting a second small sandwich into the toaster. Potente began to speak in broken English.
“You are from America?”
“Yes,” Martin replied casually, “California.”
Potente’s face brightened.
“Ah, si, I have been to California. San Francisco. Many years ago.”
“Yes, San Francisco. I live in San Jose.”
Potente shrugged his shoulders. He did not know where San Jose was or that it was only a few miles drive from San Francisco.
Maria brought the two coffees and the two small sandwiches and two glasses of water to the table and set them down. They smelled wonderful. Martin picked one up and bit into it. He had expected toast like he would make at home or get in a restaurant; a simple piece of bread with butter on it. Their idea of toast was more like a grilled cheese sandwich with a piece of prosciutto, an Italian-cured ham. It was delicious.
He sipped his coffee. It was strong and bitter, but he liked it. He and Potente sat at the small table eating in silence for a few moments.
Luigino Potente liked Americans and wished that he could speak English well enough to talk to this man, but sadly he could not. At one time many years ago, he knew English well enough to carry on at least a small conversation, but it had been so long since he had practiced that he could no longer do it effectively. He could rely on Maria to translate for she spoke English very well, but it was a rather slow and arduous process and so much of the conversation was lost while you waited for your words to be repeated.
He had at one time employed an American in his hotel on the Lido. He was the husband of a childhood friend, a woman who had married an American soldier and left Venice and Italy to live in America. At the time, he had thought she was crazy! They were divorced two children later after nearly twenty years of marriage. She later met and married a man some eighteen years younger than her and everyone thought she was even crazier! But after six years of marriage she brought him to live in Venice and had come to Luigino to beg a job for him. He was tall and young and didn’t speak but a few words of Italian. Potente did not need him and he certainly didn’t need an employee who could not speak the language but his friend was desperate and the young man seemed willing to try, so on a whim, and with no small sense of foreboding, he granted the man a year’s contract. To his great surprise, the young man worked hard and did everything asked of him. What he did not know, he was willing to learn, and though his language skills never progressed beyond those of a three-year-old, he never missed a day and kept his word to work hard. Oh, there were moments, days when harsh words were exchanged, and though the man had little idea what was being said, he understood the tone and on one occasion even had the audacity to raise his voice in anger and frustration to Potente himself. He should have been fired on the spot for such insubordination and Potente was sorely tempted to do so, but the man was so ignorant he did not even understand the perilous nature of his actions! Besides, he was willing to do the things that his Italian employees would not. Work in the garden and tend flowers? How dirty did you want him to get? He didn’t seem to mind. Potente’strees were filled with birdhouses within a couple of months! Tear up and replace plumbing? Park cars? Okay, no problem, how many and where did Potentewant them? Clean chandeliers or organize the stock room? How did they come apart and where did he want everything placed? Count the silverware and wash dishes? Where was the kitchen and how did the dishwasher work? Clean rooms and swab toilets? There were episodes of bitter disagreement over this but he did it and professionally. He painted rooms and re-stuccoed walls. He waited tables and served in the dining room. He even made a passable bar tender though he knew absolutely nothing about mixing drinks. It was comical to watch. He would ask the customers what went in them and then as each ingredient was pointed out, he added it to the glass, mixed it, threw the concoction over some ice and then served it. Those customers who could speak English would tell him what to do and those who could not simply pointed to the bottles on the shelf and grunted. At any given time there could be as many as five or six clients at the bar and all of them shouting, laughing and giving lessons on how to mix a certain drink and all with elaborate gestures and hand signals! Invariably the entire group, unknown to each other prior to their meeting at the bar would be reduced to gales of laughter and a friendship that only a shared experience and alcohol could cement. Even with the greatest of instruction, the drinks were pitiful at best and one would have thought that such a thing would have been a disaster and indeed there were complaints but they were sparse. The clients seemed to love him and pity him all at the same time. He was affable and friendly but prone to brooding and pouting in private.
Potente’s Concierge cadre, three men and one woman had taken him under their wings and protected him, taught him as best they could, for they all spoke several languages but it was difficult. He really did try but language did not seem to be his strong suit and finally they simply took to speaking to him in English and asking him to correct them! When he and his wife decided to return to America, Potente was mildly insulted! He had taken an awful chance on the man and wondered if he knew that he owed the two years that he lived in Venice to him. He wondered if his friend knew what a great favor he had done for her? But he needn’t have worried for it. Every year when the woman returned to visit her family she would always stop to visit and bring regards from her husband. They knew and they were grateful to him for having been so unnecessarily generous. It wasn’t so dreadful an experiment after all. There were actually clients who returned year after year asking after the American who tended the bar and were disappointed to find that he had returned to America.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson
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