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Wish You Were Here? Ahh, I Was

By ALICE STEINBACH

© St. Petersburg Times


From a shoebox of old postcards I lift one out -- a view of the Hotel de l'Universite, a small Left Bank hotel where I often stay -- and read the following message:

Dear Alice,

At breakfast today in a cafe near the rue de Bac I saw Colette. She was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, her wild, curly hair and knowing eyes enveloped in smoke. I almost said hello but then remembered Colette is dead. Still I decided to visit her in the flesh, so to speak, at Pere Lachaise cemetery. When I arrived, she was there waiting for me. It pleased me to see that someone had placed a dozen red roses on the marble stone that says simply: Ici Repose Colette 1873-1954.

The postcard, dated 20 May 1993, is signed: Love, Alice.

Reading it, I see once again the beauty of this famous Paris cemetery, the final resting place for such luminaries as Proust and Chopin, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf. Green as an emerald, the parklike cemetery tumbles down a hillside planted with centuries-old trees. And I remember the wind blowing down the hill, setting the trees and long grass into motion; how it created small shadows that danced in patterns across the graves of Corot and Daumier and Balzac.

I have no photograph to record those images, but even if one existed it could not return to me -- as the postcard in my own handwriting does -- the immediacy of what I felt that day.

I first began sending postcards to myself about 15 years ago on a trip to Bornholm, a small island in the Baltic Sea known for its picturesque towns and beautiful ceramics. Traveling alone, I suddenly succumbed to acute homesickness. By the second day of my stay I found myself searching, like a sailor at sea, for something familiar.

Then one day, while walking along a road lined with fir trees, my search ended. There before me, bowing to the wind, was a vast field of purple heather. Something inside me lifted and suddenly I was seeing the heather my Scottish grandmother so lovingly wove into the bedtime stories of her life in Kirriemuir. Standing there, I watched as the unfamiliar slipped off its strangeness and took on the guise of an old friend.

That night I wrote my first postcard to myself, describing what I had felt. When I returned to Baltimore the postcard was waiting for me. I turned it over, read through it and came to the last line: Try to remember this day -- the heather, the wind, the pleasure that comes with knowing the familiar is everywhere.

Over the years, these postcards have become a form of travel memoir, telegraphing instantly to me the feeling of certain moments during a trip. And when such a postcard arrives -- the handwriting so familiar it never fails to startle me -- it has the power, like Proust's Madeleine, to return me immediately to the past.

The card from Oxford, England, written while I was studying the history of English village life at Brasenose College, releases memories, like a genie from a bottle, of a certain night at Oxford:

I think what I will remember long after I've forgotten rural England's economic history and patterns of settlement may be the lesson taught by Barry, an instructor in ballroom dancing. Not only did I learn the quick step and cha-cha from Barry but more important, I relearned something I had forgotten: the pure joy of letting go and just having fun. Try not to forget this again. In time, farther down the road, you may need such knowledge much more than English history.

What pleasure it gives me now to read this, to see myself once again with Barry, dipping, gliding and laughing my way across the hallowed floors of Lincoln College. Perspiration drips down my back and my hair sticks to my neck in a clump. But I don't care. Later, walking home in the damp night air, the spires and domes of Oxford stabbing the dark blue sky above, I heard the church bells in Radcliffe Square sound their midnight chimes. The lateness of the hour surprised me; I realized any notion of measuring time had been abandoned in favor of living it.

And speaking of time, here's a postcard from Sorrento written on a day that, when it took place, seemed far too long:

When it comes to travel I'm more convinced than ever that: Less is more. Yesterday I left Perugia at 7:45 a.m. (up at 6:30), took train to Rome; lunched in Rome; took train (threat of strike) to Naples; then bused to Pompeii and took two-hour tour; and arrived at Sorrento hotel at 7:30 p.m. Whew!

Of course, anyone who's ever taken a train in Italy knows the threat of strike is always lurking about. But this was a genuine threat and the strike was traveling, as I was, from north to south. All day long I felt as though I were traveling just ahead of a rushing wave. And yet, now, some three years later, my memories of that day dive deeper, beneath the wave:

It is late September; dawn in Perugia. Gazing down from my room at the Hotel Brufani I see the tops of the trees along the street leading up to this old Umbrian town. Gray and white birds dive from branch to branch, calling out to one another. The night before, I listened in the town square to a group of Andean flutists, their homesickness evident in the plaintive sounds that rose in the air.

Lunch in Rome was delicious. Pompeii, as usual, was filled with silent memories and stray Roman dogs sleeping in its cool, shadowy tombs. But it is the drive from Pompeii to Sorrento that hovers like a hummingbird in my mind:

The sun setting in a ribbon of light across the shimmering Bay of Naples; the olive groves slanting down to the bay, covered with harvesting nets that look like bridal veils; and, finally, Sorrento, glorious Sorrento, with its colorful tiled roofs and scent of orange blossoms, perched high above the water on sheer cliffs of fall.

It is a memory, like all the others, signed: Love, Alice. Alice Steinbach is the author of the recently published The Miss Dennis School of Writing, Bancroft Press.

Originally published March 16, 1997



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