When my great-grandmother Zelinda was born in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca, Italy in the later part of the 19th century, I’m sure she never imagined that her youngest daughter Bruna’s granddaughter would travel from America to the place of her birth and fall in love with it.
As I walk the streets of this ancient city I feel a deep gnosis of belonging and a connection to my Nonna. This is my second visit in three years, and the return is quite sweet. The winding cobblestone streets feel familiar under my feet as Mark and I stroll past churches that have stood for centuries, and along narrow thoroughfares lined with shops filled with Italian leather and wine. Our favorite shopkeeper, Vladimiro, has moved his shop to a piazza in the center of the city. We found it easily, and upon arrival his face lit up as he greeted us, remembering the couple from San Francisco.
“Where’s your hair?” he said to Mark, whose trademark gray locks were tucked in a ponytail to combat the humidity. They embraced with large smiles and then he turned his attention to me offering the customary European kiss on each cheek. Swoon. Vladimir reminds me a lot of Robert Downey, Jr. except with an Italian accent. Dio mio.
His shop is Zazzi, a small boutique that makes handwoven scarves on a loom that sits in the center. It is as charming as he is. The walls are lined with the most magnificent display of the finest scarves I’ve ever seen, each draped over a clear loop and assorted by color. As a scarf whore, I lusted over the sensual fabrics immediately upon my first visit a few years ago and knew this was not a passing fancy but the stuff of True Love. I happily parted with a couple hundred bucks to take one home with me. The silky cream confection is loosely woven with translucent sequins dotted throughout and it is the most expensive, and treasured, piece of clothing I own.
The weaver was mesmerizing as she worked on a similar piece as mine but in black. Her hands were steady as she expertly threw the shuttle back and forth, creating an even tension between warp and weft threads of cashmere delicately laced with shimmering sequins. Her contentment in the repetitious work of this ancient craft was as stunning as the work itself.
What makes this even more meaningful is that in 1899 my Nonna listed on her immigration papers at Ellis Island “weaver” as her profession. Her entry to the US was with her three young children (there would be five more, the last one being my grandmother who was born after her brother died as an infant). They traveled in steerage to meet her husband in Chicago and begin a new life. Several years later he would journey back to Italy and die on the boat, leaving her alone with seven children to raise. She took in sewing and the boys left school to work as much as they could to take care of the family. Insisting the children speak English, she embraced her American life as I embrace my Italian heritage. So much so that I adopted her birthplace as my name.
We chatted with Vladimir for nearly half an hour, listening to his excitement over the addition of handwoven leather handbags to his collection and having his designs in a boutique in San Francisco and at fashion week in New York. We promised to see him again before we continue on to Venice and my cousin’s wedding on the Riviera, insisting he look us up on his next trip to California.
I feel blessed to have made friends with this place, with these people. I will return again and again to my namesake city to enjoy the beauty and charm of Tuscany. And perhaps one day I may treat myself to another of Zazzi’s luscious creations.
Because I really want to take home that black one.