I met Luigi on my second day in Elba. I had left my shoes on the veranda the night I arrived and they had been stolen, I assumed, by one of the children who pestered me for money as I had climbed the guest house stairs the night before. I didn’t recall why I left them outside, but I supposed it had been so I wouldn’t get the room so dirty that I would feel obligated to tip the housemaid. I knew I would tip her, I just didn’t want to feel the obligation. Tired and shoeless I tiptoed up the gravel road to the local cobbler. And that is how I met Luigi.

His shop was a small, one room house perched on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean. There was no indication that it was a shoemaker’s store aside from a drawing of a pair of shoes made on a small slate shingle that rested on the side of the one step leading into the house. When I entered, Luigi was working at his desk. A small man with strong, weathered hands, I guessed he was older than me but not by much. After greetings he measured my feet, asked me a few questions about the shoes I had lost and promised me a new pair by the next day. Then he went back to his work, patiently ignoring my stare as he pulled a leather lace through a new shoe with his teeth. Eventually, he looked at me and then to the door and I excused myself and scooted onto the road and began my slow, barefoot descent back to my lodgings. I stopped twice to rest my feet and looked back up to the house that stood alone on the side of the hill.

I had gone to Italy on instructions from my father, a Cambridge historian, who wanted me “out of the books” and visiting the places I was reading about (or should be). I had chosen Elba as my first “field trip” precisely because I had not wanted to travel. It seemed to me that an island once thought sufficient to isolate an emperor was the perfect place to hide while my father pictured me touring Florence or Rome. So, on my first day of exploring the big, wide world I sat in my room, read my book on the Uffizi and browsed the images from a library copy of “100 paintings you must see while in Italy.” And waited for my new shoes to be made.

It took three visits over the next three days before Luigi had finished my shoes. Each time I returned he was unapologetic, telling me in broken English that he was still working on them and that great art took time. Though I thought this a bit grandiose, he insisted I would be satisfied with them and suggested, cutely unaware of his pun, that going without shoes for a few days was good for the soul. “Moses had no shoes, yes?” he said with a hint of humor. “It is good for you to be so close to the earth.”

Whether or not going shoeless was pious or not, returning to his shop each day became a modest pleasure, a welcome break from my steady diet of reading and meals. The visits gave me a chance to learn about this man who I had begun to find fascinating.

The child of a shoemaker from Sicily, Luigi had come to Elba when he was nineteen, shortly after his father died in a boating accident. An only child, his mother had died when he was just a boy and so his father’s passing left him alone and vulnerable to the world. Having never left Sicily while his father was alive, he spent two months traveling through Europe before deciding to come back to the islands. Settling in Elba, he took up the craft his father had given him. He had been here for the past ten years, slowly building his business as he gained a reputation throughout the country as a talented and artful cobbler. So strong was his reputation that when I had begun asking people where I could find a shoe store, each person - including a local clothing store with plenty of shoes on their racks - had suggested I visit Luigi.

I came back late on the third day, half hoping the shoes would not be finished so that we could continue our talk. But as soon as I entered I saw my shoes waiting for me at the foot of his workbench, which doubled as a seat for his customers as they tried on their shoes. He was standing by them. He had clearly been waiting for me.

Inviting me to sit, he stood and smiled as if he were presenting me with a gift. Looking down at my new shoes, I slipped both feet into the soft leather. My feet slid into the shoes with perfect ease and just as the toes reached the tips the shoes gently clasped around my feet, giving me a feeling of being held. They were warm, too, and as the shoes hugged my feet I recalled a sensation I had felt once before when I was alone in my attic with my sister’s babysitter, Jenna. Having Luigi watching my expression made this seem very much like that time in my attic; at once exhilarated and embarrassed by the transparency of my pleasure.

My satisfaction - and Luigi’s pride - unmistakable, I got up, paid him for the shoes, and started back to the guest house. This time the walk up the hill was pure delight, my feet purred over the pebbles.

The next day the car came to take me to the airport and I was sad when the driver took another route down the hill, away from Luigi’s shop. At the airport I picked up a book on Sicily and read it on the flight back to England.

At home I recited the lies I had been practicing the last few days. I spoke of The Venus of Urbino, and Botticelli, and, of course, my favorite painting, Leonardo's Annunciation. I admitted to him that I favored Florence to Rome; having spent more time studying the former it was the safer choice. My father was so pleased with my adventure that he insisted I travel again the next year. France? Turkey? Greece!? He buzzed with possibilities. “Sicily,” I said.

“But you’ve already gone to Italy.”

“Not to the islands, Papa,” I said, playing to his appreciation for cultivated distinctions.

Then I booked a flight to Elba.