“Nick Steiner’s and Art Delson’s Summer in Italy, 1955” by Nicholas V. Steiner
Nick Steiner’s and Art Delson’s summer in Italy, 1955, by Nicholas V. Steiner
What follows is a series of letters written to my parents while traveling through Italy with my good friend and roommate, Arthur Delson in the summer of 1955. That a young man—I was twenty at the time—would still be writing letters to Mom and Dad seems positively antiquated, some might say pathetic in today’s world. I hope to express here what motivated me, back then.
Twenty years earlier my parents and their two children left Hitler Germany for the United States. Despite early hardship we soon became acclimated to our new way of life. Beginning in 1948—during the war years all forms of communication with Europe had ceased—my sister Ursula and I began spending summer holidays abroad. An awareness of our parents’ generosity in making these experiences possible—many would shape my later life—was always in the back of my mind. At a time when trans-Atlantic telephone calls were not even thought of, letters took their place. Our parents were reassured that we were well, seeing new places, making new friends, learning new languages, etc. in short, that we were thriving. In turn, Mom and Dad enjoyed these experiences vicariously.
Much of what one encounters while traveling is forgotten. Early in life I realized that attempting to capture the most memorable moments on paper was a way of forever engraving them into one’s mind. As a child at summer camp I once scratched onto a piece of birch bark this urgent request: “Send stationary. Nicky.” Even then, I must have realized that a letter can bring pleasure to both its recipient and writer.
July 3, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
As you know, Art Delson and I have been planning a trip to Italy together for a long time. From our first days as freshmen roommates nearly three years ago–how lucky that we’d both been assigned to room 1122 Bingham Hall–we recognized a mutual strong attraction for Europe and things European. Since both of us speak several languages this trip might have been predicted. The summer before our senior year is the ideal time for it. I’m so grateful to both of you for making it possible.
As Art and I separated just after arriving in Rotterdam on the S.S. Castel Felice we agreed to meet in the Milan railroad station in the afternoon of July 2nd. Days later (from Stuttgart) I carefully planned my overnight in Switzerland. By leaving Vitznau in late morning I’d still have time for a swim and could catch the southbound train at Flüellen on the far end of the lake. From there it’s a few hours to Milan where I’d meet Art later that afternoon.
After reaching Vitznau I sat for a while in the magnificent gardens of the Park Hotel and casually scanned Le Figaro. Nothing of great import seemed to be happening in the world. Suddenly I did a double take. The date on the newspaper said “le 2 Juillet”. July 2nd? That’s today! It couldn’t be! This meant at that very moment my good friend Art was probably roaming the Milan railroad station, wondering why I was so late. Here I was at 6 PM in another country. God! What was I to do? The Concierge! If anyone knew what to do, he would. I made a beeline for his desk. I found him as he’d always been, polite and reassuring in his long blue coat with a gold key on each lapel. I was sure he could help me out of my predicament. When I’d explained my situation he reached for his well-fingered book of train schedules and began poring through it. A moment later he looked up and shrugged his shoulders. “The best you can do is to catch the bus for Flüellen at 7:2OAM. There is no boat so early in the day. That way, you can catch the train and be in Milano shortly after noon.”
“But what about today?” I blurted. “Is there no way I can reach my friend? Couldn’t I send a telegram or telephone to the station master in Milan?”
“And how will he find your friend?”
“Perhaps he could page him over the loudspeaker?”
“How long has your friend been waiting?” he asked.
“Since lunchtime,” I replied, barely audibly. The Concierge pulled out his gold watch and glanced at it before fixing his eyes on me. “I’m afraid it can’t be done,” he said with a sad smile.
“I suppose not. Thank you, anyway.” With a hanging head I shuffled back to my room to prepare for dinner.
For most of last night and earlier today my thoughts have rarely strayed from Arthur. Did he spend the night wandering about the Milan railroad station? My feelings of embarrassment bordering on despair are such that I’m barely aware of the magnificent scenery passing by. As I sit in this train rushing southward I wonder whether we’ll manage to take this trip together. It’s most embarrassing and I feel terrible about it.
Hope you are well.
PS c/o American Express, Florence until about July l3th, then Amexco, Naples.”
En route, July 6, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
Several days have passed since I last wrote. You’ll remember how concerned I was to have “stood up” Art in Milan. My concern was partly shame at my belated arrival and also fear that our projected two week trip throughout Italy (and ending up in Corsica) might now be jeopardized. Having said that you’ll be relieved to learn that we finally met, and that now all is well between us.
As the train rolled to a halt in Milan’s huge, white marble RR station I wasn’t surprised not to find my friend there waiting for me. Tired and dusty from the trip–I’d not had much sleep, either–I wandered aimlessly around the large, bustling building for a while and felt utterly dejected. I figured that he must have left the station by now–maybe even many hours ago–for which I couldn’t blame him. But in the hope that he might return for a final look I positioned myself at as visible a table as possible in the small open air café inside the station. Time passed. I had a cup of coffee, a sandwich, another coffee, tried unsuccessfully to lose myself in some reading material. Still no Art. Finally, after several hours had passed a hand slapped me forcefully on the back of one shoulder. I stood up, turned and found myself facing the unusually stern countenance of my old friend. “Am I glad to see you!” I exclaimed, extending my hand. No smile was offered in return and he waited for a moment before shaking my hand.
“Where the hell have you been?” He asked angrily. Still no smile.
“It’s a long story,” I began rather sheepishly. “You won’t believe this but I didn’t realize what day it was until yesterday afternoon when I bought “‘Le Figaro'”. Speaking rapidly as if wishing to extricate myself as quickly as possible, I continued. “I was in Switzerland having a lovely time at this lake when suddenly I realized it was July the second! I couldn’t believe it!” Searching for some sign of forgiveness in his eyes, I babbled on. “I felt just terrible but didn’t know how to reach you!” I paused long enough to see that anger no longer flashed in his dark eyes. “How about you? Are you okay?” I continued: “I had visions of you wandering around this place all night.”
“Well, I did hang around here for a long time, got to know the place and a few of its local characters pretty well. But I’m okay now. I was just pissed when you didn’t show up.”
“I can well imagine…”
“Yeah, I had some adventures of my own. I’ll tell you about them later,” he added with a faint smile. Maybe I’ll join you here for a drink.” We both sat down. We must have remained at the table for the next three quarters of an hour. While Art puffed on his Gauloise cigarette and sipped his beer against a background of public address announcements of trains arriving and departing (in their peculiar singsong that we would later imitate), each of us recounted the experiences he’d had since we were last together. By the time we’d paid the waiter–I’d just finished describing my ridiculous and inept attempt to have a fling with the English “high society” dame in Stuttgart, we were laughing and in the best of spirits. Art is very good that way. I might add that were the situation reversed I believe I’d have done the same. Neither of us bears a grudge.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked at length.
“Weren’t we going to start out on the Riviera, in Rapallo or Santa Marguerita?” he replied. “I checked on the train connections over there while I was waiting yesterday.”
“Yeah, I guess you had plenty of time for that,” I retorted, the barb not having been lost on me. “Va bene, andiamo!”One of the things which binds us together is our affinity for languages. He hasn’t spent nearly as much time in Germany and France as I have, yet speaks both languages surprisingly well. While neither of us is fluent in Italian (far from it) having attended the language course in Viareggio last summer gives me a little advantage. We both enjoy speaking this most melodious of languages immensely and lose no opportunity in trying it out on whatever soul (victim?) is willing to listen. If a word is unknown to us (something that happens not infrequently) we simply guess at it, take the French word and italianize it. You’d be surprised at how often it works! We have little trouble in making ourselves understood. I can’t think of anyone whose company I’d more enjoy on this trip than Art. In closing, I just want to say how very fortunate I feel in having the wherewithal to be here. I couldn’t do it without your help. Grazie tanto! In my next letter I’ll tell you what befell us on the Italian Riviera.
Florence, July 8, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
Upon arriving here yesterday our first stop was American Express–it’s conveniently located near the RR station–in hope there might be mail for us. Neither of us was disappointed. Among letters being held for me was yours of ten days ago. Sorry to hear that the weather has been so beastly hot in New York but glad to know all is well at home. Just think! In less than 3 weeks you’ll be beginning your well deserved vacation, too.
And now as promised, a continuation of this narrative. You’ll recall that following my late arrival in Milan (for which Art accepted my apologies), we decided to head for Rapallo. After an early dinner in a nearby trattoria and having left our bags in the station, we returned to board a Diritissimo bound for the coast. In Italy there are a variety of trains –“Diretto”, “Diretissimo”, “Rapido”, etc. all of which sound as if they are express trains making a minimum of stops. Neither of us have yet been able to figure out the difference between them, since they all seem to travel at roughly the same speed (slow to moderate) and make the same stops.
The train was extremely crowded, at least in 3rd class. (We wouldn’t dream of traveling in 2nd or 1st) but managed to find seats inside a compartment. The trip was uneventful with few stops. It had grown dark so there wasn’t much to see. Finally, as the train’s whistle screamed, the tired looking man sitting across from us said, “Rapallo”. After retrieving our suitcases from the overhead rack we slid open the door with a loud “clack”, and pushed our way into the crowded corridor. “Permesso …permesso…scusi…” we muttered, navigating between tightly packed travelers and their suitcases. Just as we descended onto the platform I remembered. “Goddamn it!” I exclaimed, “my raincoat is still on the train!”
“Where? I didn’t see it”, Art replied.
“In the netting just over my head. I didn’t think to look. God knows why I put it there, anyway.”
“C’mon, maybe somebody can pass it to you through the window.” Picking up his valise he walked quickly in the direction from which we’d come. With a hiss of steam and creaking of its wheels the train slowly began to move. We wove our way through dense crowds waving and calling out to those on the train and among vendors noisily hawking their wares. Finally, we recognized a man who’d been in our compartment. He stood in the corridor outside it. “Scusi…” I shouted. He lowered the window, leaned out and put a hand to his ear. Fortunately, having remembered the word for “forget” domenticare, I called “Scusi, ma ho domenticato mi…” up to him. The train’s speed was beginning to pick up but by walking more quickly I was able to keep up with it. Art trotted along just behind. “How in the hell do you say “raincoat'” I asked, giving him an imploring look over my shoulder.
“Search me” he replied, rolling his eyes.
“Ma cosa vuole?” the man called, looking puzzled and a little annoyed now. “What do you want?” I could no longer keep up with the train. Those on board were pulling in their heads and raising the windows. As the distance between us gradually increased the man backed away and disappeared from view. “Ciao!” Art called out with a friendly wave. “Grazie!” I added, throwing up my hands in frustration before turning away. Hello Rapallo! Goodbye raincoat!
While pretty annoyed with myself about this (still am!) I couldn’t help joining in Art’s laughter. Only later when it would no longer do me any good did I learn the Italian word impermeabile, the italianized version of French impermeable. Too bad I couldn’t think that quickly. Well, since I’ll be in sunny Italy for the next 2 weeks, I’m hoping not to need an “impermeabile” anyway.
In our search for a nearby hotel we saw that Rapallo’s streets were filled with merry-makers, families with with children of all ages. We soon found out the reason: a fireworks display! From the prolonged series of explosions and rat-a-tats you might have thought yourself in a battle zone. Each whistling salvo was followed by a boom and multicolored display in the sky, bringing applause and cheers from the crowds that lined the shore. Before long, having grown tired of this spectacle we returned to the hotel.
Upon awakening the next morning we were disappointed to find the skies overcast and the air temperature surprisingly cool. “I thought this was sunny Italy,” I grumbled. “If I end up having to buy another raincoat I’m going to be mighty pissed.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t think it’s going to rain,” Art replied and he proved to be right.
After breakfast we wandered along the shoreline, not at all cheered by the burned fragments and other flotsam from last night’s fireworks display that bobbed up and down in the uninviting waters. We had walked no more than a few hundred yards when Art abruptly stopped in his tracks. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You look like you saw a ghost!”
“Not a ghost, my friend, but my first…you remember me telling you about Rona, my…?”
“Your first girlfriend, from New Rochelle High School?”
“That’s her all right and her new husband. They must be on their honeymoon! Of all people, of all places!” Visibly pained, he slammed one fist into the palm of the other hand. The light had changed by now and as we stood not knowing which way to walk, the couple, hand in hand, gradually came closer. If we considered avoiding them, it was too late.
“Arthur!” Rona cried as they approached. “Whatever are you doing here? David, this is Arthur Delson, an old friend. And this is my husband.”
“And this is…”
“Hi, I’m Nick Steiner,” I added almost under my breath, thinking they could care less.
Rona, about whom I’d heard a lot–she was Arthur’s first love–was an attractive brunette. Of the four of us she seemed the least uncomfortable by this encounter. David, a tall, good looking guy who looked to be in his late twenties forced a smile. “You fellas staying long?” he asked politely after a moment.
“No, just arrived. We’ll be heading on to Florence, then Rome in a day or two,” Art replied: “How about you?”
“Oh, so are we! We’ll probably run into you again,” Rona said, smiling. David, less cheerful, was gently tugging at her arm.
“Nice to have met you,” I mumbled as they turned and walked off in the opposite direction.
Rapallo is not exactly a village and more like a small city. I mention this because even though we’d started off in different directions, would you believe that not an hour passed before we encountered the honeymooners a second time? This time we just nodded and veered down a side street. “They’re going to think that we’re following them!” Art muttered. Sure enough, late in the afternoon as we strolled along the road that follows the shoreline we spotted Rona and David yet again! Quickly reversing our steps and relieved that they hadn’t seen us this time, we stepped behind a kiosk and waited a few moments. Before they disappeared we couldn’t help but notice David periodically casting a furtive look over his shoulder.
“See what I mean?” Art asked. “I think we should get out of here!”
As things turned out we didn’t stay for long. We did manage a trip to neighboring Santa Margherita one afternoon and I’ll tell you about our adventures there in my next letter. Before closing, I wanted to add that one of our first (and maybe only) purchases in Rapallo was a shirt of the type that you see a lot of over here. It’s a light-weight, close-fitting cotton pullover, white with horizontal, medium width red stripes running around it and a white collar. We both look pretty good in them, if I do say so. Although it may seem juvenile the fact that we bought identical shirts doesn’t bother either of us. All we need now is a tan. The clouds lifted after the first day in Rapallo, so sunny days are ahead!
More soon. Hope you’re both fine.
Florence, July 10, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
No more complaints about the weather. Ever since our first afternoon in Rapallo when the sun finally broke through, it’s been beautiful. To be back here under these conditions–hot, dry heat, the sky a gentle, pale blue with an occasional wispy cloud drifting by–is glorious. The other side of the coin is that with the mid-day heat and hordes of tourists everywhere (mostly Americans, a few French, a handful of English & Germans), we’re not doing as much sightseeing as you might think. Just too tiring! Fortunately, both of us have been here before and seen some of the sights.
At the close of my previous letter I mentioned our having visited Santa Margherita and would like to describe it here. By mid-morning of our second day (pleased that we had not run into the honeymooners again–they’d evidently shaken us off their trail), we took a leisurely stroll along the shorefront. After a time, having once again failed to come up with (or even laid eyes upon) any attractive & available female companions we hoped for a change. The choice lay between the two towns–even their names were a pleasure to pronounce–Portofino and Santa Margherita. Looking up the coastline you could just make out the latter’s pastel colored buildings and port, hazy in the morning mist. Feeling suave in our striped shirts and jeans we cheerfully set out on foot. Of course, it turned out to be a lot farther than it looked. As the crow flies it might have been just a few miles but we hadn’t realized how many small coves there are along its curvy shoreline. After well over an hour our feet began to burn from the hot asphalt road and we seemed no closer to our destination. In vain, we looked for some sign of public transportation–no buses, not even a bus stop. Finally, one of us asked, “Want to hitch?”
“Why not?” the other replied.
Mom and Dad, I know you won’t be happy at the thought of us trying to thumb a ride while over here. I’m well aware of the dangers of getting into some stranger’s car and certainly would avoid doing so in the States. If it were my kid, I’d undoubtedly have the same concerns as you do. Let me add that this was not some grimy city in arime-ridden part of the world but the Italian Riviera, presumably full of vacationers. And besides, there were two of us! The fact that I’m alive and well enough to write about it should put your minds at ease, too.
We didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes a small car with “NL” (Dutch) license plates slowed down and rolled to a stop. There were two men inside, a little older than ourselves, I judged. One had a neatly trimmed dark beard, the other, the driver, was blond and wore a moustache. “Santa Margherita?” one of us called out. The bearded one nodded as he got out of the car. I recall it seeming a bit odd. Perhaps Art and I exchanged quizzical glances and hesitated, I don’t remember. He climbed in front and sat next to the driver while I entered the back with the bearded one. I don’t recall much about our conversation, either. They spoke English, of course. We asked things like, “Where you from?” “How long you staying?” “Enjoying it?” All the while I was looking out the window. As the car swung around a series of curves Sta. Margherita gradually came nearer. We must have been nuts to try walking, I was thinking, especially in the mid-day sun.
I’m not sure whether I first saw it or felt it but suddenly there it was, my neighbor’s hand resting on my knee! From the way I reacted it might as well as well have been a tarantula; instantaneously I slapped it away. As if the driver had turned on the air conditioning (which the car certainly lacked), a chill immediately descended upon us. I don’t remember whether our two Dutch friends exchanged words or glances in the rearview mirror, but they obviously realized (as did we) that there had been, what shall we call it? A mistake? Or a simple misunderstanding? Had they been real bastards I guess they could’ve turned us out onto the hot road right there, or worse. The remaining minutes until we finally reached the town took forever! Feeling a mixture of awkwardness and relief Art and I mumbled a few words of thanks and walked away into the warm sunshine. I must say that knowing how much you might read into this episode, what might have happened, etc. I hesitated before telling you this little story. Rest assured that except in case of a true emergency we’ll refrain from further hitchhiking!
Sta. Margherita while picturesque (at least at that time of day) was totally dead! We did make contact with a couple of cute Italian girls walking along the street. Upon learning that we were Americans they became friendly enough but the language barrier was more than we could handle. Shrugging, they walked away. A further moment of confusion arose when they turned and waved their hands in such a way as to make it appear they were saying, “Come here!” When we started to cross the street they seemed even more confused than we were. Only then did we realize that the “Come here” gesture means “Ciao–Goodbye!” over here. After a bite of lunch, we managed to catch a bus back to Rapallo, and spent the rest of the afternoon paddling around its small harbor in a rented rowboat. Fun! But by early evening we decided that we’d had it with Rapallo and caught a train for Florence.
Hope you both are well. More soon.
Florence, July 12, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
Florence remains incredibly beautiful and of unparalleled cultural richness. It’s also a hot, crowded and noisy city! We’re off to Rome tomorrow but in all likelihood won’t stay there long, either. At this point life at the beach with all its attendant pleasures (Capri to begin with), beckons. But we enjoyed our days here a great deal. There’s so much to see. After having studied the “quattrocento” in History of Art class, to see the works of Cimabue, Masaccio, della Robbia, Donatello, et al. in the original was truly exciting!
We stayed at a beautiful 18th century house with lovely surrounding gardens called Villa Fabricotti. I’m not sure who the Fabricottis were, evidently a wealthy Florentine family, nor do I know the reason that their home has been made available to students to live inexpensively while visiting their city. Living conditions are simple–dormitory style sleeping quarters and pretty basic food–pasta, salad, cheap red wine. But it’s clean and very affordable.
Because the mornings are relatively cool we chose those hours to do our museum visiting. It’s a ten to fifteen-minute walk (and a colorful one at that) to the center of town. To wander through the streets and soak in the environment–elegant men standing at zinc topped bars sipping espresso, women in black carrying baskets of the most wonderfully fresh fruit and vegetables (sometimes on their heads!), a blind man selling lottery tickets on the corner, etc. is a treat! I love Italy!
One place we often frequented was the local wine shop. Along with the usual straw-encased Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling and cases of rather dusty looking white wine scattered here and there, several large containers with long necks on top stood on the floor. Evidently these served as a sort of reservoir for cheap wine. One day while awaiting our turn we saw the owner–a burly, gray-haired main with a hairy chest (well shown off through his white undershirt) do something that made us gape in amazement. The wine stored in these large vats is sealed off from the outside air not with a cork but instead with a layer of mineral oil. Before siphoning off the wine and pouring it into bottles, the owner first introduces a straw into the bottleneck, sucks up the mineral oil and spits it out! Nicht sehr appetitlich! (Colorful, but not very appetizing!) At least when he replaces it he uses fresh mineral oil.
Back at Villa Fabricotti we enjoyed the usual simple lunch enhanced by the cheap (but totally drinkable) red wine we’d just bought. Fresh water was provided as well but between the heat and wine we ended up drinking enough of the latter to make us drowsy, if not downright groggy by the end of the meal. As you remember meals in this part of the world are notoriously unhurried, so we sat for upwards of an hour, after which Art enjoyed one of his Nazionali cigarettes. In an unsuccessful attempt to shake off the drowsiness that inevitably overcame us, we sipped espresso coffee, too. Despite our avowed intention to return to town and see more sights after lunch one of us said: “I think I’ll just rest my eyes for a while.” There were never any objections to this idea. In our four days here an afternoon siesta was an integral part of the day. To sleep like the dead for a couple of hours and awaken totally refreshed is one of life’s secrets. Being able to avail oneself of this custom is like being the recipient of a delicious gift. Nonetheless, upon awakening we both felt a certain guilt at having let most of the afternoon slip away. That Northern European work ethic (or is it a Calvinistic Weltanschauung from having grown up in the States?) must run deep in both our veins.
On the day of our announced departure we were relieved that the maid immediately stripped the sheets off our beds. “At least we won’t be able to kill the afternoon in the sack,” Art said. After the usual morning activities in town and having decided to take the mid-afternoon train to Rome, we returned for one more lunch at Villa Fabricotti. Was what followed predictable? Despite showing considerable restraint in the amount of red wine we consumed the familiar drowsiness soon overtook us. “Maybe I’ll just take a quick look upstairs” one of us mumbled. Upstairs we saw that our beds had not yet been made up. Not to be deterred we stretched out on the lumpy, striped mattresses and immediately fell into a deep slumber. Two hours later feeling ashamed (but fully rested) we belatedly made our way to the railroad station.
Rome, July 14, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
The journey continues still heading south. Arrived here yesterday after a pleasant if unexciting train ride. We stopped for a while at Civitavecchia (how I love the rolling sound of that name! Probably goes back to Roman times, I mused). Having been spoiled by the simple charm and quiet of Villa Fabricotti and now finding ourselves an impersonal, large hotel that overlooks a busy square (loud brrrrr-putt-putt-putt of the Vespas and Lambrettas day and night!), we required something of an adjustment.
Before continuing, I’d like to add a couple of anecdotes to our reminiscences of Florence. I need to say that whenever possible Art and I avoid conversations with other Americans. Somehow we feel very much apart from them. Imagine our surprise when as we wandered along the street one afternoon a guy in sunglasses, polo shirt, seersucker pants and white buck shoes– obviously an American!–stopped us. Neither of us recognized him at first, but he clearly knew us! It turned out to be Felix Tomei, the older brother of our Freshman Year roommate, Pete. “Fee” is from Chicago too, and indeed there was something totally wholesome about the guy (in a Midwestern sort of way) including his crew cut and accent. He was on some sort of guided tour and when we showed him the Villa Fabricotti he seemed to look at it longingly. That he’s on a tour is certainly not his fault though God knows it’s the last way I’d want to travel around Europe. Just another way of saying how fortunate Art and I am to be doing this on our own. On the way to dinner–it had been some time since he’d eaten–Fee came out with an expression that we’d never heard before but immediately loved: “I’m so hungry I could eat a warthog’s ass!” Not to worry; we had a delicious (and inexpensive) meal in a small, typical local restaurant. Warthog wasn’t on the menu.
In view of our attempted immersion in all things Italian you’ll be surprised to learn that later that evening we ended up seeing an American cowboy movie! Both Art and I had already seen “Red River” and thought it great. Along with that old Jimmy Stewart & Marlene Dietrich classic “Destry Rides Again” my more recent favorites include “High Noon”, “Shane” and “Bad Day at Black Rock”. “Red River” is better than most. What we didn’t know until the film came on was that it was dubbed in Italian! So there were our heroes: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, John Ireland, Arthur Kennedy and grizzled Walter Brennan (whose cracked voice we often enjoy imitating back at school). When they weren’t running from and shooting at the Comanches (or at each other), these tough men of the West would shout things like “Andiamo amici!” While the lip synchronization was far from perfect it was acceptable. But the voices! Italians just don’t sound like cowboys, at least not these cowboys!
One of many things I love about Italy (and Europe in general) is the church bells. If nothing else, they seem a direct link to the past. While neither of us is in any way religious Art is somehow self-conscious about his Jewishness. On the day when I stood him up in Milan he apparently visited a public bath. I’m not always sure when he’s kidding but he later described a scene where an elderly man pointed him out to his grandson and said, “Mazzu Christ!” (Christ killer!). Whether it really happened or not he told the story in unfailing good humor. Then there’s word for “down” (giu, pronounced “Jew!”), When two workmen unloading a truck kept shouting “Jew” at one another Art loved it!
Despite all that city life offers we’ve begun to tire of it. Partly it’s the heat, partly the noise. During daytime we keep the shutters outside our hotel room drawn which keeps things bearable. But at night in order not to suffocate we keep the windows open. Unfortunately, we’re overlooking a large square abuzz with traffic until around midnight. Then (to our astonishment and initially at least, amusement) as the number of cars and motor scooters gradually diminishes, something new emerges. Groups of men have begun to congregate and engage in animated conversation. For the next few hours they stand there, discussing, arguing, gesticulating, shouting at one another well into the wee hours. “What the hell do they talk about with such emotion at this hour of the night?” we sleepily asked ourselves more than once. The only thing we could conclude is a love of talking! If in some ways this may seem amusing, it can result in serious sleep deprivation. We’d been spoiled by the quiet of Villa Fabricotti. No afternoon siesta here, either! Now that we’ve seen some of the (always beautiful) sights here–the Spanish Stairs, the Roman Forum, etc. we need a rest! We plan to catch the late afternoon train for Naples tomorrow.
Hope all is well at home. More soon.
Capri, July 16, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
My last letter was written as we were about to leave Rome for Naples. Traveling southward has inevitably been accompanied by increasing levels of (or decreasing tolerance of): heat, noise, and a certain seaminess. So you’ll not be surprised that after a night in that city–who was it who said “See Naples and die!”? –we promptly took the ferry to Capri. Before describing our initial impressions (other than to say the island is charming and spectacularly beautiful) I’d like to describe our overnight in Naples. On the train from Rome we tried conversing with others in our compartment. I might add that Italians (in contrast to the French who I love for different reasons), seem genuinely pleased when a foreigner attempts to speak their language. Partway there, a guy came in and sat down across from us. He was going to Naples, too. In the course of our conversation he made a few useful suggestions. First, as regards the luscious looking girls and women who one sees everywhere in this country, it’s okay to look, even ogle approvingly unless she belongs to a Sicilian. In that case: Attenzione! Watch it!
As we approached Naples we asked him to recommend somewhere to stay. He said he knew of just the place, a little hotel near the railroad station. Whereupon Art added: “Siamo studenti poveri” (We’re poor students). Jammed in among the masses of 3rd Class we undoubtedly looked a bit grubby (Art has begun to grow a beard). What he shared seemed plausible enough but since our fathers are (respectively) a physician and an international lawyer and since we’re obviously able to travel freely around Europe, I felt a little self-conscious about the way he described us.
After we left the train (no impermeabile to lose any longer) our friend led us through the noisy mass of humanity that swirled around us. Taking one of us by the arm he stopped now and then to beckon reassuringly to the other. From every direction we were bombarded by a bevy of colorful sights, hard to describe and equally hard not to stare too blatantly. We followed a series of small, narrow streets (some unpaved and littered with garbage) lined on either side by shops brightly lit with strings of electric light bulbs. The sounds and smells, too! Vendors shouting their incantations, cries of ragged children chasing one another and vibrant, blaring music surrounded us. The blend of scents and smells (not all of them unpleasant) permeating the heavy night air were as we might imagine life in a poor Arab country. As depressing as all this may seem neither of us felt threatened or even uncomfortable. It was thrilling!
Before long we arrived at the hotel, a narrow building located halfway down the block of a relatively quiet side street. Its dingy lobby, garishly illuminated by a couple of exposed fluorescent lights didn’t exactly radiate charm. In fact, had our friend from the train not brought us there and introduced us to the thin, bespectacled man who stood behind the desk, I doubt we’d have been tempted to go inside. It turned out that just one room was available at an almost embarrassingly cheap price. We said “Va bene” and thanked our friend who quickly disappeared into the night.
Clutching the knobby key that the hotel owner had given us, we carried our suitcases up a couple of steep flights of stairs and continued along a dimly lit hallway whose creaking floors were embellished by a threadbare carpet. Does this remind you of a movie setting for “Foreign Intrigue”? If so, then I’ve described it well. The room contained a pair of beds in tandem alongside a whitewashed wall (there wouldn’t have been space for two beds side by side), a chair and a small sink. If you stood with outstretched arms you could almost touch the wall on either side. That’s how narrow it was! There were two windows, one (shuttered and closed) looked toward the street while the other opened mysteriously onto a dark, inside stairwell. Not knowing where this staircase led we made sure to bolt the window shut. “I guess I’ve stayed in more elegant places,” Art opined. But fine, we decided. For one night it would do.
We’d been asleep for not more than an hour when a loud noise awakened us. Somewhere above us a door slammed and a woman screamed: “Aaaaagh!” Before we’d had time to react, what was there to do except stay in bed and wonder what the hell was going on? Then the sound of footsteps running down the inside staircase. It must have been the same woman who (at least) had stopped screaming. Instead, her high heels clattered noisily down the stairs. If we’d opened the window we could easily have grabbed her ankles! Moments later all was eerily quiet gain. “Can you believe this?” Art asked. “I don’t know whether I believe it or not,” I replied, wide awake. “But I’m ready to find a quiet little place on the beach in the morning.”
“Sounds good. In the meantime, let’s grab us some shuteye.” Enviably, in less than a minute he was fast asleep.
In the morning we wandered briefly along the shabby streets of Pozzuoli. I’ve always enjoyed cities built close to the sea but by now the still, fetid air was beginning to bother us. When I became aware of two itchy spots on my chest and expressed concern over possible causes (food allergy vs. flea bites?) Art was much amused. Early afternoon found us on board a ferry bound for Capri. Standing on the deck, buffeted by the sea breezes and cooled by the salt spray on our faces we felt rather pleased with ourselves. Still, despite our cheerful mood and as Vesuvius hazily receded into the distance, I was a little ashamed that we’d seen virtually nothing of Naples, not even Pompeii! Maybe we’ll stop off longer on our way back. Art had bought a copy of Oggi, the Italian equivalent of Life. Its cover featured a great photograph of Clark Gable, ever so dashing in a dark blue blazer and white trousers. Gazing into the distance he looked positively aristocratic, coolly elegant, a man very much in charge. In between the index and middle fingers of one hand he held a burning cigarette while the other hand was casually jammed into the side pocket of his blazer. It was a pose that on given occasions (unconsciously or not) we would often try to emulate.
Upon arriving in Capri, a mountainous, green island dotted with pastel-colored houses under tile roofs and a few hotels we were immediately taken by its sensual beauty. The land rises rather steeply behind its colorful little port featuring a few fishing boats and a couple of cafés on a piazza. We’re told that there are some lovely places to visit and that a number of famous people live on the island. Axel Munthe, the Swedish writer, for one, has a house up in Anacapri and then there’s the celebrated Blue Grotto. For the time being I preferred to envision us going for a swim or whiling away hours in a café on the piazza. Just what we wanted! Since we hadn’t made reservations it shouldn’t have surprised us that the hotels were full. A small boy who saw us standing by the ferry with our suitcases and obviously not knowing which way to turn, came to our rescue. He led us a short way uphill and stopped in front of a small pink colored house with bougainvillea climbing up its walls. Yes, a room with a separate entrance was available, the elderly owner said. The price? After some negotiating (Art is better at this than I), not too bad. Perfecto! How long will we be staying, she asked. A few days, we guessed, maybe longer? Although our original itinerary allowed for a mere two days here, something tells me we may be here longer than that. So that brings you up to date. I don’t know what possesses me to write about all this at such length! As you know, for me, writing is part of the enjoyment of travel. Hope you’re both well. More soon.
Paris, August 12, 1955
Dear Mom and Dad,
Not having written in several weeks I trust you received postcards* from Florence, Rome and Capri? Paris is still my favorite city! Sadly, it’s our last stop before setting sail on the S.S. Castel Felice, this time bound for NY. Where has the summer gone? But I digress… When I last wrote we were newly arrived in Capri. As you probably gathered plans to visit Sardinia and Corsica were scratched. The reason for this, pure and simple, is that we ran out of time.
*On second thought I’m not sure that any mail reached you from there! Grandma is probably not alone in claiming that during the (cold) Italian winters the population warms itself by burning tourists’ postcards from the previous summer.
Suddenly, almost stealthily, the two days originally allotted had become nine! After that we had no choice but to head back north, albeit gradually. Even in retrospect I find it hard to explain where all those days went. Without doubt the answer lies in one’s state of mind. We certainly enjoyed days of wandering the streets and museums of the north but were seduced by the warm, languid climate of the south. Almost immediately we fell into a leisurely routine of doing very little and enjoying it thoroughly. I might add that we were not alone in this. I imagine that Capri, like other islands scattered throughout the Mediterranean, has its own population of what shall I call them? Dilettantes? Hedonists? Some who describe themselves as “artists” and a smattering of expatriates. All have taken up summer residence there. We easily blended into this diverse group. What did we have in common? No doubt a love of Capri’s seductively easy life and gentle pace. We also felt utter contempt for those “day trippers” who arrived daily for a guided tour including the obligatory Blue Grotto before moving on. So thoroughly did Art and I adopt this disdainful attitude that neither of us ever saw Axel Munthe’s house nor the Blue Grotto! I admit this with some shame.
Our days began in leisurely fashion with a walk to the piazza for (badly needed) café latte and rolls. In late morning we wandered down to the beach perhaps for a swim in the deliciously clear blue, green water, or some sunning on the beach. I use the term “beach” loosely since, having grown up within easy reach of the fine, white sands of Long Island’s South Shore, I’m spoiled. The beach here and I believe this also pertains to parts of the French Riviera, consists of a narrow strip of small, greyish stones. This notwithstanding it was where we most wanted to be during the late morning hours. Within a few days Art had acquired a deep tan whereas being blessed with fair, freckled skin I had to settle for a mere touch of “color”. And inevitably a painful burn along the way!
After a simple but delicious lunch–usually cannelloni, bread, fruit and wine we retreated to our room for, you guessed it, a siesta. By late afternoon as the shadows grew deeper, the pastel colors more intense and the light more golden, we joined a group of habitués (the way we liked to think of ourselves) for an aperitivo back on the piazza. Campari/soda is my favorite. As you know while seated at a sidewalk café much of one’s attention is focused on passersby–“There goes such and such. Who is she with today? What happened to the guy from last night? There’s a nasty rumor about that fellow, etc.” Now and again as the waiter picks up empty glasses, someone orders a fresh round of cappuccino. The hours pass quickly!
In the evening as an antidote to all that sitting or perhaps in an effort to “walk off” dinner we often took a stroll (back to our “pad”, down to the beach or past one of the hotels, some of which were fairly “posh”). Eventually we’d end up in a certain nightclub. There must have been others on the island but this one was where we were told the “action” was. Actually, there wasn’t much “action”. People sat around in small groups until late into the night, a few danced to the sultry tunes of a small combo. The air was heavy with tobacco. In between conversations among our small circle of acquaintances and as unobtrusively as possible, we glanced at the intriguing types who lurked in the shadows. A tall, thirtyish blond fellow with an obscure tattoo on one arm claimed he was “Swiss”, whereas the scuttlebutt had it that he was a runaway from the French Foreign Legion or even an ex-SS man. His icy, expressionless eyes didn’t encourage one to ask questions. In the periphery stood a slightly sinister middle-aged man dressed in a cool gray suit and those pointy Italian shoes. Wreathed in cigarette smoke and despite the dim light he invariably wore dark sunglasses. Now and again he would murmur something to a companion (I’m tempted to describe him as an “accomplice”) who would then disappear. For us there was a certain excitement in all this: the first time I’d seen someone who was reputedly involved in “drugs”. One of the club’s regulars was a South African woman named Hillary. We’d met her the first evening as she was ordering her third drink. I loved the way she pronounced “Negroni” with the English “O” sound. She’s an attractive woman, probably pushing forty, someone who’s obviously been around a bit. Blond and blue eyed, her face has a rather ruddy complexion which I suspect is not from sun alone. While friendly and even a bit flirtatious I sensed she’d brush off any advances and probably thought of us as “cute.”
In our search for female companionship we had a number of opportunities, some of them lost, others hopeless to begin with. Early in our stay we encountered a girl only a few years our junior who I found intriguing. The product of a marriage between a Hungarian mother and South American father, Stella was intelligent and beautiful in a certain exotic way. I’d never before met anyone like her. Dressed with a flair–silk scarves, rings and the like–she spoke English fluently despite traces of some kind of accent. I’m not sure where her home was but most of the year I believe she attended some (probably elite) boarding school in Switzerland. In retrospect, she was probably a bit of a name-dropper (claimed to exchange an occasional letter with Tennessee Williams!). Yet, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by her. In the end– I realized this belatedly–I spent far too much time sitting around in the vain hope of getting something going. I realize now too that in so doing I lost a golden opportunity with a cute Italian girl from the North named Clara.
Clara! Barely five feet tall and well proportioned she was not unattractive. She spoke no English but a little French, so communication between us was not a problem. Perhaps spurred on by my lack of interest (my attentions being focused on the inaccessible Stella) Clara made known her affections for me in an increasingly overt manner. On our last evening when she and I unexpectedly found ourselves alone on the beach we suddenly went into a passionate clinch. Perhaps it was my foolish infatuation with Stella, added to which (and I’m being painfully honest here) I didn’t know where to go! Art was in the room and finally, I didn’t have a box of what we euphemistically referred to as “supplies”. Either way, mumbling something about “meeting the others” hunched over and feeling like an absolute clod, I tore myself away and stumbled back into “town”. As I think back upon this episode here in Paris, the city of dreams, I’m all the more distraught about blowing a chance that others would die for.
Art has met a Vietnamese girl here named “Joie.” This afternoon I was supposed to meet him in front of her apartment, located a few blocks from our hotel on the Rue Jacob. After waiting for a while I heard my name and looked up. There he was peering down from a top floor window. “I’ll be a while yet. How about I meet you back at the hotel at seven?” he called. From the way he barely showed himself from behind the curtain, I surmised he was naked. “Fine!” I shouted, giving him the thumbs up sign. It’s ok, I thought. I wish him well, and I’m glad if he’s finally getting to use the “supplies” which he’d optimistically bought at his neighborhood drugstore before leaving on this trip.
My own pain and embarrassment was further enhanced when on the way to Paris, as you know, I spent a couple of days with our old friends, the David de Sauzéas. While there I stayed in the guestroom (still referred to as “la chambre de Nicky”). While putting my things away I heard a gentle knock at the door. It was Mme. David. “Je m’excuse, Nicky,” she began, handing me a folded piece of paper. “It’s a telegram that came for you several days ago. I thought it might be important and took the liberty of opening it.” I could see she was blushing. “Since I don’t speak Italian,” she continued, ” I asked Nounou (an Italian woman many years in her employ) to translate.” “Merci, Madame,” I replied. Glancing through it, I too felt color rising in my face. “Il n’y a pas de mal.” “I’m glad everything is fine,” she replied. “We’ll have dinner in about an hour’s time, all right?”
I now turned my attention to the cryptic handwritten message transcribed by an employee of the village’s Bureau de Poste. It was from Clara. Tuo ricordo sempre vivo davanti miei occhi. Ti abraccio. Clara. (“Your memory remains alive in my eyes. I hug you. (signed) Clara.” The thought of immediately returning to Italy flashed through my mind but would have been impossible. Shaking my head in disbelief I cursed my stupidity and felt close to tears.
On one of our first days in Capri as Art and I walked toward the beach, two young women approached. They’d evidently just finished their swim. “Wow” Art said, struck by their unusual attractiveness even before we passed one another. “A couple of babes!” I exclaimed when they were out of earshot. We soon learned their true identity. The exquisite, dark-haired woman, clearly an actress, was Henry Fonda’s second wife. The young girl at her side, blond, blue-eyed with finely chiseled features was Henry’s daughter from a previous marriage. “Jane Fonda,” I mused. “Come to think of it, I can see the resemblance to her old man, in her eyes”. “Someone I know at school, knows her” Art replied. “She goes to a prep school somewhere in Connecticut, I think. Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk to them, later.” I hardly dared hope for such an opportunity but it came later that afternoon. As we made our way up the dusty path from the beach we spied the two beauties coming in our direction. Art is more accomplished at such things so I let him do the talking. Not surprisingly, our efforts went by the boards. Without being impolite they clearly expressed no interest in small talk with a couple of American college boys. For a moment we licked our wounds in silence. Then rather wistfully, Art said, “Oh well…so it goes.” To which I added, “The older one is sure pretty but Jane, she’s a little young…”
“Yeah, just a preppie,” he echoed
Mom and Dad, it’s time I concluded this much too lengthy narrative. And since we’re off to catch the ship tomorrow this will be the last of these letters. In eleven days we’ll be back in the States. You’ll be coming to the pier, I suppose, Mom? I’ve much enjoyed keeping a kind of running diary and hope my letters haven’t been too long or detailed. Along with whatever photographs turn out I expect to have a written record of this unforgettable journey someday, even if we never made it to Sardinia or Corsica! We’re so lucky to have been able to take this trip, at all. Far from being studenti poveri we’re most fortunate in having such supportive parents.
Hoping you’re both well and much looking forward to spending time with you before the fall semester begins.
Nicholas V. Steiner
September 21, 2018