I met Samuel on the Corso—Orvieto’s main road, which cuts through the heart of town—almost two years ago on the type of blustery, gray day that defines much of the late winter in this particular Italian region, called Umbria. As far as I can remember, Samuel and I were the only two people on the entire street: him under an awning, waiting for the sudden swell of sheet-rain to pass, and me, running in a soaked-through, bright blue raincoat and running shorts. I remember turning and glancing at him as I charged past, probably thinking that I looked quite heroic, and being struck by how clearly he stared back at me, nodding, almost like he knew something. All I knew of Samuel was that he was one of about five Nigerien men who came to Orvieto to sell socks to tourists on the weekends. The interactions I’d had with them were typically clipped and lacked any memorable sincerity.
Ciao! Would you like some socks? one of them would ask.
No, thanks, I’d say.
So, needless to say, the intensity of Samuel’s glare struck me. Americans are gawkers, I’ve come to realize, but Italians, both natives and emigrants alike, don’t stare. Nothing surprises them, apparently. Perhaps he was considering me as a worthy client for some dry socks, who knows. I returned to my apartment and cleaned up, dried off, and headed out again for a coffee, because there’s nothing like watching the rain from a dry spot with a hot drink, knowing that the rain’s already done its worst. But on my way to the Café, Samuel and I crossed paths. He stopped me, grabbed my arm, and emphatically said,
Were you the one running?
Uh, yes. That was me, I said, a little caught off guard.
He held out his hand for me to shake and I reached for it. He didn’t let go as he continued, Beautiful day. Beautiful day to run. He stared directly into my eyes. His were wide and bright, almost glowing against the darkness of his skin, the bleakness of the day. He kept on shaking my hand.
My name is Samuel, he said, pronouncing it like Sam-Well
Paul, I said. Pole, he repeated.
I don’t know much about Africa, but I do know that running is fairly common in many countries on the continent, both as a pastime and a form of transportation. Naturally, people raised in these cultures tend to be pretty damn good at running, and in some countries, running as sport can serve as a literal form of escape from poverty or conflict. But in most cases, running’s a lot like how we might view it: a temporary form of freedom. I also know that most Nigerians in Italy are, for a variety of reasons—including the country’s proximity to Africa’s Northern coast— refugees. Samuel, I figured, was forced to leave his home, however long ago it may have been.
We kept talking, and eventually he let go of my hand. He told me that he was fast when he was young. That he ran in the rain without his shoes. I believed every word, no longer wary that he was hustling me. There was earnestness in his voice; a simplicity in the way he spoke about the thing that we both loved. He told me that he lived in a small town some 60 Kilometers from Orvieto, and every morning he boarded the train to a different popular hill town with his duffel bag full of socks. I haven’t run in years, he said. We parted ways that afternoon, but every time he was back in town we seemed to bump into each other and would inevitably talk about running, about the steadily increasing temperatures, the never ending parade of spring-themed religious holidays in this country. I never asked about how many socks he’d sold, or if he was tired of selling to tourists who clearly didn’t want what he could offer them. Still, Samuel was always there.
Today, I ran out to the countryside for the first time since returning to Orvieto; out to an old abandoned house on the cusp of a lush swathe of vineyards. I stepped into the house, over grass growing through the floor. It was drizzling, and I peered through the broken windows at the green landscape stretching away from the house. Orvieto itself is alive and well; its medieval buildings still animated by families that have been here for countless generations, but old abandoned places like these mark the empty spaces surrounding the town. This year, I’m a Teacher’s Assistant for the drawing class that I’d previously taken as a student, and the town’s architecture is the primary subject. The students spread window-sized drawing pads on the cobblestones, peer up at the webs of arches and curving lines, and attempt to capture the city’s timeless likeness onto the page. Often, the city speaks for itself—it’s beautiful, and that’s all that matters. Nothing could go wrong here, with alleys and walls and windows like these, twisting through shafts of slanting yellow light. You could wander through the town, always looking up, and forget that humans actually exist.
But this time around, there’s a new theme that we’re hoping the students will begin to explore in their careful studies of the city’s physical space: The Figure. Whether it’s present in the frame, or somewhere outside of it, the presence of a living person is just as important as the buildings themselves. The people who walk along those streets and the weight they carry with them, and not just the pretty cobblestones. Not just the monstrous Cathedral in the center of town, but the monk who came to its steps on pilgrimage from some monastery 100 miles away, 500 years ago. There’s a temptation in these types of jaw-dropping medieval European cities to get swept up in all their aesthetic grandiosity, to marvel solely at the fact that they are old, very old, and yet still very beautiful. We forget that life happens here and cling to the idyllic image of the fruit stand, the bakery, the chapel, then hang it on the bathroom wall and imagine a simpler time, a place where life is better. But in that old abandoned house on the edge of town, there’s no mistaking the presence of The Figure, albeit an absent, forgotten one. I felt the family that may have lived there and had meals around a table every night, the children who might have played in the vineyard, and I thought about what might have forced them leave. You can’t stand inside, let alone draw a place like this without thinking about a person’s relationship to the space. There’s no such thing as an abandoned place without a person who left it there.
It started coming down again when I crossed back into town, so I took the Corso, straight through the city’s center. I was less convinced of my own heroics this time, though, partially because I’ve lost a bit of my edge over the last year and was probably flailing, but also because I was thinking about that abandoned house. The streets were nearly empty again, so I couldn’t help but imagine that I was running through a city that had been left behind. But as I ran past the Clock Tower in the center of town, and then a series of Cafés and bakeries, I turned to see Samuel there under an awning again, waiting for the rain to pass. He looked at me in the same way that he did on that afternoon two years ago, like he knew how it felt to run.
I saw Samuel on the street again later in the day, and shook his hand.
How have you been? I asked him.
OK. Not bad, he said tentatively. He looked down, then back up at me, and corrected himself. Well, trying to be OK, he said, still holding onto my hand.
We chatted for a minute or two, then parted ways. One love, he said, patting his chest.
Even though I had to remind Samuel that we’d met before, that’s not what really matters. What matters is that when I sit down to write about this city, with all its inimitable physical beauty, its medieval Cathedrals and slanting light, that I would not forget about him. That I wouldn’t think just about the awning over the café, but about the people like Samuel who stand below them. It pains me to say that I’ve walked away from dozens of towns like Orvieto, all across Europe, with a sense that I’d missed something. The truth is, I have. Chalk it up to newfound maturity, or a waning sense of romanticism, or whatever, but upon returning to Orvieto this time, the picturesque vistas that once blinded me from this city’s depth just aren’t enough anymore. Give me a figure in the frame, and then this city means something. Without it, any town might as well be abandoned.