From: Chasing the Panda

the panda first

He heard shots, and the Lolo hunters were shouting beixiong, “white bear,” which is what they called the giant panda in that time and place. Quentin Young started to run, as best he could, uphill through a landscape that could have been a classical Chinese painting, full of snow and mists and mountains and bamboo thickets. He was gasping for breath in the thin air at 12,000 feet, cursing to himself, perhaps cursing aloud. The hunters had been ordered not to shoot, because he wanted to capture the giant panda alive.

The American woman was foundering in the snow somewhere below him, forever slipping, caught on thorns, and he worried that if he charged ahead to reprimand the hunters, to even see what they were shooting at, he’d lose her in the forest. As troublesome as she was, he was responsible for her. She’d refused to stay in camp, and she was the boss, so he had to give in to her insistence.

It was 1936, November 19, somewhere in the mountains on the Sichuan-Tibetan border, 1,900 miles from Shanghai, where they’d started their journey nearly two months before. Young was 22, a Westernized Chinese who was trying to make a name for himself as a naturalist. He was tall and dark, with movie-star good looks and a stylish black pompadour. The woman was Ruth Harkness, darkly attractive despite her unusual features, with long black hair that she wrapped around her head and covered with a turban. She was 35, a New York dress designer, and recently widowed. Her late husband, William Harvest Harkness, Jr., had been a bring-’em-back-alive hunter who’d traveled to the Dutch East Indies to capture Komodo lizards, which he brought to the Bronx Zoo. But that accomplishment did not stop the zoological establishment from chuckling at his boasts that he’d bring eight or ten or more giant pandas back from China.

By today’s standards, this seems no great feat. In 1936 it was unprecedented. Giant pandas lived several days’ trek even from remote villages like Zhaopo, which was a weeks-long voyage from civilized Shanghai. Few had even been seen alive by Westerners and then only through the cross hairs of rifles. When one was shot by the sons of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1929, it was as if they had hunted down a unicorn. Everyone mistakenly thought they were the first “Occidentals” to ever see one alive, and this was somehow a great achievement on their part. Over the next six years, rich Western hunters killed three more, and because those Great White Hunters bragged of the ferocity of the giant pandas they shot, zoologists were not even sure they could be taken alive, though more than one hunter wanted to try.

Such expeditions drew great public acclaim and the newspapers made media heroes of the adventurers who staged them. Animal study was just moving away from the extended hunting trips in which animals were killed to be mounted in museums such as the Field in Chicago, where the Roosevelts’ panda is still displayed. The new trend was to capture the animals alive, the bring them triumphantly back to civilization and put them on display in zoos.

Bill Harkness’s panda-hunting mission had been much ballyhooed in the press, but he hardly made it out of Shanghai. He couldn’t get the proper government permits. Then he took ill with throat cancer, which spread to his stomach and killed him.

Ruth Harkness wandered to China to tidy up his estate. She was not the kind of person to let better judgment get in the way of her decisions. So, on a whim, she decided to take over her husband’s ill-fated expedition. She fired his partner, an American expatriate named Floyd Tangier Smith, and met with Quentin Young’s older brother Jack, a well-respected naturalist who had traveled with the Roosevelts. Jack Young recommended that she talk to Quentin, whom he had trained. Together the brothers had hunted takin (a horned animal peculiar to the highlands of central Asia that combines features of the ox, goat and antelope) and golden monkeys and rare pheasants for American museums and zoos and private collectors, alternately battling bandits and entertaining the warlords that controlled the primitive rural areas.

Of course, if it was already laughable that a man named Harkness thought he’d capture pandas, it was downright ludicrous to the zoological establishment that a woman could, especially given her choice for expedition leader, a 22-year-old “Chinaman,” with an Anglo-sounding name.

But Young managed to get Harkness up the Yangzi River to Chongqing, overland by car to Chengdu, then hired a cook and hunters and coolies for the final hundred-mile walk—having her carried or wheeled in a wheelbarrow much of the way—to the village of Zhaopo and the bamboo thickets beyond.

He had seen panda sign in the days before. The shots by the trigger-happy hunters probably meant they’d sighted one, more likely shot it to eat it, to sell the hide, and then deny they’d even seen it. Anyway, the local hunters couldn’t really understand why the foreigners were so obsessed with the white bear. Its meat was rubbery, its hide coarse, though some villagers thought that sleeping on a panda skin would bring good luck.

And though the Roosevelts and other hunters had told their tales of how fierce the giant panda was, the villagers knew that if one wandered into camp looking for handouts, they could bang pots to shoo it away.

Nonetheless, as long as this foreigner, Harkness, was willing to pay them by the day, they could make panda hunting last as many days as possible. “You can always fool a foreigner,” went the local wisdom.

This hotheaded young Chinese, however, was a puzzlement to the locals. He spoke the language of the foreign devil, but spoke their own language as well. He ate the peculiar foods that she ate—or salt fish and tofu just as they did, too. His name, even, “Yang,” in Chinese with one inflection meant “over the seas, foreigner.” They were willing to fool him anyway.

For his part, Young had little faith in his employees to do anything more than take money day to day, lead him aimlessly through the forest and lie to him about how difficult it was to find pandas. His temper was heating up as he waited for Harkness to claw her way uphill. Then he heard a baby’s whimper. It was coming from the upside-down-V-shaped opening in a hollow tree, a baby panda, so young its eyes were not yet open.

Young wanted to put it back in the tree, assuming it would die without its mother—which he surmised the hunters had already shot. He wanted an adult bear; he’d brought chains and shackles and giant cages to restrain it.

Harkness stumbled into the clearing just as Young was pulling the cub out of its den, and she took it from his arms and cradled it like a baby. She’d brought a piece of equipment in her pack that Young had not anticipated: a baby bottle. In her mind, this baby was as good, if not better, than an adult panda. Young put the tiny animal inside his shirt and then slid back downhill to camp over the snow on the seat of his pants.

As Young stayed in the forest to hunt for more pandas, Harkness trekked back to Shanghai and virtually smuggled her baby panda onto a ship bound for San Francisco. She named the animal after Young’s sister-in-law, Su Lin, which means “a little bit of something very cute.”

Harkness kept the tiny animal in her New York hotel room as she haggled with zoos over which would buy it from her. Though the New York press assumed it would end up at the Bronx Zoo, that institution’s keepers feared the animal was unhealthy and passed it by. Eventually Su Lin ended up at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Even today, pandas are major zoo attractions, guaranteed revenue sources, worth fighting over, worth finding a congressman to grease the way past endangered species laws. They were even more so in 1936.

Su Lin was the most famous animal in the world. When the little panda took up residence at the Brookfield Zoo, the day’s celebrities—John Barrymore, Helen Keller, even Al Capone—filed past its cage. Its popularity inspired the zoo to send Harkness back to Sichuan twice more to find a suitable mate. But there was no mating. Su Lin choked on a twig, then contracted pneumonia and died 16 months after coming to America. Then it was stuffed and put on display in the Field Museum like its Roosevelt predecessor.

Quentin Young, meanwhile, disappeared into World War II. He rode the Burma Road with an American documentary film crew and was imprisoned by the Japanese. Then he lived through revolution as the Dutch East Indies became Indonesia. He spied on the Indonesian dictator Sukarno on behalf of Nationalist China, he says, and nearly lost his life doing so. He escaped to Taiwan and worked as an editor, and then he followed his older brother to the United States. He retired to the San Diego area, where he lived with his second wife, until he died in 2008. But of anything he ever did in his long life, the panda expedition has haunted him the most.

After Ruth Harkness arrived in the United States, Bill Harkness’s old partner, Floyd Tangier Smith, immediately claimed that she and Young had stolen the panda from his hunters in Zhaopo. In her 1938 book, The Lady and the Panda, Harkness derisively referred to Smith as “Zoology Jones.” But no matter; he was one of the Great White Hunters, and his word carried weight. Publicly, the museum curators and zoologists acknowledged Harkness, but to this day, would-be historians, field biologists, and Chinese wags near the Wolong Panda study in Sichuan, still whisper slyly that Quentin Young and Ruth Harkness had cheated the zoological establishment. To this day, they have a hard time believing that a dilettante woman and a boy “Chinaman” could have beaten them to the catch.

Ruth Harkness became famous, Quentin Young did not. Nor did his brother Jack, who had as much experience as any naturalist working in China. Jack bounced from adventure to adventure, often guiding the Americans who would then bask in the limelight as daring adventurers. And even though they lived in an era when the public idolized the heroic men and women who scaled unclimbed peaks, mapped unexplored places, flew across uncharted bodies of water, and discovered unnamed species, the public imagination was perhaps not large enough to include heroes who weren’t Anglo-American or European. Nonetheless, these men were the last living witnesses to a nearly forgotten age of exploration.

From: The Lion Hunter

Her Last Ride

She loved horses, even if she didnt know a thing about them, not stallions from scallions or Appaloosas from applesauce. Every night after her father went to bed and she was certain she heard his snores, she snuck out her bedroom window and walked down the dirt road under the desert moonlight to her neighbors corral and unlatched the gate.

          He would be waiting for her, a big black Arabian gelding, though she didnt know what kind of horse he was, didnt know his name, didnt know how valuable he was, and didnt even know his owners. She just she knew she disliked them. The horse would be pacing impatiently by the gate, and hed whinny when he smelled her, and stomp and snort with anticipation when he saw her push past the overgrown palo verde tree between the gate and the road.

          She would shhh and whisper to calm him, run her hand down his big snout, then let him follow her down the road. Sometimes shed bring her little dog; the damn thing barked all day long, but somehow he knew he was part of a bigger conspiracy on these late-night jaunts and hed never let out a peep. And when the girl thought they were all out of earshot of the house, shed clamber awkwardly onto the horses back, grab a handful of mane, and gallop him down to the cottonwoods by the river with the dog running alongside and skirting the bushes for scents.

          As a girl, she only did what she wanted to, and that had gotten her sent off to Arizona to live with her father. He was a cop. Her mother divorced him because he was such an inflexible hardass, but when she found she couldnt control her anymore, she felt that a supercop dad might be just what the girl needed.

          It wasnt. What she needed was a sign from within, any kind of sign at all, that might tell her something, anything about something or anything.

          She grew up alone with her mother in Chicago. Her father moved straight out of state after the divorce, thinking like most new Arizonans, that his problems wouldnt follow him there, so far away from Chicagos crowds and smog and winter weather. Hed been a Chicago police officer, so he had no problem signing on as a Maricopa County Sheriffs deputy. He didnt even have to spend time in any office, because his beat was to drive the empty roads of North Scottsdale, most of them unpaved in the days before the state sold all the land--and the politicians souls--to developers who turned it into red-tile-roof hell. He bought a piece of desert while he still could, however, and built a little house at the end of Dynamite Road, where Scottsdale feathered into the Tonto National Forest. He parked his patrol car in front of the house, and unless he had to bring a suspect to jail or testify in court in downtown Phoenix, his only coworkers were voices on the radio.

          When he moved there, his neighbors were ranchers, but they got old and sold out, and the retirees, mostly Californians, moved in. They kept to themselves except to accuse their neighbors and point fingers at strangers. So he lived in isolation until she came.

          She grew up in the city he left, and grew up fast. She knew how to look self-assured as she walked from school to her mothers downtown apartment. By the time she was 16, shed figured out how to look a man in the eye and make him wilt. She seemed older than she was, and because she was beautiful, no one ever had the nerve to say no to her.

          After she graduated from high school, She told her mother shed had enough of education for a while, and any day now she was going to find a job.

          That was what she said because thats what her mother wanted to hear. In reality, she had no such plans, and when her mother started to press the issue, she just altered her schedule. The mother worked in an office in the Loop, left the apartment at seven in the morning and didnt get home until seven at night. So it was easy for the girl to be asleep when her mother left for work, and to be gone when she came back at night.

          She had no trouble getting into the clubs even though she was well underage. She could glare or smile her way past any doorman in town. The younger boys never thought they had a chance with her--and in fact they didnt--and the older boys--who probably didnt either--would just smile back and let her through the door.

          Late one night, her mother woke up and smelled something burning, and went into her living room to find her smoking a joint with two enormous men wearing Super Bowl rings. She was still eighteen.

          What were you thinking? the mother screamed later.

          She wasnt thinking anything. She never thought, and she didnt plan on starting, and she said so. Mom shipped her to Arizona.

          The girl was not impressed, and her dad was probably less able than any other man to set limits. Tough as he had been on her mother, he melted in front of his daughter--so smart, so beautiful--and she filled his empty house. She could just sit by the pool and work on her sun tan for all he cared. And if she played the piano for him--somehow she had managed to put some discipline into that--hed let her get away with anything.

          He had a pair of big, obsequious Labrador retrievers--the main dogs, he called them--and a tiny one, no bigger than a plush-toy stuffed animal, which he called the auxiliary dog. The big ones were bounding and genial. The little one was a cross between a Maltese and a Yorkshire terrier, two breeds of large dogs trapped in a small dogs body. It looked sort of like Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and sort of like the mechanical gopher in the movie Caddyshack. It was as assertive and unafraid as the girl was--though there was plenty for it to be afraid of out there in the desert--snakes and owls and lions and coyotes--but, like the girl, it did what it wanted to, and what it wanted to do was follow her everywhere.

          She had discovered the horses in her first week in Arizona. She was walking down to the river past their so-called pasturethough there was barely enough grass to really call it a pasture--and, social beings that they are, three of the horses ran arrogantly up to the fence.

          They seemed impressed that she was unafraid, and hung their big faces over the top rail. She accepted the invitation and reached out and stroked the big one between the eyes, right down to his quivering black lips. She was smitten, and the big horse, like every male shed ever known, stood still for her.

          Dont touch the haws-ses!

          The voice came from the other side of the corral. An elderly woman strode up to the fence. She had honey-blond hair, a face pulled tight either from facelifts or from the overwhelming tightness of the sphincters in her ass. The girl thought she was about seventy, and for the first time in her life, she was almost intimidated.

          This is private proppity, honey, the woman barked. She was done up in cowgirl chic clothing, but her voice and her manner were urban.  She identified the accent as city, but she couldnt tell which city it came from.

          The lady lectured for a few moments longer. She just stared back. The long and short of the tirade was that she had better not come back or the old lady would call the police.

          The girl walked away chuckling, because her father was the police, and because she didnt much care what some old face-lifted hag in a denim skirt told her she could or couldnt do.

          She came back that night.  The horses were still there. She laughed when they trotted over to the fence, and the big black seemed almost to laugh with her. She stayed an hour at least, just stroking his nose and the long curve of his neck.

          After a few weeks, she got up the nerve to climb over and walk among the horses. The black Arabian stayed at her side, and they took turns steering each other around the corral. It was weeks more until she dared climb up on him.

          Shed brought her dog with her that night. He wasnt sure--his big ears stayed on full alert--but he trusted her judgment.  The black horse sidled up alongside the fence, as if to get his flanks rubbed, or to rub them against the fence, but she took it as an invitation. She climbed right up the fence rails, and when the horse didnt spook, she reached a leg over and sat gently down on his back.

          This was too much for the little dog to take, and he let out a fusillade of barks as rapid as a string of penny firecrackers. A light went on in the house, a window opened. She quickly slid from the horse back to the fence and then to the ground, picked up the dog to calm him, and ran home.

          The next night she came back alone. The horse was already by the fence, as if he expected her. She liked that. And this time, she climbed quickly up the fence and onto his big back. He stood still a moment and then started to canter around the corral. She wasnt sure how to hang on--shed never been on a horse before. She put a hand on each side of his neck and bounced with his every step, but it struck her so funny that she couldnt stop giggling.

          Night after night she rode. The dog accepted this, and he slipped under the fence and learned to dodge hooves. One night, she unlatched the gate before she mounted up. The horse took her cue and carried her out of the corral and down the road into the mesquite bosque that ran all the way to the river.

          With each ride they ventured farther and farther away from the corral, on dirt roads and narrow trails, into the river to the other side, she with her hair flying behind her and one hand wound into the horses mane, riding until the sun came up, then sneaking back to bed and sleeping until late afternoon.

          They had adventures: Usually when they saw vehicles parked on forest roads, theyd also see their owners, asleep and naked in backseats, or still furtively making love in the beds of pickup trucks, trying to finish before morning. She identified with them, because she, too, had to get her new love back home before his mistress discovered he was cheating on her.

          But one morning, the trucks parked down by the Verde held other delights. She rode in on them and startled a band of seven or eight Mexican nationals whod spent the night drinking and using their own beer cans for target practice. Shed already turned the horse to run when she saw the gun come up, a long pistol at the end of an arm pointing right at her. The cylinder was empty, but the clicks of the guns hammer dry firing rang in her ears as loud as any real gunshot, and she felt exhilarated, almost aroused. She leaned forward onto the horses neck and felt his sides and his back muscles between her legs as he ran through the desert. Together they could get away with--and away from--anything.

          It was late August, and it had been raining for a week, so the thunder and lightning kept her in at night, laying in bed, sweaty with the window open, hoping the weather would break and she could go riding.

          When the skies finally cleared and the moon came out, the temperatures were still in the high nineties at midnight. She put on her bikini top and a pair of shorts and pulled on her running shoes. Then she and the little dog burst out the window like two beasts escaping from a cage and ran wild and crazy-legged for the corral.  She led the horse out the gate, climbed on and raced for the river.

          The water was running at flood levels, higher than shed ever seen it, but she was determined to cross it, anyway.

          She jumped down to a sandbar and sat down to take off her shoes and tie their laces together to throw around her neck. If the horse had to swim her across the river, shed get them wet, and she figured she might need dry shoes on the other side.

          The dog had sniffed his way around the creosote bushes. Now she heard him growling deep in his throat, and when she looked for him, she saw he was staring down a coyote as big as a German shepherd. It was easily five times his size, but the little dog was too full of himself to realize that he was on the menu for breakfast. She shouted and waved her arms. The coyote stood his ground, so she picked up a flat rock--the kind you want and cant find when youre skimming stones on the river, she thought--and whirled it sidearm at the coyote. It caught him behind the ear, and he yelped and disappeared into the brush.

          The horse was waiting at the waters edge. She whistled for the dog and he jumped into her arms and onto the horses neck as quick as a combination shot. She climbed up behind him and nosed the horse into the river.

          The rocks on the river bottom rolled with a hollow clacking sound beneath the horses hooves. He stumbled a bit in the swift current. He couldnt walk straight, and instead was pushed downstream with each step. The water crept up the girls legs, surprisingly cold. Then the horse was swimming. The dog balanced nervously. She worried about her own balance, arms and legs wrapped around the horse as best she could. They made shore a good hundred yards downstream from where they started.

          She got off and let the horse rest, pulled her shoes back on, and looked for the trail. After she remounted and they made the top of the hill, she realized she was facing east and the sun was already coming up, judging from the glow on the horizon.

          The horse was walking now. The world seemed surreal in the coming light, the air rolling on the sweet butterscotch smell of the wet greasewood. Thats when she saw the first snake, fat from a recent meal, stretched out at full length alongside the trail, unable to move, nearly invisible on the desert pavement.

          After a few miles, the trail came to the top of a deep wash that shed never seen before, but she decided to climb down into it to follow it back to the river, for thats where it would inevitably end.

          The trail was narrow and rocky, and she was so unsure of her equestrian skills that she decided to dismount and let the horse pick his own way down. He was uncertain at first, too, but when he saw her threading her way downhill, he walked along the ridge top until he found safe footing down. The dog, as always, acted as if he knew exactly where he was and where he was going. And in fact, he did: He was with the girl and he was going where she went.

          The wash bottom was wondrous, a hundred feet deep and stained green with copper. Pools of water stood in shaded corners, and at one point, a stream came above ground for a few hundred yards before percolating back into the sand.

          She was back atop the horse when she saw the second snake, but only for an instant.

          The shirrrr of a rattlesnake is so primal that even if youve never heard it before, you recognize it instantly, like a memory passed down from prehistory. The hair goes up on the back of your neck and it seems the world stops a moment.

          The dog had been beating the sage and bunch grass along the wash trying to flush birds and ground squirrels and he had stirred up the snake instead. When she heard its rattle, she turned and saw the dog and the snake in a weird slow-motion ballet. The snake had risen up on its tail and was spiraling toward the dog, and the dog was instinctively twisting away. She knew that if the snake had bitten the dog, hed have yelped in pain.

          That was the last thing she knew. A beat later, the horse realized what was happening and reared up. She slipped backwards faster than she could catch herself and fell headfirst to the rocks.

          When she came to, the sun was full overhead and the dog was licking her face. She sat up with a start, realizing she wasnt home in bed. Her head hurt, her elbows and knees were skinned, but she seemed OK. She gave herself a once over, took inventory of scrapes and bruises--and then remembered the horse. It was nowhere in sight.

          For the first time in her life, she thought about consequences. She had stolen a horse and then lost it, and even in this not-so-wild-anymore West, she figured that could send her to jail. For all she knew, it had been taken by a lion, and that made her feel so much worse. But she also knew that the horse would likely walk in the likely direction--down the wash to the river.

          The dog was in his usual positive state of mind, as happy as if he had good sense. She wasnt so sure about herself.

          But she started walking anyway, and in an hour she had made it to the river. The horse was grazing in the high grass there, and he barely looked up when she came near, as if he were mad at her for screwing up and getting them both in trouble. But he still let her put the dog up on his back, let her climb up too, and then let her nose him back into the river.

          She forgot to take her shoes off and suddenly felt them fill with cold water, and when she jumped down on the other side, they squished and squeaked with each step.

          Theyd only started the walk up the road to the corral when she saw the flashing lights of the sheriffs car. She felt a cold shiver, thinking they were looking for her or for the horse, but then she realized the deputy had pulled over a car full of teenagers. It wasnt her father, but some deputy she didnt know who was so preoccupied with the ticket he was writing that he hardly nodded when she and the horse tip-toed around the two cars.

          The other horses chortled when she opened the gate, and they came to meet their stable mate. There was no sign of life at the house.

          The horse had indeed been missed, shed learn later. But when he turned up unharmed, the owners just assumed that he had jumped the fence. So they built a new and higher one, this time with a locked gate. No matter: Her riding days were over.

          She and the dog climbed back in the bedroom window. She could hear her father banging around the kitchen, but it was possible he hadnt noticed she was gone, since he seldom knocked at her door before noon. She slipped on a long robe to cover her cuts and bruises and padded to the bathroom to wash her face.

          Dad was surprised and delighted to see her out of bed. Shed obviously gotten away with it once again, though she wasnt sure she wanted to get away with anything more. And the conversation that had started out conspicuously and uncharacteristically gracious on her part, actually felt kind of good. Maybe this was the sign she needed.


hexe race.jpg

From: Swiss Seasons

Hanging with hags at the Belalp Hexe


I would have kissed her if I could have squeezed my lips between the points of her chin and her nose. She could sense my frustration, and it excited her.

Later, she purred as she stroked my chest.

She was as white and pockmarked as the sparse January snow in Belalp, Switzerland, the ugliest woman I ever fell for. But love is always a slippery slope; who knows if she was really beautiful beneath all that makeup?

She wore a white fright wig and white false eyelashes, a pointed black witch hat, and she carried a hags broom that she used as a ski pole. She and her friends, maybe 10 cloned from the same coven, hopped over and around the rocks as if those short skis were part of their feet.

I was pretty green in the face myself, and not from the altitude or the wine I drank the night before. One of the local frauleins had lovingly applied a thick layer of greasepaint on my cheeks and forehead so that I would be undercover on the slopes, free to be as bad an actor as I am a skier.

The Belalp Hexe, a Witches Descent, is an annual mid-January ski race. Or rather, its a costume ball on skis, disguised as a race.

Oh sure, there were a few overly anal sorts in speed suits, acting as if they actually wanted to win the thing 12 kilometers from the top of the slopes to the village of Blatten if the snow coverage permits. But about 700 of the 1,200 skiers that day were dressed in witch costumes, some more elaborate than others. Friends came in dressed-alike groups, with orange faces, brown faces, white faces, green faces. Here and there, someone had a stuffed raven on his shoulder. Nearly everyone had a bottle or a flask in a pocket, or a backpack pumper tank filled with a sweet, neon-green fizz that went down your throat with hundred-proof heat.

My white Wiccan raised a wine skin toward my face. Open der bouche, she ordered, before she squirted apricot brandy into my mouth.

Bonus, I whispered, Shes trilingual.

If youve never heard of Belalp, thats because its just a spare little day-area in the Upper Valais region near the city of Brig, about four hours south of Zurich by train. The slopes border the Aletsch Glacier, a frozen river at the bottom of a chasm that has been named a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Across the gorge, Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp are interconnected little ski villages with über-Swiss hotels and restaurants that cater to German families on holiday and can only be reached by aerial tram in the winter.

Hexe means witch, of course. And though the race is mostly an excuse to party, its allegedly based on the local legend of an adulterous witch who turned herself into a crow and bombed her pious husband with bird poop, hitting him right in the eyes. He, to his great misfortune, was climbing an apple tree at the time. He fell and died. She was burned at the stake. So obviously, that makes everyone want to drink and ski and race and party. Me included.

As I slid to the start, my white witch sidled up to me and shook her broom at me menacingly. I vill be at your side, making fire up your arsh, she said.

She was a bit loose with the vernacular, but I knew she was just flirting, the witch!

From: Into Umbria


The message was scrawled in love-struck, foot-high letters by the riverside.

"Io e te, tre metri sopra il cielo. Irene ti amo." ("Me and you, three meters above heaven. Irene, I love you.")

Hopeless romantic: I thought it was lovely, but my traveling companion quipped, "This Ti Amo family must be very large. Already today I've seen 'Maria Ti Amo,' 'Lisa Ti Amo' and 'Laura Ti Amo' written on walls."

Later I mentioned the graffiti to my friend, Roberta Marsili, who is an Italian instructor, and she dispossessed me of my reverie.

"Oh, that," she said snidely. "That comes from a popular Italian teen movie. My daughter's boyfriend even wrote that to her once."

Ah! So, even the clichés in Italy are of high quality.

During my second visit to Umbria, I spent two weeks in Città di Castello, a small, walled Umbrian city, not because I wanted to go somewhere, but because I wanted to be somewhere. Straddling the upper Tiber River near the Tuscan border, it's not so much a tourist destination as a regular, albeit historic, Italian city where most people don't speak English, and if they do, they have difficulty wrapping their ears around an American accent.

Roberta and her partner, Laura Gastaldi, run a language school there called Lingua Più, which means "language and more." They teach English to Italians and Italian to foreigners. In the summer, the Italian learners are group-tour Brits, and Aussies and Americans who want to go somewhere different. But in the off-season, when I visited, the students were Europeans who own houses in Italy and needed to learn the language for their day-to-day life.

Growing up in New Jersey, I used to joke that I was 15 before I realized I was not Italian like everyone else in my neighborhood. I studied Italian in college, partly, I would tell people, to be able to communicate with the grandmothers of the Italian girls I lusted after. But Gramma’s eyes would usually glaze over, and she would ask in English, “Whaddaya say you last-a name is?” I once asked a girl’s mother what I was doing wrong with my Italian, and she derisively said, “You talk like a finocchio,” like a sissy, that is, though “sissy” is rather nicer than the Italian slang word she used.

Mostly, I can muscle my way through conversations in Italian because I'm fluent in Spanish. It's a bit like trying to use an American wrench on a metric bolt. It doesn't quite fit. Roberta complained about my ugly Spanish accent in Italian, much as her students complained about my ugly American accent in English.

Some years earlier, when I was in Sestriere, near the French border, a Spanish word accidentally slipped out during a conversation with a bus driver, and he was so annoyed at what I was doing to his language that he stopped talking. More than once, Italians who have lived in Spanish-speaking countries have picked up on my accent and shifted into Spanish to save us both a headache. I was counting on Roberta to cure me of those afflictions.

So I took two classes a day in Lingua Più's tiny classrooms. In one class, my fellow students were a pair of retired British college professors who had a home nearby in the restored medieval mountaintop village of Monte Santa Maria Tiberina, the site of a World War II battle. Frank was a hopeless case as far as Italian went, but he liked to cite research suggesting that learning a second language kept the brain sharp.

The other class consisted of a Dutch couple who work for American firms and were restoring an old home in Città di Castello. They were brilliant language learners, though they complained bitterly that working for American companies had ruined their beautiful British accents in English. Italian, on the other hand, was a greater challenge for them, but they benefited from drills in that class that included such great phrases as "Marco ha raccontato a Francesco di avere avuto un figlio dalla moglie di lui." ("Marco told Francesco that he had a child with his wife.")

Most of all, I wanted to master the all-purpose syllable, "eh," which Italians can bend with more inflections and meanings than California adolescents can wring out of the word "dude." When posed as a question: “What?”; as a resigned assertion: “That's the way it goes”; as a retort: “So what?”; drawn out and emphatic: “You betcha!”

Roberta's daughter, Giorgia, could hold up her end of a conversation, one syllable at a time: "Eh? ... uh ... ah ..."

But when I tried, I could never hit it right.


"Too short."


"Sounds like a duck."


"That's what you say during sex!"

I went through a learning curve: The first few days went well, but then I hit the wall, all brain circuits clogged by trying to force three languages through the same synaptic channels. After about a week, I was conversing more comfortably. And I paid special attention to the hand gestures essential to the Italian language: A rotating finger held head-high means "Later." An outward flick of a cupped hand means "Get out of my face." An inward flip means "I'm leaving."

On my way home to Phoenix, I stopped in New York City for a few days. One night, I found myself chatting with a young Italian woman tending bar in the East Village. My Italian flowed as smoothly as the wine, and the conversation went well enough that my wineglass got topped off for free a couple of times. I amused her with my knowledge of hand gestures.

Then I brought up the graffiti: "Io e te, tre metri sopra il cielo."

She scoffed.

"I have a special hand gesture for the man who writes that to me," she said. "We call it 'the umbrella.' "

To illustrate, she raised her right fist and slapped down on the inside of her elbow with an open left hand, the classic Italian salute.

"The best part is that it shows him which way to go!" she said.

There was only one logical response: "Eh!"