There is too much blue and green, teal and violet, on the slow train from Interlaken to Lucerne. The sun shines with no clouds to calm it. Lakes are large and placid around me. Mountains loom. Too much. I get a cramp in my neck from looking out of the window. I close my eyes. Too close.
Sometimes momentary glimpses are better.
The view on a postcard is sufficient.
It gives you enough to go on, doesn’t it.
Arriving in Lucerne in the middle of summer is like buying an already finished paint-by-numbers landscape. When what you really wanted was the kit and a chance to make it yourself. There is nothing to do in Lucerne except sit on a bench by the lake and admire what you did not paint.
A white-haired woman sits down beside me to watch the paddleboats. She has a small, flat, brown bag in one hand: postcards, I think. It is Sunday afternoon in August. Sparkle at every angle. Public flowers line the sidewalk. She takes a pocketwatch out of her handbag, checks the time. She slowly shuts the gold case and holds it in her palm for a while. Then, she sighs. She doesn’t take her postcards out of the bag, if that’s what they are, and write messages to people who aren’t here. No, she doesn’t say anything.
Flowers? she asks me. Flowers, please?
The choice on a pleasant evening in the zócalo is difficult: whether to buy the small bundle of dark roses or the crushed gardenias. The woman has already grabbed my arm, and now she signals that these are my only options. I am trying to listen to the local music, but the flowers flop over the edges of a giant basket on her head right in front of me. I ask the price, and it’s a lot, too much even, for what I’m being offered. But I buy the gardenias and take them back to the hotel room, where they last all night, scenting dreams.
The hotel room has a hole in the window, and that music from the zócalo drips in until morning.
I wake up to a sense of smokiness: chiles and wood burning.
The food stalls are beginning to sell red peppers and crispy crickets in baskets. I wander among them.
But I cannot find the small woman with the old flowers on her head. I cannot tell her thank you for the perfume.
I sit on a bench in the zócalo and pretend to read my guidebook instead.
According to my guidebook, I have found the bookstore district. Where I avoid the bright, hospital-lit stores selling shiny new books and venture down the side streets, looking for those old stores selling used ones. Yes, this is better. Here are shops that are cramped and dim, seductive with the smell of dust. This is what pulls me in and puts me in the mood for books, for new discoveries, maybe even secrets. I wander around until I find a couple of things that I want from a 100-yen stall (dollar books) out on the sidewalk. I plan to tear these up and use them as decoration for all kinds of projects, even wrapping paper for Christmas gifts. (Imagine the yellowed pages tied with golden ribbons in the candlelight.)
To pay for my thin books, I go into the store and make my way to the back, through piles of violent Japanese pornography, which I now understand is the shop’s specialty. (Magazine covers show naked women tied up in ropes, women with their breasts chopped off. The used books are just a sideline, relegated to the sidewalk.) I make my way to the tidy gray woman manning the cash register at the end of a long row of stacks. This is the only store where my purchase is simply put into a paper bag and not wrapped up, where the bag itself isn’t closed with some sort of tiny decorative seal. The Japanese have no love of used goods (or so I’ve been told) and perhaps this is why my two old books (even though one is a book of poetry, I think, and in a slipcase) receive such abrupt treatment.
The woman who takes my money seems sad for me, maybe even embarrassed that I have to resort to such things. She pities me from behind the oversized magazines arranged around the cash register, in displays designed to catch your attention. And I wonder what kind of bag she puts them in.
I try to read an Italian magazine while eating a salmon roll at a Japanese restaurant. Sushi, I thought, would be better than another plate of thick pinci pasta or a sandwich stuffed with that fragrant, melting pecorino and mortadella. (But it is not.)
Across the street, a woman, an artist maybe, looks down from her open arched window to see what I’m eating. Her look is blank, but I can imagine the contempt. Or maybe she just feels sorry for me, alone in a foreign country. She has a large glass of dark pink wine in one hand and is wearing an apron. In a minute, she’ll go back to work: pinning fabric onto a mannequin behind her. I can see the green brocade and the muslin form. She stops periodically to take the pins out of her mouth, to take a drink. (Is dressmaking her job or her hobby? Hard to tell from this angle.) She looks out over Florence, her home. She can ignore the tourists on the patio below, dropping their chopsticks into soy sauce, which is served alongside olive oil.
But I can’t afford to ignore her.
She is a contemporary Italian painting come to life, in a gilt-edged frame.
And I am only a postcard.