The other night, among our dinner guests was a childless couple, recently installed in the village. We were finishing our desserts when someone asked the gentleman what had brought them to this part of the world, isolated as they were in a small town where nobody knew them? What was it that had impelled their decision to move here? After a pause, gently stroking the glass of brandy in his hands, he reflected that it could only have been an attack of temporary insanity, one of those spur of the moment decisions that end up affecting you for the rest of your life and you end up wondering how it all began.
My five passengers in the van were sick as dogs. They’d been retching and heaving since waking up that morning and were spending most of the ride to the sea dozing off and wallowing in self-pity. Curiously, I felt fine, though something in last night’s dinner seemed to have affected the rest. Worst of all was the Old Turkey Hand, who considered himself an expert, having lived in-country with his family for several years in his youth. Confident of Pamukkale’s medicinal properties, he had drunk from the spring with great élan and now his belly had bloated up like a rock. Despite his bravado and apparent savoir-faire, the rest of the crew had timidly resisted the temptation to share in Pamukkale’s medicinal waters and now, in the clear light of day, we were beginning to get an inkling as to why there were so many tombs lined up outside Pamukkale.
At dawn on the twelfth day we raised the twin crests of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea shimmering under a clear sky on the southwest horizon. It had been a brisk run since leaving Sausalito, the trades well abaft the beam, allowing us to sail for days on end with only the slightest of trim adjustments to the spinnaker. The sailing had been as pleasant as one could have hoped, and the three of us had finally stowed our foul weather gear, glad to finally be in the limpid tropics after so many cold days and nights. But the constant pressures under sail had caused an ominous fracture to develop in the gooseneck, the swivel fitting that joins the boom to the mast and, since a complete break could disable the vessel, it was imperative to get it repaired. We headed for Hilo, aiming to find a welder.
The breakfast trays had just been cleared when the captain announced that we were initiating our descent and would be landing in Helsinki within the hour. My wife and I had slept well on the flight from San Francisco and were looking forward to the days ahead. With us on the flight were Mark Perlman, a Pittsburgh-born professor of painting at Sonoma State University, descendant of Lithuanian Jews, and Alek Rapoport, a Ukranian-born artist living in exile in the US. The purpose of our trip was to attend the exhibitions of their paintings, collectively titled “California Branches—Russian Roots,” that were to take place consecutively in Moscow and St Petersburg.
I have often reflected on the differences in character between people who live in the north of the country with those of their southern neighbours. These thoughts are hardly new. In Spain, for example, northerners, such as Catalans or Basques, are still considered frugal and industrious, while Andalusians are viewed by them as indolent layabouts, more interested in enjoying life than being serious about work, and they, in turn, see their northern counterparts as boring, work-obsessed skinflints.