I woke up last Monday determined to take a bike ride. The sky was clear and bright, a deep autumnal blue freshened by the chilly winds which have finally arrived after a prolonged delay. It wasn't too cold, but it was cool enough to reassure me I wouldn't suffer too badly. I could wear long sleeves to protect my skin from the sun and have a nice, leisurely ride along the path on the torrente which runs just outside of town.
This was something I'd longed to do all summer while I was visiting family in the US, something I've looked forward to since I returned to Italy in September, but put off thanks to the unseasonable, overbearing heat and humidity. Now was my chance.
I saw my husband off to work and then set about getting ready. I dressed in my workout gear (long-sleeved lycra workout top, hoodie, an old pair of jeans and some trainers) and went down to the garage where we keep the bikes.
Our garage is an entity unto itself – a hodgepodge of bicycles, hardware left over from my father-in-law's employment as a plumber and countless other bric-a-brac and tools. Somehow, the bicycles and spare bike parts serve as proof in the chaos that I'm in Italy. One bike is alongside the wall, a tiny little thing, meant for a child. Another one, a multi-speed, hangs from a rack on the wall. Still another ten-speed style stands on one side of the entryway – that's the bike my husband rides into town. His racing bike is in the back of the garage, in the space which should be our cantina, where food and wine and various household needs would normally be kept.
All of this is jam-packed into a space scarcely wide enough to fit a Fiat Cinquecento (the original model, not the redesigned one). There's just room enough down the middle of it for one to walk unhindered, and my bicycle, the blue Legnano city bike purchased for me immediately after I moved here for good, is stationed right by the door. Luckily for me, otherwise I might never get it out since only one of the double doors of the garage opens.
When I went to unlock the door, one of my neighbors caught my eye and waved to me, calling out "Salve!" in greeting. I returned the acknowledgement and smiled, then went back to unlocking the door. Five turns of the key in the lock and I was in, only to find to my dismay that my back tire was a tad low.
Now, I know how to put air in a tire. I'm not exactly a novice when it comes to that task. The problem I faced was using the tire pump owned by my husband's family. It's roughly twenty or thirty years old, made of steel and one of the foot-holds – the one I would use to hold it in place while I pumped the t-shaped handle – is broken off. Grrrr… Not to mention that the hose itself isn't attached to the base perfectly, so it's hard for the built-in gauge to be sure of how much pressure is in the tire.
I took a deep breath and set to work removing the cap of the tire's valve, attaching the pump to it and then finding a way to keep the apparatus in place while I got a little extra exercise pumping the air. (I managed to break a sweat in the oil-and-grease scented atmosphere in no time, all the while trying to resist breaking out a whispered Italian curse or two in the process.)
This pump is notorious for one more reason: it's loud. It's loud enough that I can hear its huff-huff-wheeze-jangle from our third-floor (fourth-floor in the US) apartment when my husband puts air in his bike's tires. It's a sound so distinct, I know when any member of the family is using it.
And thus, it was both loud and unique enough that, when I emerged from the shadows of my garage, I found my kind neighbor standing nearby, waiting for me. His bright, inquisitive eyes blinked at me from behind half-moon specs, their black frames disappearing into snow-white, perfectly-coiffed hair. This is a man who makes his plaid flannel shirts look downright stylish.
"È gonfiato?" he asked, "Is it inflated?"
I nodded. "Sì, sì; almeno, penso di sì," I said. "Yes, at least, I think so."
That's when he did the gentlemanly, neighborly thing: he checked it for himself, bending to take the tires between his thumb and forefinger to give them a good, solid pinch. He nodded with satisfaction as he stood up straight and gestured over his shoulder toward his garage.
"Ho un compressore se ne hai bisogno," he added as he did so. "I have a compressor if you need it."
"Grazie," I said, sincerely moved by the offer. With that, he brushed his fingers off on his work vest, smiled and went back to organizing his garage.
I set off.
I rode toward the school where I work, taking the longest route possible to my destination, a public park with a multi-use path along the currently dry torrente. The air was cool, the sun was warm and since it wasn't quite lunchtime, there were only a few people out and about. The English oaks pelted me with their acorns, oblong tubes of green and brown, minus their caps. The wind sighed through the treetops and some of the leaves drifted here and there, riding the breeze earthwards.
As I slipped in and out of sun and shadow, the gravelly path and the leaves crunching beneath my sturdy wheels, I found myself thinking of his gesture. It was such a small thing, really; an unsolicited offer of assistance to a neighbor, a man being a gentleman to a woman who might, or might not, be in need.
My thoughts turned to some of the other people in my building; the elderly bachelor downstairs who lives alone, who once shyly brought up a package which had been left for me by the mailboxes; the raucous family who seldom stop arguing, but whose middle son – a teenager, no less – never fails to hold the door for me, no matter how far away I am when he gets there; the people in the flat next door who greet my husband and me with a huge smile and always ask if we need the elevator if they're stepping out when they see us. And of course there's the kind, older gentleman who has now offered to inflate my bicycle tires with his compressor if I ever should need it. He's always greeted me with a smile and a wave, both of them sincere efforts of goodwill.
These are the gestures which make me feel at home here, which ease me into the routine of my Italian life. The little things matter, and this is the proof that those little things are universal.