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?”
“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.