Sunday, February 05, 2006

It was twenty years ago today ... a stay in Pecetto, and the way to Wien.

Last year, possessed by the weight of twenty years suddenly gone by, I commenced an effort to document the events that transpired during my first summer in Europe in 1985.

As with virtually every project I undertake, the travel chronicle was undertaken with the best of intentions, but of course the initial fervor eventually dissipated, and only three installments were published.

1 - It was twenty years ago today …

2 - It was twenty years ago today ... and 48 hours to Istanbul.

3 - It was twenty years ago today ... and one fine day in the Italian countryside.

Well, here’s the fourth – and with luck (and time), there’ll be more to follow.


Having somehow managed to reach the Italian village of Pecetto in June, 1985, overcoming a slapstick series of transport-related mishaps fully worthy of the Keystone Kops at their cinematic apex, the ensuing six-day sojourn with my cousin Don Barry and our earnest host, Don’s former student Scott Bennett, provided the perfect chance to stop and take stock of what had passed, and what lay ahead, on my first visit to Europe.

Hindsight remains as variable as the Ohio Valley weather, but it can be stated with reasonable certainty that at the time, the Pecetto stopover provided an amenity far more pressing than philosophical introspection -- namely, the opportunity to use a real washing machine for the first time in a month on the road.

Enthusiastically following the advice of the budget travel guidebooks, I’d duly packed a bottle of Woolite and a universal rubber sink stopper, soon discovering that laundry done by hand in the hostel washroom usually would dry quickly so long as it was completed early in the day.

When it didn’t, and you had to run along to catch a train … well, the insane chafing always stopped eventually, and that’s why they make so much baby powder in the first place.

Woolite worked well for lighter shirts and undergarments, but my one pair of blue jeans proved to be a more difficult undertaking, and Scott’s washer was especially welcomed in returning them to foldable status.

After all, who really wanted to spend precious beer money at a laundromat?

Soon after my arrival, Don and I conducted an inspection trip of tiny Pecetto and found a small family grocer’s cluttered shop, securing a huge supply of bottled, half-liter, Italian-brewed Dreher golden lager beer, surely enough to last the entire week, and of course just as surely depleted in less than three days, requiring a return visit and the patron’s bemused smile as he accepted another thick wad of Lira and plotted his daughter’s burgeoning dowry.

Three times in six days we drunkenly trundled halfway down the hill to the quiet town’s primary restaurant of note, a jam-packed traditional eatery presided over by a jovial, mustachioed Italianate mirror image of Lech Walesa, then the prominent leader of Solidarity, the Polish trade union.

The indefatigable patron of the house offered a fixed price, all-you-can-eat “pasta carousel” every other evening, a much anticipated culinary event that begged for a bottle of cheap house red, crunchy baked bread sticks, and portions of a dozen different pastas awash in cream sauces, garlic oil, marinara and pesto, each ladled into the waiting bowl of the expanding diner until exhaustion set in, the kitchen closed, or Don began licking his plate.

At the first of these feasts, Don divulged that he was determined to properly introduce me to the wonders of Paris, his favorite European city, and because our respective schedules precluded meeting there later in the summer -- and as we both held valid Eurailpasses -- he accordingly plotted the craziest day-and-a-half road trip of my life, then or now.

We rose painfully early on a dark, warm Pecetto morning, brushing past the patio table and the previous evening’s residue of impacted cigar ashes and forlorn Dreher empties, and caught the first bus from the village into Torino, retracing my bumbling steps on arrival earlier in the week – and this time with a valid ticket – before transferring to a morning train that traversed Savoy’s green Alpine foothills and deposited us somewhere in France, where the speedy TGV snatched us from an adjacent platform and raced to Paris by early afternoon.

Utterly delighted at the opportunity to introduce his travel protégé to the sensory delights of the French capital, Don led an exhaustive and exhausting three-hour walking tour, professorially highlighting the historical events and architectural wonders of one of the world’s great cities, including frequent glimpses of unique and fascinating café interiors, where “biere un pression, s.v.p.” became my first words of French committed to active memory.

The sunny, cloudless day culminated in a reverential pilgrimage to the tiny Rue Xavier Privat for my first-ever Moroccan couscous repast. Budget travel guru Arthur Frommer called it “couscous street,” where mysterious North African immigrants sipped pitch-black coffee and hatched schemes for revolution in their homelands, and those in the know joked about which hand to use for eating, and which to reserve for a later stage of the digestive process.

Finally, completely filled with beer, wine and couscous, we hailed a languid overnight train back to the south of France, dozing fitfully through the alcohol and the flatulence borne of so many homemade merguez sausages, emerging the following morning to grab a pastry and coffee at a train station buffet, and finally making it back to Pecetto in the afternoon, roughly 32 hours after beginning the journey … and after a splash of water, immediately pulling up a seat at the pasta carousel for another evening’s ritual stuffing.

When the week was concluded, my clothes were clean and my belly was fuller than it had been at any point during the trip, temporarily arresting a month’s steady weight loss. I thanked Scott profusely for the use of a floor that proved to be well conditioned for my then lean and lanky contours, and consulted with Don about our projected meeting in Munich two weeks hence.

The heavily traveled railway path from Torino led across northern Italy, back to Milan and an open afternoon used to investigate the city, peek into La Scala, and climb the steps to the roof of the Duomo, then by night train to Venice.

Arriving in Venice at 5:30 in the morning, with a steady, cool rain falling on the darkened plaza outside the train station – hearing the lapping of the filthy water in the canal out beyond the plaza, but not being able to see it – I joined inexplicably huge, strange-tongued throngs who were huddled inside the main hall, ignoring the half-hearted entreaties of police to disperse, and eventually being told by English speakers among them that once again, the paths of the Hoosier Hick and Pope John Paul II had crossed.

First he’d appeared at the Sunday mass I chose to attend in Rome at St. Peters, inciting the amok adulation of nuns and priests who seemed ready to resort to physical violence to secure the best camera-ready vantage point.

Now, two weeks later, he’d concluded a visit to Venice late the previous day, and although he and the Popemobile were both gone, along with most of the souvenir and relics hawkers, the many thousands of pilgrims – many from rural areas in the mountainous Alto Adige and exotic neighboring Slovenia – had not yet melted away, hence the mass of humanity choking the corridors of the rail station.

The immediate implications weren’t clear, but as I was soon to learn, many of these religious tourists were far from ready to vacate Venice’s budget travel lodgings, which were reputed to be scant in the leanest of seasons.

Eventually the rain stopped and the sun peeked through the dreary clouds, and by ten in the morning it was evident that there were no beds to be found at a price that fit my budget. Looking on the bright side of it, hoofing it from place to place meant seeing much of the city, and with my travel bag checked safely at the train station’s left luggage window, I reasoned that one long summer day in Venice was better than none at all. Returning to the station, I purchased a space in a six-berth couchette compartment for the overnight trip to Vienna, bought a sandwich, and set off on an afternoon’s abbreviated tour.

For all its charms – and there were plenty, in spite of the people clogging the narrow streets – Venice wasn’t where I really wanted to be, and I knew it.

Even while riding a tour boat through the canals, contemplating the Doge, Hemingway’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” Thomas Mann and the NBA playoffs – who was playing? Were the finals already over? -- my mind already was drifting northward to the Blue Danube less than ten hours away.

The plate of pasta for dinner was fine for the price, as was the respectful conversation with an elderly British art lover whose late husband first brought her to Venice in days of yore, but my palate yearned for schnitzel, sausages and German-style brew.

Naturally, expectations of Vienna such as these lacked even the most remote confirmation by direct experience, instead having been laboriously fashioned from the raw material gathered by voluminous reading and the sensory perceptions gleaned from a handful of PBS documentaries and waltz LPs … and I’d bought a Kaiser beer at Cut Rate Liquors once, imagining that the old man himself, Franz Joseph, would somehow approve of my choice.

Of course, then or now, any discussion of Franz Joseph would by necessity take place within the frame of reference afforded by his own lifetime in the Europe that existed prior to the Great War, and it was precisely this milieu that fascinated me the most – far more than the ancient history I’d contemplated in Athens, Istanbul and Rome, and certainly to a greater degree than what there was to be gleaned from the admitted wonders of Venice.

Franz Joseph became emperor in 1848 at the age of 18, and sat on the throne for 68 years until death finally came at 86 in 1916, with the Great War relentlessly eroding the viability of the already shakily justifiable Habsburg domain.

Tacit or explicit, obeisance to the emperor’s many-titled royal personage served as the only generally accepted bond between the empire’s many nationalities and their languages, customs, aspirations and diverse outlooks, with virtually every strain of the 19th and 20th century European experience eventually woven into the complex fabric of Austria-Hungary’s capital, Vienna.

As it turns out, the fickle hand of historical fate selected Franz Joseph to preside over the empire’s inexorable decadence and decline in power, while rewarding him with a blossoming intellectual and cultural life of which he was barely cognizant.

Artists (Klimt, Schiele) and musicians (Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler); writers, academics and scholars (Sigmund Freud and his retinue); future world political figures (Adolf Hitler, Josip “Tito” Broz) radical Zionists and hyperbolic anti-Semites, the pioneering lager brewer Anton Dreher (namesake of the Italian lager we’d consumed in Pecetto), and later, unbelievably, Leon Askin, the actor who played General Burkhalter on Hogan’s Heroes, and who was born in Vienna nine years before Franz Joseph died – all had connections to the imperial capital city.

Askin still was among the living on that day in 1985 – he wasn’t to die until 2005 – but all the rest were ghosts, and they crowded the couchette compartment and the furthest reaches of my subconscious as the train slowly came to rest at Sudbahnhof on a brilliant, sunny morning.

Raucous modern Vienna awaited the innocent abroad.

1 comment:

edward parish said...

Goodbye, Hassan. My first trip to Europe still is so fresh in my brain even after 12 years gone by. Good pieces RAB.