A memorable journey to the Dolomites in Italy

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Even a mountain can be a needle in a haystack.

My mountains used to be in my great-grandma's apartment, close enough to touch, in a painting that she and my great-grandpa bought in 1955 after a trip through the Italian Alps. The many evenings that I spent with her as a little girl were filled with games of honeymoon bridge, and I used to crawl under her table to organize my cards, my fingers being too small to hold them all. Hiding down there, I would look past the table legs and up toward her cathedral ceiling to admire the painting on the wall.

I know what my great-grandma would have said if I'd told her that one day I was going to find the mountains in that painting -- the three spiky peaks and the big burly one next to them, the velvety hills and the crooked church in the foreground: "When pigs fly." It was one of her favorite sayings.

But unlikelier things have happened. In October 1955, she was living in Germany, several thousand miles from home, where her Army officer husband had been stationed after the war. They were about to leave for their honeymoon -- that's what they called their Italian holiday, having been penniless when they'd eloped right out of high school 25 years earlier. And she, an Ohio girl who never thought she'd make it east of the Appalachians, was going to see the Alps.

My great-grandma wasn't much of a talker, and her husband died before I was old enough to know him, so it's difficult to say what the mountains of northeastern Italy meant to her. In a 12-page letter to her daughter in the United States, a missive in which she detailed every stop on the trip in her lacy Old World handwriting, she wrote a single sentence on the mountains: "The Dolomites were indescribably beautiful -- no rain here."

But there was always the fact of the painting, which was actually the larger and more striking of two mountain landscapes that they bought at the end of the trip. You might not pause over such a purchase. But my great-grandma turned 16 two days after Black Tuesday and had her first child at the height of the Great Depression. She was not the type of lady who toured Europe collecting artwork. Even after I was born, when she had no financial worries, she used pencils to knit me a blanket instead of wasting money on knitting needles.

So why did they buy two paintings instead of one or neither? And why, when my great-grandma moved into a retirement home, did she hang the paintings so that her recliner gave her a better view of the mountains than of the TV or the window, her other outlets on the world?

There was something about those mountains.

* * *

The big painting has hung in my parents' dining room since my great-grandma died in 2002, but I always look past it in its new spot. I hadn't thought of it until two years ago, when my best friend, Chiara -- whom I met when she was an exchange student from Italy at my high school in Ohio -- and her parents took my family to Switzerland. They wanted us to see the Matterhorn, the mountain re-created in the Disney bobsled ride.

Some people say that the mountains make you feel close to God. Looking at the Matterhorn, I found myself thinking about my great-grandma. That was when I decided to find the mountains in her painting.

So I sent my Italian friends a photo of the painting. Bruna, Chiara's mother, had grown up in northeastern Italy and said right away that if the mountains were real, they were in the Dolomites. Their rosy tinge, which the Dolomites take on especially in the evening, gave it away.

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