A New Look in Italy
Cover Image for A New Look in Italy

A New Look in Italy

I don't know when I lost my glasses …

I know the notice of their departure worked its way to the front of my brain as we taxied away from the airport in San Fransisco. “We are not in your bag anymore.” my glasses announced from wherever in the universe they now lived.

The little part of me that always hopes foolishly jabbed at me like a rock in my shoe during the entire agonizing takeoff and climb. I knew in my soul my glasses were not in my bag, but when the seatbelt sign was turned off I sprang from my seat and checked anyway. My glasses were not in my bag.

Later in the flight when it was time to sleep I tried to doze off with my contacts in, only to wake up shortly after feeling like someone had painted my eyeballs with peanut butter. There was nothing for it. I gave up and took my contacts out, wavering and bumping my head against the ceiling in the tiny airplane bathroom.

As I walked blindly back to my seat I thought about the time I kicked a giant Samoan man in the head on a flight to Auckland. He had fallen asleep and slumped into the aisle with his head protruding at knee level. It was quite dark in the endless trans-pacific night, but we were flying smoothly so I was striding confidently back from the bathroom until I strode right into his head. He made a noise and I scuttled the rest of the way to my row. I was certain there would be an incident, but there wasn’t. Maybe this sort of thing was commonplace for him. Airline seat designers clearly didn’t have him in mind when they laid out a Boeing triple 7.

This flight, however, was taking me to Italy without my glasses. I was also eventually going to be at home without my glasses as well, since there was little hope of my old frames being recovered from wherever they might have gone. I started wondering how plausible it would be to find new glasses while abroad.

Stupefied with jet lag and a general exhaustion after my flights and a full day of trains down from Switzerland, I finally stood at the door of my tiny rented apartment in a tinier town on the coast of Italy. By now, it was nearing midnight and the village was deserted. Turning to my right, I stood blinking in the blinding light of a needlessly bright sign that lit up the otherwise dark c. My brain tried to work out why a voice inside said the sign was important. Finally, it clicked … the sing was for an eyeglasses store.

Improbably, in this tiny vacation town mostly frequented by Italians and Germans, and which I had picked nearly sight unseen from a couple scant recommendations on the internet, there was an eyeglasses boutique mere steps away from my apartment.

The next day had my prescription emailed to me, and I headed up the street to replace my wandering pair of glasses. Maybe things were looking up after all. I had made it here unscathed, and God had smiled upon me when placing optics boutiques. What I didn’t know as I climbed the hill past the bodega was I would now be assisted in picking new eyewear by Italians.

For the last several years I have been dressing in ways to be noticed less, and for my entire life I have worn eyeglasses not to be noticed at all. Getting glasses at six leve me with a latent embarrassment about them. Even though my last pair was a bit sleek and deisgn-y, they were from a Swedish company, in the Nordic tradition and thus were not overly bold.

This morning, however, I was in Italy. After explaining my plight and showing my prescription to the tall, elegant woman who greeted me, I was ushered to the back wall to start looking for new frames. Working in English and my pitifully scant Italian I finally found the words to describe “subtle and tasteful”. The woman helping me laughed as though I had made quite the joke and handed me another wild looking set of frames. Every time I looked in the mirror, I felt like I was wearing clown shoes on my face.

The staff was made up of two women in the latter half of life. One was dressed and tanned and bespectacled in a way that suggested a lingering air of youth, and may have been from the north of Italy or even Germany. Her counterpart was none of these things. The tall one spoke English well and the short one, who seemed to ow the place, spoke no English at all. Her lack of English did not dissuade her from speaking Italian at length to me, with or without the benefit of translation from her taller partner.

There was also a young man in his 20s who was responsible for operating the iPad when it came to the fittings, and for making espresso for serious clients. Only when I was handed an espresso did I begin to suspect I had inadvertently become a serious client. The young man was also likely on hand to provide a manly perspective, which is not at all the same sort of manly perspective you would expect to find in America.

Italians, it turns out, are not fond of telling you nice things they don’t feel deeply in their beings. They may look impassively at you for a second as though they are trying to find the nice way of informing you of the mistake you have just put on your face, but this moment passes quickly and then the hand-waving and denouncing starts.

The crazy frames passed through my hands at a rapid pace. Round, square, sharp, brightly colored … all sorts, and all similarly wild-looking. After several sets of frames that would have seemed laughable on anyone back in Colorado regardless of gender, I was handed a pair of dark, thick, black frames. Conceptually I liked them, but the lenses were smaller and it felt like looking out through little portholes. They were vaguely traditional, but all the lines and curves were somehow different. I turned to look my waiting panel of judges.

The effect was immediate. All present responded with that visceral, full-bodied noise and gesture Americans seem not to have as a species. Age or gender did not seem to matter. They all reacted with the same guttural noise of approval, a broad smile and a slight throwing back of the head that said, “THIS is a thing as it must BE.”

I was not sure it must be.

Several more frames were tried on, but the old woman kept putting the black frames in my free hand. She would then motion for me to look at her, point at whatever frames I was wearing and say in stern monosyllabic English, “One …” She would squint at me and then motion that I should put on the black frames again. She never said “Two.” As soon as I put the black frames back on she would make a puffing sound, throw back her head again and wave her hand to say, “I don’t know why we are bothering. The answer is obvious.”

“You can trust her. She has been doing this her whole life.” The tall woman said, motioning to the old woman in the blue frames who made no attempt to speak any further English. The young man looked on almost enviously as though I were privileged to have the face for these noble frames.

Only later did it occur to me that the “this” the old woman had been practicing for years may have been keeping the doors open by selling them the most expensive pair of glasses on offer. I had not been shown prices on any of the frames, and had only stolen a peek at the tags as the little security devices were taken off the temples when they were handed to me.

In any case, the ladies had done their work. I was starting to think I could possibly wear these new, bold frames without feeling silly. They would certainly get me noticed, but so far I had only proved they made me popular with older Italian women and young men passionate about eyewear, neither of which are in my target market for dinner dates.

But I was in Italy now. Price was not to be thought of where style was concerned. Back in my relatively pragmatic American existence, there were budgets to be thought of. Here, one could hungrily make it through the whole day on a single pastry and espresso, having been too poor to eat lunch. It didn’t matter as long as you looked good looking out over the changing hues of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In any case, I would have some time in Italy to try them out. Here my new frames would not look out of place. They turned out to be camouflage, helping me pass for something other than a blatant American as long as I sat still and didn’t talk. After Italy I would be in Belgrade for a while, where I might now appear a little more European and no one would give me a second look… not that I would be able to see whether or not they were looking thanks to the small lenses and thick rims of my new, bold frames.

After testing out the glasses in Belgrade, though, I will have to return to America. Then I would wear contacts.