Memoir

The View from Lake Como: A Memoir by Ken Kalfus

Bench at edge of Lake Como, Italy
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By Ken Kalfus
Sunday, July 12, 2009

I flew from Rome into JFK one sweltering Tuesday afternoon in the summer of 1972, wearing, absurdly (and this is only the first of many absurdities that I'm about to relate), a Panama hat and a black turtleneck sweater, around which I had loosely wrapped a silver tie. I may have had an unlit cigar, too. Although I wasn't costumed remotely like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," and Don Corleone was from Sicily, and the movie was set in New York, and I don't think I had even seen it yet, in the course of the nonstop flight I had worked up an entire routine of "Godfather"-related jokes and imitations to present to my family once I left customs. It was the season of "Godfather" jokes.

But no one was there to meet me.

This moment, in which I stood alone with my bags in the arrivals hall perspiring heavily, occurred within a series of similar moments in my life as an 18-year-old, when one piece of foolishness or another had frequently placed me in an unfortunate situation. In the past two weeks, I had rushed around Italy without a clear thought, made useless purchases, adopted unsustainable poses and sung Lerner and Loewe. I didn't need to check my pockets now. I already knew I didn't have enough change to call home.

***

The foolishness began, as it often does, with the New York Mets, who one Thursday evening a few weeks earlier were down a run against the Cubs in the ninth, but had put a man on base. I was sitting on our backyard porch with my parents after dinner, listening to the game. I was also turning some pages in the Times, when a full-page ad for Pan Am seized my attention. "Look at this," I said, "a $167 round trip to Rome."

My father, a master of the grand gesture, responded immediately. He snapped his fingers, pointed one at me, and said, "If the Mets win, I'll send you."

The next batter tied the game, and five perilous innings later Willie Mays, newly repatriated to New York, won it with a single to right-center.

Grand gesture or not, neither my parents nor I were comfortable with the trip's extravagance without at least some reason for it beyond a timely base hit. My recent high school graduation wouldn't serve: A European vacation wasn't a typical graduation present then, at least not among people we knew. Fortunately, we weren't inclined toward rigor.

My dad, a small businessman who had recently obtained his high school equivalency diploma and was now pursuing a bachelor of arts degree, was taking an evening art history class. He was not an especially keen student, though he had read with interest about (or at least heard about) the great Swiss 19th-century art historian Jacob Burckhardt, a pioneer in the study of the Italian Renaissance. We concocted the plan that I would go abroad to do research for a thesis paper, perhaps on Burckhardt's travels in Italy, that my dad would write the following year.

I was off to Rome within days. From the moment the winning run crossed the plate, I was hurtling forward with excitement, tumbling airborne through the night, descending to a foreign runway, bursting from customs, jumping onto a bone-rattling, scooter-jostling city bus, elated to be traveling on my own, with a grossly inflated estimate of my competence to do so. The sense of motion was overwhelming, imbuing me with the conviction, not for the first time, that my commonplace childhood had ended and that my life of adult adventure was about to begin. Still exhilarated, I arrived in the Eternal City and checked myself into the first cheap hotel.

It was only late that night when I had come to a halt in what proved on inspection to be a noisy, fly-blown, overlit dive, that the vagueness and speciousness of my mission struck home. All the forward momentum of the past few days had dead-ended in a grim cubicle haunted by the jet lag of travelers past. My elation congealed. I wondered if I had even wanted to go to Italy; what if I had opened the paper to an Air France ad for Paris? I couldn't sleep. I was marooned there with a single novel, an Allen Drury doorstop, "The Throne of Saturn," as ill-chosen as the hotel.

***


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