I wrote this in 2007 as part of the Cadfael travelogues, but it's really a 9/11 post about the first anniversary of the attacks.
All travel has undertones. At the very least, there is the underlying energy that propels you out the door in the first place. For me, this particular Italian trip was a traditional American vacation, where I got to vacate the city for a bit and take a break from the job that pays the bills . . . and the travels. It was a also a chance to spend some extended time with Cadfael, my Benedictine monk friend, sharing something special.
And it was a tiny exercise in courage with a quest for healing. Because I got on a plane, in New York City, on September 12, 2002, to go to Italy. At that time, at the one-year mark from the attacks, there was deep uncertainty about what might happen, especially where flying was concerned, and everyone kept moving and living as best they could.
That first anniversary in New York was sad and difficult after a shattering year. There were many memorials and tributes in the churches and temples as well as down at Ground Zero, which helped to respect the day. Many of the stores up and down Madison Avenue created simple, elegant tributes in their windows, either removing merchandise entirely or covering it with black velvet—with bouquets of flowers and signs that read “We Will Never Forget” and “You Are in Our Hearts Forever.” It was a heavy, heavy day.
Then I was lucky to go to Italy to see the monk, and so to Elba.
Able Was I . . .
"I wanted to ask you why you stopped at the Isle of Elba."
"It was to carry out an order from Captain Leclère. As he was dying he gave me a package to deliver to Marshal Bertrand there."
So that was Edmond Dantes’s excuse—a deathbed promise. Cadfael and I had no such noble focus. Did you know that Dumas decided to write The Count of Monte Cristo after visiting Elba himself? He was traveling with a nephew of Bonaparte’s, and as they sailed back from Elba he saw the other islands in the Tuscan Archipelago——Gorgona, Capraia, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio, and Giannutri——and vowed to write a novel in memory of the trip. So there must be something captivating going on there. . . .
Cadfael and I drove southwest from San Gimignano to the port of Piombino for the ferry to Portoferraio, the city of Napolean Bonaparte’s first exile.
We spent our first Elban evening in the hotel. The lobby was pleasant—-the white tile floors spoke to the beachiness of the location, and the décor was clean and modern. To the left of the bar was a baby grand piano. Cad plays by ear, and has a good tenor voice. He asked the manager if he could play for a bit, and he said yes. There were small clusters of guests scattered throughout the lobby, mostly German tourists.
Actually there are so many German visitors on Elba, and the language is so prevalent, that it is a little disorienting. “M.A., can we please go back to Italy?"
At the piano, Cad’s repertoire is easy listening on the sentimental side, but with a musician’s flair. I sat by his side as he sang Piano Man and She's Always a Woman and joined in for some harmonies on Thunder Road and Four Green Fields. We sang out, but it was not intrusive and we could hear the soft conversation buzz throughout. There was some sweet applause when the set ended. It was nice.
Ah, the drink break.
Refueled, Cad started playing again, noodling around a theme, then playing it straight out: Oh my gosh, it was America the Beautiful. I was stunned to hear the tune. I hadn’t been thinking at all about home, and that haunting melody can put a lump in my throat at the very best of times.
To keep from crying I tried to focus on Cad’s expressive phrasing, and somewhere in the second verse I heard myself adding the harmony. Cad modulated during a verse interlude, and we sang the last verse in a higher key, putting the “alabaster cities gleam/undimmed by human tears” into a stronger part of vocal ranges.
When the song ended, we realized that everyone in the room had stopped talking. I felt a little numb, very self-conscious, and a little embarrassed. How cheesy was this? Would we come across as obnoxious Americans?
There were several beats of complete, palpable, silence . . . and then the conversation buzz picked up again. A hug from the strangers in the room would not have felt more embracing.
Cad went to get us drinks, and we sat and drank, for quite a while.
The next day we left to go back to Rome.