“Dopo Lady” & The People Of Val di Non
She has a thick, low voice. Raspy, like a smoker’s. Or like she’s had reflux for the last 25 years. Her skin is the color of curdled milk, and I’ve never noticed the color of her eyes, but the rest of her is stout and square, with a similar face. Her hair is always cut in an awkward series of right-angles, bangs the result of the ole bowl-over-the-head-method.
And she almost never smiles.
She is ‘Dopo Lady’, and she is our anonymous, unwitting Val di Non friend.
Below is a snapshot of where ‘Dopo Lady works’: the bakery, or paneficio, is on the first floor.
This is also the place where Jason and I bought our bread every few days. We’d point, “This bread” or “That crostata,” and she would respond with one word only (a normal word in Italian customer service, but one that took a special meaning for us): “Dopo?” Anything else?
It was the way she always said it, though, that struck us both. Like she were making effort, squeezing out the words—one bedraggled, rusted syllable at a time.
The other bakery workers were all so nice. They’d smile in recognition, a certain pep to their inquiries with us. But not Dopo Lady. It became a running joke between Jason and me, walking home together from the bakery. We’d look at each other and mimic in our best distorted voices, ‘Do-po?’ (pronounded doh-poh).
Jason would walk in through our front door carrying a sack of ciabbatine (small ciabatta) breads, and I’d quickly inquire, “Was Dopo Lady there today?”
“Oh yeah. Sure as the tractors are in the fields,” he said. (Jason never actually said this, but I always secretly hoped he’d break into Val di Non analogy once in a while, just for my sake.)
You may wonder why this particular woman was so interesting to us, and so worth writing about now. It’s simple, really. Dopo Lady was emblematic of our experience in Val di Non, of the majority of the people you’d encounter in the area. Because of her non-emotive nature. Because of her stout, staunch work ethic. Because of her…lack of interaction.
It could all be read the wrong way if you didn’t understand the culture there—and believe me, I’ve done my fair share of not understanding—but, after some time, I came to learn that people in Val di Non aren’t cold at all. They really want to be open.
They just don’t know how to be. (Seattle people can be this way, too. So can Scandinavians.)
Jason and I had lived in the valley almost a year-and-a-half before Dopo Lady even asked us a single question. Let me point out: this was the only bakery in Cavareno. Whenever we needed bread or sweets or a last minute thing of milk, that’s where we went. Several times a week we saw this woman, and she had eyes, and a functioning memory. She knew us.
But she never once struck up conversation. I wondered: is she not interested because we’re foreigners? Have we unintentionally offended her? Does she not know what to say?
We tried asking, “Are you the owner of this place?” but she only stared back. Surprised someone had asked her anything besides, How much? It was as though our conversation had steered too far off course for her to comfortably respond. I’d heard her chatting with other locals, before, so I knew she was capable—willing, even. But we rarely got much more than a word at-a-time.
Towards the end, Jason and I made it our loose goal to get Dopo Lady to smile. I wasn’t successful, but Jason managed, once, by complimenting her “new” haircut (which, to me, looked the same as all the others). She lifted one side of her mouth, then dropped it back down again.
We considered that a success.
Most of the time, though, after making our purchases and offering a wave and a warm Ciao, arrivaderci! we’d get little more than a Graz-ie, and a great plume of tepid air — her best Themla & Selma impression, I like to think.
Don’t get me wrong, we have a very soft spot in our hearts for Dopo Lady. She will always represent our experience in Val di Non — predictable, hardworking life in a small-town in the Alps. But she’s also a symbol of the more ineffable parts of our lives there, the pulsing need I felt to connect to people even through small talk or a smile, but which was doled out so rarely.
It’s like sighting a shooting star, you wait and wait and wait, staring at the sky with vigilance and focus, and then, the moment you turn your head, your friend shouts out, “Wow! That was amazing! Did you see it? Did you see it?”
“Nope. Missed it again.”
To read about my theory of why the people of Val di Non can be a little socially standoffish, check out the post: “It’s A Nones Life.”