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Refuge in paradise: a fictional memoir.

Now that I haven't had a paycheck for two months, and my new job doesn't start for another couple of weeks, I'm reminded of the first time in my life I felt desperately poor.

The place was Italy; the time, 1987. It was the second week of August in Sorrento, and the day's sweaty palms were beginning to ease their grip on our throats. My mother and I had had our money and papers stolen in Pompeii just a few hours earlier.

In Naples, after a tour of Castel Nuovo, where cobblestones smelled not of the fine dust of ancient Europe but of cheap red wine and sardines, the tour guide insisted that we visit a church with the relics of St. Januarius. The name of this patron saint of Naples made me think of snow. Standing in the cool vault, enveloped by stale aromatic air, I was overcome by a nostalgic recollection. In my daydream, I saw a wintry landscape from my native country: snowdrifts, a frozen river, hoar-frost on power lines. In my dream, I was kissing a girl whose face I couldn't recognize; the lips, however, tasted warm and familiar. My vision came down crushing against stone slabs of the church floor when an elderly guard pulled me by the sleeve:

"Take off your hat, mister, take your hat off. You're in a sanctuary!" The guard pointed his blackened finger at my boater with a blue ribbon. He was enraged by my obliviousness.

In severely broken Italian--a mixture of freshman Latin, infinitives, and near-native gesticulation--I proceeded to explain to the guard that Jews didn't uncover their heads in the presence of the Almighty, but rather kept them covered at all times, and especially inside a Temple.

The guard apparently discerned just one word from my lengthy explication--"synagogue"--and his face turned purple.

"Synagogue! But this is a Christian church! Take your hat off, you..." and here the guard fell short of words. "You're standing near the relics of St. Januarius. Take your hat off or leave the sanctuary!"

I should've taken my hat off. I shouldn't have laughed at the old zealot. But I was thinking of snow in my native country.

The next stop on our excursion route was Pompeii. My knowledge of the place came from a Russian classical painting by Karl Briullov, "The End of Pompeii," depicting the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. I remembered the panic-stricken Roman women and men in crimson togas running out of their homes and being swept off their feet by swirling lava. There was nothing tragic or solemn in what I actually saw. Fancy a twenty-year-old who examines--in the company of his own mother--frescoes of men copulating with women, other men, and animals! Picture dwarfs with hooves and enormous members. Imagine the dry heat of an early afternoon in August in Pompeii! Try to visualize us: two refugees from Russia standing on petrified lava under the dome of azure sky amid what used to be the walls of the Temple of Venus!

I had a backpack in those days, the only backpack I've ever owned. It was a present from an American girl whom I had courted in Moscow the winter before leaving Russia for good. The blue backpack, now dangling behind my back, contained my wallet, a folded anorak, and an address book with the names and addresses of everyone I knew in the whole world. The old wallet was made of yellow pigskin; it was bulky and didn't fit in any of my pockets. In it were seventy us dollars--our spending money for the trip--and two refugee travel documents, my mother's and my own. My father volunteered to stay behind in Rome, since we could afford only two tour packages.

I'll never find out what actually happened. A group of us was heading back to the tour bus. I told my mother I would go look for a drinking fountain. The modern Pompeii is a grid of petrified memories--narrow streets lined with roofless houses. I turned into a lane near me, and sure enough, it brought me to a fountain. The rest was like a mirage: I remember putting my backpack down on a bench a few feet away from the source, then drinking my fill and letting tepid water pour over my head and shoulders. Then I turned to the wide bench of pink granite where my backpack had been just a few moments before, but there was nothing there. Alone I stood amid what used to be a Roman city of pleasure. I searched in vain for signs of a bright blue that would've been clearly visible against the backdrop of Pompeii's pale stones. Only the late afternoon sky of southern Italy was a deep blue over my head, a deep blue of omniscience.

What was I to do? Which side street to take in that labyrinth of crumbling walls? I began to doubt my own sanity. Might I have left the backpack in the Amphitheater? The House of the Tragic Poet or the House of the Faun? The Forum? The Temple of Jupiter? I dashed back and forth, trying to orient myself. I struggled to recall a point of reference, a fresco, a phallic relief, a garbage can, anything. Now all Pompeiian houses looked the same to me, all men on the frescos alike, ugly goat-men with dirty manes of curly hair. In my panic, I could still remember that I was late, that a whole bus was waiting for me at the parking lot. I ran for all I was worth. My poor mother took the news stoically. But our fellow-refugees on the bus showed no signs of compassion. It was almost as though they'd left their goodness behind the turnstile of the Soviet passport control. "Enough is enough," a piano teacher from Minsk yelped right in my face. "We'll be late to Sorrento." (As if one could ever be late to Sorrento!) "You will never find your little backpack," grumbled a dentist from Pinsk. "You'll get yourself a new one in America." "Will your mama spank you?" asked a five-year-old girl from Dvinsk traveling with a deaf grandmother.

I begged the tour guide to give me ten more minutes. I ran to the museum office, hoping they would have a Lost & Found room. There were three men in the office, the Italian park rangers as it turned out, dressed in half-uniform, half-fiction and speaking less English than I Italian. They asked to see my passport.

"I don't have one. It was in the backpack."

"But we need to see your papers before we can initiate a search in the National Park. How do we know that you're not attempting to collect someone else's possessions?"

"Please understand, my papers are in my wallet. The wallet is, or was, in the blue backpack, and the backpack is missing."

"We're sorry, mister, but there is nothing we can do under the circumstances. You can try calling here to see if something turns up. But if I were you," and the officer gave me a mortician's smile, "I would go to the carabinieri. They deal with foreigners."

On the bus leaving Pompeii behind, mother and I both felt completely alone among the other Russian refugees. Now without transit papers to America, we felt reduced to being mere figures of the past. Our predicament was especially absurd because we had two more days of the trip that were paid for, and we couldn't just disembark and head back to Rome where our duplicate refugee documents would eventually be issued. We had some twenty dollars in our pockets, and no one was our helper. Now, as we approached Sorrento, our tour guide informed the group that on a clear day one could see Capri off the tip of the Sorrento peninsula. The island of Capri was the final destination of our trip.

How can I describe that evening in Sorrento? A scratched print of a Technicolor film that I both shot and acted in. Faded colors and blunted sensations. And one acute feeling: longing. The Sirens lured and tempted Odysseus from this harbor. Sorrento was an eternal tune I'd known since my Russian childhood, and yet I was an outcast in its squares and thoroughfares. Growing up behind the iron curtain, I yearned to see Sorrento. I was drawn to this place and its lore. I knew that many great writers had trod these streets and sat in these trattorias. I used to picture them in my head as I gazed at February-gray snowdrifts from my bedroom window in Moscow. What were they thinking about as they smoked their papirosy and sipped Italian wine? Did they miss their native lands? Gorky's Volga, flooding far and wide in the spring; Ibsen's foggy and mysterious Christiania... I didn't miss Russia. I mean of course I missed it, but I knew that there was no going back. What I longed for in Sorrento was some stability, so uncertain was my future, now even more unsettled without papers and money.

Store windows loomed with silver and turquoise. Young glamorous couples devoured each other's mouths right in the middle of human traffic. Bands played "Come Back to Sorrento," and my mother and I were doing our best not to think of the meaning of the song's words. We bought ourselves two slices of the cheapest pizza we could find, and wandered from one outdoor cafe to another, listening to bands playing and too shy to grab a table. Finally, we found a cafe that did not intimidate us as much as did others, and occupied a corner table away from where the band played and other tourists sat over large plates with salads and pasta dishes. When the waiter finally spotted us, we asked to see the menu as though we had intention of ordering a meal. When the waiter came back, I asked to see the dessert menu. "We changed our mind. Not hungry," I explained. We ordered two scoops of gelato, a pistachio and a watermelon, and requested some tap water with it. The waiter measured us with his eye the way a patrician looks at a beggar. He brought a dish with two tiny scoops and one spoon, and didn't bother with the water. No ice cream ever tasted as good as the one Mother and I shared in Sorrento at sunset.


There was a time when Paradise was accessible by land. One could leave behind Sorrento with its worldly hustle and bustle, the vanity of its fancy crowds, the overpriced restaurants and haunting gelato stands. One could simply abandon this domain of pickpockets and street musicians, and walk across a narrow isthmus to the most perfect place on the face of the earth. And then one day a natural catastrophe sank the rocky link with the mainland, making Capri into an island, now reachable by water. But all the same, one could still get there somehow!

In the morning, after a breakfast of bread, cheese, and peaches, we boarded a ferry, run by Navigazione Libera del Golfo. The ferry was an identical twin of the one that used to circulate between the left and right banks of the Moscow River during my childhood. An old invalid of a ferry: peeling paint, squeaky doors, retirement-age crew. As the ferry slowly approached the island of our final destination, Mother and I sat on the upper deck, recounting the misfortunes of the previous day. The closer we got to Capri, the lighter we felt, the easier it was to let go.

We had eight hours to explore Capri, a little over ten dollars between the two of us, and half a roll of film in an old camera my late grandfather had brought from Germany among other trophies of 1945. Our eyes did most of the shooting, and those photographs are still fresh in my memory. We walked everywhere that day. First, a turbulent tourist crowd carried us to Piazza Umberto I with its busy cafes and shops, with German and English humming in our ears. We read daily menus--scribbled down on black slates--as if they were concert programs. An overture: insalata caprese (mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil). Enter first violin: rabbit cooked with vinegar and rosemary. Lemon sweets, limoncelli, like trills of piccolo.

The island of Capri, as we soon learned from a public map, consists of two towns, Capri and Anacapri, and a few smaller communities. We decided to ascend as high as our feet would bring us; we knew we wouldn't have the money to pay for a chairlift from Anacapri to Monte Solaro. We strolled through a public garden with almond bushes and a few couples of blond well-groomed men in sight. My mother noticed a counter with hundreds of dark-green bottles: perfumes made with local ingredients. "What scents do you have.?" I asked a long-legged salesgirl, clad in soft yellow. "We have everything," and her fingers lifted one of the bottles, opened it, and let my mother, and then me, sniff it. It smelled like blossoming almonds. She then picked another vial and let us smell its contents. It wafted the coolness of an ocean breeze. The Italian girl now held almond blossoms in her right hand, ocean breeze in her left, and smiled at us. "We can mix those scents in your favorite proportion." I thought of asking whether they could recreate scents from a description--a fresh haystack, a woman's hair after a long-drawn bath--but I didn't have the words to explain this either in English or in Italian.

There are places every Russian hopes to visit. Paris is one of them, Rio de Janeiro another, Capri the third. Once you've visited those places, you can die a happy person. Mother and I found an open cafe on a mountain terrace with a view of the entire Bay of Naples. We ordered one tea and one piece of lemon pastry; the tea came in a little pot of stainless steel, with a choice of lemon or milk. We weren't sorry to part with seven more dollars.

"Do you remember Heiman?" mother asked matter-of-factly as she took a sip of tea.

"Yes, I do, very well. Why?"

"It was always his dream to come here one day. He knew every detail about this island. From reading."

Heiman taught music theory at the Moscow Conservatory. He was of Polish-Jewish stock, and he never spoke of his origins. His friends surmised that his parents were killed by the Nazis. Heiman had a tinge of the Polish accent in his sibilants. Music and poetry were the only countries he hadn't disavowed. He was married to his former graduate student, a gentle Slavic blonde with green eyes and ever-blushing cheeks. They had a son my age, who became a boxer and won a couple of major tournaments. As far back as I can remember Heiman, he was always working on the same book, an interpretation of Stravinsky's career. He would come home after a day of teaching music, drop his weathered briefcase in the hallway, and proceed to the piano in his winter coat and fur hat. He would play for an hour, usually from Stravinsky's fugues, sometimes pausing in the middle of a phrase. On a late afternoon in March, two years before our departure from Russia, Heiman's wife found him dead at the piano.

"I'm sorry he never got to see Capri," Mother said after a long silence. "I mean in his lifetime. I wonder what he would've thought."

There we were, Mother and I, sharing a cup of tea almost at the peak of this mountain-island. It seemed that the whole world lay at our feet. We were penniless, without any proof of our identity. Moreover, we were between countries. Our lives were in flux, but we felt so remarkably tranquil, as though Destiny held its weightless hands on our shoulders.

At the table next to ours, an American couple sat down to lunch. He had a great belly and wore a red baseball hat. She had a triple chin, and modeled Gypsy-like silver earrings with turquoise stones, probably purchased from a local vendor. The sanguine waiter brought them two plates with club sandwiches, two bottles of Coca-Cola, and two long narrow glasses. The sandwiches were gargantuan and emitted fine smells of smoked meats and honey mustard. Silent and content, the Americans were biting into their sandwiches and gulping Coca-Cola.

They were so blissfully comfortable in their own skin, so untouched by fears and inhibitions, so unworried about their future. They were so incredibly American, as though they carried around them invisible bubbles filled with the air of their native Ohio or Pennsylvania. The Americans were calling each other "hun" and "luv." They were exchanging weighty comments about the quality of Italian foods: "their" sandwich bread, "their" ham, "their" turkey. It was getting harder and harder for us to dwell on incorporeal subjects.

"What do you think America is like?" Mother asked me. Of course we were speaking Russian, and the couple with sandwiches couldn't understand us. "I mean, what do you think it's really like?"

"I think it's grand. It's like a game where no one knows the rules and everyone plays by them. I think it's an easy place to be. Lots of room. How about you, mom, what do you think it's like?"

"I'm not sure. I hope it's a place where you don't have to take part in anything if you don't want to. Beautiful beaches. I don't know... I think I've done too much dreaming about America. I'm ready to go there."

"I think American girls are very sexy."

Down below we could see a sandbar girding the island of Capri. A narrow beach swarmed with life and color and sunrays.

"Mom, let's make a promise. Let's come back here one day, you, Dad, who knows, maybe I'll fall in love and get married. And the four of us will sit in this cafe and look at Sorrento across the bay, and order club sandwiches, many club sandwiches, and of course champagne. And we'll talk about our new life in America, and remember our old life in Russia. What do you think?"

"I think it would be wonderful. And especially your American wife. I can almost picture her."

A light cloud flitted by over our heads. A seagull screamed. A gust of wind blew a napkin off the table:

"We should go," Mother looked at her wristwatch. "They won't wait for us this time. And we don't have any money to pay for new ferry tickets."

"Well, Mom, perhaps we could just stay here? What do you think about moving to Paradise for good?"

"I don't think I'm ready. And, besides, your father won't like it here."

As we were getting up, I turned to take one last look at the happy American couple, consuming powdered doughnuts and coffee.

Now, eleven years in America, when I sometimes feel low, I recall how we walked back to the ferry down a serpentine road. All of a sudden, it started to rain. We passed an old woman with a pink donkey, then a couple of men holding hands, then a boy with a fishing rod. We only exchanged glances, for words could no longer account for what we both felt.

I pick up the telephone and call mother, who, like myself, will never forget those days of paradisal poverty.
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Title Annotation:Russian immigrant enroute to America stops in Capri, Italy
Author:Shrayer, Maxim D.
Publication:Southwest Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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