At fourteen I broke away from childhood at last, diving headlong into a sea of black fingernail polish, thick eyeliner, Depeche Mode and The Cure. I got my first curfew (12:30!), went out to exciting backyard parties full of music, beer and boys and fell in love with love. Moods were up, moods were down... and my grades began to sink like the Titanic, fast and low.
A wise teacher then handed me "A Farewell To Arms," by Ernest Hemingway and it could not have fit the bill more perfectly.
For those that don't know the story... You have this handsome young American ambulance driver - Frederic - just a teen himself. He patriotically volunteers for the war being fought in Italy and becomes completely disillusioned with what he sees and experiences there.
Disillusionment!?! This fit my teenaged angst perfectly!
Italy? Sounded beautiful!
And then to top it off, Frederic falls gradually into starcrossed love with Catherine, a nurse at the hospital where he's been sent to recover after getting wounded. He doesn't mean to fall for her, but it happens.
The two of them go through separation, drama, and real horrors of war. Finally they get a tiny reprieve from their grim life in the little town of Stresa, where Catherine has been sent to work - and before Frederic can be arrested (for a violent act he committed during a moment of rage).
They hook up for a few months; Catherine gets pregnant, and then they try to escape into Switzerland so she can have the baby and they can really be together.
Things don't end well. (Fourteen year old me was devastated; but also a tiny bit validated.)
I mean, really?!!? What could be a more PERFECT book for any emotive girl at that age? This novel gave me all the proof I needed to be fully convinced that, as I told my beleaguered parents all the time, "Life isn't FAIR!" Embracing my darker side seemed a very reasonable choice, and Ernest Hemingway promptly became my favorite author. Opposites attract, and his clean, simple prose flooded my hormone-ridden teenage brain with a deep yearning for places and people far away and long gone.
I went to the library and brought home every book I could find about World War I. I resolved to go to Italy, a land I'd never seen. I daydreamed about Stresa, the place where Frederic and Catherine had been happy for a brief time in the novel, and especially of the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees where Hemingway himself had stayed in Room 106 while recovering from shrapnel wounds he'd received while saving an Italian soldier. For this, he'd earned the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery.
I wanted to take a boat to the nearby islands where he'd fished, and try my first dry martini at the hotel bar where he'd spent most of his time at the hotel. I longed to sit on the beach where he'd swum.
Hemingway had been dead for nearly thirty years in 1990, but I fell madly in love with his writing as though I could step back through a keyhole into time. I stared into the quiet Point Loma nights and swore that someday I'd get out of San Diego... I'd go to Stresa, and find myself.
Of course, nothing ever quite goes according to plan :)
I did finally make it to Italy five years later at 19. I even lived there for four full months in the exquisite city of Firenze (Florence) where I made lifelong friends. We drank wine and ate salami and peccorino along the Arno River, and went out late at night to dimly lit clubs in basements entered by descending cold stone steps. I'd studied Italian for three years and improved quickly once living in Italia.
By then, I'd forgotten to wear black and my hormones and emotions had mainly settled. I still loved Hemingway, but with slightly less ardor. My taste in books had expanded to include most of the authors in the Southern American pantheon... and my taste in boys had evolved to include real live human men closer to my own age.
In all those months, I never traveled to Stresa though. Not that year, nor in any of the subsequent trips to Italy I took with friends or family.
In the end, it took 26 years for me to arrive.
...but today, TODAY, we took a two hour ferry ride from Maccagno to the elegant Stresa shoreline. I then walked one kilometer with my rugged husband and darling kids to the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees. We stepped casually through the same doors that Ernest Hemingway entered for the first time in 1918, at the age of nineteen.
And though they've closed the bar where Hemingway once sat drinking dry martinis, we smiled at his photograph on the wall, next to the framed signature he left in their hotel register ("Ernest Hemingway - An Old Client"). He gazed upon us with Ryan Gosling-esque eyes.
Admittedly, the hotel was a bit fancier than we'd expected. Perhaps we were expecting an old fishing cottage with a beaten-up boat and some netting, straight out of "The Old Man and The Sea"? Instead we walked from 2016 into the Rococo... lots of high ceilings, sculptures and portraits, white walls and lacy gold trim.
As we wandered through the hotel's luxurious front parlor, taking photos and soaking it all in, we lost track of Señor Aventura for a moment. (He'd gone to look for the famous hotel bar, which no longer exists.)
"I think Dad went down that hallway, Mom," volunteered The Scientist.
"Thanks!" We headed down the velvety red carpet looking for him - quite out of place in our beach attire. Suddenly, we found ourselves face to face with two handsome dark-haired men in uniform (top coat and tails!) behind the front desk.
"Si prega, Signora," they stopped me. "Lei possiamo aiutare?" they asked politely in Italian. ("Can we help you?")
"Si," I responded with a smile. "Sto cercando per mio marito!" ("I'm searching for my husband.")
They laughed out loud. "Egli sarà un uomo di buona fortuna!!" ("He will be a very fortunate man!")
"Grazie!" I blushed, only then realizing the double meaning of my statement... and very flattered.
It must have been fun for those dashing young hotel clerks to see a flustered looking middle-aged woman flocked with three bouncy children, "searching" for a husband in their hotel. Ha!
A few minutes later we found Señor Aventura, and together exited the elegant hotel toward the lakeshore. While I soaked my feet and looked for special beach keepsakes (glass, rocks) he and the kids swam in the same water where Ernest Hemingway once launched his fishing trips. We thought about Hemingway for a while, and spoke about his brilliance and his sad life.
In the central piazza of Stresa we ate a good lunch of salmone e pasta at a table where lazy bumblebees buzzed around us. We spoke about the war, and Señor Aventura described to us the many memorials he has seen while cycling through these heavily forested Italian Alps.
He and I attempted to explain war and its causes to our children, a difficult thing to do. We tried to tell them why Ernest Hemingway's books have been important and beloved for 85 years; why they matter even now.
In all, we spent three special hours in Stresa before our ferry departed. I will never forget them!
Here are a few more photos from the day:
Tonight, while hiking back up from the ferry landing with my nine year old son to our mountain apartment in Maccagno, Soccer Dude noticed a memorial in front of the church dedicated to local soldiers lost in World War I. It was dated 1918.
"Is this the war we were talking about today, Mom? World War I?"
I nodded and we spent a few minutes reading the soldier's names out loud - names like Giovanni, Antonio, and Giulio.
"Mom, why do so many of these guys have the same last name?"
"Honey, it's sad. This is a small village, so if two or three people on this list of dead soldiers have the same last name, it means that they were probably related. They might have been brothers, or father and son, or possibly cousins. They died fighting for their country. They were very brave."
"That means some families here lost three sons or brothers, mom! That's so sad."
"Yes. War is awful. They were fighting to defend their country."
We turned again into the street to hike up the now-familiar mountain path. I happened to notice the street name. "Via Alfredo Cuccuini."
"Wait - that's one of the names on the memorial!"
We came to the next corner. "Via Francesco Baroggi."
"That's another one, Mom! Francesco Baroggi was one of those soldiers that died, too!"
"Wow. I think they named all the streets around us for those boys that died in the war. Their sons. Their brothers."
We trudged uphill silently, contemplating those Maccagno boys who died so young. All must've been near Hemingway's age. They were the lost generation he immortalized in his raw stories of war.
I am now 40, a mother with deep lines creasing my forehead and around my eyes and mouth. Watching my athletic, vibrant son climb 600 year old steps, I can no longer relate to that brooding 14 year old girl who once found wartime stories dangerous and romantic.
Instead I hurt for the mothers of those boys; mothers who kissed their sweetest treasures goodbye and then lost them to the ravages of an Austro-Hungarian army.
I think of Ernest Hemingway who saw too much death up close, drank to drown his post-traumatic stress, and finally shot himself at 61.
I look with new eyes at Maccagno... and pay my respects to this small lakeside community that boldly placed the names of its dead children on every street so that they will never be forgotten.