I begin a delicate waltz with the broom

There is a right way and a wrong way to sweep. The wrong way is the way I tried first. I grasped the broom with both hands, pulled it toward me and then made short, sharp strokes outward, just as I'd seen women sweep in cartoons.

Little clouds of parmesan cheese puffed up around my feet.

Rita howled with laughter.

"This is the way you sweep, cara," she said, wresting the broom from me.

Rita was Italian, and she never minced her words.

I had arrived at Rita's home the previous evening. I was 18 and had come to help her take care of the house and her four small children for six weeks. In return I hoped they would teach me Italian.

So far I knew that yes was and that ciao could cover a multitude of conversations. What I didn't know, Rita told me, was how to sweep the floor properly.

I like to think it wasn't my fault. Sweeping, surely, is one of those things your mother should teach you, just as she teaches you how to wash the dishes and buckle your shoes.

My mother didn't sweep.

It wasn't that Mum was slovenly. She didn't sweep because we lived half an hour's drive from England's chilly eastern coast, and the house was carpeted throughout to keep the drafts out.

Mum had an old-fashioned carpet sweeper, a sort of rectangular box on wheels with a furry roll underneath that attracted the dust. You pushed the sweeper along the brown carpet pretty much however you wanted, hoping the dirt was sticking nicely to the roller.

Looking back, I'm not sure that Rita would have approved.

Anyway, I had never learned the ancient art of sweeping. And here in Italy, I quickly surmised, sweeping was going to be one of my biggest daily chores.

Rita and her husband, Osvaldo, lived in a cascina, an ancient stone farmhouse set in hills behind Montaldeo, a village in rural northern Italy. The cascina was large and airy and had three floors. None of them was carpeted.

"Watch me," Rita said that first morning. She had grown up as the child of Italian immigrants in northern England and spoke fluent English with a strong Leicestershire lilt.

Rita showed me how to take the broom the way you would a dance partner - not too rigidly, but not too close either. You space your hands along the broom handle about a forearm's length apart, with the left hand cupped down toward the floor and the right hand palm up.

You choose the corner where you want to start. Then you stretch the broom out a little above the floor, bring it down to ground level, and sweep it toward you in firm strokes.

Slowly, you fan the brush strokes around you like rays of the sun, careful to concentrate on the center, where you're creating: a growing pile of dust.

Once you think you've gathered all the dust in a particular spot, you move sideways and start again, until the floor is dotted with tidy little dust heaps. Then you fetch your dustpan and scoop up the heaps, one by one.

My apprenticeship over, I began to sweep.

Each morning I brushed away the previous day's debris from the kitchen: dry pasta shapes, zucchini shavings, sunflower petals, and flakes of parmesan.

I moved to the bedrooms and into the hallway, urging the children not to step on my dust piles as my halting Italian progressed.

When I had finished, Rita and I chatted and laughed and drank tea sweetened with eucalyptus honey. (She and her husband were beekeepers.)

During the long, hot afternoons, we watched her dark-haired children swarm over the hillside garden. Sometimes I chopped cubes of mozzarella for the trays of pizza Rita baked in the outdoor oven.

At the end of the summer I left Italy and started classes at a university. For a few years I forgot the delicate dance of the morning sweeper and the satisfaction of a full dustpan.

In Paris I had a vacuum cleaner to run along the bare floorboards of my apartment. Vacuuming is a noisy business in a block of apartments. Vacuuming hours were rigidly stipulated: mornings between 8 and 10.

Now, in Zimbabwe, I'm suddenly back to sweeping again. My broom isn't a hard-bristled brush like the one I used in Italy. This broom is one I bought at the side of the road, a bundle of dried green grass tied together with strips of black rubber.

Each morning I start at the edges of my curved kitchen. I grasp the broom handle with two hands, right hand cupped toward me as if I were holding something infinitely precious.

I start near the baby's high chair and tease out the puffed wheat and breadcrumbs lurking underneath. Then, with measured strokes, I move on to collect the dry noodles and the occasional broccoli leaf littered in front of the stove.

Though more than 10 years have gone by, I still remember the sideways sliding steps Rita taught me to minimize the chances of skidding into my dust piles.

That summer I thought I'd gone to Italy to learn Italian. Now I wonder if sweeping wasn't just as valuable a lesson.

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