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A FISH TALE/Helen Barolini IT WAS A LONG TIME AGO, just a few years after the end of World War II, and there I was, a bride in mist-wrapped, sodden-aired, graying and bombed-out Vicenza in the north of Italy. With my husband, Antonio, Vicenza-born of a Venetian paternal line, I was temporarily ensconced in a walkup top-floor apartment carved from an old palazzo where Antonio's family had lived and only one sister now remained. The apartment was a modest one with a front room, a kitchen, and bedrooms off a long corridor that led to the bathroom, but it harbored the remains of a better, more prosperous time when there had been a country place with handsome furnishings. We were married in early November; there was a sense of chill humidity everywhere; dresser drawers stuck with the dampness, closets smelled moldy, the antiquated bathroom with its long pull chain and unlit water heater was disheartening. And as winter approached, the Palladian charm of the town so prettily traversed by its three rivers and fringed by the Berico hills was canceled out by the daily difficulties in the aftermath of war. There was that damp chill everywhere despite the valiant little wood-burning stoves. In the center, the palaces that lined the main street seemed desolate and cold. The Bar Garibaldi, which was said to have once been the seat of the literati, was occupied by pool players. When we went to see a film, it was in an old abandoned church, where we sat in the choir in our coats, shivering in the drafts and watching our breath form in front of us. The year before, I had arrived in Vicenza for the first time to spend the Christmas holidays with Antonio's family. I was alone in Italy, a student in Rome, and not yet very familiar with the language. Despite the austerity there was a sense of exhilaration about the future and of people ingeniously making do. Railroad carswere stillin shortsupply, and Iwas lucky even to get on the train to Vicenza, where I stood the whole way. At that time I knew Antonio very slightly (having met him when I first got to Italy through a letter of introduction from a fellow journalist), but it was worth the long trip north from Rome not to be alone at Christmas. Antonio worked as a journalist but was known as a poet. In his hometown he had a reputation not only as a literary figure but also as The Missouri Review ยท 131 being distantly related to one of the town's noblest families. That combination afforded us, shortly after our marriage, an invitation to dine with a leading industrial family named Z, whose fortunes had greatly increased in the war. Perhaps the invitation was also curiosity on the Zs' part concerning the young American wife of an established bachelor about town. That would have been something to talk about and see firsthand in those days in Vicenza. Antonio, being a poet, had no notion of advising me about the formalities of such an invitation, and I did not know the customs. I was new in Vicenza, spoke little Italian, and was very raw. I had already had comments from Count Giustino Valmarana, a friend of Antonio's, when we met up with him one day while walking. "You need new shoes," he said, indicating my footwear. I had on what were called "pixie boots," soft red leather with a V-cut in back, American, and, I felt, very much smarter than the dowdy stout shoes the vicentini were wearing. "They're not broken," I said, lifting my foot to point to the V-cut in my pixie boot, "that's the fashion." "Americans!" he snorted. And I found it odd and unsettling to be deferred to by elderly maiden ladies. I had been brought up at home in Syracuse to let my elders pass through doorways before me. In Vicenza, after Antonio introduced me to a white-haired older woman who carried an old-fashioned patent leather handbag on a chain that reminded me of my grandmother, I was flustered when she...


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