Italian intermezzo

Guiseppe Aldo sold bus tickets from the Azienda Consorziale Trasporti kiosk on the sun-dappled plaza across from the Parma train station. His ticket window, with its little round speaking grill, oversaw a piazza dominated by a mossy fountain, in the center of which a plinth supported three twice-life-size statues. The tallest was a circa-18th-century Italian conquering hero type, flailing triumphant sword and boot over two generic cringing African natives prostrated either side. It was a memorial to Italy's best-forgotten colonial period.

Guiseppe Aldo had never cared enough about it to walk over and enlighten himself as to the conqueror's identity. He'd sat behind his window, regarding the swashbuckler's corroding green backside with a jaundiced eye, for 12 years.

He'd also watched, with jaded interest, the quiet and less-so antics of old men, Algerian and Tunisian youth, tourists and assorted gypsies who sat on marble benches set into the fountain's edge.

So when a short figure in a long, dirty duffle coat, greasy dark hair and Levantine features stepped from the railway station's main entrance and sauntered toward him across the piazza, Guiseppe's eye color shifted from jaundice to the kind of stony black found in veins of Carrara marble. He knew trouble when he saw it. He hated gypsies.

Even though he was behind thick tempered glass, and every exchange of lire for tickets took place through a theft-proof turntable embedded in the counter beneath that bulletproof sheet, he was wary. Especially of lengthy excuses and protests that would-be passengers plied in futile attempts to cadge free tickets.

Guiseppe didn't give free tickets. He was a rock. So he looked over the duffle-coated figure, correctly sensed a tenacity nearly as formidable as his own, and steeled himself for world class beseeching and wheedling.

He was thus a little surprised when the creature stepped to the window, proffered the correct 5,000 lire note and asked, in flawless upper-class Milanese Italian, for a biglietto to the village of Bardi, 50 kilometres south in the Apennine Mountains.

There was nothing wrong with the money, other than the fact that the nominally light-green note was smudgily stained the color of very strong cappuccino. The same smudged brown, in fact, as the creature's hands. It also bore a whiff of an overpowering fetid odor, like Gorgonzola cheese gone unsubtly overripe in the hold of a slow ocean freighter becalmed in the Horse Latitudes.

The man scooped his ticket and 200 lire in change from the turntable, smiled a polite brown snaggle-toothed grin, and sauntered to the fountain to sit on a smooth marble bench in the sun and wait for his bus.

Guiseppe Aldo had seen countless variations on that smile upon gypsies in the square many times. Alarmed, he reflexively slapped his pocket to feel for his wallet, even though he knew there was no way on heaven or earth that the gypsy could have reached him, or it, through the armored glass. It was still there. He breathed a sigh of relief. 

It wasn't until his coffee break, after the Bardi bus was long gone, that he discovered all the money in his wallet had unaccountably vanished.

He could not fathom how the short strange man with the terrible personal hygiene and the faultless Milanese accent had done it. He knew it had to have been him. But it was impossible...


The short strange man smiled an enigmatic smile, fingered 45,000 lire in loose bills in his duffle coat pocket, and watched the flat green Italian countryside turn to mountains as the dusty blue Fiat bus thrashed its slow way up the twisting road to Bardi.

The beautiful, shadowed late-afternoon scenery across the valley could have been lifted bodily from behind the Mona Lisa, and Molina felt content. 

He seemed oblivious to the fact that his presence on the overfilled bus' rearmost bench had driven everyone else aboard to cram eight rows forward with wrinkled noses. It was no mean feat. Rural Italians have been known to smell plenty, but his aura was of far sterner stuff than theirs.