Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Gaither Stewart


I met Ramon on a bright October morning at the hour I like to watch the changing colors of the mountains. I was standing near what people in this Alpine village call the ‘holy place’, a spot marked by a red and blue ribbon fixed on a low stone wall running along the edge of the road on the hill above our house far down in the village center.

It was still quite early. Quiet reigned everywhere on the hill overlooking the valley. I’d been observing a man strolling up the road toward me. Though I didn’t know him personally, I had glimpsed him a couple of times entering a house two doors down from our home on Via Piazza. At some ten meters distance he grins at me as if I were an old friend and says buon giorno in a crisp yet somehow lazy Latin manner … so different from the speech of the serious mountain people of Montagna, a people whose seeming completeness in their insouciance and their isolation from the rest of Italy is still inexplicable to Ute and me.

After I return his greeting, he speaks in such rapid Italian that I understand only that he’d seen me and la bambina walking up our street. “Oh, pardon”, he says. “Che lingua parla?” he asks, leaning toward me and speaking louder than usual as people do to foreigners. “Inglese … English?”

When I begin in my slow school English, he hears my accent and guesses correctly: “Deutsch!” His name is Ramon, Ramon Dumitru speaks excellent German … but he’s not German either. So that I wonder how it happens that this non-German is living in this small Alpine village and how it happens that he speaks German so well.

Ramon is about my age, and from his surname, Dumitru, he can only be Romanian. He’s of average height with longish light brown hair and blue eyes making him look Scandinavian. A handsome man and apparently a man of some means, he lives with a good-looking Italian woman, not a native of the Valtellina either.

Now I’d known Romanians in my Abwehr Intelligence unit in Russia and there were Romanians in the Gehlen Org in Munich-Pullach from which I am fleeing. So having him as a neighbor in tiny Montagna was, to say the least, alarming: like policemen intelligence people don’t believe in coincidences. And mysterious Ramon, man of several languages and considerable experience, was my neighbor!

So as we talk about where we come from it becomes clear from his allusions that Ramon too is connected with the Gehlen Org. And that he too has lived in Munich. And because he mentions Pullach, which in Munich is almost synonymous with the secret spy world. That realization makes me uncertain whether I should avoid him or gain his confidence and friendship.

From where Ramon and I are chatting, down in the valley the River Adda appears narrow, speckled with rocks jutting upward out of its shadowed swirling blue-silver-white waters. Although it resembles Munich’s beloved Isar, I’ve come to dislike the Adda despite the river’s attempts at mystery to overcome the reality of its brevity and the feebleness of its fluvial character. As it fights its way through the city of Sondrio below us the river appears uneasy in its confinement in the narrows between steep cliffs on the one side and solid rocky banks on the other. And uncannily it transmits its uneasiness to me. After issuing friskily from the Alps high above Stelvio Pass as if in search of freedom and after brashly cutting its way through the valley, farther to the west the Adda becomes navigable, stooping to offer cheap tourist jaunts, before, humiliatingly subdued, its waters fall meekly into Lake Como.

I’ve come to dislike the River Adda because it resembles the Europe in defeat that shows in European faces. The defeated Europe I am fleeing from.

Ute, three-year old Hannichka and I left Munich in late September in the event-filled year of 1955. And even though the war had ended ten years earlier, the sensation of defeat for all still infected the nature of Europeans: so many historical events were taking place in the world that year that most people felt small and fearfully alone. After the conflagration of world war, the countless millions of dead and suffering and ubiquitous destruction, there were millions of lonely and uprooted people still wandering around Europe, as displaced as it seemed the whole universe was.

Like the day I met Ute in the Gastätte in Munich-Grünwald, she’d still retained a fragment of her inherent aloneness even though she had her small daughter, Hannah, the generation of the future. But since the cellars of Stalingrad, aloneness was my very nature, too. I was the personification of aloneness.

Now today in Alpine Italy, where everything is different, we are again displaced, Yet our togetherness is our defense against the pandemic malaise of loneliness. In that sense at least our two separate lonelinesses are over and done with. Moreover, the presence of Ute’s daughter simplifies such matters also for us; for Hannah is three-year old happy that we are all together … and I believe because she now has a father. Actually the only person she misses from Munich is her faithful baby-sitter-friend; she still wonders why Gudrun didn’t come with us.

Ute and I had each arranged our personal affairs in such a way that we could simply drive away from Munich into the night: Ute became a freelancer for the film studio; while I—despite my qualms because of the nature of my work in top secret intelligence from which separation is rare—dared resign with a mere registered letter mailed just before our departure … actually the kind of rupture you prefer in life.

We traveled in Ute’s roomy Opel, the car crammed with our stuff and skis on the roof. We passed through western Austria, into Switzerland, southwards past St. Moritz and the four thousand meter high Piz Bernina, its peak a peculiar bluish red in a spectacular dawn sun. We entered Italy’s Valtellina at the town of Tirana before turning west to our new home in the Alpine valley. On the map the valley called Valtellina appears as a long appendage to the belly of Alpine Switzerland, a long and narrow valley delimited in the south by the Orobic Mountains—beyond which lies classic Italy—and the Rhaetian Alps in the north, on the flanks of which lies the village of Montagna hanging over the city of Sondrio.

Now, a month later, Ramon steps unwelcomed into my life. A symptom, a signal and reminder of the severe and brutal rules of the life from which I am separating. So Ramon is often on my mind. What to do is the question. Though I’m not exactly on the run, I don’t want my presence here advertised either. Discreteness is the rule. And, except for Ramon my new life is a discreet life.

Sometimes I get up early mornings in order to see the unblemished whiteness of the light the sun casts on the mountain tops surrounding us, gradually eroding the resistance of the mountains to the loss of their pristine blue of the first dawn. That’s the moment when I perceive that the dawn’s clarity might complete the healing of my Stalingrad wounds. For colors in the Alps are different. Stronger in their brilliance. And early mornings is the time when any change might magically materialize. The time when the sun of the Valtellina begins its daily battle against the silence of life that seems to us newcomers withheld.

Montagna too is like the silence of a life not yet lived that you can feel during moonlit nights. In the Alps, the blue of morning is an uncanny moment for me personally. The moment when if you listen to the air and the color you can come to believe the ancient legend that all things lost can be found again on the other side of the moon.

It is in the blue of those mornings that I feel most strongly that this is the time when Ute, Hannah and I have the chance to cut out new directions in the enduring postwar: just our being here in these pure sparkling mountains offers us a new life. A life so different from our lives in Munich that I believe we will eventually succeed in shedding the look of defeat concealed underneath the superficial gaiety marking European faces of our times. The sham that marked my life, too, before Ute. So I put my hopes in a life among a people in whose vocabulary words like Iron Curtain and Cold War will one day no longer exist.

Ramon and I meet often on the hill at the ‘holy site’, the name by which he said the priest at the Chiesa di San Giorgio and now most villagers call the place on the wall where we’re talking. Sacred because it was here that a young Russian painter from Paris performed a miracle: he tied the shoe laces of the ragged village idiot who’d never before spoken and who from that moment began speaking perfect Italian. Right here. At our meeting place.

“A Russian? Here in Montagna? Pretty odd.”

“Odder than you and me being here? Two spies!”

“Ramon, you’re a spy. I’m not. At least not anymore.”

Smotri, Helmut! The whole fucking world is upside down.“

“Very true! But I’m not a spy. You are!”

“Anyway there was this kid everyone called the village idiot because he couldn’t speak. And because he was dirty and dressed in rags. So one day this Russian guy is sitting here on the wall when the idiot walks by, his untied shoe laces flapping. The Russian gets him to sit down and tries to teach him to tie his shoe laces. The Russian finally ties them himself and the kid starts talking, BUT, the idiot doesn’t want to learn to tie his shoe laces. He wants the Russian to do it. So the Russian does, every day, every day, and they become pals. Then the priest pronounces it a miracle and calls this spot sacred. He’s still waiting for recognition of the miracle from the Vatican.”

“So what happened to the Russian and the idiot ? Where’d they go?”

“No idea! There was some accident involving the idiot, so maybe the Russian took him back to Paris.”

Or, on some afternoons, we meet in Grigione’s bookstore just across the road from our observation point. The bookstore is more a meeting place than a commercial activity of which in Montagna there are only the Caffé and a tiny, unattractive trattoria. The store interests me in particular because the proprietor too had lived in Munich for twenty years and had returned to his home to open his dream bookstore … not so much to sell books, Grigione says, as to collect them and live among them. Still, I ask myself, is Grigione’s presence here, all his books and German newspapers, is all that coincidence, too? Or am I paranoid?

Ramon is a different story. It becomes clear that he’s a very ambitious man—a typical Romanian characteristic he himself once said. The sky was the only limit for him. And he was prepared to risk everything to get there. Now I think he just wanted to become an influential rich American… as if … as if he were no longer accountable to his former self.

For that reason, his apparent patience with life in this village is out of character. He’s always waiting. Waiting and waiting. Waiting. I couldn’t help but wonder for what. And in any case, why here?

The day at the holy site I mentioned Stalingrad, he reacted in a curious manner to my admission of my Abwehr background and that I was in the cellars of Stalingrad before the surrender of the German Sixth Army. In his soft, almost sensuous manner he revealed that like many of the 580,000 Romanian soldiers in Russia he too had been in Hitler’s army at Stalingrad, but that unlike the hell it had been for me, it was a wonderful time for him: he’d been assigned to General Reinhard Gehlen’s Fremde Heere Ost, FHO (Foreign Armies East) a German parallel intelligence organization. He never ate horse brains broth or rat steaks.

For myriad reasons—my Abwehr background, my coming here from Munich and my presence in Montagna—Ramon believed I was still linked to Gehlen. For he too was hiding … from something or someone. And in his mind so was I.


Sometimes Ute falls into an impenetrable silence, a sense of stillness within her, a sort of total lifelessness in which she doesn’t speak at all. In such moments she doesn’t want to be talked to by others whose words meet a silent stone wall as if spoken in some Andean dialect. Then, abruptly, the moment passes and she starts again in her usual reflective manner.

One day when I asked her what it was like in the homeland during the last days of the war she emerged from such a silence as if she’d been thinking precisely about that period.

“After the bombings, I felt … I felt unraveled. Totally. So at the end the thing I most wanted was silence, the silence of other unraveled people like myself.” She paused, reflected and said mysteriously: “I aspired to the presence of those words that are never spoken.”

“Which words? Which? And was your American conqueror friend also unraveled?” I asked anyway … as I always do when the film of separation sheds her eyes and I feel a certain jealousy of exclusion from the her of those times.

“Oh yes, he was unraveled. And how! But he was just too, too … oh, how can I say it? Too innocent. Too American. Too young … both in years and experience. He didn’t know what war was. He’d never known bombs. He didn’t understand things like we do. He was searching, I suppose. He was good and decent… but too young in every way. Young like I imagine most Americans are. And he had no real center. No roots holding him in place like we once did. I liked him a lot but I would never have married him and gone to America with him. What would I, a European to my quick, do there? Submit to another? No, I wasn’t ready to abandon my own self. I was pregnant but I sent him away so I could have Hannah alone.

“But what about love and romance and all that in your life. Didn’t you miss it?”

”Oh, yes, of course. But love? I have always needed love. But I came to realize that I can love only a man who still wants to change the world. Who wants to make things better … and who doesn’t expect my submission. Maybe I too am just a fragment. Maybe we all are. But I want control of the fragment that is me.”

“So what about me? You show that you love me … though I don’t want to do anything to change the world.”

“I think you do. You just don’t know yourself … not yet. The world has had its way with you … until recently. Now you’ve said: genug! Enough! You changed our worlds when you broke through and brought the three of us here.”

“I was just running.”

“Helmut, I recognized you when I first saw you. When you came to my table that day in Grünwald carrying two glasses of beer. That look in your eyes of the man constantly reviewing his own life. Ecce homo, I thought. And then, Helmut, your father-daughter relationship with Hannah cemented also our relationship.”

Ute was right. I wanted to be together with her and loving her I also wanted Hannicka to be my daughter. So we married and I adopted Hannah. And we became the Hartmanns … in Germany. But in Italy, Ute retains her name: Friedrich. She likes that. But her daughter is Hannah Hartmann. I like that. Complex laws indeed!

This morning, again, after a long silence at her desk during which she hadn’t moved even a hand, Ute said: “To think that we’re only a day’s drive from our old home but that our new home in the Valtellina is itself a world apart. Melancholy. Silent. Maybe lonesome. Officially, a depressed area. And to think that this isolated valley hasn’t known real war for centuries. Only Mussolini’s defeated Fascists wanted to make a new country here. But that was just a dream.”

“Hmm!” I mutter and wait. I know there is more to come.

“So why do I suspect that a feeling of hopelessness lies underneath these people’s veneer of joy and exuberance? Helmut, I sense in them the spirit of a conquered people. Like us in that. People here are separate, yes. But they’re not a race,nor a nation. Yet they are at least a people. But then maybe all Italians—also those down south beyond the mountains—are like these people. They’ve been conquered so many times that …”

“Yes, Ute, but they’re still here. Italy absorbed the conquerors. Phoenicians and Arabs, Swiss, Germans, Austrians, Normans and Spanish. Some conquered and victimized peoples do that. Over time the victims prove to be stronger than the victimizers and suck the essence of the conquerors … and their features, too. Like the Norman blood running through the veins of those blond and blue-eyed Sicilians I read about? And those of the dark skins of their Arab conquerors.”

“What a mishmash our Europe is! Because the conquered also take on some of the characteristics of the conquerors. Some of them. Like Italian guest workers in Germany, the Gastarbeiter … they seem arrogant and superior but submissive at the same time.”

“Not the Russians though. Maybe they’re the exceptions. Not the ones I encountered anyway. They are a people, a nation and even nearly a race. No invaders can undo them … not like the occupiers have undone us. Why we’re even becoming more like them, the charmless but powerful occupiers. For a while the Russians were conquered and slaughtered but they never surrendered. They never surrendered anything of themselves to us Germans. Nothing. Or not many did. Some were traitors, of course. There are always some weak of spirit. And then, remember, even Gehlen (1) himself was a traitor.”

“Helmut, you’ve never told me how it really was in Stalingrad. I know you don’t like to talk about it. But I need to know. How can I know you if I don’t know this about you?

“Stalingrad. Ute, I talk about it with myself non-stop. Stalingrad. I see images. Random images. Flashes, Fragments. Forty below zero, denim uniforms. A slice or two of bread per day. Some soldiers used their entrenching tools to crack the skulls of frozen horses to make a broth from the boiled brains. Then, the war. How can you operate a submachine gun when your hands are completely numb? How can you take shelter from the cold anywhere when every building is in shambles? Wouldn’t a fire attract too much attention from the enemy? The snipers. Theirs and ours. A terrible kind of war. You’re eating frozen horses’ brains, and the next second you’re dead. If you take refuge in the sewers where everything is frozen Russian patrols find you … since no able-bodied German soldier would protect you down there. In those times Russian war prisoners were left to freeze and starve to death within open-air enclosures … after having been stripped of their Valenki-Winter boots. Reports of cannibalism among them. Later on also among Germans within the Pocket of Stalingrad. But of the 90,000 Germans that surrendered, most died of typhus in the Russian POW Camps. Still, curiously, some of us in Stalingrad remained fatter than others. Then we discovered the ring of cannibals. My rat steak was likely a human steak. Oh, Ute! It’s just too much to put into words. Better such words remain unspoken.”

“Easy. Easy,” Ute says softly. “But about conquerors and the conquered, we Germans are different! We too absorb our conquerors but we become much like them. Not people here. Here, underneath, at their quick, people here in the mountains and valleys are resilient and resistant and complete. No one is like them. Still, in their sense of completeness, they’re careless. An indifferent kind of carelessness as to what is happening across the mountains to the south … or now that I think about it carelessness even about those secret armies lurking in Italy’s hidden places that you talk about with Ramon.”

“Oh, Ramon! Incomprehensible Ramon.”

“ I’ll never trust him. And I can’t understand your tolerance in his regard.”

“Maybe tolerance, Ute … but little trust. I don’t understand him, Therefore, my suspicion of who he really is. No trust in him whatsoever until I learn what his game is. And, Ute, I’ll find out one way or another.”

The month of October passed. Time seemed strange in those days. Clocks didn’t go. Time fell off, as if forgotten. Until one evening we went with Ramon and Giuliana to dinner in the neighboring mountain town of Teglio, where by chance my Communist friends live. Ramon said we had to taste the pizzoccheri, the pasta specialty of the area. Our first time! Hannah knew the word and called the town by its name in dialect, Tei, like the older kids in the kindergarten. Incredible how small kids can learn a foreign language so quickly; even if she had no idea what the word meant. She just parroted the others … and soon the word fell into place.

Teglio is a very old town. Also a town of stone. Stone walls and streets that in the mysterious darkness of winding alleys and artistic arches where dark courtyards give off emptiness and loneliness … even the negation of life. Where for long moments I hear only the sliding of my own feet on the stones. The smelly brown-red flames of the torches illuminating its ancient streets make you aware of the deepness of the dark mountain night. In the crisp air the bougainvillea hangs heavy, sad and colorless in the shadows. Their world of shadows is frightening. And I hold tighter Hannah’s hand. I still have curse. The antediluvian silence of the timeless obscurity of Teglio’s non-illuminated alleys recall the terror of late night ruins of Stalingrad streets where time had stopped. And I shiver inwardly.

We enter a sprawling cobbled piazza from which wider streets branch off. The little mountain town has suddenly become vibrant and alive with people and cars bringing loud diners from villages stretched across the flanks of the Rhaetian Alps. A fountain-like pond in the center is illuminated by low street lamps to exhibit groups of white and pink water lilies, flowers that emanate no scent at all. I look down at Hannah. She is frowning and says that the lilies look sleepy. “Sie wollen schlafen”. And after a hesitation: “in questo chiasso.”

“They’re sleepy … in this noise,” Ramon translates both languages automatically.

The restaurant is animated. Waiters rushing back and forth, getting the pasta to their regulars first. I look around the room, searching for the once familiar faces of my friends, uncertain and a bit forlorn that I would not recognize them after all the years. Then over the pizzoccheri we talk randomly about our new home, the mountains and the valleys while I peer about the space, from one table to the next.

Predictably, Ramon and I gradually drift back to the war. Both of us Stalingrad veterans. Both of us with links to German Intelligence and with Gehlen. In veiled terms we recall how each of us experienced it and how we remember it now, ten years later. My memories: horror. His: adventure and excitement. Yet somehow our memories overlap, perhaps because of our similar origins: I, from the ethnic German part of Czechoslovakia and he, from nearby Romania.

What interests me is how Ramon sees the war now. War in general. The thing is he’s not anti-war at all. But he’s so charming—probably deceptively so, because, I realize, I’ve never seen any signs of genuine kindness in him. Politeness, yes, But little real kindness. Little real warmth. Cold underneath his words. He seems to constantly suppress a wild ferocity toward the world … like the cruelty Romanian soldiers in Russia displayed toward the conquered. Although the war treated Ramon well, he still has a terrible hate in him. So he seems shocked when I blurt out my anti-war feelings.

He and I truly see the world with different eyes. While I speak of my attraction to the idea of the collective of the Russians and all that implies for postwar Europe, Ramon professes a total individualism. He thinks it is the war that made of him a complete and accomplished individual. And he has no illusions whatsoever about the collective, whether, as he says unambiguously, of the Stalin or of the Hitler stamp. While I feel the ugliness and the horror, the uselessness of what we both experienced, Ramon sees it as a breakthrough for himself, the chance for a new understanding of life. Still, Ramon remains undefined for me … and unconfined in his ambitions. He has already grasped chance. Carpe diem, he says, is his motto.

Enough of a life of blind abstractions. Enough of feelings of hanging suspended between the two worlds of the old, brutal pre-war and the new problematic postwar. There are three drives in man, Helmut: ambition, a great idea and inspiration. I choose the first. No more suspension for me; no more abstractions; only reality counts. Communism, capitalism, fascism—even freedom—are just chains. Ramon ist und bleibt Ramon. One individual. Here I am, complete and done. Enough submission. Enough of just letting happen whatever seems destined to happen. I am for me.”

He pronounces his vicious convictions in short phrases, in a low voice in German, his Latin eyes gleaming, his facial features momentarily transfigured. Then he stops to translate to Giuliana, who has sat silently, a permanent look of bewilderment on her face that she was hearing such talk here in Teglio. Heavy talk. Heavy like the pizzoccheri we are eating.

I start to object, then shrug and turn back to the too heavy pasta. You can’t argue with ambition. Ute, who usually listens to such talk in silence, opens her mouth to protest but then she too remains silent. Meanwhile, Hannichka has dropped off to sleep, her head in my lap and I stroke her hair absent-mindedly.

“Ramon,” I say to change the subject, “I’ve wanted to ask you about your travels. One day you’re here, the next day you’re gone … and you’re gone for some time. Giuliana gets lonely, you know.” We’ve gotten to know Giuliana during his absences. And she loves Hannah and Hannah, her, which has endeared her to us.

“My parents in Romania are old. I have to take care of them. I go to visit when I can, see to what has to be done … and I put things in order,” he says is his ambiguous manner. I know he is lying.

“So why not take Giuliana with you?” Ute asks naively. She doesn’t suspect that his visits to Romania—if he goes only there and not also Munich-Pullach—are not family visits at all.

“Oh, it would be boring for her,” Ramon begins, his light eyes turning steely as if unseeing while his voice remains low and surprisingly melancholy. “And then Romania is so complex … now.”

I’ve never believed for a minute that an ambitious man like Ramon spends all that time taking care of his parents … who anyway seem well off, now. I suspect his work has to do with American and Gehlen relations with Romanian Communists.

“Oh, Gehlen and CIA people too know about my friends in the Romanian Communist Party,” he says in German. “They approve of it. Want me to go ahead with it. They’re curious about my predictions of a brilliant future for a youngish guy I know well, named Nicolae Ceausescu.”

He had told me that the Romanian Leader, Gheorghiu-Dei, was not well. Many changes will happen in Romania when he dies. And I believe the new Romania to come is part of Ramon’s job: courting Ceausescu, who just last year was named to the Politburo. Now for whom would Ramon do such tasks? For Gehlen of course. And for Gehlen’s bosses, the Amis. U.S. policy is to drive a cleft in the new Warsaw Pact of Communist East Europe. Ramon is a double. A double agent.

Ramon told me that Romanian Communists are divided between the “home Communists” in contrast to the “Muscovites” loyal to the Moscow hard line. Ceausescu would become popular in the West—and a maverick in the East because of his “opposition” to Moscow. “Nicky”—as Ramon sometimes calls him—believes Romania should be a world power, a leader in the non-aligned movement.

Ambitious Ramon sees himself on a future Ceausescu team. A Trojan Horse in Communist Romania. Ceausescu like Ramon wants to be part of the West. Ramon is pissed that Westerners don’t know that Romanian is a Romance language, thinking it’s Slavic. Spoken Romanian sounds Italian though it’s not the same language. And the grammar is different and words have different meanings. He likes the example of going to Roma … or Bucharesti. Italian: Oggi vado a Roma. Romanian: Astazi plec la Bucaresti. He has me repeat it over and over until I hear clearly the Latin language in the phrase. “Romanian is a Romance language, Like Spanish and Portuguese. Like Italian itself.

“Speaking Italian came to me over night,” he once told me, “as it happens to most Romanians living in Italy. Shows how close our languages are. Crazy, when you think about it. But we do belong to the West. Niku thinks the same. He wants to head the Non-Aligned movement. Wants Romania—his Romania—to be a world power … not just a satellite of the Soviet Union.”

One day from my window I saw three men get out of in a black suv parked in front of Ramon’s house. So I waited and watched. Sure enough, when they came out, there were four: Ramon, elegantly dressed from head to toe in black, did not look happy. He kept looking over his shoulder and saying something to Giuliana standing in the doorway. From my front steps I waved. He only blinked in recognition. Spontaneously I thought: Gehlen people.

Ramon returned three days later. That same afternoon we met at the holy site. And point blank I asked him where he’d been. Almost carelessly, he sat down on the wall just next to the red and blue ribbon marking the sacred spot. And then he looked up at me and said: “I was in Pullach.”

Some time passed. Then I said: “So?”

“So, there were also Amis present,” he said and grinned evilly. “And now I’m top priority.”

“Top priority? What does that mean?”

“Before—I learned—they’d just scanned my reports and filed away my stuff about the man in Bucharesti—Nicolae Ceausescu (2), the man I’ve mentioned to you. Now they’ve decided to make a big investment in him. And I’m a double.”

“Why that? Why him? And what kind of investment.?”

“Even though my previous reports were ignored, big changes are coming. Nicky—Niku as they prefer to call him—has become official. ‘Operation Niku they call it’. And I am the point man in the field … for a while at least. I suspect only for as long as they need me.”

“So you’ll be leaving Montagna?”

“Not for now. I’m more secret here.”

“Like me, eh?”

“They didn’t even mention you!”

Still, his story rings outrageously crazy. Oh, the eternal femaleness of intelligence agencies: always searching for the grand project, the great operation, the person to change the course of history … like the other half of their souls. And they expect to find love there … for their efforts. On the other hand, they are infected with the eternal duplicity of maleness: war and blood … and the same search for love. Yet, for their reasons, whatever they are, they’ve let me go. I’m free. But they’ve found a double! A feather in their caps.

So today I feel good and secure in these mountains hanging over the Valtellina. We will stay here in this land surrounded by the Alps. Our sanctuary. And refuge. Where the greatest noise—Hannichka’s chiasso—are the infernal bells of the Church of San Giorgio. So that I’ve come to feel that those turbulent bells mark the regular passing of time, the regular manner in which we want time to pass. Regularly passing time is emblematic of the security fragile humans search for—and, for Ute and me, a reminder of our reality … and at the same time, who we are. They measure and synchronize our lives with the passing of time, here so uniform and unvarying.

If it’s true as Dostoevsky said that time itself is both illusory and eternal, I too am admittedly still in search of a perfect time. And perhaps San Giorgio’s bells moderate time’s mystery by lying to us that time is even, regular and always the same.

Sometimes I am soothed by the church bells insisting on that constancy. Other times I am disturbed by time’s very passing—each clang marking another fragment of the time of our unreal uprooted lives—after all, only a one day’s drive from home.

  1. The spymaster General Reinhard Gehlen had ties to extreme rightist organizations like Stepan Bandera’s fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists; Romania’s Iron Guard and the Ustashe of Yugoslavia. After Hitler fired Gehlen during the war in Russia because of his negative reports, Gehlen buried in watertight cans his files on the Red Army. On May 22, 1945, Gehlen and top aides surrendered to the American Counter-intelligence Corps. Since the USA needed Soviet military experts, Gehlen was removed from prisoner-of-war rolls and placed in charge of a group of Germans gathering intelligence for the USA. Unrepentant Nazis occupied key posts in his CIA affiliated, anti-Communist “Gehlen Organization” headquartered in Munich. Many people in Munich knew about the Gehlen Org but no one cared a whit. Reinhard Gehlen reached the top when he organized and headed the first West German Intelligence Agency, the BND, or Bundesnachrichtendienst. General Gehlen was a very smart cookie. He died in 1979.
  2. Nicolae Ceausescu (1899-1989), a Romanian Communist politician, member of Politburo from 1954, President of Romanian Socialist Republic from 1967-1989. During the Romanian anti-Communist Revolution in 1989 that exploded in the big city of Timisoara with its strong Hungarian minority, on December 22 of that year he and his wife Elena Ceausescu were arrested in the small city of Targoviste near Bucarest, tried for genocide in a kind of show trial, and immediately executed on Christmas Day of 1989. The author notes: a planned midnight bus trip organized by Hungarians for foreign journalists departing at midnight from Budapest on December 22 was cancelled at the last minute because of the intensity of the fighting when everyone moving was a target by the many diverse factions. I, like others present in Budapest, was relieved we did not go but I have always wondered who gave the order not to send us there. Did the conceptual Ramon found refuge in America as did a long line of Nazis after WWII? I hoped not.

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