THE RED ROOM

Vincenzo had the unsmiling face of a bureaucrat, but he was actually quite likeable once he decided you were tolerable. As an employee of the Municipality of Florence, he needed to)earn English for when he was asked to officiate foreign weddings in Palazzo Vecchio’s Red Room. Despite his slightly cerebral countenance, I liked him right aay. He carne to his lesson on time and was willing to share his ballpoint pens and his historical knowledge- two essential areas in which I am always miserably lacking.
Vincenzo’s English skills were quite good, if you didn’t count the Italianisms he never managed to weed out of the language. Most students groan when you tell them things like ‘in English, we don’t use the present simple to talk about the present tense.’ But Vincenzo knew enough about both languages to delight in their quirks. He always reacted to sad truths with an expression of thoughtful  surprise-figurati.
Vincenzo’s favorite brand of figurati can be translated as ‘Imagine that!’ but like many Italian words, the expression has multiple meanings. It’s often used as ‘of course’ and serves as a humble form of ‘you’re welcome.’ When you want to say ‘I can’t figure out what I’ve done to deserve your gratitude’, you opt for figurati. My student used the phase with a frequency that I found nothing short of exhilarating. The word worked everywhere, like parsley.
The other day as we were finishing up a listening exercise and Vincenzo made me an unexpected proposal.
‘Linda, can you be free today at five?’, he asked me. ‘Yes, why?’
‘An American couple is getting married in the Red Room-they need a maid of honor.’
‘Figurati! Had I known “bridesmaid” was a profession I wouldn’t have studied languages.’
Vincenzo smiled, ‘The ceremony lasts 20 minutes and you need to bring your passport and a bouquet of flowers. I can give you 50 euro per wedding. ‘
‘Great, thanks.’
‘Figurati. Thank you.’
Fifty euro for signing a ‘Married in  Florence’ parchment! I would have done it for free, of course.Vincenzo didn’t know it, but I happen to have a real weakness for love-based ceremonies. As a child, I’d force my cousin Leonardo to marry me on a daily basis. I did it for the lace veil and plastic flowers. I don’t quite remember what his reasons were, but it’s highly likely that I gave him no choice in the matter.Venice in June is a rather fashionable place to celebrate nuptials, even for six-year-olds. Even the Doge officially married the city every year by throwing a ring into the canal. And he had his palace built to look like a wedding cake. So, I was not alone in my thinking.
I met Vincenzo in the courtyard of city hall at 4:45. He was wearing his officiai red, white and green sash and made a good stand-in for the mayor. Our American love-birds, both wearing white, showed up without a single guest. This worried Vincenzo considerably. In Italy, it’s illegal to tie the knot without at least two witnesses. Barely 10 minutes before the start of the ceremony, my student took me under the arm as if we were the ones about to say vows and led me into the street in search of at least one more willing wedding guest.
An older couple carrying grocery bags passed the entrance of the Comune and my officiant lost no time with formalities. ‘We’re celebrating a wedding in five minutes’, he told them ‘Can you come to the ceremony? We need more witnesses.’
The man didn’t even blink. ‘We have frozen vegetables with us’, he said, ‘They’ll thaw.’ Contrary to popular belief Italians are a very practical people who are good at taking things in stride. We might have been asking him what time it was.
‘Figurati, if spinach matters, Gianmario’, the lady scolded her husband. ‘Su,via, let’s help these people.’
The ceremony was simple and quite beautiful in an ‘imagine that’ sort .of way. The couplè promised to love each other forever and to ‘educate all offspring according to their talents and abilities’ as per article 144 of the Italian Constitution. The bride and groom treated their wedding party of strangers to prosecco  after the ceremony and then left the spinach man and his wife to salvage what was left of their thawing veggies.
Once bid a huggable American good-bye, Vincenzo and I were left at the bar with the beginnings of the early aperitivo crowd.
‘It must be nice to marry people far a living’, I mused. ‘Yes-it renews one’s faith in the continuity oflife.’
‘And confirms the utter weirdness of it.’
‘Definitely. Are you happy to have caught the bouquet?’ ‘Figurati.There are pluses to being the only one in the line-up.’ ‘Right’, he smiled. ‘That’s what I figured.’

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