buckner: Town Gossips
One of the villages where I work in Sardinia, called Siligo, is a very small and isolated place in the country. To reach it each day I have to travel with Marco, who is a school administrator, from Sassari, and at the end of the day Antonia, one of the teachers I work with, often gives me a ride back to town. Sometimes if the schedule doesn’t work out I have to take a bus.
I don’t mind taking the bus. It weaves around through the hillside villages perched above the superhighway. Sometimes the roads are so narrow and hair-pinned it amazes me that the bus is able to make the curves, and the driver generally uses whichever side of the street he prefers, which can be momentarily thrilling when cars suddenly show up coming from the other direction. Sometimes the bus has to slow down to let a flock of sheep cross the road.
The villages all have multicolored buildings—pink, orange, yellow, sky blue, and ultramarine—and sometimes there are strange murals done by local artists. One mural is particularly odd and disconcerting: a psychedelic scene with devil figures floating around amid pointy phallic objects. It’s difficult to imagine what the old women dressed in black who walk through the streets carrying their plastic bags of groceries make of this.
Siligo is a village where everybody wants to know everything about everybody else. Like most small towns, it is full of gossips. Nearly everyone in town has lived there since birth, and feels entitled to all information about the others. A stranger like myself is a curiosity. People stare at me openly, without restraint, even when I’m just passing by in a car. They look at me with dark eyes, as though trying to absorb as much information as possible from my appearance alone. From the very beginning my students started grilling me with questions: Where am I from? Where am I staying? Where do I sleep? Where do I eat? How old am I? Am I married? When I told them I am divorced they even wanted to know who cheated on whom! (They didn’t ask me this question, they asked somebody else.) I imagine they carry this information home to their parents.
I don’t mind answering the questions, but they’re insatiable. Sometimes they ask me the same questions over and over, as though they think eventually they’ll trip me up and I’ll betray something more interesting. This line of questioning infuriates Antonia, and she gets very angry with the kids when they start. Antonia is not like the other people in this town. She is more private and reserved. This might be because her family is not originally from Siligo—they are from Sicily. Her father, a policeman who specialized in Mafia crime, moved the family here when she was very young to hide them from possible assassins seeking revenge. When she was a child she had a bodyguard who went with her everywhere and her family was very protective. Naturally she is sensitive to prying questions. She is also trying to teach her students not to grow up to be village gossips.
Apart from the people I work with, the other teachers at the school are mostly unfriendly. They are suspicious of me, and treat me with cold aloofness. They are irritated that I’ve become somewhat of a celebrity with the kids. Not only do my students enthusiastically greet me with “Ciao Maestro Jeff!” every time I walk by, but their students, who I don’t even know, have started to do so as well. The other teachers are envious that my students are enthusiastic, and doing interesting work. This project was made possible through a grant proposal written by Antonia, who they also dislike and treat poorly. These are the kind of people who are threatened by the achievements of others and want to discredit them. Like the students, they think if they dig deep enough they will find dirt to spread around.
One day Antonia and I drove to her house to have lunch before returning to work in the afternoon. As we were getting out of the car we looked up the street and saw the car of another teacher—her name is Maura, she teaches in the room adjacent to Antonia, and is especially spiteful—zipping off around the corner. She had followed us to see where we were going. Perhaps she suspected we were going off to have an afternoon affair. In Siligo, a single woman taking a man to her house, where her mother and brother also live, is still apparently scandalous.
Marco and Antonia often talk about how much they dislike these village gossips, yet they also gossip about the others. Consequently I hear lots of stories. They talk about the zealously pious 5th grade teacher, also a priest, who wears the same yellow pants for days, and is known for his passionate displays of devotion in church, his eyes thrown up like a Perugino painting. They also talk about the English teacher, who learned to speak English after she converted to Mormonism, and visited several families in the US and Britain. When she first met me she said two words in English and then ran away like a rabbit. Later she became quite nice, but she never tried to speak English with me.
But the stories about Maura are the best. When Antonia first started working at the school, she began mid-year, and took over the class of another instructor. Maura was given the task of helping her to get oriented, but her method was unusual. Antonia is a large woman with a round face, and beautifully expressive eyes. She has a great full laugh, and loves to find humor in things. She is very perceptive and curious, and we have good conversations about many subjects. She would be the first to admit that she does not have slim, model good looks. She is attractive in the ordinary way that most people are—she has character and good-natured presence. Maura is slim, with narrow features and long black hair that she wears in a braid. She has some of the characteristics of model looks, but she is coy and seems vain, with suspicious eyes and an unpleasant manner. She wears exaggerated clothing—long elaborately patterned dresses (Marco says they look like his mother’s tablecloth), spider web-like shawls, and lots of jewelry.
Maura began the first day by pointing out to the kids how unattractive the new teacher was—“che brutta,” she said. Then she waltzed around the room showing off her trim figure and beautiful clothes, particularly in front of the young boys (these are 3rd and 4th graders!), and pointed out how, by comparison, she was young and beautiful—“che bella!” I dropped my jaw when I heard this, but Antonia said she did this repeatedly, day after day, for several days, and started to make the children uncomfortable. Eventually Antonia told the kids to not look at Maura when she came in, and instead to continue their work, and after a few days of no response Maura gave up coming over.
At one point Maura and Antonia had an assistant they shared for half a day each—a young woman who specialized in mathematics. The day she first arrived she worked with Maura in the morning. When she came into Antonia’s room in the afternoon she was a little abashed. Maura had introduced her to the class, and then pointed out that, although the assistant was a young and pretty woman in her early 20s, Maura was still in her prime, and she proved it by hiking up her skirt, hoisting her leg, and landing her high-heeled foot on the desk, Mrs. Robinson-style. Antonia and the assistant couldn’t understand why, or how Maura could do this. In the solitude of the empty classroom, they both tried to lift their legs onto the high teacher’s desk, and couldn’t manage it.