When I was thirteen I read a book titled How To be A Spy. Although my copy disappeared many years ago, it remains in my memory and, to be frank, continues to influence me even today. For instance it advised me to carry a hat and a pair of dark glasses at all times in order to assume a quick disguise, a suggestion I took to heart.
It also included instructions on how to tail someone, recommending the technique of pausing before a plate glass window to watch the “subject” in the reflection, thus avoiding eye contact and possible detection. I honed these skills in my youth and occasionally employ them to follow tourists – at a discreet distance – just for the pleasure of hearing what they have to say about my fair city.
One of my most cherished moments occurred one hot summer afternoon. A monumental American lady – imagine a Rodin sculpture brought to life and dressed in baggy Land’s End shorts – was strolling down via Mazzini, Verona’s main pedestrian-only shopping street. Her weedy husband trudged along by her side. He would occasionally pull at the back of his shirt to lift the sweat- soaked fabric away from his skin or fan himself with his baseball cap, all the while maintaining a steady litany of complaints: “It’s hot. I’m tired. You’re not gonna go in another church are you?” His wife made her way down the street, pausing now and then to gaze solemnly at the view or to assess passersby. She ignored her husband’s continuous whining, an ability obviously refined by years of practice. Finally, this magnificent woman could stand it no more. She stopped, and turning, with the swooping elegance of an America’s Cup yacht rounding a buoy, she looked her husband straight in the eye. “I’m only gonna walk down this street once in my life,” she said, “And I’m gonna do it… slow.” Ah, sublime!
How To Be A Spy also included a fine set of instructions on how to establish a “cover”. This information could well serve a new-comer to Italy who wishes to insert him or herself into a new community. The book advised one to go to the same café every day, engage the waiter in brief conversation and always order the same thing so as to establish a noticeable pattern. Try this technique. It works. I cannot tell you the pleasure I got when, after weeks of sloping into the Café Noir with my small dog, my cappuccino arrived with no sugar packet on the saucer and no cocoa sprinkled on top. Yes, the waiter remembered me. I was a regular! From that day forward our conversations expanded to dog care, popular music, the merits of C.S.I. and its Italian clone R.I.S. Everyone in the bar had an opinion and joyously expressed it. I began seeing members of the Café Noir crowd on the streets, at local street fairs and at the cinema. I suddenly knew a whole network of friendly people.
My cousin Susan in Colorado, who loves poking around car-boot sales and used book stores, is always quick to recognize the value of a dog-eared, slightly foxed, bathwater-spattered offering. So at the risk of putting her on the Homeland Security Suspect List, I have set her on the trail of How to Be a Spy (published sometime in the late 60s). If any of you have a copy floating around your house, you may wish to keep it out of the hands of impressionable children.