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  • Writer's pictureNora Studholme

Andrea and the Octopus

If he wasn’t the only other person standing in the Piazza this morning, I would not think he was the one I was here

to meet. He’s so much older than I expected, his whips of white hair brushed over a dappling scalp, a long green coat that looks a bit like a raincoat hanging a little too loose on his frame everywhere but over the belly. He points to me and raises an unruly white brow. I nod, point back raising my own. It’s me you’re looking for, it’s you I’m looking for.

I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Paul his name, so I’m relieved when he approaches and says, “Andrea,” touching his chest. “Paul’s partner,” I say, deciding this is easier than giving myself one of my own.

Up close he’s sun-rubbed and weathered. There’s a rimming around his eyes that gives him the air of someone over-used. He looks like David Attenborough if the naturalist had lived his life like Anthony Bourdain. His eyes are tiny and so pale they are almost translucent, a high crystal blue. His left eye has a floating white chunk that meanders across it, a cataract cloud drifting in these little skies. I find that I cannot look at it, and focus on looking only at the right. (How odd, when we do this, and realize that we only ever look at one eye at a time! How do we normally choose, in absence of something that repels us floating across one of them?)

I’ve been taking a MasterClass course by David Seders, and in it I’ve taken a vow to leave behind forever, and in all circumstances, meaningless questions — how are you? How’s your day been? What’s new? Nice day isn’t it? I regard at Andrea, a paragon of frailty, deciding what my opener should be. I decide on the barely acceptable, “Where are you coming from today?” To my surprise, this is a portal. Andrea brightens up noticeably. “Oh, no, I live here, in this neighborhood,” he says proudly, “But just now I come on a quad, from a villa, I was inspecting it. I can’t drive because I drink too much and they take my license away!” He mimes glugging from a bottle. I can’t help but laugh in surprise.

“For how long?” I ask, “When will you get your license back?” “Never!” He cries, and there’s an odd pride in his voice. “I drink too much. Or at least, it would be a very very long time. Very inconvenient for me.”

I wonder if he’s talking about the driving or the drinking. More Bourdain than Attenborough, I decide.

We’re here to see an apartment. As always, the broker doesn’t have access to anything, and we call the owner to let us in. For the 100th time I wonder why in the world people pay brokers to come to their homes when they still have to be there to let the prospective renter in. I’m not asking those questions now. Andrea is too busy energetically showing me his favorite parts of the apartment — The fact that there are windows in both bathrooms (very rare here in Florence, he says), the terrace overlooking the gardens below, every single other apartment and who he sold it too (this one I sell to my cousin, he is a doctor. And this one to my cousin’s chambermaid. This one an architect, and his wife is also an architect.) 26 apartments in this same building, he tells me, and he’s sold every one of them. I round down by 40% to reach an accurate estimate of the truth.

He tells me that he loves this neighborhood, that everyone here loves their neighborhood, so it was easy to sell these apartments. When you move here you never want to leave, he says, and everyone knows everyone, looks after everyone. There are no strange foreigners here — he gives me a sideways look, slightly sinister, and I wonder if he’s in the mafia. As if reading my thoughts, he asks if I’ve seen the pizza place down the road, the one that’s always shuttered and closed. I have. “Those people,” he says “Were foreigners, they were not clean. They sold cocaine and did bad things.” The jump from pizza to foreigners to cocaine jarred me, but I tried to follow. “So,” he continued, “This community shut them down. Drove them away. They’ll never come back.” I smiled nervously and told him we love the neighborhood, we like that it’s locals only. He softens a little, and begins to natter on about the neighborhood again, as if his vaguely threatening anecdote had never been spoken.

We’re done with the tour itself quickly (I wonder again how this profession exists, and how it ends up making so much money for people like Andrea, whose primary professional quality seems to be a borderline manic energy. Am I in the wrong career?) and we go back outside. As we’re re-entering the Piazza, he comments on my hair, joking that I must be a Firenze football fan, since I’ve dyed my hair in their colors.

I laugh obligingly. Although I’m a bit worn down by his chatter — again thinking of my David Sedaris course, Never let a single person pass you by, take every opportunity to talk to people, to really talk to them and be present with them — I ask him, “Are you a football fan?” He does a hand gesture I’ve seen before — we’ll call this one the Wave and Push. It means, “How silly!” No, he says, he’s not a fan of sports. Only skiing. Where does he ski, I ask, keeping the conversation rolling as best as I can. Oh up in the dolomites, usually all winter, he replies. I’m surprised, he looks too frail for this kind of skiing. But it explains his weather-worn cheeks. And diving, he says suddenly, I like underwater micro photography.

“You like what?” I ask. “I win some competitions with my photos! I will show you,” he pulls out his phone already scrolling, glances up at me and adds, “I only show you because they are really, very good.”

He showed me a photo on his cracked screen. It was… astonishing, two little sea-critters like slugs with bedruffles, lit up with dazzling strips of florescent pink light, their thick antenna a radiant orange. I’m speechless, and only now do I realize that I thought I was humoring him, that I was making time to listen to a batty old man, a burnout who drank his life away and became a broker who told anyone who would listen elevated stories about his accomplishments. Instead, I’ve been walking around an apartment with Jaques Cousteau.

He tells me the little creatures are only one millimeter long. “How do you find them?” I ask. He laughs. “I go back, again and again, and I am patient, for hours! I have spent so much time under the water I know their habits.” He flicks to a photo of a squid in the process of putting a fish into its beak, then to an octopus in the process of transforming to match the coral, only its eyes still visible, flickering blue-rimmed slits. “Bali and Thailand mostly,” he answers my unspoken question. “I’m trying to get a business visa there so I can stay a long time. I had one, but then there was Covid. Now this year maybe I can try again. At least this time is different, there is a vaccine, so people are not dying. Only people without it. There are some people I love who will not get the shot. They think it’s something sinister or commercial, the governments are making money— they see the bad in everything! They are stupid. Anyone without a shot is stupid. Me, I have three shots. So maybe I will be able to go again soon.”

We’ve gone from underwater photography to political stance quite quickly, but I’m again impressed with the balance of his intellect and compassion — Calling someone stupid, stating a clear understanding of their rationale, and confirming that you love them in one breath feels almost like wisdom. He cheerfully waves goodbye and shuffles off to the restaurant across the street (his friend owns it, of course, his other friend that one over there).

I watch him go, slightly stoop-shouldered, his old green windbreaker rustling with every step. I have the delightful sense of having been duped, and wonder what else Andrea is hiding under his guise of senility. I think of the photo he showed me of the octopus, sinking back to blend into his surroundings, a twinkling look of confident deception in those blue eyes.

Or maybe I’m not thinking of the octopus at all.

PS if you want to look at his photos, I found his online portfolio here

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