“Here, come watch video I take. They wrestle like animal!” He ushers me to his computer and takes a seat at the keyboard. It’s not that creepy to watch videos of sweaty, grunting men. It’s more like ESPN, repeating classic sporting events.
“With my camera I take videos so you watch, can see what you did wrong,” Massimo says. “In a few week I send you pictures, when you make wrestle, so you can never forget.”
On the internet, he finds a Korean named Jihoon and a Frenchman named Julien who will be last-minute substitutions for the following night. I discover that an evenly matched pairing is ultimately less important to Massimo than getting a replacement gladiator to Venice quickly.
The Korean is like a gorilla, at least 30 pounds heavier than me. I can’t get any leverage against the Seoul brother. Jihoon pins me. So does Julien, the French guy.
Massimo critiques my performance. “You have weak temperament,” he says. “You need to have him lock-ed with your legs.”
If my host’s grasp of English is tenuous, he compensates with extreme generosity. He lets me stay at his house for four days. The French guy cooks crêpes and whiskey bananas. On my last day, I ask Massimo for the name of his favorite restaurant. He sends me to Pizzeria ae Oche.
While I’m eating, two older women sit down at the table next to mine. They chat in Italian, too fast for me to decipher. I try to take a picture of myself with my pizza.
Noticing the difficulty I am having, one nonna offers to help.
Posso fare uno foto?
Si, grazie mille.
I hand over my camera. They detect my American accent, and I am soon the third member at their table. When I tell them I’m from San Diego, I expect they will melt with admiration for my beautiful city, as other Italians have done. But these particular ladies have a different reaction. The lady who has just taken my photo nearly spills her drink.
Ho un’amica e lei abita a La Jolla! She has a friend named Lydia who owns a business, 19.8 miles away from my house in Carmel Mountain Ranch.
In La Jolla, I come upon a sign for La Mano Masks. It’s one of those shops all crammed together on Prospect. My heart races. This is it, proof that the last ten weeks in Florence actually happened. I see my smile reflected in the store windows and think about the ladies I met at the restaurant. What will Lydia think when she finds out I ate lunch with her friend in Venice?
Carnival masks of all types hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls of the shop. Ones with colorful feathers, ones with birdlike beaks. Happy ones, sad ones. I pretend I am back in Italy.
I see a little blonde lady in the back corner, shrouded by a display. With the best Italian accent I can muster, I introduce myself. Lydia’s eyes flick up from the mask she is holding. She has a curious expression and has to tilt her head to look up at my face.
Quando ho visitato Venezia ho incontrato tua amica Rosella. Abbiamo mangiato insieme alla Pizzeria ae Oche. I tell her that I’ve come all the way from Venice, where I met her friend.
An inquisitive smile forms on her face. She tilts her head back even more. I am concerned she is going to fall over backward. Ah, Rosella! Non mi amica, mia cugina! Turns out they aren’t friends, they are cousins. My Italian needs some work.
She points toward two chairs in the back. There’s a huge window, where we can see La Jolla Cove. It’s another beautiful day in Southern California.
Lydia switches to English as two customers enter the store, a teenage girl accompanied by her father. The girl is looking for something to wear at a masquerade party. Lydia floats graciously around the store, then presents a pointed number with dangling violet ornamentation.
“Beautiful purple beads, this is popular one for the girls,” she says. But the teenager is not impressed and the father even less so, once he sees the price tag. Lydia is not discouraged. She walks them to the other side of the store and points to an elegant white mask with silver lining. No sale.
Finally, it’s an emerald mask with gold streaks that wins the girl’s heart. As the father moves toward the cash register, he sees me. I’m not much older than his daughter.
“So how do you afford to run this shop here?” he asks Lydia. “I mean, is business good?” He opens his wallet and extracts $20. I see his point. It’s hard to imagine the shop serving any purpose aside from outfitting teenagers for a school dance.
Lydia smirks at him before answering. “My husband says, ‘No more masks! I’ll give you money, but just no more masks.’ But I do just fine.” There is a faint cockiness in her voice. “I’ve had this shop for 24 years, and I am doing fine.”
She tells us that a crew from Playboy came down from Los Angeles to buy her most expensive line for a masquerade ball at the mansion. The girls put it on Hef’s tab. When Lydia asked them what else they’d be wearing, so she could help complete their outfits, they told her, “Well, nothing!”
Lydia laughs hysterically. I have a great visual of the bunnies hopping around naked, their authentic Venetian masks the only genuine thing about them.
Lydia goes to Italy twice a year and orders straight from the artisans. While I’m still hanging out with her, a few customers wander in, enthralled with their discovery. I decide it’s time to leave before overstaying my welcome, even though I am sure the concept doesn’t exist in Lydia’s homeland. I ask if I can stop by again. Of course, she says. She gives me some CDs, so I don’t forget the Italian I have learned. I drive up La Jolla Parkway, the Pacific Ocean disappearing in my rearview mirror. Claudio Villa croons through the speakers.