The mice of Fiesole have a plan.
I’ve been waiting three days for the local hardware shop to open. Three days since we came home from holiday and discovered our house had been done over by a gang of mice (definitely a gang). So as the bell tower in the piazza rings out four times, I’m here waiting with one other customer for the door to open. I want to buy mousetraps*.
Along comes the owner – I don’t know her name yet but she’s the young, busy, bustling, bespectacled type that makes you feel at ease and she has a Florentine accent you could spread butter with. We bustle in after in.
I love this shop, in fact I love all Italian hardware shops. It’s covered from floor to ceiling with stuff, and all of it is useful. There are wonderful things in plain sight which you didn’t know you needed, and others you desperately need and only she can find for you (and at a good price). In fact the shop is called a Utilità (meaning Usefulness, well in this case just Utility) which is one of the several cool names for a hardware shop, another being the even more lovely word, Mesticheria.
In this, or any, Italian hardware shop, you can step in and embrace the visual jumble, browse the mugs and tablecloths, mango slicers and egg timers, Beatles mugs and non-stick pans, fresh-cut keys and shoe polish. Or you can just enjoy asking for something specific and watching the owner – who grew up in this family business – disappear into the back, under the counter, or up a ladder to where you thought only the wicker baskets were hanging.
As it turns out, many people come in just for a chat, it being right on the main street – the narrow part where the German camper vans have to squeeze through with confusion.
“Oh, that’s a real stink of someone’s bad cooking oil!” she says as she gets herself behind the counter. “Is it from the Indian restaurant across the road?” I ask. “Oh no, they use the right oils, there are always lovely smells coming out of there.”
Foolishly, I let the other waiting woman go first, she is of course a local and I become frustrated when I can’t completely follow the train of their conversation. My Italian isn’t always so awake after lunch. She passes over some cash and it disappears into an envelope, something is scribbled on a piece of paper: it must be to do with the town dinner in the piazza on Friday night.
The shop door has been left open to let in air (and pungent oil smells). In the doorway a man has partly lodged himself, craning backwards to talk to someone further down the street or, judging by the volume, across the road. Maybe even the Indian restaurant owner. Living here in this country of talkers, I try my best to start up similar types of chats with the shopkeepers I meet everyday – about the earthquake all the way down there in southern Tuscany, the school schedule, their elderly father, or mine. The doorway man disappears after a few minutes without having come in for his full chat or his packet of nails.
I can tell right away I’m not the first person to come in looking for help with mice murder. The hardware lady’s tired expression gives her the appearance of a local miracle-worker – why do they all think I can sort out their household problems for them, why can’t they just get their houses in order? – and sure enough she tells me she’s all out of traps, the old-fashioned kind, the gluey ones and the little tent ones. In fact, she tells me – “Fiesole is full of mice”.
But she won’t have any more traps in till the end of next week. “Oh Dio!” I say, and mention that I’ll be in Florence tomorrow and may have to take my custom there; she surely understands the urgency. She digs around and shows me all she has left – a packet of terrifying poison tablets – but she isn’t really suggesting I buy them. “It’s much better you buy a trap that ensures you can see the dead mouse, not just guess that it went off and died its (horrible) death somewhere else.” I nod my head. Certo.
She keeps talking before I have the chance to tell her that we have, sort of, a cat on the case. We have in fact started brazenly inviting the neighbour’s cat in for a few ganders around the house and it’s becoming quite fond of one particular floormat and some of the Lego. But she’s already noting in her order book which traps she needs to get in and she tells me I should really get the tented one – “put them in this location at this time of day, make sure you touch them with gloves or your smell will put them off.“ Will the mice guess from my smell that I’m not Italian? I wonder to myself.
“Why do you think there are so many mice around these days?” I ask her. “It’s not really turning cold yet.”
“I don’t really know”, she answers. Then she fixes her eyes on me and states, “Si stanno organizzando”. I take this to mean they’re getting themselves organized, plotting something. She says this with seriousness. And of course she must be right.
As I run back to the car empty-handed, I look around me, imagining the mice mini-gangs of Fiesole and its neighbouring hamlets who are busy setting up a network underneath these streets, the ancient groves and crumbling walls, and the decaying old basements and ill-fitted kitchens, plotting a way to finally take over the three hills of Fiesole.
I go to another hardware shop down at the bottom of the hill, in the Cure area of Florence. It’s a bigger shop and there are several people milling around the counter but I’m beckoned forward, the husband of the couple will help me. I tell him I need some mouse traps.
“Fine. Do you want them alive or dead?”
“Um, dead.” (Should I want them alive?)
“And are they small or big? Small like this?” – his hands relatively close together. “Or big, like this? Like a cat?” Oh no, I react, they’re not quite so big. “Right, those are the mice you get from the river.” I assure him we live right at the top of the hill, relieved that we decided against living down here.
He disappears into the back of the back, even though the front of the shop looks like it would have everything. He comes back a minute later with some fancy-looking metal traps, with little teeth on the edges. They’re made in Germany. Of course they are. He tells me the wooden ones are no good. I know that already.
As he rings them up, the customer beside me who’s buying serious lengths of waterproof fabric takes notice. “How much are those?” she asks. “1 euro 80 each.” “Fine, I’ll take a couple of those too then, thanks.”
So far I’ve caught one little mouse and I’m learning that different cheeses make no difference, nor does chocolate or honey as recommended by some. It must be all about the placement.
Now I’m off to Florence to the really serious hardware shop down near the market.
And a weekend of murder.
*Note to readers: I offer no apology for my topocide. Having learned in several previous cities that I cannot live with a mouse in the house, I have found it best to do them off the quickest and surest way there is.