The Wizard of Oz and I

(This will make much more sense after part one, here.)


Il Mago di Oz Orvieto, classy Italian women silhuettes

Il Mago’s alley

An eruption of sound, light, and motion, as the world below my eyes kicked into life, overlapping music box jangles and blinking lights. I’d come to see the Wizard of Oz, tucked away in a side street of hilltop Orvieto, Italy, and now that same gruff wizard was standing beside me, lights reflected in his glasses and smile.


“This carousel is in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in Paris. The oldest in the city, from 1879.” Looking at his tiny faithful reproduction, I could imagine the generations of children that have sat and shrieked on the original Parisian horses.


“Here is a ride from Coney Island, in your country.” The little roller coaster car rose to the top and slid down the track, tiny wooden figures throwing their arms up in an unaging joyous thrill. His artisan finger worked down the row. “This is the ice skating rink from Toronto. The ferris wheel of London. The tea cups of Disney.” We moved among the world’s remembrances, sharing each one whether we’d ever seen it or not. Each tiny world, handmade by this artisan.


“When I was a boy, I knew what I wanted to be.” My assumption was beginning when he filled in the answer. “A cowboy!” He watched my grins over his bifocals for a moment before continuing. “I wanted to so much, that I did it, I ran away! I left my home and started towards Texas.” Let that moment linger. “My mother caught me ten seconds down the road, gave me two big slaps, and brought me home. So instead of running away to be a Texas cowboy, I began to make things.”


hand scales

Orvieto is the kind of town where doing things the old way makes sense

Together we looked out over the delicate wooden toyscape of figures and memories. On the corner of his desk, beside the antique cash register, I noticed a familiar book. Seeing my glance, he picked it up. “Yes, Rick Steves. I am in his book. He came here and liked my work. Other companies want me in their books too, but they want money. It’s a commercial. Advertising. I am in Rick’s book because he liked what I do, so he put me in. That’s it. But I haven’t seen him in years.”


I told him Rick was my boss, that I was a guide, and that I’d learned of the toy shop in the current edition of the book. There was a hint of melancholy in the Wizard’s voice when he repeated “I haven’t seen him in years.” I assured him that even if Rick doesn’t have time, someone from the company comes around at least once a year to make sure we still believe in our recommendations, so we still appreciate his work. But there was something else.


Rick Steves and the Mago di Oz have something in common. Both are among the rare few who have created exactly the career they wanted. My eyes returned to one of the Wizard’s handpainted signs. Make your reality like your dreams, and your dreams into your reality. These two men have done that, and I can only imagine they recognized something in each other.


Balloons and the Moor's Tower, Orvieto

Nothing against minions, but compared to the 12th century Moor’s Tower, they seem a tad chintzy

I was feeling a peaceful sense of satisfaction and happiness in the presence of this gentle man when the door opened to admit a woman and her son, from one of the bigger bus tours that feed people through Europe’s Express Lane. Her hand held the cheap plastic Pixar balloon he’d wanted for a moment, and neither greeted Il Mago as they entered his space. I watched him monitor them with the same tolerant caution he’d initially shown me, and was thinking how nerve wracking it must be to have unknown entities always lumbering among your treasures, cheap balloons bonking into handmade zeppelins, when the woman took out her phone and lifted its little factory eye.


“No photo!” The Wizard’s snarl was instantaneous and sharp. Blunt force reminder at an Italian volume. “No photo!”


How does one bring the fragile lightness of childhood into the tenacious heaviness of adulthood? Not easily, I thought, as I watched mother and son endure that awkward pause to save face before fleeing the shop. But it’s only appropriate for a wizard to be a little scary. Booming voices and flaring flames of castigation, and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, with his gentle love of a gentler life.


No, the Wizard of Oz doesn’t let you take photos. But when a reminder of the texture of childhood is on offer, photos are not what you want anyway.

Italy Orvieto Il Mago di Oz

Okay, so Il Mago let me have one photo. Me and the man himself. (Photo credit: some lady who didn’t take out her phone.)