Two men passed under the wooden arch that led into Campo Santo Stefano, their
bodies harlequined by the coloured Christmas lights suspended above them.
Brighter light splashed from the stalls of the Christmas market, where vendors
and producers from different regions of Italy tempted shoppers with their local
specialities: dark-skinned cheeses and packages of paper-thin bread from
Sardinia, olives in varying shape and colour from the entire length of the
peninsula; oil and cheese from Tuscany; salami of all lengths, compositions, and
diameters from Reggio Emilia. Occasionally one of the men behind the counters
shouted out a brief hymn to the quality of his wares: 'Signori, taste this
cheese and taste heaven'; 'It's late and I want to go to dinner: only nine Euros
a kilo until they're gone'; 'Taste this pecorino, signori, best in the world'.
The two men passed the stalls, deaf to the blandishments of the merchants, blind
to the pyramids of salami stacked on the counters on either side. Last-minute
buyers, their number reduced by the cold, requested products they all suspected
could be found at better prices and of more reliable quality at their local
shops. But how better to celebrate the season than by taking advantage of shops
that were open even on this Sunday, and how better to assert one's independence
and character than by buying something unnecessary?
At the far end of the campo, beyond the last of the prefabricated wooden stalls,
the men paused. The taller of them glanced at his watch, though they had both
checked the time on the clock on the wall of the church. The official closing
time, seven-thirty, had passed more than a quarter of an hour before, but it was
unlikely that anyone would be out in this cold to check that the stalls ceased
trading at the correct time. 'Allora?' the short one asked, glancing at his
The taller man took off his gloves, folded them and put them in the left pocket
of his overcoat, then jammed his hands into his pockets. The other did the same.
Both of them wore hats, the tall one a dark grey Borsalino and the other a fur
cap with ear flaps. Both had woollen scarves wrapped around their necks, and as
they stepped beyond the circle of light from the last stand, they pulled them a
bit higher, up around their ears, no strange thing to do in the face of the wind
that came at them from the direction of the Grand Canal, just around the corner
of the church of San Vidal.
The wind forced them to lower their faces as they started forward, shoulders
hunched, hands kept warm in their pockets. Twenty metres from the last stall, on
either side of the way, small groups of tall black men busied themselves
spreading sheets on the ground, anchoring them at each corner with a woman's
bag. As soon as the sheets were in place, they began to pull samples of various
shapes and sizes from enormous sausage-shaped bags that sat on the ground all
Here a Prada, there a Gucci, between them a Louis Vuitton: the bags huddled
together in a promiscuity usually seen only in stores large enough to offer
franchises to all of the competing designers. Quickly, with the speed that comes
of long experience, the men bent or knelt to place their wares on the sheets.
Some arranged them in triangles; others preferred ordered rows of neatly aligned
bags. One whimsically arranged his in a circle, but when he stepped back to
inspect the result and saw the way an outsized dark brown Prada shoulder bag
disturbed the general symmetry, he quickly re-formed them into straight lines,
where the Prada could anchor their ranks from the back left corner.
Occasionally the black men spoke to one another, saying those things that men
who work together say to pass the time: how one hadn't slept well the night
before, how cold it was, how another hoped his son had passed the entrance exam
for the private school, how much they missed their wives. When each was
satisfied with the arrangement of his bags, he rose to his feet and moved back
behind his sheet, usually to one corner or the other so that he could continue
to talk to the man who worked next to him. Most of them were tall, and all of
them were slender. What could be seen of their skin, their faces and their
hands, was the glossy black of Africans whose ancestry had not been diluted by
contact with whites. Whether moving or motionless, they exuded an atmosphere not
only of good health but of good spirits, as if the idea of standing around in
freezing temperatures, trying to sell counterfeit bags to tourists, was the
greatest fun they could think of to have that evening.
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