It could not have been colder. Perhaps if one were to compare temperatures between here and elsewhere a clinical case could be made. But the fog of The Veneto had proven its infamous reputation. This was more than frosty, it was bone-chilling, joint-aching, shivering cold. It was a damp cold that went as deep as one can feel. I was miserable.
After four days in Venice, we thought Verona was our chance to get warm. It is a gentle, noble city and graceful in most every way, particularly its gathering places. Piazza after piazza dot its city center, so that even in winter, its genteel citizens can be found mingling, strolling, shopping, debating. Yet, the inherent radiance of Verona was met head on with a cold, driving rain that splashed us in a most unforgiving way. Warming up was not to be.
Venice is a cold city. There is little vegetation and it is entirely paved in stone. This, along with its dank canals makes it most uncomfortable on bitter winter days. It provides a virus an unmatched opportunity to get a grip on even the heartiest of souls. By the time we left it to go further inland and away from its clammy lagoon, we were drained of energy. It was late November. The sun, anemic even at its apex at this time of year, had already spent itself. Both my wife, Susie, and I were miserably ill with the flu. I had completely lost my voice and had chills that could not be consoled. Susie spent the previous night battling a nasty, burning fever. It is always bad to be sick but being sick on vacation is the worst. I wanted to go home. Instead, we went to Verona.
“Why don’t you buy a hat?” Susie begged me. My shivering, miserable demeanor was starting to concern her. The rain had stopped but the chill remained. The men of Verona all wear hats. Yet, I am too self-conscious to consider such an extravagant act. We American men don’t wear hats, unless we are trying to look deliberately ridiculous. Football games, Fourth of July parades and New Year’s Eve are the times for us adorn our heads. Uncle Sam hats, Cheese Head hats, glittery cone-shaped hats—hats meant to take us away from our desperate seriousness—that’s what we know in America. Yet these men in Verona actually look elegant in hats—hats of great distinction—fedoras.
On the Piazza delle Herbe, there is a hat store. Though I was not yet convinced, we decided to steal a peek in the window. I had to admit to being impressed. There were certainly some fine-looking specimens. Inside, a tall, slender, middle-aged man was moving gracefully about his tiny shop. He seemed fastidious, with closely cropped and neatly combed hair. He had very large hands—probably good for handling lots of hats. Hatboxes were everywhere, stacked precariously to the ceiling. In a red velvet chair in the corner sat an elderly man, scarcely toothed, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a green beaver fedora with a brown band.
“I don’t want to go in,” I whined. My mood was getting annoying, even to me. I felt shy, inadequate, and still very cold. We walked away from the window towards the center of the piazza. My delay tactics worked. The tall younger man soon left his shop, older man in tow. He placed a “closed for business” sign in the window. My opportunity was gone. I was relieved.
The two men, looking to be up to something clandestine, darted into a small bar next-door. We saw each of them drink an espresso and a glass of grappa. Fortification against the cold evening. We paced around the piazza trying to stay warm. Two minutes later, in the exact same formation, they reentered their shop, cheeks rosier for their efforts. This was prescient. No more procrastination, it was meant to be. We had to go in.
“I’d like to buy a hat!” I said. The slender man seemed pleased. The older man smiled. The slender man began to look carefully at my head, no angle left unexamined.
“Signore, you are a perfect size 7.” he said in clearly-articulated Italian. “Yet I am going to recommend a size 7 ⅛.” It will cause the hat to rest perfectly at the proper angle on your head.” He sized up my head, eyebrows keenly arched in an intense look of concentration. It made me nervous.
Out came hats of magnificent construction. The slender man rode up and down a tall ladder, developing beads of sweat on his brow as he labored. The older man watched intently, his rheumy eyes gazing through the smoke of his cigarette.
“This is our finest hat, may I place it on your head?” the slender man asked. Fingers caressing the fedora, he gently brushed the hat with a brush. “As long as you own this hat you may return here to have it steamed—con piacere.” With pinkies flayed, like an Englishman sipping tea, he deftly placed the hat on my head.
“Now signore, you may wear the rim down, or down and slightly cocked. However you may not wear the rim up. It will make you look silly—buffo. Always grab the hat like so,” he said as he placed his large hand around the crown of the hat, gently pinching its crease. “It is the proper way to place it upon your head. And never, never place the front brim on a table top. Let it rest over the table’s edge. Otherwise you will improperly flatten it.” I’d never known there was so much to the proper handling of a hat.
“Sigore, this hat looks exquisite on you. Look in the mirror, per favore.” I peeked around the edge of the mirror until I saw an unfamiliar man wearing a most elegant fedora. It took a few seconds to realize that I was staring at myself. The hat made me look older yet prosperous. It made me improve my posture. My trench coat looked wrinkled in comparison to the hat’s crisp, classic lines. I continued to stare. My father would have said I looked snazzy.
It is said that the body loses most of its heat from the head. Maybe that’s why I immediately felt warmer. Or perhaps it was the excitement of seeing myself as never before. I started playing with the damn thing, as if I were practicing for a role in a movie.
“It looks good,” croaked the old man as he took a drag on his cigarette through a gap where once lived several teeth. I had almost forgotten that he was there, staring at my entire transformation. He seemed contented with proceedings. “Here, give your wife a candy,” he said as he pulled a coffee-flavored candy from his jacket pocket.
Hats continued to emerge from the merchant’s stash as I worked my way through his inventory. Finally settling on an olive-green felt fedora, the process was complete. “Would you like to wear your hat sir or shall I put it in a box for you?” Was he kidding? Of course I was going to wear my hat. After all this energy I was not going to stuff the thing into a hatbox. I considered sleeping in it. I strutted my way out the door, proud as a peacock with my new purchase. My new hat and I were inseparable until we finally got back to our hotel for the night.
So fulfilled were we with our hat-buying experience, we returned the next day to buy one for Susie. While enjoyable, it was not the same. Maybe the thrill had worn off but we both suspected differently.
“Buying a woman’s hat is not the same experience,” said Susie right after she bought one. I agreed. At least in Italy, buying a man’s hat seems to be a rite of passage. While I cannot justify such preferential treatment, I must admit I enjoyed being the recipient. We men allow ourselves so few opportunities to enjoy clothes shopping. We usually drag our wives with us—after years of shopping with our mothers—to ease the pain of endurance.
Our stay in Verona could be neatly divided into two halves. The first half was cranky, miserable and hatless. The second half was warm, spirited and crowned. The weather, remarkably, was the same. My head was not. A warm head is a happy head, an adorned head is blissful.
After returning home, I wore my fedora several times. “You look like a gangster,” my friend Scooter said on one such occasion. Unfortunately, others made similar comments. While dimming my enthusiasm, these critiques have not changed my memories of the hat shop in Verona. The next time I return to Italy in the fall, my fedora will be the first thing I’ll remember to bring. And I shall schedule a stop in Verona to take advantage of my free steaming. For it is there that they treat me as a gentleman.