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Anakana Schofield, a Canadian writer of Irish descent, makes strong demands on us. Her novel, MARTIN JOHN, is not particularly long. And its vocabulary is not difficult though it helps to have some familiarity with British English so when the word “torch” appears you realize it refers to a flashlight and not a flaming cloth wrapped around a stick, and that “tube” refers to the subway not the TV. Nor does Ms. Schofield trouble us with convoluted sentences or interminable paragraphs. Just the opposite is true. MARTIN JOHN begins with several pages that contain only a few sentences each and the text is broken into fragments throughout. You will encounter a lot of blank white paper as you rush along. You will find yourself at page thirty and you’ve hardly had to breathe.
But the question at page thirty (or for that manner at sixty, or ninety) is: Where the hell am I? You will have learned that Martin John is a person, that “Rain will fall,” that “Flashing is a very angry act,” that Martin John has not been to Beirut (though he will declare often that he has). That he has been to London to visit his Aunt Noanie, that a dentist’s waiting room shaped his life. And much of this has already been repeated several times. So, you ask: Where are we?
Well, we are not exactly in the mind of Martin John. This is not, in other words, a first-person narrative. No, we are in the mind of the author Anakana Schofield, and sometimes she is talking directly to us:
“She [being Martin John’s mother] did not like the idea she had a role it in.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it?
Do you have a role in this?”
The author is asking if we the readers are complicit in the behavior of Martin John. It’s a troubling thought because Martin John’s behavior is troubling. He is paranoid and sexually perverted. So it is not surprising to learn that our hero hates all words that begin with the letter “P.” He counts the number of P words he finds in the morning paper and that number helps to shape his day. He is also obsessive-compulsive, you see.
Another time the author speaks directly to the female reader. “You are incidental,” she tells her. “You need only be on the Tube when Martin John’s on the Tube, if he decides it’s the day to cage a rub. His leg against a woman’s leg. You need only be a woman with a leg. You aren’t special, you aren’t chosen, you are a woman with a leg. That’s it. A leg he finds access to. A leg that happens to be available. That’s all you are.”
In a later statement directed to we readers, the author even releases us from the commitment we have made to read the book in its entirety, and in so doing she makes a confession: “You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on like this. If not—well hang up now, as the operator would say.
“That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”
Ms. Schofield is correct. MARTIN JOHN is not an easy book to read and one can assume it was not an easy one to write. Information is presented to us in a disjointed, incoherent manner. We are sent back and forth in time and place as we learn snippets from Martin John’s life. Words and phrases are repeated over and over, obsessions exposed. The narrative is confusing, repetitive, chaotic, as we can assume the mind of Martin John is confused, chaotic and chock full of phrases and exhortations endlessly repeating themselves.
Martin John is living in London but he has come there from Ireland. Bad things happened in Ireland. Through snatches here and there we learn of incidents that got him “knocked off the island.” He appears to have been in London for several years, decades even. And there have been times when his life has gone relatively well. He has a job as a security guard. He has a house. He may be somewhat controlling his impulses. He goes to see his Aunt on Wednesdays. But Martin John’s relative stability deteriorates as the novel progresses.
The novel is also not easy because the subject matter is not easy. Martin John may struggle with his urges but he has often given in to them and sometimes we are there when he does. We witness his predatory behavior and we experience what he enjoys about it—and he does enjoy it. It becomes a game of capture for him. It gives him pleasure when he has captured a girl’s attention (and often they are mere girls) and alarm registers on her face as she realizes he has exposed himself and is masturbating in front of her. In the aftermath of one particularly brutal incident we witness the damage done to the victim even decades later; the way it has circumscribed her life, governed her choice of a husband, intensified her need to protect her own children.
There are two important characters in the novel in addition to Martin John. First his mother who is known to us as “Mam.” Mam is still in Ireland but they speak by phone and when they are not on the phone, Mam is often a voice in Martin John’s head. Sometimes she speaks in italics:
“Stay out of it Martin John, for the love of God stay out of it. I can’t save you now you’re in London, get yourself in bed and stay out of it. D’ya hear?”
Mam is terrified her son will end up in prison where she thinks he’ll certainly be killed. But other than shouting warnings, she is at her wit’s end what to do. Besides, she is herself fearful of him. She sent him off the island to save his skin, but also to protect herself. He had become a grown man. He was exposing himself to her and she was afraid of him.
Mam is a bit of a case herself, vacillating between denial and dire warnings. She keeps a secluded teapot in which she places notes she has jotted down about Martin John’s behavior. All mam’s worries, we learn, “live inside a teapot.” She has filled a dozen of them over the decades. That might sound like bizarre, even ridiculous behavior. But the author keeps asking us the troubling question: “What would you do?” if Martin John were your son.
It is a legitimate question. Police have hassled him, he’s been arrested, has been in hospitals, been interviewed by therapists. He has been injected with medicines and given pills. He has been badly beaten up. But nothing in the end has deterred him, nor has he been capable of controlling himself. “What would you do?”
The third character is a nemesis who, though only marginally real on the page, comes to dominate Martin John’s life. If the nemesis has a real name we don’t know it. Martin John calls him Baldy Conscience (a name susceptible to more than one interpretation) and he has moved into an upstairs room of the house where Martin John lives. As the author explains, Martin John “is trying to defeat someone living on top of his head.” Baldy Conscience has a guitar and he has friends who have guitars and they come over and make noise and cause trouble.
Martin John has sublet the room to Baldy Conscience and now he cannot get rid of him. This man’s presence chases Martin John from his own house, disrupts his routines, fractures his calm, ruins his sleep, destroys what sense he has of control. And Martin John knows something that no one else knows: “THAT BALDY CONSCIENCE IS AFTER HIM FULL TIME.” When Martin John obsesses about his nemesis it is often presented to us in capital letters and we can almost hear it amplified in Martin John’s head: “HARM WAS DONE. THERE ARE REASONS ENOUGH HARM IS DONE. BALDY CONSCIENCE HAS FOUND THE REASON TO HARM HIM. HE HAS FOUND OUT WHAT HARM WAS DONE.”
Martin John comes to believe that Baldy Conscience is in control of most everything. Even Mam it would appear is now in cahoots with Baldy Conscience. From that point we witness an accelerating deterioration of Martin John’s life and by book’s end we have a devastating portrait of this man, a portrait composed of bits and pieces, a collage of a portrait.
One has to ask: Why bother ourselves to read a book such as this? There are thousands of other novels. Some are lyrical in form and contain beautiful descriptions of nature and foreign places. Others expose us to acts of courage, loyalty, romance, mystery, love and betrayal, great historic events, tales of triumph and disaster. Why this incoherent tale of perversion, incompetence, moral and personal devastation?
Well, for one thing, the form, the structure of the novel, is unique and captivating. The writing sparkles with energy. It pops and crackles like a good rock song. For another, the novel is often hilarious: “You aren’t allowed to dislike firemen,” we learn. “There’s a law against it. They’ll save your life even if you don’t want saving. Sssh. That’s Martin John speaking.”
This may be a writer’s novel: that is a novel that brings more pleasure to people who write novels than to those who do not. It requires close reading, a tolerance for confusion, a willingness to flip pages back and forth, the patience to take a second or third look, the time to linger over a few lines. But persistence rewards us with a powerful, funny, sad, disturbing exploration of a life, a life that is, thankfully, not our own.
“Here it is,” Anakana Schofield, seems to be saying as she tosses the book onto your lap. “You figure it out.” I’m glad I took up the challenge.
Hagen tries to explain to me how he constructed the large graceful patio on the back of the Brandt family home in Bad Duebin near Leipzig. He is a joyous man, large, fleshy in a pleasing way, strong, capable, deep of voice, teeming with energy, a man with a hardy laugh and a ready sense of humor. A man who chooses beer over wine. (His preferred beer comes from the north of Germany near the Danish border. It has a plastic cap held down by a complicated wire mechanism, which when released makes a dramatic popping sound as if it were a champagne cork.) The signal announcing an incoming call on his cell phone is a revving automobile engine. He cruises the autobahn at a hundred and sixty kilometers per hour, but rigorously obeys all speed signs. As a boy in the former German Democratic Republic he had been a competitive fencer and one of the many things he still does is referee matches. A husband, the father of two, busy with work, you got a problem, Hagen will be the first to jump up and take care of it.
And he built the patio on the back of their house, built it by hand. As the two of us stand beneath the eves on its inner edge, our backs to the sliding glass doors just out of reach of a passing thunderstorm, Hagen tells me how he did it. Except he doesn’t speak English and I understand virtually no German.
The surface, now being splashed with rain, I learn, is composed of tiles made from rosy granite. (At least I think whatever word he uses means granite, though it could be a kind of marble. He’s clear that it was very expensive.) Beneath the granite (or whatever it is) is a thick layer of crushed rock, the preparation of which he explains to me in detail but I cannot understand, though I am convinced it took a lot of time and effort. He swears there is no glue or cement holding the tiles to the crushed rock, though how they are secured, or if they are, is a mystery to me. The only cement used was in the perimeter foundation, which he tells me rises a meter above the ground and is set a meter down in the ground. The trench for the foundation was dug by him with a pick and shovel, and it was not easy. I try to formulate simple questions but even if he understands them, only rarely can I understand his answer.
So it goes when you are in the language gap. Here information is fragmentary and frequently wrong. I have known Hagen for almost twenty years, and Margaret, his wife for more than thirty—she was thirteen I believe when I first met her and Knut her older brother and Renate their mother, who is my wife Nina’s first cousin. I have known Hagen and Margaret’s son and daughter (Erik and “little” Nina) since they were babies. I knew Ernst and Elsa who were Renate’s parents, Margaret’s grandparents and Erik and Nina’s great grandparents. I have stayed in the homes of these people, eaten at their tables, showered in their bathrooms. I am part of their extended family and they are part of mine. I know something of their trials and triumphs. I care about them and they about me. And yet I cannot talk to them and I understand very little of what they say to me.
Another fellow is Rolf, the husband of Inge, Nina’s half sister. Rolf is a gregarious one. He has a springy, leg-swinging walk as if he were a sailor who had just come ashore and was ready for some action. He likes to keep the top buttons open on his shirts to display his hairy chest. As we go about our day, take an outing to a lake, or drive into Poland for lunch, or visit their charming garden, he chats with neighbors and passersby. He talks and they chuckle and I know the exchange is charming and clever and I get none of it.
When Rolf drives I sit in the passenger seat and listen to him. His commentary about the road, the traffic, the other drivers, is, I suspect, at times angry, at times hilarious, and I understand almost none of it. He probably thinks I understand more than I do, but even if he knew I understood nothing he would still talk, I think, because that is what Rolf does.
Through Nina I learn something of Rolf and Inge’s recent trip to a spa in Poland. I learn the latest news about their grandson Leonard, and how Inge’s delicious herring was prepared, or that the nest we are staring at is that of a stork. But it goes by too fast. Nina cannot translate every sentence. And even she, bilingual by most definitions, does not understand everything. “Where are we going now?” I ask, confused as usual. “I think…,” she begins.
What a strange phenomenon language is, how profoundly complex and subtle. Fluid, always in transition, immersed in the dynamic culture from which it springs, a language is ever on the move. Even a conversation between two native speakers is, I suspect, less precise, and more clumsy than we suppose. We think something, then we try to express it, and what comes out is only an approximation of what we were thinking, and what the listener understands is only an approximation of what we said. And yet it is an amazing skill, a delicious gift, the sharing of which gives us some of our greatest pleasures. Indeed, a language is all but useless unless it is shared.
And a “foreign” language? Is it a bit of a myth, or an exaggeration, to say that a “foreign” language can really be learned? When we say that the waiter in an Italian restaurant speaks English, what we really mean is that he can explain the menu, talk about the wine, take your order, chat a bit about the weather or the countryside. Ask him for an analysis of his country’s political structure, or his and his family’s relationship with the Catholic Church, or his thoughts about the immigrants flowing into his country and you will soon run into the gap. His thoughts, assuming he understood you and that he chooses to share them, will come out as hard, narrow slivers of the complex rush of ideas coursing through his mind.
There are degrees of skill, of course. People are said to be bilingual, or multilingual. They flow from one language to another, mix them up, can give and take. But the ones I have met confess that when they venture outside their native tongue, they feel themselves skating on the surface of a lake, the depths of which mystify and confuse them. “A Dodger? What is a Dodger? And a Brooklyn one?” “Daffy what?” “Duck? Daffy Duck? What is that?”
My father-in-law, who grew up in Germany but who has lived in the Unites States for seventy or more years, speaks English in such an eloquent and seductive way that listeners are held in thrall. And yet it is always an effort for him; he feels himself often talking from the edge. And now, after all these years, his German threatens to fail him. The skills that without a conscious thought he learned as a child have become blunted. The language itself has moved away from the decade and the village where he learned it. On the phone talking with relatives back in Germany he is a man rushing to catch a departing bus.
The language gap is a painful place to be. I want to understand this family of mine. I want to catch the nuance, the joke, the worry. I want to give voice to my own personality. I want to show them who and what I am. And yet none of this can I do.
As I was writing the above words of self-pity, I remembered the two attractive young women we met on a bridge over the Seine while we were in Paris. Each of them held a clipboard and a pen, and on the clipboard was what appeared to be a petition. The document was in French, of course, with a title followed by a paragraph of text and below it lines for signatures and addresses and perhaps space for a donation. The young women were aggressively seeking signatures on the busy pedestrian-only bridge. They would step directly into the path of an approaching person, shove the clipboard at them and shout something. I assumed I could not understand because they were speaking French, but then I realized that the harsh, forceful demanding sounds were grunts more than words. To get free of them we each signed on the clipboard, having no idea what it was we were signing. It was only as we were leaving that I realized that the two young women were deaf-mutes. They could not speak to anyone in any verbal language. The sounds they made, the aggressive physical mannerisms they displayed were desperate attempts to communicate, to break through the wall of isolation, to cross the language gap that surrounded and imprisoned them, that spread in every direction they looked and extended as far as they could see.
In the Germanic countries (Austria and Germany) we were among acquaintances and family. My first visit to Lofer, Austria was in 1983 and my wife Nina had been there with her parents years before that. In 1999 Nina and our son lived there for six weeks. Ahry attended school and learned to ski. One of the boys who befriended him later visited us in Miranda. I have been to Lofer six or seven times and Nina a dozen or more. For a while she led a travel program that took people to Lofer.
The village is located southwest of Salzburg in the valley of the Saalach River 626 meters above the level of the sea and enclosed by a wall of steep rugged mountains. We have become accustomed to the ninety-two times the church bells clang at seven every morning a few yards from our room. (No rest in Lofer for the wicked or for anyone else.)
We attended Claudia’s wedding three years ago and this year met her baby. (Before dawn on the morning of the wedding a cannon was fired several times sending explosions of sound rolling through the valley.) The birth was difficult, we learned, threatening the lives of both mother and son but now the mother looked great and the little guy seemed to be bursting with vitality as he waved his arms and emitted deep-throated shouts from the stroller.
We also learned this year that Nina’s friend and Ahry’s favorite teacher had died at the age of 47.
We once attended an Easter service in the village church and got to see the beautiful laden baskets that parishioners bring to set before the alter. Another year we walked in a religious procession that began at the church and passed through the village. The procession included a band and, it seemed, most everyone in town. The local priest walked beneath a canopy. Like many of the participants, the men holding the canopy over his head wore traditional dress. While the band played outside a home for disabled seniors, some cows broke through a fence and came galloping through the crowd.
We buy schnapps, butter and preserves from a woman farmer. I have ridden bike paths to neighboring villages and early one spring we tried snowshoeing. We peer longingly through shop windows. We take ski-lifts up to the Lofer Alm where in winter there is skiing and in spring and summer you can hike on the roads and paths through wild flowers and then have lunch on the deck of a restaurant with views that go on forever. At that altitude sound seems to carry a great distance. This year we heard cuckoo birds calling from distant clumps of trees, their song clear, bell-like.
We have a favorite place we stay, Haus Edelweiss. Our room has a small kitchen and is beautifully decorated. We know the parents who own it and their daughter and her husband. (Drizzly weather, the mother Frau Faistauer, claims is “anti-wrinkle” weather. You should go out and walk in it and let it splash on your face.) Across from the front yard is a pasture in which two red oxen with huge horns scratch themselves on posts and trees. We have people we reconnect with, restaurants we return to, rivers we walk along, hikes we take. We have spotted chamois on the steep mountain sides, watched large brown trout feeding in mountain streams, their tails twitching, and seen European dipper birds bounce up and down on rocks and walk beneath the surface of the water as they gather food. On each visit we look to see what has changed and what has stayed the same in this traditional and yet prosperous-looking community.
One evening this year we enjoyed a fierce thunderstorm with dramatic streaks of lightning. It rained and hailed, thunder boomed and echoed off the mountains. The mountains themselves appeared and disappeared and appeared again as dark clouds roiled above and through the valley. It was easy to see how people could locate their gods in the mountains and imagine them clutching in their fists jagged bolts of lightning.
This year, for the first time, we were in Lofer the weekend of the annual “kanu” races. This was the 25th year for the slalom kayak races in the Saalach River. The river as it passes through town is thick with large boulders, some of them beneath the surface, others partially above. The water is cold, white and rushing. Along the course of the race twenty or more gates are hung above the water. The gates consist of two metal poles perhaps a meter apart with their tips a foot or more about the water. Most are above rapids but a few are located above swirling eddies a few feet downstream from a boulder and these must be passed through while moving upstream.
The races are time trials, one racer following another thirty or so seconds apart. Officials stand on shore beside each gate to judge whether the person passed through the gate successfully, touched it on the way through or missed it entirely. (To touch a gate costs the racer two seconds, to miss costs fifty seconds, and since a skilled racer can complete the course in just over two minutes, a missed gate effectively eliminates one from that race.)
Positioned here and there on the taller boulder are rescuers. These folks are tethered by ropes tied around their waists, the other ends of which are held by colleagues on shore. Like the racers they wear helmets. If a kayak capsizes rescuers dive into the water to rescue the racer, the kayak and the paddle. We saw this happen several times.
Over two hundred racers from various parts of Germany and Austria competed this year. They were young, both men and women, and they competed in different categories and levels. The course is physically demanding. It requires skill, daring and a willingness to risk comfort and personal safety.
As is often true, the very good are noticeably different from the rest of us. They seem to expend less effort, they use the force of the water to their advantage, they are fast but seemingly unhurried. One challenging “reverse” gate was revealing. Most racers rushed past it by ten feet or more before they could turn and battle their way back. But the very best seemed to reverse direction right at the gate, pass through it and then turning again catch the downward rush of water. One can pass through a gate sideways so long as the racer is going in the right direction because the kayak will pass beneath the poles without touching but the head and shoulders of the racer must pass between the poles with the paddle held in such a way as to not touch them. A tricky bit of business that is.
We were in Lofer seven days. On the morning we left, Veronica woke us at five-fifteen. We reached the bus stop before six where we joined a cluster of students who were solemn and silent and on their way to Salzburg for a day of study. The bus was on time and we were well out of town before the church bells began to ring.
Our intent in the spring of 2016 was to do most of our traveling in Europe by train so we purchased a Eurail pass before we left the States. There are several kinds of Eurail passes. The one we got allowed us to travel any five days within a two-month period in the four countries we selected: Italy, Austria, Germany and France. We could travel for 24 hours on those days if we wished, but unless we started after seven in the evening an overnight trip would count for two days. The first-class pass cost about $800.00 for the two of us. First class was the only pass the man we dealt with handled. Some of the trains we were on did not have first class compartments. In my experience the distinction between first and second classes on European trains is not as significant as between first class and coach on an airplane.
I don’t know if it would have been cheaper had we bought tickets as we went but it sure would have been more of a hassle. There were some additional costs as I describe below.
In theory all rail and most bus routes are covered but it did not work exactly that way for us. Our first train trip was from Sorrento to Florence via Naples. We arrived at the Sorrento train station around seven that morning and showed the station attendant the Eurail pass. He grumbled and shook his head. He placed two tickets on the counter and asked for 7.20 Euros. We paid, of course. On all other trains described below, the Eurail pass was accepted.
The train from Naples to Florence was very pleasant, roomy seats with a table between us. Drinks were served at our seats, toilets were clean and close, and a restaurant was only a few cars away. The tracks were smooth enough I could comfortably write at the table, the countryside always interesting. People in business suits got on and got off. Some took out their computers and worked as they traveled. This general scenario was true on all of the longer trains we took.
Our second travel day, a week later, took us from Florence through La Spezia to Vernazza in the Cinque Terra. A few days after that we took our longest train journey. We were going from Vernazza to Lofer, a small town in Austria an hour or so out of Salzburg. This involved five different trains followed by a bus ride. We went from Vernazza back to La Spezia. Then La Spezia to Parma. (Where we met a couple of kids from Austin who had just visited a Parmesan cheese factory.) Then from Parma to Bologna (Unfortunately, we met no one who claimed to have visited a bologna factory.) Then from Bologna to Innsbruck and from Innsbruck to Salzburg where we caught the last bus out of town that delivered us to Lofer late in the evening. The bus driver was enjoying his first day of work. He was a retired baker who had grown tired of baking and tired of being retired. He would not accept the Eurail pass but was happy to take our Euros.
A week after that we were on the bus back to Salzburg. From there we were scheduled to take the train to Munich and another from Munich to Leipzig. We had fifteen minutes to make the connection in Munich. Our train was delayed and arrived one minute after the train to Leipzig had left. We ended up on a different train that required a change in Fulda. The train to Fulda arrived late as well but the one to Leipzig waited as a large group of us ran down the platform dragging our luggage. Our conductor must have called ahead.
A few days later we had tickets from Leipzig to Berlin (we had purchased these tickets separately) but got on in Wittenburg, Martin Luther’s home town, and then changed in Berlin to a commuter train that took us to Eberswalde where Nina’s sister and her husband live.
Our last trip on the Eurail pass took us from Eberswalde to Paris via Berlin and Mannheim. The conductor on the commuter train from Eberswalde honored the Eurail pass. Except for the Sorrento commuter train the Eurail pass was accepted on all the trains, but you have to do it correctly. Everything for that day’s trip needs to be filled in before you get on the train, or the fine is 100 Euros. This was explained to me by a conductor who gave us a break when he noticed that we had forgotten to fill in one of the dates. (Gray hair can be helpful at times.)
The trains, of course, are very fast. On the one from Mannheim to Paris our travel speed was displayed on a monitor visible from our seats. The fastest speed we noticed was 317 km/h, or about two hundred miles per hour. Usually it was moving just under three hundred km/h.
The larger stations, especially in places like Munich, Leipzig and Berlin are amazing and intimidating if you don’t know what you are doing. The central station in Berlin seems to have four different levels with multiple tracks on each level. On some the tracks run east and west, on others north and south. The levels are connected by escalators and stairs. Arrival and departure screens found on each level, and others on each platform, are constantly updating. On at least two of the levels there are mall-like rows of stores with markets, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. I had bacon and eggs at the McDonald’s in Berlin on our way to Paris.
While standing in one spot in the Munich central station I saw the following signs advertising food: Rubenbauer, Brioche, Doree, Pizza, Panini, Sushiwrap, Sandwich, Fruit Bar, Starbucks, Dorner, McDonald’s and Burger King.
All of this would have been very complicated had we not met an angel in Frankfurt and had Nina not been her usual organized self and fluent in German. We flew from Arcata to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Frankfurt on a Monday. When we arrived in Frankfurt it was now mid-afternoon Tuesday. We were bleary-eyed and ready to crash but Nina said we had things to do. Our flights the next morning were on Lufthansa first to Munich and from there to Naples. We had reservations but no seat assignments. Nina found the Lufthansa service center, got our seat assignments and then took off for the rail station which is also located at the airport. We had to activate our Eurail pass, she said, and it would be much easier in a German speaking country than in Italy.
We got in a line at the customer service center and made our way to a young woman seated before a computer screen. She wore black-rimmed glasses and a Deutsche Bahn uniform and she smiled as if she had been waiting all day for us to show up. First, she activated our Eurail pass which established the two months during which we could use it. Then Nina described where we wanted to go and what days we wanted to travel. On her computer the woman checked all of the relevant train schedules in Italy, Austria, Germany and France. In a mixture of German and English we discussed options and alternatives and eventually she reserved passage for us on each of the trains with all of the connections I have described above. She generated printouts for each trip with travel dates, departure times, each train’s number and the track it was scheduled to leave on. It took her well over an hour to accomplish this task and she was never hurried, never flustered or frustrated. The total reservations cost us about sixty Euros and the tickets we purchased for the trip from Leipzig to Berlin were about the same.
We were so impressed we invited her to come along. “Come, take care of us,” we pleaded. She declined, saying her boss would not approve. It turned out she had been born in Offenbach not far from Frankfurt. She had never been to Italy, though she had been to Berlin once in her life, and once to Paris.
What we enjoy about travel at this stage of our lives is to select a home base, settle in for a few days and just try to live in our adopted community. To do everything possible or desirable is not our plan. While in Sorrento, for example, we visited Pompeii, Herculaneum and Napoli but we did not climb Vesuvius, explore the romantic island of Capri, tour the spectacular Amalfi coast or make our way to the famous Greek ruins at Paestum.
Our only contacts with Rome were the views we saw as our train passed through. In Florence we went by taxi from the central station to a Hertz rental car office and then got out of town as fast and as directly as our little Lancia would take us. (We had driven in the old part of Florence once years before and had no desire to try that again.) On our way back we did the reverse. And we drove past the much-admired Sienna without stopping.
The car was for Tuscany, and in Tuscany our home was the hill town of Montepulciano. Montepulciano is also not a place to cruise in a car. It is a medieval and renaissance town with fourteen thousand folks perched on a long, narrow, outcropping of rock, enclosed here and there by old walls with narrow arched openings that give access to steep, narrow cobblestone streets full of pedestrians, many of whom are as lost, or more lost, than you are.
We parked in a public lot below the town at the north end and made our way through a gate and up some very steep streets in search of one called Via Ricci. On Via Ricci we hoped to find Camere Bellavista. where we had a reservation and which, good-old Rick Steves had told us, was owned and operated by Gabriella who, according to Rick, provided ten charming rooms with great views but spoke only a “smidgen” of English. We also understood that Gabriella did not live on site and that we should call her when we arrived, but, of course, we had no phone.
One end of Via Ricci begins at a quirky little locus with four other intersecting sloping streets including an arched gate. On one of the corner buildings was a sign that said Camere Bellavista. It seemed, at that moment, somewhat like a dream. Months before, and thousands of miles away, we had looked at pictures online, exchanged a couple of emails and made a reservation. The morning had begun at the Hotel Deseree in Sorrento hundreds of miles to the south, where the night before, because we were leaving before breakfast, Cassandra had packed us some fruit, bread and cheese for our journey. We had taken two taxi rides, two train rides, rented and driven a strange car for a couple of hours, gotten lost and begged for directions from truck drivers and service station attendants in fumbled Italian and English, found a parking place and figured out how to pay for it, climbed the steep streets into town searching for signs and now before us was the very entrance that months before we had seen in an online photo.
Next to the door was a buzzer, and when we pushed the buzzer, a voice answered and the lock on the door was released. We climbed a couple of flights of stairs, and there sitting in her office waiting for us was the famous and welcoming Gabriella.
Moments later she had us in her car with her elderly father. She drove us down to where we had parked and motioned us to follow her. Out and around the east side of town she went to the south end, then up a one-way switch-backed street past the fortress, down and through the Piazza Grande to a parking area near the San Francisco church, where, because she gave us a document for our dash, the little car would not be towed. We hauled ourselves and our luggage up six floors to our room. We stepped out onto the terrace and there before us in all its spring-green glory was the view we had come to see: the hills and valleys of Tuscany with their vineyards and flowers and cypress-lined roads, with other hill towns visible in the distance. And in the sky swallows swirling in search of their evening meal. A bella vista, indeed.
We were seven days in Montepulciano. On four of them we ventured out by car to other destinations. The first took us to two stops along the Via Francignena, a pilgrimage route to Rome that has been followed since the 8th century: the gardens at La Foca where we took our only guided tour of the trip and Bagna Vignoni where we dutifully soaked our feet in the cool flowing water, as had so many before us. The second was to the hill towns of Pienza and Montalcino. Both were cute and well-populated with folks doing what we were doing. In Montalcino Nina climbed the tallest tower in the fortress; we had a mid-day meal that contained some exquisite pecorino cheese, the memory of which makes my mouth water even now; and we bought a bottle of the famous Brunello wine. Our third outing was to Orvieto down in Umbria where we had another great lunch and got to see that town’s amazing and gaudy church. On the way to Orvieto, somewhere around Chiusi just as we were about to drive off our Tuscany-only map, a man at a service station advised us to take a scenic route, which turned out to be very scenic but a tad longer than we would have preferred. Our final drive was to the tiny walled village of Monticchiello which is only a few miles down an unmarked, sometimes-gravel farm road from Montepulciano, a road that our bookish friend Rick Steves told us about. Monticchiello is home to two-hundred folks and reminded both of us of Austria because it was so orderly and well maintained. Near what had once been an outdoor public laundry, near the top of the town, we found some neat art displayed among trees in a field. Monticchiello has a famous restaurant but the wait was too long and we ended driving back “home” for our midday meal.
Funny how a place becomes “home” so quickly. You learn how to get into and out of it by car. You have a place to stay that has a refrigerator. You figure out the shower, the bed becomes familiar.
We discovered a tiny place in Montepulciano where every morning we went for coffee. The Bar Enoteca Pasticceria was run by one man and his customers were, so far as we could tell, almost all locals whom he seemed to know personally: construction workers, women on their way to work, etc. He soon greeted us with a smile and had our cappuccinos ready. We would find chairs at one of the two small tables, pick up a newspaper and act like we could make sense of articles about the then-happening Giro d’italia and the upcoming European soccer championships. The day before we left he told us that the next morning he was driving to the ocean and would be closed. When Nina wondered aloud where she would get her coffee, he handed her a few coffee beans.
We like to have breakfast in the room (fruit, muesli, yogurt, meat, cheese, trail mix), enjoy a midday meal in a restaurant and in the evening return to the room to feast on cheese, bread, cold cuts, leftovers from lunch and wine. Such a life-style requires three things: a tiny refrigerator, basic utensils and a market. Our utensils were scrounged: used yogurt containers, gelato spoons, a knife borrowed from Gabriella, etc.
A trip to a supermarket in a foreign country is best experienced as a treasure hunt, and in my mind they make for great travel adventures. First you have to find one and then you have to find your way around it while trying to decipher labels in a foreign language. (Being gluten-intolerant makes this especially interesting.)
They also tend to be busy, largely tourist-free and given to quirky oddities in the way they organize their inventories and price their products. (At our favorite market in Austria if you want an apple you set it on a machine, type in the number for type of apple and the machine weighs the apple and spits out a label with the weight and price that you stick to the apple and take to the cashier.)
In Montepulciano the market was called Conad and was found off the highway at the bottom of town a few hundred yards from where we had originally parked. So, after our Cappuccinos that first day, we spent much of the morning searching for and then prowling around in the market and finally lugging our goodies up the hill to our room for a late breakfast.
We had two favorite restaurants in Montepulciano, each of which we visited multiple times. One, the Osteria del Borgo was just up the street from our room and just below the Piazza Grande. Nina and I chose it for the meal that celebrated the forty-fourth anniversary. The owner, a charming fellow who spoke good English treated us very well. He gave us an outside table with a great view, and then when it got too cold and dark led us to a table indoors that he had held in reserve for us. He even poured and delivered to our table free grappas in honor of our anniversary. We came to know the staff there including the owner’s father a retired policeman who cleared tables and delivered bread. The father spoke no English and when I tried to say something to him in Italian he gave me a blank look as if to say: “And just what language is that you are trying to speak?”
The other was a wine bar and bistro called “E lucevan le stella.” We enjoyed wine flights there both inside and out and had wonderful salads and great service from a waiter named Christian.
A third interesting place where we had wine and free hors ‘d ourves was the Caffe Poliziano which dates from 1868 and offers great views of the hills and valley east of town. Federico Fellini is said to have admired its ambiance.
When we weren’t eating or drinking or driving to other locations we wondered around our “home” town.
At the fortress one night we met a man from Florence who was an architect and inventor. His interest was solar power and how it could be used to transform cities to make them quieter and more sustainable. He was exhibiting a number of solar-powered sculptures while upstairs his wife or partner had organized a painting exhibition. We had several interesting conversations with them during our week in Montepulciano. He was the man who said to me. “You Americans laughed at us when we had Berlusconi but now you are considering Donald Trump!”
One day in the Piazza Grande we listened to a couple of musicians. The woman was a flutist from Italy and the man a guitarist from Brazil. We bought a couple of their CDs and are still enjoying them. That evening we attended a student concert in a gorgeous chamber in the Palazzo Ricci involving a string quartet, several singers and two pianists. The next evening we returned to the same room to see a play that was locally written and locally performed. It was a farce, in Italian, of course, and we understood virtually not a word but it was a kick to watch the performers and the audience composed largely of the performers’ families and friends.
Another afternoon we descended a spiral staircase that led to a series of dark, cool caverns where deep in the rock beneath the town you find huge barrels of wine patently aging.
In the valley just outside of town is a church, San Biagio, that Rick describes as “Renaissance perfection.” Rick is not exaggerating as we discovered the first day we decided to walk down and check it out. The hike was a half-hour along a pleasant tree-lined road but the church was well-worth the walk down and the climb back up. The building, set in a pleasant grassy lawn is designed as a Greek cross, meaning that its four arms are of equal length. For a while that morning we were alone inside. Nina stood at the very the center and sang a few notes. The acoustics were so amazing that she sounded like a choir when her voice came back to us from all directions at slightly different intervals.
“On Sunday,” she announced, “we have to attend a service.”
So, of course, that is what we did. We found a sign somewhere that the service would be at eleven. But at ten that morning church bells started ringing like crazy and as usual we were confused. Gabriella had no idea about the time of the service but offered to drive us there. No, we would walk. So, I threw on the daypack and off we went.
When we got there the place was nearly empty so we sat down in a pew to wait. A man was practicing on a small portable electronic organ which was a major disappointment since we wanted to hear the “real” organ in there. But then people started showing up. Men in stylish dark suits with white shirts and dark ties, women in high heels, most wearing interesting, some amazing outfits, and lots of children. Families and friends greeted one another with embraces and the brushing of cheeks.
Among the children were thirteen boys and girls around the age of puberty who were distinguished by white robes secured with white ropes around their waists. A small choir was practicing now with the organist. More chairs were brought out and ever more people continued to arrive as we slowly retreated to what we hoped would be less obtrusive niches.
By eleven every seat was taken and a hundred or more folks stood along the edges. This was not going to be a typical Sunday service, we realized, It was, it turned out, a celebration of the first communion for the thirteen white-robed children: Prima comunione dei bambini della parrocchia, and people from all over the parish had come to welcome the children and to share the experience with them. It was a warm celebration of family and community that we had the honor to watch from our corner of the sanctuary.