Saturday, April 4, 1992

Letter from Rome

A memoir of writing "The Passionate Pilgrim." Written for Delta-Sky Magazine, 1992. 

It is a mistake, perhaps, to have a favorite hotel.  No stay there can be as fine as the first.  The concierge who proved invaluable has retired, the beautiful tobacconist is married, this time your room has no view.  Each successive visit the place seems worse, until that original memory hurts like an insult.  For though we travel, as V.S. Pritchett says, to “un-self” ourselves, we return to beloved foreign places to find the selves we left behind there.  No, one should not cling to a favorite hotel, not today.

But I have stayed more than a dozen times now at a particular small hotel in Rome, up on the Aventino—the hill that rises behind the Pyramid and the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley dream on nightingales and skylarks in an Italian eternity.  And not once has the hotel failed to renew itself to me, to have improved:  three fading villas among dignified palms, hidden past ruined ancient walls.  These steep streets were home for the city’s aristocracy for twenty centuries—patrician lives behind statue-studded gates and high shutters, their gardens quiet.

In India, in Polynesia, in Syria, in the most unlikely places, I have met others who frequent this hotel.  (Over the years it has gone from being Rome’s best-kept secret to very well-known indeed.)  Each time we make the same conspiratorial jokes about not telling.  And if I am not forthcoming, it’s because the hotel has a special, private meaning for me.  On one of my first visits I stayed for two weeks.  I wrote a short story; it was published, my first.  Is it any wonder I continue to go back?

1983: I was on my way to Bahrain, in the Arabian Gulf, on assignment. I was twenty-five.  It was April, a curious season in Rome.  The light has a tangible newness, as if spring is an unexpected miracle that can still slip from one’s grasp.  Business was slow and the hotel gave me a room at the top of it lesser villa, beside a school.  Each morning I was awakened by the children assembling in the street, by the Piazza di Tempi di Diana; I knew it was eleven when several primary classes came out yelling for recess; at lunchtime I let the children leave first.

I doubt any of the other guests paid much attention or even noticed the children.  But I was in Rome not on business, or to sightsee, but to bone up on the Middle East and rest after a difficult New York winter.  My personal life was in disarray and I felt ill-prepared to write about a new part of the world for me.  I was out of my depth, and knew it.

Arbitrary schedules suit the mental life of a writer.  They lend organization to a day too easily left blank, time and pages waiting haplessly to be filled.  Thanks to the children, I knew I had nearly two hours of unbroken silence in the morning, an hour around noon after a short recess, then a long break while I and a few hundred hungry Roman kids took lunch.  Just down the Aventino, along the Piazza Albania, were a number of neighborly trattorias; I feasted, read, and tried to convince myself that all would go well.

After lunch there was the long slow calm of the Roman afternoon, the heat becoming acute every day, the light more direct; a time to nap or listen to the BBC World Service via my short-wave.  Those weeks it was Great Rivers of the World.  Stuffed with pasta, I went down the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon every afternoon, then failed miserably at those literary quiz programs the British seem to invent to reassure themselves.  And as a kind of solace for being a good student myself, I started writing a short story.

My villa, square and stolid and russet-colored, wore its age like elegance.  One entered the garden via a heavy tall black iron gate.  There were always three or four cats yawning at my return.  White glass-top tables and curvaceous chairs sat neatly in the little garden.  Every morning I would sit there for two hours over tea, reading Graham Greene’s essays and worrying about how I would write about the Arabs.  My inexperience made the upcoming assignment seem not quite real, like a misfortune about to happen to someone else.  The clay-faced woman who brought me breakfast and clucked at me as if I were an incorrigible son supported this notion:  the Middle East, she said, was an invention of the newspapers.

But the incomparable beauty of my sixth-floor room was that the villa had only five floors.  The tiled roof was a great terrace that none of the other guests had discovered, and rising from the terrace was a compact stone tower with a brief outer staircase: this was my room.  Inside was a bed, a writing table, a bath with tub and shower, a couple of guest chairs—and out my windows on both sides with shutters flung open, Rome basking like a lion in the April sun.

And up there, in an eyrie the Brownings would’ve loved, my short story wrote itself.  I had already a couple of unpublished novels behind me, but a novel sprawls as it grows and takes up most of the available space in one’s life, like a messy house-guest who installs himself and refuses to leave.  I wasn’t yet familiar with the compact directness by which a short story can offer itself.  And no story had ever offered itself so easily as that one, written looking down on that glorious domed city, and no story has been so easy since.  Each morning after Greene and tea, or each afternoon after lunch, I climbed the six flights to my private study and got to work.  Sometimes my bed would’ve been made by the elderly major-domo of the villa, sometimes not.

It didn’t matter to me.  Each day, the next scene of the story seemed to be waiting in the room for my return, dancing patiently in the air above the portable manual typewriter that I balanced on one chair.  Dialogue had never suggested itself so painlessly, so of its own accord.  I had only to listen to the characters talking, and set down their words.

Afternoons I’d wander down the other side of the Aventino to look in at the Protestant Cemetery, one of my favorite places in Rome.  Most cemeteries seem designed to help people forget rather than remember, but this one, sequestered happily behind high walls and the huge white stone Piramide, feels almost lighthearted, and memorably eccentric.  Each gravestone is individual and remarkable.  Its inhabitants are nearly all foreigners, guests who chose never to leave Italy.  Shelley, or his heart (all that was salvaged from the shipwreck) lies there:  Cor cordium the inscription, “heart of hearts.”  And in a far private corner, thinking his green thoughts in a green shade, Keats, “whose name was writ in water.”

There were always a few doleful pilgrims around Keats’ memorial, usually American female grad students.  I preferred to think of the story of him in his last days, in the now-famous Roman apartment.  Taking his landlady’s horrendous food—she wasn’t about to waste good meat on a dying Englishman—and struggling to the window, coughing blood, Keats sent the tray and muck clattering down the Spanish Steps.  They leave this lesson in Italian manners and English resourcefulness out of the guidebooks.

I go back to the hotel at least once a year now, usually en route through Rome to somewhere else.  The hotel is an excellent decompression chamber from both directions.  It attracts an international crowd, few Americans.  The other guests are usually former clients or their friends; the hotel doesn’t need to advertise.  But why be coy?  Anyone who has read this far deserves to know:  the hotel is the Sant’ Anselmo, on the Piazza Sant’ Anselmo, tel. (39 - 6) 57-81-325 or 57-35-47.

I dream, naturally, of having more than one night there, and in my tower again.  (It’s always taken when I go back.)  I have tried all three villas, and each has its charms.  But in my dream I would have at least three months in that tower room, to take me from winter’s end through spring and into summer.  Enough time for a novel.  That sort of wish is a mistake, too greedy—like having a favorite hotel.

Sunday, February 9, 1992


Written for Travel-Holiday in 1992.

“A wild place, Dominica.  Savage and lost.”  Thus the remarkable writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979) described her Antillean island birthplace.  Spiked with mountains, Dominica rises precipitously from the Caribbean Sea, its undulant valleys dense with rain forests, waterfalls, and primeval rivers.  Mists drift among the ghostly summits of the lush mountains; the few roads are rugged and empty save for an occasional rattling truck or a solitary figure trudging through the fervent landscape, a “cutlass” dangling from one hand.  Columbus christened the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and sailed on without ever setting foot.  Today the few villages that pepper the coast, and even Roseau, the small, innocent capital, give the impression that time moves more slowly here.  Jean Rhys would still recognize Dominica; a local saying claims Columbus would too.

No other island has stunned or penetrated me—or still in Lafcadio Hearn’s phrase, “so far surpasses imagination as to paralyze it.”  I first visited in 1982, to report on the last Carib Indians, the once-cannibal race who’d been annihilated by the millions on all other islands by the European invasion and survived on Dominica, their refuge for three centuries.  It remains an island for lost things, for ways of life vanished elsewhere in the Caribbean—the national symbol is a parrot unique to Dominica.  There is even a Boiling Lake and a Valley of Desolation.  Only sugar-white beaches are missing, and this has kept away the resort developers, the casino operators and the big hotels.  As Jean Rhys wrote, “Dominica will protect itself from vulgar loves.”

Once again I fell hard for Dominica:  for its sense of nature run riot, its sweet-tempered and independent people, its tumbling capital.  Roseau reveals itself like a fresh sepia image from the Thirties: intimate, poor, preserved, and lovely.  The balconied houses with carved fretwork, jalousied shutters flung open; the immaculate Botanical Gardens, a gift of the British during 215 years of colonial rule; the languid Créole patois more French than English.  Some narrow streets are still cobblestoned; all bear names like Cork Street, King George V Street, Old Street, Bath Road, Love Lane.  Roseau houses characteristically are stone below and wood above, and subtly audacious in color; reds and blues and subtle yellows and a blinding white.  Many still have the family shop at street-level and the home on the second-story.

One morning I walked along the waterfront to the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.  (People here say, “Dominica could feed the entire Caribbean easily if everyone would just be organizing themselves.”)  Set along the sea and the estuary, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas, limes, coffee, grapefruit, wild strawberries, cabbages, and fresh fish were spread on plastic sheets.  Women squatted like Rodin’s Thinker on overturned boxes beneath shade umbrellas, and sprinkled water on the produce.  Mounds of coconuts were being split expertly by men wielding machetes (“cutlasses”).  It was so hot the Caribbean looked grey, and a boy was sculling in to market in a small skiff.  Up the tall coast clouds wreathed the mountains.

On the filigreed balcony of the Guiyave Café I drank soursop juice mixed with milk and looked across gleaming tin roofs.  An old lady was hanging out her washing on a balcony of Kings Lane.  On the corner of Cork and Queen Mary Street I found the house where Jean Rhys grew up, described in Voyage In the Dark (1934) and in her autobiography Smile Please (1979).  Though Rhys left Dominica in 1907 at sixteen, and only came back once, in 1936, the island haunts her novels and short stories like a remembered dream.  The family dwelling is now a converted guest house, and the interior much divided, though the mango tree still remains “so big that all the garden was in its shadow.”

I’d chosen to stay several miles from Roseau at Papillote, a place I remembered fondly:  two large bungalows perched against a steep hillside of steaming vegetation.  Run by an American, Anne Baptiste, and her Dominican husband Cuthbert, Papillote has its own hot springs, extravagant tropical gardens with enormous exotic flowers and ferns, wandering geese and peacocks, magnificent food, and simple rooms with vines painted around the walls.  Two days there can leave you in a delirium of serenity and good health.

Dominica is said to have a river for every day of the year.  You can bathe nearly anywhere in the island and locals do.  From Papillote I walked to Trafalgar Falls, two high chutes of water that begin way up the “morne” and run as rivers to Roseau.  A young engineering student helped me across slippery rocks and we swam to where the water thundered down into a pool.  A permanent rainbow arced across the rock face twenty feet away.  I swam through the rainbow and sat beneath a course of hot water streaming down beside the cool falls.  Later I languished in a hot tributary at Papillote.

Another day I hiked muddy trails up several mornes on the island’s high interior, passing through glades of sunlight, paths of towering growths, and tropical tempests that came and went in ten minutes.  (In Dominica your right arm can be rained on while the left arm is getting sunburned.)  I walked through clouds and through jungle until I was overlooking the vast, many-fingered Freshwater Lake:  a sullen sea set among green peaks, whose sheen changed constantly as mists blew across.  The lake lay at the sleeping center of a volcano, and it was extraordinary to be at water level 3000 feet up.  And in the Tri Tro Gorge, I swam from a small pool between narrow overgrown cliffs through gorges of mystical light to a titanic waterfall.  I am not much of a swimmer; working against the current, pulling myself along the gorge walls, I barely reached the next innermost chamber, where the echoes flew and the spray blew about like smoke.  No words can do justice to that brief swim:  the fractured verdant light above, the current turning below, the sense of navigating a secret passage through forested cliffs to an eternal roar of water.

One day I followed the coast south from Roseau toward the end of the island.  Pointe Michel was a village built around a small bay and the grey ruins of an old lime factory and a red church.  There a man with a mouthful of gold teeth sang to me that “Pointe Michel girls are the best / Sweet sweet sweet in the face”.  Farther down the coast, at Soufriere, beside a stone wall I asked a friendly woman named Isabelle if she’d gone to market that day.

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a farmer.”

“Didn’t you buy any fish?”

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a fisherman.”

“What about fuel?”

“My husband makes coal also.”  She smiled.  “Things is easy.”

An elderly gentleman, Mr. Birmingham, walking with a cane, said, “I do nothing.  My eyes no see, me legs no walk.”  He looked fit, made of cast iron, at 74.  “God give you something, you know he had it after he take it away.  I go shave now for mass tomorrow.”

From Scot’s Head, the southernmost hook of the island, I could faintly glimpse Martinique.  I thought:  On a clear day you can see France.  On one side of a tiny spit of land was the Caribbean, on the other the more aggressive Atlantic.  The tan beach at Scot’s Head, among coconut palms, had blue and yellow and red canoes pulled up and children playing; their houses were just across the little road.  Fish traps woven from bamboo lay waiting to be mended.  Men were arguing over dominoes, emphatically slapping down each tile.

In a shanty bar a patient and persuasive proprietor, Bernard, got me to try three local concoctions, all made by pouring cask rum (as strong as jet fuel) into a jar and leaving an herb or root to soak for several days.  The most popular are nani (made with aniset leaf), puev (spelled “poivre”, with a pepper flavor) and l’absinthe (made with wormwood), a first cousin of the infamous drink illegal throughout Europe since WWI.  “I consider puev to be the strongest,” said Bernard.  “Some of these fishermen drink four or five in a flash.  Maybe twelve a day.”  One vaporous absinthe—it tasted like smoke rolling through my mouth—was plenty for me.

At Portsmouth, the sleepy second largest town after Roseau, I met with Lennox Honychurch.  At 36 Lennox is the island’s historian and well-known as writer and consultant throughout the Caribbean.  Recently he pulled together “Lavi Dominik”, a museum in an old sugar mill, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independence in 1988.  He’s spent the last six years restoring an enormous 18th century fort, retaking it from jungle on the twin headlands known as the Cabrits that overlook the great curve of Portsmouth’s bay.

Lennox talked of the friendship (by letter) between Jean Rhys and another Dominican writer, Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908 - 1986).  Like Rhys, Allfrey spent time in England, though she returned to the island to run a newspaper.  Active in West Indian politics, she wrote a good deal of poetry and one superb novel, The Orchid House (1953), set in Dominica, republished by the Virago Press and soon to be a mini-series in the U.K.  In some ways Jean Rhys’ 1966 masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, echoes Allfrey’s earlier book.  Lennox pointed out that the tonal similarities in their writing were strong.  “I think it would be difficult to grow up on Dominica in that era and not end up writing as they did.”

Then Lennox said, “You remember the honeymoon house in the hills in Wide Sargasso Sea?  It’s still standing.  Up a trail from Mahaut village.  You keep going up, up, up.  It’s called Curry’s Rest.  Ask anybody.”

It was an exhausting walk; in Jean Rhys’s day one was carried up by donkey.  But it was satisfying to stand on the same high veranda where “…there had been a telescope…through which we could see distant Roseau Bay and the ships, the Royal Mail, Canadian and French steamers, and sometimes a stranger flying the yellow flag which meant there was an infectious disease aboard.”

I sensed in Dominica a verbal energy, a love of words for words’ sake, that is special even in the talkative Caribbean.  This is an island that produces originals, from Rhys and Allfrey to the popular and eloquent Prime Minister, Eugenia Charles (who has prohibited package tours).  It is a daily delight to ride the metaphors in the West Indian cricket reports in the Chronicle; on a tin house in the jungle I saw painted an epic poem, a proclamation that began, “Doctor Fixit the Stern King Has Arrived.”  And on the radio a man with a preacher’s voice intoned:  “Women love the power.  When he drive she feel the power and since it is a question of quality not price—since they all same price—give her Texaco, 'cause women love the power….”

Dominica could take months or lifetimes to explore.  Its size (29 miles by 15) tells nothing of its complexity:  it is a vast place squeezed into a small space.  To cross the island from Roseau to the golden meadows of palms at Castle Bruce takes an hour and brings you to another island, a more dazzling light.  On the rough Atlantic the Caribs have a reserve, land ceded them forever by Queen Victoria, and here the last indigenous race of the West Indies has made its final home.  Gradually dying out through inter-marriage, the Caribs still are distinct in appearance:  copper-skinned, with blue-black hair, a delicacy of face that surpasses even the fine features of most Dominicans.  It was the Caribs who gave us the words hammock and canoe and hurricane.  I walked their tumultuous coast, among their neat, wide-planked houses on stilts, saw once again the Carib church of Sainte-Marie with its gommier canoes as altar—and remembered my happy stay with them years before.  Since those days the roads had improved, electricity and in places running water had come to these remote villages, even a telephone or two; but they were still Caribs.  Dominica’s wildness saved them.

That wildness had an otherworldly quality, too, a passionate strangeness that may be why the island has haunted me so.  To travel up the Indian River by canoe is to float quietly into some past long before man appeared, through ruined metropoli of twisted mangrove trees, their limbs braided and half-grown, doubled by the reflecting water.  Dominica changes you deeply.

My last morning in Roseau I went for an early stroll through the Botanical Gardens.  Little girls in navy and white uniforms were on their way through to the convent school.  An elderly woman was painstakingly brushing around a tree and singing in a high caroling voice.  A breeze carried her hymn through the gardens:

La da di, la da dum, He is calling
Tomorrow will be too late….

Near us a magisterial tree, impossibly tall, was blooming like a blue cloud, an island levitating itself.  I asked one of the gardeners the name of the tree.  He pronounced a name like “pouier” and saw it was unfamiliar to me.  And what he said then was all Dominica.  “You can’t see it from down here.  You go on up high, up the morne, and look down.  It is so beautiful it will amaze you.”