1973 – Somewhere in France
I stole a weary glance at my 17-year-old classmate Ronald, trying to hitch a ride on the hottest day that summer, so far.
Having started our trip in Holland two days earlier, our progress on the ‘Autoroute du Soleil,’ the principal freeway between Paris and the French Riviera, had virtually grinded to a halt. Nobody seemed willing to give us a ride; most drivers weary from the dense traffic and suffocating heat. The hour was getting late, but a bright full moon transformed the night into a surrealistic kind of movie-scene.
My attention was drawn to a car in the distance, stopping briefly to drop off a passenger, and I watched the silhouette of a young woman disappear into the moon-cast shadow of a Chestnut tree, only to reappear moments later, as she stepped into the moonlight. Intrigued by her exotic appearance, I noticed she was evaluating us cheekily as she approached us wearing a radiant smile.
“Ciao, I’m Catharina. Could you guys keep me company while I figure out how to get to Italy from here? I’m a bit squeamish alone at night.”
Her piercing gaze showed no sign of inhibition, as she engaged us in conversation in a quite candid manner. An exchange of introductory small-talk followed during which I forced myself to say something coherent, feeling inexplicably tense but exultant at the same time. Ronald, essentially an introverted person, rolled up his sleeves in a feeble attempt to maintain his composure.
Minutes later, seated on the grass of the meadow bordering the road, Catharina was asking me direct and personal questions that I found myself incapable of dodging. A weird sense of being complete strangers and best friends at the same time added to the hallucinatory quality of our first encounter.
Fidgeting with his transistor-radio, as if trying to find a news channel, Ronald made himself scarce, as if he instinctively appreciated our need for female privacy. Looking alienated, he wandered off, holding the radio to his ear. I felt I should have called out and ask him to come back – convince him there was no reason he should feel excluded, but for some reason I suppressed that impulse. Catharina’s mesmerizing presence restrained me and lulled me into a state of indifference regarding his emotions.
As a consequence, our dialogue became even more transcendent and private. When an owl in a nearby tree cried its oohoo into the night, in a reflex my gaze was drawn to its sound, but when I turned my attention back to Catharina, I could have sworn she had moved in closer…
She told me she was from Catania, Sicily, but currently lived with her mother and small brother in the port city of Genoa, on the Ligurian Sea.
Suddenly she looked at me with a crooked smile. “Do you like boys?”
Feverishly trying to articulate an encompassing answer, I felt I was starting to blush, but managed to blurt out in my defense: “Sure I do, what’s wrong with that?”
Her gaze became unfocused as she stared into the far distance. “Just asking… so you and Ronald…”
Wondering why her question made me feel uneasy, I felt a pressing need to finish her sentence before she would.
“… Are just good school-friends! – He’s a wonderful person and the best travel companion I could wish for!”
All of a sudden she seemed to have lost all interest in me formulating a defense, and I waited for what seemed like forever for her to make a final assessment. She quietly reclined and rested on her elbows.
“I see… Well, it doesn’t concern me anyhow…”
Feeling inexplicably cornered, I was hoping intensely she wouldn’t be able to sense my apprehension. Then something re-activated my vocal chords, and I looked her in the eye.
“No… it really does not concern you.”
Looking relaxed and serene, Catharina returned my gaze.
“Good, I’m glad we’ve got that covered. Now tell me… do you like girls?”
Obviously, I should have seen this question coming as a logical sequel, still nothing could have prepared me for it.
“I, eh, I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Of course, you do, dear Angelica.”
She leaned over to me while stealing a glance at Ronald in the distance.
“You are the reason I’m still here, and you just sent your friend off for a stroll.”
Feebly attempting to voice an objection, I never managed to speak my peace. We just glared at one another in silence. Finally, Catharina took a deep breath.
“I realize this makes you uncomfortable. It shouldn’t, you know; I can pick out a girl’s girl a mile away.”
My heart skipped a beat when she softly put her hand on my knee.
“I’m not a girl’s girl!”
Out of earshot, rolled up in his sleeping bag, Ronald was still soundly asleep when the first-bird twitter made me aware of the breaking of dawn. Although mentally recharged from our extensive conversations, I felt hung over from passing a sleepless night, and unable to rid myself completely of a gloomy feeling that an indefinite tragedy was in the making. Catharina, on the other hand, looked fresh as a rose petal, as if she just had her eight-hour beauty sleep.
Having woken Ronald, and contemplating the promise of another scorcher of a day, we had breakfast in the open air with bread and cheese from a nearby shop. Catharina’s behavior towards Ronald was civil, with only a hint of indifference. Still she invited us both to come with her to Genoa, with the promise of a place to stay in her mother’s apartment. Ronald looked uneasy about this suggestion, and tried to express various objections, but as we hadn’t settled upon a final destination for our trip beforehand, he sulkily agreed to come along.
We were munching our sandwiches in silence, when Catharina suddenly got up, and walked in her hip-swaying manner over to a telephone booth in the distance. She spent at least ten minutes in what seemed to be an animated conversation; her gesticulations confirming her origins. Upon her return she looked somewhat subdued, and didn’t speak while we were packing our stuff, getting ready for another day of travel.
A black Mercedes with a German license plate stopped with screeching brakes at Catharina’s first thumb-sign. The seemingly sympathetic middle-aged driver helped us put our bags in the trunk, and away we sped southwards, the sun as our beacon.
The German gentleman dropped us off in picturesque Montreux, on the Swiss Riviera. Saying goodbye, and thanking him for the ride, I was completely surprised when he pressed a 20 D-Mark note in my hand. He explained he had a daughter my age that ran away from home, and desperately wished someone would do her the same favor one day.
Things are looking up; I thought as we used the D-Marks to buy enough provisions to last us for days. Carrying our bags to the nearest highway, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a swarm of enormous bumblebees that appeared to come out of holes in the ground. They didn’t sting or attack us, but as there were so many of them, in a reflex, we started to run for safety. Ronald used a plastic plate he brought along as a bat to keep them at bay. Out of breath we reached a place in the shadow, while Ronald, watching over us, bashed the last giant bees with his plate.
Relieved and feeling safe again, we teased one another apprehensively about our exaggerated reaction, and Catharina, standing behind me, whispered in my ear: “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
With a jolt, I realized she had touched my earlobe with her lips…
Our next three rides brought us all the way to Genoa’s city limits, from where we took the subway to Catharina’s home. The concierge, at the end of the entrance corridor of the apartment building, obviously knew Catharina well. She limped out of her booth to greet her with a grating voice and a smile that revealed a single tooth, and then pressed the button for the elevator. Packed together like sardines in the small cabin, the three of us were hauled noisily upwards to the fifth floor, where it came to a halt with a groan and a loud click.
Catharina’s mother, a small, gentle woman wearing an apron, was standing in the doorway. To my surprise she embraced us jovially as if we were family, and ushered us into her apartment where the air was pregnant with the scent of fresh Basil and Garlic. Following her inside, I noticed a rusty enamel plaque next to the door featuring a faded number 5*. Within minutes, we were seated around the kitchen table, relishing a most tantalizing ‘Spaghetti Al Pesto Alla Genovese.’
(continued in: Chapter Two – Latin Dreams)
(continued in: Chapter Two – Latin Dreams)