Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Crillion

I strolled through the Hôtel Crillon’s sumptuous lobby and turned right, pulled into the elegant Winter Garden by the dulcet tones of the harpist I enjoy so much. I am a creature of habit: I stay here on each and every visit to Paris, and I take an espresso here every afternoon, enjoying the harp and the fine beverage and snack menu. But today, my habit faced a roadblock: A lovely woman, her back to me, showing off a narrow waist, was in my regular seat. I walked by her, discreetly glancing to glimpse her face. She didn’t see this, concentrating as she was on finding the largest of the crude lumps of dark sugar for her café au lait. I took a step to move past her but decided, at the last minute, to turn and face her, hoping I could summon a remark witty and charming enough to solicit an invitation to join her—or at least yield a “yes” when I asked to sit with her.

I did, and she did, and we passed the afternoon laughing and drinking—quickly moving on to champagne—before heading down the street to the Arc de Triomphe. We took pictures of each other up top, the Eiffel Tower looming gray in the background, then more photos trying on sunglasses at Chanel. We ambled and strolled, finding ourselves in the 16th district near a lovely family bistro, where we dined. Her room at the Crillion, she sighed just the right amount, wasn’t her usual room, and she didn’t love it. More champagne caused me to invite her back to stay with me in my room, and she did.

I cancelled my meetings for Friday, and after the hotel delivered her favorite breakfast of strawberries, fresh cream, and their buttery croissants, we continued to explore the city. We lunched at the Gare de Lyon’s elegant Le Train Bleu, marveled at the Arab Institute’s innovative automated window sun shades, and sat outside the Louvre, admiring art through the windows but never going in. That evening, after champagne at the Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre, we shared hot frites and a croque monsieur at Pasteur Café on the Left Bank, then strolled by the Sorbonne, the Panthéon, and the many cafes which grew literary geniuses like moss. 

The next day brought more of the same: more champagne, the richest desserts, the most stunning art and architecture, and the most beautiful Hermès scarf I couldn't resist buying her after hearing the squeal its silkiness on her neck elicited. I blush now thinking how pleased I was to please her.

The third morning, I found her gone upon awakening, the remains of her beloved croissants littering a plate on a cart I had not heard enter the chamber. Noticing her small bag was missing, I was mildly concerned and inquired with the efficient front desk clerk, who had no record of a guest named Olive Snell.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Part of a day in Bellagio, and views of Lake Como

Bellagio inspires chivalry in men and adoration of their men in women. It moves couples to hold hands. There are no singles here. Even on motorcycles, there are pairs. The riders walk the esplanade, helmet in one hand, lover in the other.

Big honeybees are an orangey yellow which match the pollen weighing down their interflower flights. I amble back from a walk through Villa Melzi’s gardens, sit under a nearby magnolia tree set back from the path, and inhale. As always, I have a book. My brother always chides me for reading whist surrounded by natural beauty—“you’ll surely miss something extraordinary with your nose buried in the pages.” I lift my head from time to time, always lucky enough to see a small sailboat pass picturesquely or a mother kiss the top of her child’s head.

A bench opens up on the water’s edge, and I scurry to claim it and its unfettered views.

They take off awkwardly, as expected—ducks seem to do nothing, save float, with grace. As they turn away from Bellagio, their underwings flash white as the sun I seek comes out. A small sigh escapes me, a rare acknowledgement my brother was right. I read on, distracted only by a gelato craving and a rotund brown Dachshund fascinated with my feet.

Swallows undulate above and below the alley’s plane trees with increasing frequency as dusk approaches. Some would say I’ve once again wasted the day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What's different on weekends

Steps away from my hotel is tiny Menaggio’s Piazza Garibaldi, or what we’d call the town’s main hub, though there are villas here on Lake Como with larger terraces. It’s been the place this and last week where I’ve had more than my fair share of red wine, sitting outside with a book (several books, at this point) to take in the scenery and overhear as much Italian as possible in my attempt to improve my language skills with minimal work. During the week, the scene is tourists and any locals who happen to take an espresso next to you at the bar, though you probably don’t choose the bar over a table unless you’re running late, but it’s vacation, so you’re not.

Weekends have regular rhythms too, but these involve the town residents. On Saturday evenings, very close to seven, tiny Italian women fill the piazza, grasping each others’ arms in what seems both a greeting and a way to steady themselves. Their husbands trail behind, shuffling with what is neither delight or sadness. There is a buzz in the piazza missing from weekday evenings, when tourists, happy but tired, talk low. Saturday night brings meetings and greetings and a cheerful excitement, and then without a rush but not slowly, they move toward restaurants.

I follow, momentarily forgetting that my two weeks here has meant I’ve now eaten at every establishment in town, even with day trips to Bellagio, Varenna, Lecco, and even Lugano. Recalling this as I pass one of the town’s many gelaterias, convinced I can smell the dark chocolate flavor I crave, I step inside and remind myself my trip is about to end, so dessert for dinner is wholly acceptable. My friend behind the counter agrees and greets me, for we are not strangers at this point.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Scene: Dining room, Grand Hotel Victoria, Menaggio, Lake Como

I'm upstairs and have just transcribed what transpired at dinner earlier this drama, yet full of sounds, smells, and moments which lent lovely texture to my experience.

The old but gorgeous and very grand hotel, with walls over two feet thick, is currently host to a small but loud wedding, which I find odd since this is a Wednesday. The wedding vehicle is, surprisingly, a tiny Ford Fiesta, adorned with nothing but a small white bouquet on its modest nose. I follow the hostess through the elegant bar—it really should be featured in a movieback to the far dining room, hoping the quality of the karaoke emanating from the adjoining terrace quickly improves.

I barely sit before I am brought a piece of bread—not a basket but a single roll, so as not to spoil my dinner—and sweet butter. I summon my most polite and proper tables manners and look around discreetly as I break open my bread and ready it for butter. To my left, there’s a squat, silent couple in their 50s who throughout their meal fail to say even ten words to one another; I eventually discern they are British country folk, she desperate for them to fit into the posh scene. Their discomfort, especially his, seems to cause physical pain, and their silence contrasts sharply with the two German couples to my right, running through bottles of rosé.

Ahead are an Italian threesome who seem to be having a business meeting, though there seems to be too little talking for much to be accomplished. Behind me is a table with an unknown number of people of unknown origin—so softly do they speak I’m barely conscious of their presence, though my dinner is delicious enough to distract me from many things. A young, gorgeous, monied couple fight in the corner: She is sleek and angry and silent, and he in his mustard-colored linen suit is doing his best to make her laugh.

In the corner, nearest the terrace and dreadful singing, is an old man, probably 85, slowly making his way, alone, through a three-course meal. After dessert, he begins to check his watch every thirty seconds or so, compulsively. His bright pumpkin sweater contrasts with the lemony yellow dining room walls. He finally arises. He wears a thin gold band, and I wonder about his wife as he walks, not as steady as I sense he used to but with the same air of confidence, past me and out with the server, who banters with him in playful familiarity.

At this point, I've run out of excuses to stay and watch the German couples and the fighting young couple and rise, reminding myself to move quickly before the nearly gelato stand, serving a dark chocolate flavor so creamy a cone cannot contain it, closes for the evening. That texture is a fine one on which to end my evening. I fear my hotel room upstairs will seem dull and flat when I return.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The squeeze: Trapped

Her regular coffee shop smelled of many things that afternoon: burnt toast, a hippy’s patchouli, fresh coffee, and the new potting soil in the anonymous houseplant perched on the handpainted side table to her left. She was pregnant, and each smell brought on a new wave of nausea, but she couldn’t read at home since her mother had taken up residence there after leaving her father. And now something—humidity, air conditioning, bad luck—had filled the place with flies, which disgusted her even more than the stank of the young hippy. And so she gathered her paperback and the magazine she brought in case she bored of her spy thriller and pulled herself out of the ugly brocade couch. She was not showing, nor would she for probably another month or so, but she could already envision future lumbering exits from deep sofas. She saw herself slowly climbing up or down stairs, hand widely grasping her low back with the other pushing or pulling on the railing. Her sad reverie was broken by the silent buzz of her cell phone, which she knew would be her mother. Week 9: unwanted roommate, unwanted baby, and her world continued to close in more and more tightly.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Snow sounds, angry birds, & the silence you want

The ancient trellis behind me, heavy with snow, suddenly and for no reason dumps its bounty. The sound is the swish of a full skirt made with yards and yards of fine silk. As I awkwardly turn, bundled tightly as a toddler sent out on days like today, I see the angry jay who’d been screaming all morning. He sits alone on the lowest branch, hard to miss in the white winter wonderland formed in mere hours. Below him flutter nervous, dark juncos snacking on the nearby feeder’s refuse. I will them all to be silent so I can hear the dense snowflakes cut the air, one of the few reasons I like returning to my grandfather’s farm outside St. Louis. Snow falls with uncharacteristic aggressiveness here.

As the jay is not cooperating with my request for silence, I thread my way between broken-down farm implements down the hill to the catfish pond. Here, childhood summer days were spent tossing dry dog food onto the pond’s surface with as much quiet as children could muster. Then we waited, fishing pole at the ready, for those huge catfish mouths, surrounded by slick, thick whiskers, to emerge from the pond’s depths, silently gulp the food, and return to the cold bottom waters. Today, the pond was frozen over, as it likely had been for weeks, ice rough from winds stopped by the nothing surrounding the farm.

I continue past the pond, heading into the thick woods where childhood Me had found arrowheads and deer scat and geodes waiting to reveal brilliance or dullness. I move with less certainty than l‘d like. I pass my grandfather’s favorite tractor, now rusted and nestled in leaves and snow, which he placed here with a slightly jovial announcement so we could all visit it after it failed to start one fall Saturday. His small attempt at comedy didn’t fit with his normally sad, humorless demeanor, and it left the cousins and I confused and a bit scared, as children become when steady adults act unpredictably.

I stop in the woods expecting silence but instead hear the rattle of birch leaves, like my grandmother’s old, ill-fitting windows during a storm. I shift to the left to peer at the stream below me but stop as my parka’s whispery rustle drowns out the faint rattle of the leaves. The ivory birch leaves are thin, and a narrow scrap of sunshine lights them from behind as they sing in the wind.