Monday, March 14, 2022

Another hiatus of the blog.

From now on, I will be using Substack as my medium for publishing. Try a sample at the link below.

Approximately once a week, I will post short essays, stories, a rare poem and occasionally photographs. Much of what I publish is likely to later be incorporated into a book, but you can read it first on Substack.

 I hope you will check it out and, assuming you like what you read, subscribe (there is a free option). Also, I would very much appreciate you sharing the link with anyone you know who might enjoy the writing.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Schloss Brunnenberg, Part 2.

Males and females comprised our group almost equally. Most of us were writers of one genre or another, and several were actors. Because all but two of the group were students at St Andrews, we had at least a passing friendship already. Professor Ron Bayes, a poet of note, had organized the trip. As a Pound scholar, he had known Mary for years. The apartment for the visiting students was on the bottom floor of the main building with an exit onto a two level courtyard hemmed by a stone rampart. From there we could have leapt to the base of the gorge. It was precipitously straight below. Still, we too enjoyed a view of the valleys, Merano and the Alps beyond. Most puzzling, however, was the source of a cuckoo calling in bold resonant echoes from the top of the gorge. Tirolo di Merano, the village on the hill, and Merano, the city below, were both tourist destinations patronized mostly by Germans who came for “the cure”, a process of consuming the local wine until one’s system was thoroughly flushed. As we later watched the parade of “fat pink German tourists” (the local perjorative) stream up the side of the mountain, we imagined that at the top there must be an oversized Mickey Mouse-ish Bavarian style cuckoo clock that they all visited. As a matter of tourism excess, it made perfect sense. But we could not verify its existence.

The courtyards were open and grassy, an ideal place to eat lunch and dinner al fresco. Someone had discovered the local wine, a very young red that cost 1100 lira (about $1.10 at the time) per magnum (1.5 liters). The only negative, if you can call it that, is that the wine had to be consumed entirely within eight hours of opening or it turned to vinegar, which we also used in an oil and vinegar dressing on salad. Our group of ten drank two bottles at lunch (classes continued in the afternoon) and uncounted bottles with dinner and beyond. One day, soon after analyzing the possible sources of the echoing cuckoo calls that came at all times of the hour, not just on the hour, some of us were sitting at the dining table talking and taking in the sun when a couple of ungainly birds hurled down the gorge past the castle chasing their own echo. Their bodies appeared plumper than a pigeon’s and the wings short to keep them aloft. Cuckoos. The source of the resounding calls that sounded like a cuckoo was a flock of cuckoos that inhabited the area. There was no tourist clock. Not even the Italians would stoop so low to attract fat pink Germans with medallion-clustered walking sticks tipped with glacier points that pricked only asphalt.

As American tourists, the idea of real cuckoos, not just Bavarian cuckoo clocks, thrilled us all. Their calls repeatedly brought smiles as there was something otherworldly, even silly, about their presence. Once we resolved that mystery, we felt better about trailing the Germans up the mountainside roadway to the 13th century church across the gorge from the castle. In a separate building on the church grounds, a locked grilled doorway allowed us to peer into the shadows of a room piled with bones, the ossuary of older graves that had been excavated to make room for the more recently deceased.

Our apartment was self-catering, so we shared cooking and cleaning duties. The only fresh market was down in Merano on Saturdays, so a few of us planned to venture there without any Italian speakers among us. We learned that there was a door in the outer wall on our level of the castle that opened to a pathway that led off the mountain to the town, so we followed it and planned to catch a taxi back up with our supplies. The locals were accommodating and allowed us to stumble through any form of Italian we conjured, pointing to purchase the foods we wanted. Two fingers meant two of whatever measure the vendor was selling; we were not necessarily sure whether we were getting two ounces of beans or two kilos until the veggies were bagged. It was a sunny and colorful day for the market, so we looked forward to returning the next weekend.

After someone volunteered to take our milk pail to the dairy just up the driveway from the castle entrance (leaving a 1000 lira note under the pail on a window sill at ground level), we started our mornings most often with several coffees in Tirolo, often accompanied by local pastries, where we could sit outside in the warm Alpen sun and commit endless macaronic gaffs. The staff did not seem to mind as they served us with a smile no matter how we ordered our coffee, kaffe, or café mit schlag [sic]. We ordered pastries with the point and finger count method we found effective at the market.

Tirolo had the atmosphere of a Bavarian mountain village with low pitch roof lines and carved figures perched on the balconies. The business closest to the castle behind a small door opening off a narrow side street was a bar reminiscent of a British pub. Cozy, friendly, comfortable. The beer was outstanding, Pilsner Urquell, the original pale lager or pilsner created in the Czech Republic in 1842. We did not know at the time that it was the “Mother Lager”, but we knew we liked the flavor. We sampled some Italian beers, but they were less than memorable. (Fast Forward: Back in the US years later, I will take a Moretti any day and was pleasantly surprised that the local strip center pizza parlor in the tiny Town of Tarboro served it when I lived there.)







Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Schloss Brunnenberg, Tirolo di Merano, Italy


Part One. 

            The principessa, Mary de Rachewiltz, has likely forgotten ever meeting me, but she might recall the impudent young American student calling from the train station in Merano after nightfall ten days before the summer session was scheduled to begin. Despite my premature arrival, she welcomed me with more grace than I deserved.

              The asphalt outside the station was slick and shining with reflections of street lights in the rain while lightning exploded brightly over the distant mountains. Thunder rumbled like the dull bellow of an angry giant. I spoke no Italian and could not give the taxi driver directions; I muttered “Brunnenberg”, and he nodded as if he knew where to go. Following the glare of his headlights, we might have been heading for my demise at the hands of anonymous fiends. In a scene out of a gothic horror film, the taxi wound through narrow streets, then climbed a steep road to the small village, Tirolo di Merano. In Tirolo, through claustrophobic alleyways, stone walls so close I could not have opened the car door, the taxi meandered to the end of a street at the top of a gravel drive angling down into the darkness. There were no lights. But the gravel drive soon flattened at a small cul de sac in front of a high stone wall and massive oaken doors designed for the passage of horse-drawn carriages from prior centuries.

              Intermittent lightning lit the cul de sac like a camera flash, brief visions that disappeared as soon as the brain formed an image, returning me to the impenetrable dark of the stormy night. I paid the driver who immediately backed his taxi to return up the gravel drive. Easing along the direction where I expected to find a small doorway that had briefly been illuminated by lightning, I noted a tiny red light that I imagined might be a way to ring the princess. Fingering the pad blindly, I pressed a button, and a voice replied simply, “I am on my way.”

               I stood beside the gateway with a steady rain falling as the tail lights of the taxi rose up the hill and vanished. Rolling thunder echoed off the surrounding mountains. It struck me that I could be Jonathan Harker arriving at the fortress of Count Vlad, innocent and unsuspecting, trusting and naïve. I heard the hard snap of a latch, and a doorway opened. Mary shined a flashlight across the cobble courtyard, a German Shepherd at her side. She glanced briefly at my pile of luggage and directed, “This way.” I followed her and the dog with only the beam of the flashlight previewing what lay before us. Laden with a backpack, a large duffle and a full size electric typewriter, I struggled toward a heavy wooden door that opened onto a spiral staircase. As we ascended, I lost count of how many levels, how many doors we passed, climbing the circular tower.

              She stopped at a landing, unlocked the door and, opening it, switched on a light inside the room. “You can sleep here. I will see you in the morning.” Then she was gone, the door closed behind her, and I stood in the middle of a large bedroom, a solitary stranger in a foreign castle belonging to someone whom I did not know.

              Past ten and thunder continued to reverberate with periodic lightning flashing outside my window. Exhausted from my travels – a jet from Edinburgh to Milan where I boarded a train for Bolzano and missed the connecting train to Merano, the one that would have arrived before nightfall – I was relieved that I had not needed to rent a room in a pensione. Mary had been more hospitable than I deserved by inviting me to stay at the castle after I arrived unannounced. I soon learned she had a casual, easy humor.

              In bed, I read long enough to fall asleep. As the storm continued to light the room like a cheap horror film, my last thoughts were whether Mary would insist that I leave the castle until the start of my college’s summer session a week hence. Fair enough, but I hoped not.

              I woke long after daylight brightened the room. There was a door on an outer wall, so I unbolted the lock and pulled it open. Outside, a small walled balcony hung high over a gorge…and the Alps. I peered down a long valley reaching far to the west and embraced by snow-capped mountains on the north as far as I could see. Completely unprepared for such a spectacular view, I absorbed the scene for several minutes before stepping back inside the bedroom and dressing for the day.

            Mary and I had not made a plan for the morning, and I did not know where to find her in the castle. Would she just appear? Should I return down the spiral staircase to see if I could find her? Should I wait? Should I go? These mind-blowing questions sound simple, but I was sleep-deprived and my brain limp. For several minutes, I stared at the entry door as if staring would make something happen and yield an answer to my confusion. As an uninvited guest, I was uncomfortable wandering around Mary’s home. Even if I had, I did not know what areas were private and what might be public (her father’s library was somewhere inside). I was hungry but concerned it would be rude to hike up to the village without Mary knowing I had left the premises. Locks, keys, keeping the dog inside, places to patronize or avoid in the village -- my mind swirled with uncertainty and indecision.

            A short while later, a knock at the door. I tried to appear casually relaxed when I answered.

            Cheerful and welcoming, Mary greeted me with a smile, “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

            “Yes, I did. Thank you. And thank you for allowing me to show up on such short notice.”

            “Would you like something to eat?”

            “Yes, please.”

            “I eat very lightly, usually just toast with butter and coffee. But I think I have a few eggs if you like.”

            “Toast and coffee sound great. Thanks.”

          Mary led me up one level in the circular tower to a small kitchenette barely big enough for two to squeeze past each other. She sliced a flat loaf of hearty black bread, poured boiling water into a carafe, and set butter, cream and sugar along with a couple of plates and flatware on a café table outside on a petite balcony pinched between the curve of the tower and the stone wall of the main building. Only one person could stand on the balcony at a time, so I slipped by the café table and settled onto a tiny café chair, my back against the railing. Mary also sat on a café chair, but hers straddled the doorway to the kitchenette and kept her within easy reach of the small range and toaster.

           The balcony perched a few stories above the courtyard. Shaded from the morning sun, it was pleasantly cool for savoring a café au lait (or kaffe mit schlag – Tirolo vacillated between Italian and German with Austria just forty miles north through the Brenner Pass. When the others from my college arrived, we engaged in the horrible tourist habit of speaking a macaronic blend of the two languages when ordering coffee, as in café mit schlag.)

           Mary briefed me on the history of the castle that she and her husband, Boris, had renovated. Boris was Italy’s foremost Egyptologist and a Romanian prince, hence Mary’s title. Archaeological finds were scattered throughout the castle. Clay feet from a temple dedicated to the healing of foot illnesses served as doorstops, mummified falcons and hawks (icons for Horus) hovered on shelves, and scarabs of all types of material (terra cotta, stone, lapis, obsidian) and sizes filled a glass-topped coffee table in a small study, the “Egypt Room”, on the south wall of the castle dedicated to Egypt with ancient copies of the Book of the Dead and other untranslated treatises. From where I sat on the balcony, the main castle structure formed the wall against my left shoulder. Beyond, behind me, a wooden hallway of windows above the courtyard connected the main building with the original Roman-era tower. Huddling on a promontory over a narrow gorge, the castle commanded long range views of surrounding valleys and mountains.

           Mary suggested that I take the day to rest from my travels. She promised to find me for lunch and showed me the way to the research library and archives created to honor her father, Ezra Pound, my favorite poet at the time. She also asked if I would be willing to do some work around the castle. Her son, Sizzo, was out of town, and she had some tasks she wanted to complete before the other students arrived. In particular, she wanted a bookcase at the entry to the Egypt Room, which I built using a bow saw, hammer and nails (no power tools or screws, which would have been more suitable, were available).

Part 2 to follow.