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  • Writer's pictureNora Studholme

The Opera of Onofrio Pepe

In which I lose my wallet and gain a neighbor

The story of how my wallet was stolen is not really a story. It is, in fact, so anti climactic and pedestrian that I felt both shaken and slightly disappointed. After all, I’ve never had anything stolen before. Wasn’t it supposed to be a dramatic experience?

It wasn’t. It was Saturday morning, the morning that we were hosting eleven friends (including three kids) for a grand Thanksgiving feast. The turkey, a magnificent beast that the men at the macceleria had gathered around and shaken their heads in wonder, like the tourists do when they stand at the base of Michaelangelo’s David. “Che belissimo,” they whispered, and smiled as they handed the naked bird to me in an extra large plastic bag.

He was lying in a new bag, soaking in his salt bath, when I set out that morning to meet a friend for coffee and a book swap in the piazza. A relaxing start to a long day of cooking, I thought. I double checked my purse for my book and my wallet, and set off down the familiar alleyway in the warming winter light.

Coffee was delightful. The conversation was sparkling and diverse — from books, to Italian, to different types of family, to the philosophy of belonging. After an hour we got up to pay, my friend fortunately insisting she would buy this one, me the next (something I have learned is both deeply Italian and deeply my personal culture). And so, it was not until I arrived at the apartment again and searched for my keys that I realized that my wallet - keys and all - was missing.

The usual non-drama. Check the credit cards, see that there are already four charges at nearby bodegas. Not for much, $25-30 each only. Block the cards, feel sad for the person who needed it. Feel a begrudging admiration - how did they take the wallet out of my purse while I sat with a friend facing me the whole time? Realize that I really loved that leather wallet, multicolored, that I’d bought in the piazza only a few months ago. Think, it could be worse. Get on with the cooking.

Thanksgiving was a joy, and the next day, being Sunday, I knew it was useless to file a report. So I waited a few days until the nearby questura was open. When at last its strange haphazard opening hours coincided with a period that I was free, I went in to report the theft. Not because they could do anything about it — a stolen wallet is a wallet gone forever — but because I had my permesso di soggiorno in there too, a document that I’d soon be needing to fly out of the country, and more importantly, back in again.

There was the usual shuffle when I entered the questura and told them what I was there for. The young man at the front desk told a young woman, who walked into a back room on the right and conferred with an older woman, who pointed to the rooms on the left and walked with the young woman over there to speak to two older men, who finally beckoned me to come over to their desk and sit down. The man who helped me was dressed in plain clothes, a holster on the desk next to him, and cheerfully asked me for my passport, which fortunately had not been stolen. He typed in some information, and then looked up with a grin. “November 3?” He said, in Italian, “Your birthday? It is also mine! I turned 50 this year.”

I congratulated him “Tanti auguri,” and he called in several friends from the hallway to tell them that we had the same birthday.

The next line of my passport was just as exciting. “United States. Oh I love the United States. Virginia? Is that where Charleston is? No, no its different isn’t it… I think I have a friend who has been to Virginia! Let me call him!” He picked up his cell phone and dialed a number, putting it on speaker phone. “Onofri? Ciao, si ciao, si ci vediamo al pranzo, ma aspetta… I have a young woman here, from the United States. She studies here, yes, she has the same birthday as me, incredible, anyway she is from Virginia, you have been to Virginia right?”

I heard the muffled Italian coming through on the other end of the speaker phone, “Yes, yes, he’d been to Virginia several times for a presentation of an opera (a body of artistic work), yes, Virginia, certainly.”

“I’ll have her come meet you after we’re done!” The police man with no police uniform said with delight, and hung up.

He typed in the story of the theft — which sounded just as boring as when I told it just now, perhaps even more so— printed out a document certifying the lost items, and had me sign. The process took quite some time, because there were always people coming in and interrupting him, and he was easily distracted. First, by a man who they were reporting on whose last name was Bond (Bond, James Bond, they all exclaimed delightedly and laughted). Then, by some drama happening in Prato. I didn’t understand the context, but at least three or four people came in to talk about Prato and peer at my officer’s screen.

At last, we finished the process, and he said, “Come with me!” He walked me down the stairs and pointed around a few alleys, explaining how to get to his friend’s sculpture studio. “He’s waiting for you!” He said cheerfully, and went back inside. I wandered that direction, but didn’t see anything that stood out as a studio, so I started home. Just then, I got a phone call. It was the police officer. “Have you found it?” He asked. “No,” I admitted, feeling slightly guilty that I had been planning to skip out and go home, “I haven’t. Could you tell me again?”

He gave me the street again and repeated, “Ti aspetta, he’s waiting for you.” So I doubled back and headed toward the studio of my police officer’s friend.

I had no idea what to look for, but a cheerful looking white-haired man was standing at a doorway and waved when he saw me, so I went over. He was a small man, with a charming face crumpled into permanent good-humor and pushing brightness into his eyes. He opened the door to the studio and I squeezed in. The hallway was crammed with sculptures, all based on greek mythology, that he had made or purchased. They were beautiful, strange, half finished, antique looking. He talked incessantly in that wonderful Italian way when you unlock the door of something beloved, the words pouring out and winding around his thoughts as we walked through both rooms of the studio. He smelled strongly of cigarettes, and the crowded studio had a haze of chalky dust that smelled of stone and age, and I felt that the air had become a solid and his words a liquid. I understood most of what he said — he delightedly showed me the piece that he had made for Virginia Beach, an ode to Neptune. Well, it was supposed to be for Virginia Beach, a great commission, but look here at the model I built, see the dolphin comes right out from his penis, and oh, the Americans don’t like that! Too puritanical! Here in Italy we have naked people everywhere, but not there. He didn’t seem put out by this rejection, though. He went on to show me all his successes — a whole table of photographs of him with important people (King Charles, the commissioner general of the EU, and lots of other “important” people I did not know). He showed me a medal he’d been awarded recently, this year, and the little book that they commemorated it in. He talked about Rorschach, and how inspired he was by his colors. He probably talked about a lot of other things that I didn’t understand. At last, he gave me his card, “Onofrio Pepe, Scultore” and told me to come back any time, and often, we could talk about art whenever I liked.

I left, mildly bemused and thoroughly delighted, my lost wallet by now entirely forgotten.

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