I wake up, disoriented. There is a window to my right but the curtains are drawn and it’s hard to see anything. I sit up and notice another bed next to mine, empty. I pull the curtains aside and get a ground floor view of the hotel’s garage. Yes, I’m in a hotel room in Varese, in Italy. My head is throbbing and I am in need of relieving myself of accumulated bodily fluids. In the bathroom I smell the remaining traces of Robert’s shower gel or shampoo, and trying not to slip, place my feet on a damp towel in front of the toilet. The mirror is clouded in steam, thankfully preventing me from looking at myself. I exit the bathroom and fetch a pair of grey shorts and a white linen shirt from the floor, shaking them a bit before putting them on. The battery on my phone is dead. I connect it to the charger, pick up my sunglasses from the floor, and head toward the hotel restaurant.
I cannot see Robert at first, but after looking outside, I notice him sitting at one of the poolside tables, reading a book. The pool is in the middle of the hotel’s grass covered garden and a green hedge with a backdrop of the Alps surrounds it. I can see the surviving snow on the distant peaks. On my way to the pool I walk past the bar and order a double espresso. The bartender shakes his head. I order an espresso doppio. He nods, smiling. Then I step outside and promptly feel the heat grasping the entire surface of my body. By the time I reach Robert’s table, my clothes stick to my skin like watered down glue.
“We really went hard on that gin last night.” – I say, taking a seat, trying to belch my way out of bloatedness.
“Yes we did, senor.” – he says, resting his book on the table.
“Did we drive back?”
“I think we did.” – he says. “The car’s in the garage.”
“Not the smartest thing we did.”
“Not smart at all.” – he says.
The waiter comes over and serves the coffee. I take a sip and frown at its acidity.
“Yeah, that’s not the coffee’s fault.” – Robert says.
There is a family of four in the pool; the kids are spraying water at each other, the mother is trying to make them stop, and the father is swimming in the direction of the ladder. Another two guys are leaning onto the corner, both of them tattooed, and they are talking about buying and selling designer clothes. They are concerned with formulating the perfect business model. They are not too good at pronouncing brand names.
“Are these guys Serbian?” – Robert asks me.
“Very.” – I say, looking away from them, taking another sip of the coffee.
“So what’s the plan for today?”
“I thought we could go to Stresa.” – I say.
“That’s a fine idea.”
“We should get some breakfast first.”
“We’re late for that.” – he says. “The hotel’s restaurant is closed until lunch.”
“Then we’ll get something on the way.” – I say. “It’s a two-hour drive.”
I finish off the coffee and feel my pockets for cigarettes but find none. The sounds coming out of my stomach tell me I won’t need one to speed up what’s to come. I get up and tell Robert there’s stuff for me to do in the room and that we should meet in front of the garage in half an hour. He agrees, asking me to bring the car keys with me. I walk up the path to the hotel.
In the room, once done with the shower, I check my phone and notice a message from Nataliya, asking what’s up. I check the time and the calendar and then decide to give her a call. She picks up after the first ring tone.
“Hey.” – she says.
“Getting ready for a little road trip today.” – I say. “Going down to Stresa.”
“Well that’s nice.” – she says. “I’m smoking on an office rooftop in Belgrade.”
“Life’s treating you kindly I see.”
“More so than ever, now that I quit the job.”
I trip over the pile of clothes next to my bed.
“Tried giving them two weeks’ notice.” – she continues. “But they begged me to stay for another full month at least.”
“I said it’s fine. Doesn’t make that much difference to me, as long as I’m out of here.”
“What are you going to do then?” – I ask. “Go all entrepreneurial like your mother?”
“Probably. She might help me invest in something. Besides, it’s not like I need a job right now.”
“That’s true I guess.”
“I couldn’t look at any of these faces ever since I came back.”
“You make it sound like you ever could.”
“I feel bad about not seeing your face before you left.”
“Well you only had five days at your disposal.” – I say. “And it’s not like we’re living in the same city. Oh wait…”
“Don’t do that.” – she says. “You don’t know how it is for me.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” – I say. “But I know how it could be.”
“I think I know too.” – she says. “That’s what scares me.”
I hear someone knocking on the window. I turn to it and see Robert pointing to his mouth.
“Is that so?” – I ask.
“When will I see you?”
“As soon as you come back.”
“I have to go now.” – I say. “Some of us are hungry.”
In my underwear and searching for a fresh pair of clothes, I notice the mirror behind the writing desk. I approach it and look at myself. The lack of light makes me look better than I do. I take a bottle of brandy from the desk and snap a picture of it in front of the mirror, catching a reflection of my abs in the background. I send the picture to Nataliya with a caption of “Have you tried this brandy? It’s very good.” I get dressed and walk out to the garage. My phone sounds off with a text message. It says “As soon as you come back.”
We agree for Robert to drive because a Dutch driving license will leave a better impression in case we get stopped by carabinieri. I input our route into the navigation system and before long we are cruising the regional road to Lake Maggiore. The scenery is rich with greenery and clear blue skies, and the open windows bring along a strong aroma of pine. This keeps me from shutting them in favor of air-conditioning, despite the sun burning hotter by the minute. I suggest we play some music and Robert gives me his iPod. I rummage around the glove compartment, find the necessary adapter, and shuffle through his music collection. I play Sound and Vision. Robert says that he considers Bowie to have been the greatest artist who ever lived. I find it harder than I thought to come up with counter-arguments. We drive past a number of roadside restaurants, none of which seem to be open in the early afternoon hours. I then see a sign saying a Carrefour Supermarket is 500 meters away, as we go through one of the many roundabouts. Robert sees it too, and takes a sharp turn, expressing hope for them to have fresh baguettes.
Armed with a dry baguette crumbling under the slightest touch, we continue our drive, dipping the pieces of bread in fat-free Greek yoghurt. The navigation system shows that we have another half an hour until we reach Stresa, but it’s only a couple of minutes before we are given a view of Lake Maggiore unfolding all the way to Switzerland. I indicate this to Robert.
“I fucking hate the Swiss.” – he says.
“So many reasons man.” – he says. “And we’re only here for another two days.”
The road continues to wind along the edge of the lake. There are many boats on the water and the early afternoon breeze is encouraging skippers to spread their sails. From time to time I see a short and narrow patch of beach appear, populated by colorful parasols and children wearing small hats running around in the sun. Their parents are watching them from the shade with half-eaten sandwiches in their hands. Sprawling estates and imposing mansions alternate on the other side of the road, overlooking the lake. I see no people there; only courtyards, terraces and roofs covered in wall shrubs. The sign says five more kilometers until Stresa. I pick up the breadcrumbs from my shirt and the seat and throw them out the window.
As we breach the town’s limits, the traffic slows down. Robert suggests parking the car somewhere along the promenade so as to avoid the miniature side streets. We soon see such a spot and I get out of the car, leaving him with more space to maneuver while I go searching for a parking meter. I find one close by, and helped by an elderly bilingual woman, I manage to purchase a daylong parking ticket.
We then take a walk along the promenade, past the town’s neatly trimmed flower gardens, all violet and in bloom and looking out onto the lake, and a First World War monument dedicated to the Heroes of Stresa who suffered glorious deaths. I read the rest of the inscription.
“Seems like the Swiss were sheltering those who managed to flee across the lake from the frontlines.” – I say.
“Don’t worry.” – Robert says. “They charged for that down the line.”
There are a couple of hotels on the other side of the street, lined against the stroll. I recognize one of them as the Grand Hotel.
“Hemingway stayed at that hotel.” – I say. “Back in the twenties I think.”
“Then there’s drinking to be done there.” – Robert says. “After we get something more to eat?”
Wandering into one of Stresa’s side streets, we encounter a row of souvenir shops featuring miniature Italian flags, collages of postcards, and fridge magnets with images of spaghetti dishes. A crowd is gathered around the swiveling racks. Two guys wearing socks and sandals are discussing which magnets to buy. “Yeah, but she’s not really a fan of Carbonara.” – one of them says. “That’s why it’ll be a good joke.” – the other responds. Leaving Abbott and Costello behind us, we see a sign advertising a nearby osteria. We head in its direction and it seems like we’re approaching someone’s house. Once we draw closer I see a backyard door and a menu pinned to it. The yard is small and busy and we are lucky to get the last remaining table, shaded by the vine leaves. I order a beef tagliata and Robert goes for tortellini. We get a carafe of red wine to go along.
“I love Italian food, but I could never eat it the way Italians do.” – I say.
“What do you mean?”
“Well the whole antipasto, primo, secondo piatto stuff. I can barely walk if I go through all the stages.” – I say. “I get why they go to sleep straight after.”
The waitress brings the wine and pours it for us.
“This is some good wine.” – Robert says, twirling it around his glass, smelling it.
“Those are some good-looking women.” – I say, nodding toward the door.
Two brunettes; one of them curly haired, the other cropped short, both wearing flowing flowery dresses, are standing at the entrance and talking to the waitress. The waitress shrugs her shoulders. The brunettes turn around, their dresses rising slightly as they do so, and leave.
“We could’ve offered them a seat.” – Robert says.
“Nah, it’s cool.” – I say, lighting a cigarette.
“You were acting like this last night as well.” – he says, looking at me. “Even after we went down the gin & tonic rabbit hole.”
“So it’s getting kind of obvious, huh?”
“Kind of.” – he says, taking more of the wine. “Whoever she is.”
“It’s a long story.” – I say. “And so far similar to the Swiss one.”
“As in you fucking hate her?”
“As in the perks are waiting down the line.”
The waitress comes over and serves us the food. She pours us more wine and we order another carafe.
“Here’s to going straight for the main course.” – Robert says, raising his glass.
We finish the meal and the second carafe, and we are on the streets of Stresa again. I feel the wine working, refining and softening every image and smell around me, as we make our way back toward the promenade. The crowds in front of the souvenir shops are still there, but I hear no conversations, only noise. Shuffling through the throng of people, I gaze upward at one of the houses rising above all of the others. The top floor has an iron fence balcony, a small table and two chairs, commanding a view of the lake. I hear Robert calling and see him some ten meters in front of me.
Passing through the gate of the Grand Hotel, I see a plaque saying it was opened in 1863. We walk across the gravel grounds of the hotel’s garden, our shoes producing the lone sounds in the nearby radius.
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s here.” – Robert says as we reach the doors to the hotel.
“It’s the middle of the season.” – I say, trying to look through the glass.
The receptionist sees us from the inside and gestures for us to take a seat at one of the garden tables. Soon, a middle-aged man wearing a white linen suit with a black bow tie welcomes us and asks us what we’d like to drink. We’re both of the opinion that it’s too hot to continue with red wine.
“I’m not sick of gin & tonic.” – I say, shifting my look from the waiter to Robert.
“Have you ever had Pimm’s?” – Robert asks.
“No.” – I say. “And before you ask, I’m also not a fan of cricket and bathroom sinks with separate taps.”
“Really?” – Robert says. “I suppose gin & tonic was invented by Serbian revolutionaries then.”
“Fair enough.” – I say. “I’ll have a Pimm’s.”
We order two Pimm’s and the waiter thanks us, bowing in the process.
Our table is one of the four surrounding the hotel’s entrance, all of them made of wrought iron and colored white, and all of them vacant. The hedges in the garden are trimmed to different shapes and sizes, but are identical in the amount of attention given to every detail, including the matching colors of flowers crowning their tops. The waiter arrives, carrying two tall glasses on a silver tray, serving them together with a bowl of peanuts on the side. There is a teaspoon in the bowl and I use one to put a couple of seeds in the palm of my hand.
“This makes you think twice before grabbing a handful in bars and pubs.” – I say.
“Yeah.” – Robert says. “Hard to avoid the lovely urine residue from the hands of Ajax’s most faithful this way.”
“I like the drink.” – I say, taking the straw out of the chilled glass.
“And it’s a cool fucking garden.”
“That it is.” – he says, looking around. “And damn luxurious. I don’t see how Hemingway could afford it back then.”
“It was a different time back then.” – I say, taking another sip. “A better time.”
“Every period has its own advantages.”
“Of course.” – he says. “It just comes down to what you choose to focus on.”
“I’m not sure it’s a matter of choice though.” – I say. “I’d say it’s more about what you like or don’t like and how much of that surrounds you.”
“I think we should surround ourselves with another round of drinks.” – Robert says, draining his glass in three large swallows.
“I don’t mind if we do.” – I say, doing the same, then making a circular hand gesture to the waiter.
An elderly tourist couple enters the garden and starts to take pictures. The waiter comes out with our drinks on his tray and asks them if they’d like a table. They turn around and leave. The waiter serves us another pair of Pimms’.
“What would be your favorite period?” – I ask Robert.
“Oh, I can imagine equally well being miserable throughout history.”
“Robert always liked looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.”
“What about you?” – he asks. “Paris in the twenties?”
“That doesn’t sound like a lucky guess.” – I say.
“Probably because you said it a hundred times before.”
“I’d settle for California in the sixties as well.”
“You said that too.”
“The old man himself wrote a good line about all that.” – I say. “Something like- we had good times in all kinds of good places, but the times were never good.”
“Uh-huh. That pretty much sums it up for me.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s as true a way of putting it as any.” – I say, pulling my phone out of the pocket. I look at the screen and put it back, then take a sip of the drink.
“But this shit.” – I say, patting my pocket. “I wonder how much of our time will be shaped by us and how much of it will be shaped by technology.”
“I don’t really see a difference between the two.”
“Why? Because we’re the ones that made it?”
“We’re developing some absurd habits man. I fear we’ve killed off the little that was left of our capacity for patience.”
“Doing things in a faster and easier way is something we’ve always wanted to do. Technology helps us accomplish that. The skies are blue and the clouds are white.”
“Now you really do sound like the owner of a start-up.” – I say. “The owner of a start-up throwing a red herring in the air.”
“Co-owner, still.” – he says, holding his hand up. “Why do you think it’s a red herring?”
“Because it’s implying a clear-cut directionality of a kind. Like there’s a pot of gold at the end of this whole technological rainbow, with no risk of it backfiring on us.”
“A rainbow that backfires.” – he says, taking another sip. “And here I was, afraid you were going to say something ridiculous.”
“A pot of dynamite was what I was aiming for.”
“Still, that’s a hell of a deterministic way to think.”
“We were never too good at getting what we want because we’re cursed to always want more. And so one day we’ll wake up to find we’ve become one with the damn thing, and that we are left without every bit of the essence that makes us human.”
“And what’s that essence?”
“I don’t know.” – I say. “Having this conversation, I guess.”
“There’s a name for that, you know? It’s called over-romanticizing.”
“Look on the bright side.” – I say, cleaning out the rest of my glass. “It’s not like we’ll live to see who’s right.”
“Now that calls for another round.”
“How about switching to gin & tonic?” – I say, swirling the slice of apple with the melted ice in my glass. “This stuff is good, but weak.”
The waiter comes over and takes the order. Robert asks him for directions to the toilet and proceeds to follow them. I light a cigarette and go back to studying the garden. A pigeon striped with grey and white feathers is waddling toward our table. It stops next to Robert’s chair and flings itself onto it. It stays on the chair and looks at me, tilting its head. It then jumps on the table and starts pecking the peanuts from the bowl. I chase it off and it flies a couple of meters away, continuing to waddle across the ground, shifting its gaze between me and the bowl. The gin & tonics arrive a moment before Robert comes back to the table. We clink our glasses and take sips of the drink, praising the presence of cucumbers in it.
Midway through the glass I feel my turn for the pressure build-up in the lower pelvis area. Robert tells me how to find the toilet. I enter the hotel, the receptionist bowing as I pass him by, and reach a hallway that stretches on both sides. I turn right, as instructed, and continue walking. The hallway is adorned by rows of golden-framed paintings featuring a combination of individual and family portraits on one side, and panoramas of the lake on the other. A spotless red velvet carpet forms a path to the end of the hall where I reach another intersection, and turn left for the toilet. I relieve myself and wash my hands, acknowledging the effects of the day’s sun on my face. Exiting the toilet, I see the entrance to the hotel’s spa a couple of steps in front of me, its doors open. I see no one around and enter. Inside, the only noise is coming from the nearby hot tub. I go further into the spa and notice a sliding door leading to the back garden where I see a pool, the water on its surface still like it’s solid. There are wooden sunbeds enveloping it, with no one on them.
I head back the way I came from and stop at the reception desk to enquire about the available accommodation options. They present me with a leather-bound folder that displays a variety of rooms, apartments, and suites, most of which border on a four-figure Euro price tag. One item exceeds it. I drag my finger across the page and see that it’s called the Hemingway suite.
Back at the table, I finish my drink as the sun dips to the other side of the hotel, leaving us in complete shade. I see that most of the boats have docked. The few that haven’t are faintly rocking at scattered points across the lake. We ask for the check. The waiter brings it over. The total amounts to half of a room price.
“Not the smartest thing we did.” – Robert says, as we go back to the promenade.
“Not smart at all.” – I say, smiling.