I am taking you back to Porto Venere for a moment, as I would like to tell you the story behind this portrait.
Mr. Val, or Signor Val, is an elderly Italian gentleman of the old school who used to own a Profumeria (a cosmetics shop) along the Carrugio – the narrow main street that runs the length of the old town from Piazza Spallanzani to San Pietro. His first name is Alberto, while Val is his last name, and the name on the elegant sign that was above the shop’s door. And Val is what we called him.
That’s how I first met him, one of the many summers I spent some vacation time in Porto Venere. My aunts and I would walk into town after breakfast, and whenever we needed some cosmetic or perfume we would stop at Val’s. His shop was exquisite, all fitted in dark wood in a very old-fashioned way that was totally charming. Just like him. I always wondered what treasures might be stored in the many drawers I could see in the beautifully carved wooden cabinets behind him. And I have never seen Val dressed in anything other than suit and tie, even in the middle of summer.
Val would attend to everyone with graciousness, infinite patience and product experience. He liked to explain things in detail (oh yes, he liked to talk, too), and often a conversation that started with an ingredient in a fragrance bottle would wind its way to how amazing the spaghetti with seafood were at Iseo’s Restaurant on the Palmaria Island the night before. Especially with my aunt Adriana around, who likes to talk just slightly less than she likes to eat. She’s my aunt, I love her, and I can tease her if I want to – but it’s true, and she has the luck of one of those metabolisms that lets her eat whatever she wants without it showing up on her body the following week.
But I’m side tracking myself here…
With all the talk-story going on between the two of them, we found out that he did not live in Porto Venere, but in the city of La Spezia, and rode the bus to work every day.
We also discovered that he was originally from the small town where my aunt lives, a little place called Arcisate, in Northern Italy, about 1 hour north of Milano, a voice throw away from the Swiss border. He grew up there until moving to La Spezia as a young man. He even remembered meeting my uncle as young men.
But most of all, we discovered that he could get me access to the walled-in garden I had been longing to see, and had only been able to get glimpses of through a gap between the door and the rock wall. Val knew the owners and talked to them about letting us in to take a look. I was a happy camper that day!!
Then, a few years ago, on a trip back to Porto Venere, we were saddened to discover that Val’s shop was gone, replaced by another. We enquired next door and were told that Val had decided to sell and retire, but that he was still coming to Porto Venere every day so we were likely to run into him.
And sure enough, on our back from San Pietro, there he was, all perfectly dressed in his suit and tie as always, sitting on the bench right across what used to be his shop.
He was happy to see us, and explained how relinquishing the responsibility of the store had been a relief, though he missed the daily activity, which is why every morning he would get up, get dressed and catch the bus to Porto Venere, where he would spend the day hanging around the Carrugio, chatting to his shop-keeping friends, his old clients and anyone who stopped by his bench.
And that’s where I took this photo. When I mailed him an enlarged print, Val wrote me back a sweet thank you note, writing an address on the envelope that, to him, must have sounded exotic.
I haven’t been to Porto Venere in a few years, but my aunts have been going there regularly. Each time I would ask them to see if Val was around, and each time they would reassure me that he was alive and kicking.
That is, until this year. He is still alive, but not really kicking. He is now in a retirement home and no longer comes to Porto Venere. My first reaction was relief at him being still alive, but then I felt heart broken for him. I wondered if his daughter might sometime take him for a drive to Porto Venere. I hope so, as I would if I were her.
If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy these other Behind The Photo stories: