"The time to enjoy a European trip is about three weeks after unpacking."
-- George Ade
Death of a Second Wife
"Are you serious?" Marco turned his gaze from the sea to me. "You are leaving me, the Isle of Capri, this sun, this paradise"-he waved his arms in a big Italian gesture-"to freeze your ass off in the Alps with your ex-husband?"
I smiled and shrugged, maintaining my cool façade. "When you put it that way it does sound stupid." I let my feet drop from the extra chair at our table and drained the last bit of wine from my glass. From our vantage point at the top of Capri, we could see the mainland a short hydrofoil ride across the Bay of Naples. Behind us, bougainvillea cascaded over stone walls, and below us, a funicular train slid down through lemon trees to the Marina Grande at sea level. Over our heads, a yellow sun umbrella cast Marco's olive skin and graying beard in a warm glow. "I'm not going to the Alps to be with my ex-husband. I'm going for my son's wedding. The fact that I'll be staying in the same house as my ex-husband is, I'll admit, worrying me. My stomach is in knots."
"You need more wine," Marco said, signaling the waiter for two more.
"I've told myself a thousand times to relax, speak softly, and not take anything Chet or Stephanie says seriously." Chet Lamb is my ex-husband. Stephanie Lamb is the woman for whom Chet dumped me as soon as the last of our five children left the nest. Stephanie, originally from Switzerland, still had family there, and her brother owned a large chateau near LaMotte where the whole family was staying until the wedding on Thursday. My son Patrick and his fiancée had their hearts set on getting married within the shadow of the Matterhorn, where they first met. At one point in the planning of the wedding, it looked as if our whole family might be together for the first time since Brian, our oldest, left for college more than twenty years ago. In my fondest dream, we were together again: me, all five children, their three spouses, and my five grandchildren. Big turkey in the center of the table. One grandkid on my lap. Chet-or Chet and Stephanie-if there at all, were present only as shadow people. Grey outlines that couldn't talk unless you clicked on them or something. But number two son, Charlie, a high school principal, had to stay home to deal with a yellow bus accident. Anne cancelled at the last minute for no good reason, and Jeffrey, number four son, was on tour with his dance troupe. The dream, however, was still alive. Someday. I stopped talking while the waiter deposited new glasses of red wine in front of us. Should I just ask? Marco hadn't said so for sure, but I assumed he wanted me to come back to him for the few days I had between the wedding and my flight back to Virginia. Awkward. "I'll be free after Thursday." I peeked at him over the top of my sunglasses. "And I'll be in need of a little TLC."
"Tender loving care." I couldn't break myself of the habit of using American acronyms and expressions that made no sense to this Italian man who still hadn't mastered the use of contractions.
"Aha. And you think you can come flying back to me for the TLC."
"I didn't mean . . ."
"I have to work next weekend," he cut me off. "There is no way I can leave Florence. We are having a big festival, and I will be putting extra men on duty, so I certainly must be there myself." Marco was a captain in the Carabinieri, Italy's military police. His headquarters were in Florence where we first met. Chewing a bit of lemon peel, he glanced at me and quickly away, as if to keep me from reading his mood. Was he angry or what? With Marco, I could only be sure that he intended to be enigmatic, but being enigmatic did not preclude his being angry as well. He could be both.
"Do you want me to come to Florence on Friday?"
"You may if you want, but I may not have a lot of free time."
"I'll call you Thursday night."
* * * * *
If you don't have a helicopter, traveling from Capri to this particular chateau in the Alps requires a minimum of five modes of transport. I'm counting the three trains as one, and I'm not counting the funicular train down to the harbor.
Early Sunday morning Marco walked as far as the pier with me and slipped a small gift-wrapped box into my hand. "This is from me to the bride and groom. Do not open it, Dotsy. I worked hard wrapping it up." Why is Marco giving them a present? I looked down at the small box in my hand, and the airport warning Do not accept any parcel you have not personally packed yourself flitted through my head. It took me a moment to recall that Marco had met Patrick in Florence last year when my son was there on spring break. They'd had lunch together, Patrick had told me.
"You didn't have to do that."
"I know. But this is something very special and rare, and I want Patrick to have it."
"My curiosity is going to kill me. Why do you always do things like this to me?"
Marco pressed his hands on either side of my face and gave me a kiss that I suspected was designed to show me what I'd be missing, ruffled my hair like he always does, and turned toward three young women sunbathing, topless, on the beach next to the marina.
* * * * *
The hydrofoil churned plumes of white water across the bay to Naples where I caught a cab to the train station. One train would take me to Milan, another to Visp, Switzerland, and the third to a station in LaMotte, which was as close to my destination as rail could deliver me.
On the first train, I slid into a window seat and pulled out the gift Marco had given me. It was nicely wrapped in Florentine paper and white ribbon. Tape secured both ends. I figured I could slide the ribbon off without disturbing the bow, but I'd never manage to peel off the tape without ripping the paper. Something very special and rare. What could it be? I hadn't expected Marco to give them a present. He wasn't invited to the wedding. I jammed the gift into my bag before temptation could get the better of me and pulled out my needlepoint.
The young woman in the aisle seat beside me said, in heavily accented English, "How beautiful! Is it in Latin?"
"Yes." I held the material, stretched in its plastic hoop, at arm's length and pointed to the phrase I had almost finished. Amor est vitae essentia. "It says, 'Love is the essence of life.' It's for my son and his bride. They're getting married this week." My main wedding gift to Patrick and Erin was the sterling silver flatware I inherited from my grandmother. I couldn't bring the entire silver chest with me so I planned to give them this needlepoint, suitable for framing, and a note telling them the silver was theirs. Of all my kids, Patrick was the one most likely to appreciate and use my silver. The Latin inscription, I thought, was suitable for a young couple founding a Catholic home. We raised our children in the Episcopal Church, and they had since drifted into lifestyles with varying degrees of involvement and non-involvement with the church. Patrick had shocked me when he announced his conversion to Catholicism and his intention to become a priest. He dropped that last idea after he met Erin.
In Milan I had five minutes to change trains amid a swarm of directional signs in Italian, jostling travelers and head-splitting noise. I'd never have made it without the help of the young woman who had been my seatmate. She pointed me to the train headed for Visp, and soon I was speeding toward the Swiss border and cooler climes.
* * * * *
From the train station in LaMotte, I tried to call the number I'd been given for Juergen Merz's chateau, several miles outside of and above the town. I checked my phone's screen and saw the signal was weak at that spot, so I grabbed my suitcase and headed for what looked like the main street of the little village. As I rounded the corner of the train station, a cold gust of Alpine air hit me head on. The jacket in my luggage, I decided, wouldn't be adequate for the time we would spend outdoors this week. I wanted a new jacket anyway. I could wait a while before I made that call and, in truth, preferred to wander this pretty little town a bit before starting my week-long marathon walking on egg shells around Chateau Merz.
I turned into the first clothing store I passed, mentally envisioning the ideal jacket that would work with the green dress I planned to wear to the wedding and with the other outfits I'd brought with me. This store sold only ski and hiking apparel, I deduced from a quick scan of the racks. Back to the street.
LaMotte had plenty of restaurants, bars, stores selling ski equipment, stores selling touristy things, but few regular clothing stores. I had almost despaired of finding one when I passed a window with female mannequins hawking designer clothes. One mannequin, silver and headless, sported a jacket with which I instantly bonded. Brown and green tweed with a cut-away collar, rounded hem, and fabric-covered buttons. I studied it, shifting this way and that until I knew for sure I wanted it and had decided on my top price. Folks passing on the street had to swerve around me, maneuvers that brought jangles from the bells on little electric cars. LaMotte allowed no petrol-burning vehicles.
A pair of Italian-made shoes paused at the next window. I recognized the shoes from a store I'd visited in Capri because they were most unusual. Cordovan leather with no visible seams but with patches of the same leather sewn haphazardly around, serving no purpose. Eighteen hundred Euros, they had wanted, for one pair of shoes! I glanced up to the face of the shoes' wearer, a nondescript man in a gabardine suit who wasn't moving along and didn't appear to be very interested in the display, either.
I entered the shop, holding the door open with my shoulder until I could muscle my wheeled suitcase through without banging the door facing. Forced to set my luggage and my purse near the wall while I tried on the jacket, I decided it was safe. This wasn't a pickpocket sort of store. Unfamiliar as I was with European sizing, the first jacket I tried was too small. An assistant located the right size for me. I would have balked at the price but the girl quickly announced this item was on sale. Half-price.
"I'll take it."
As she was ringing up the sale, I glanced around the store and steeled myself to leave as soon as she handed me the jacket. I couldn't afford anything else. But the gabardine pant legs and the Italian shoes I saw beneath and beyond a rack of blouses arrested my gaze-the shoes weren't moving and the blouses on the rack weren't shifting.