It is the late spring of 1993, and my idea for a birthday present is to take Ivonne to the launching point for one of the most famous international cable cars in Europe, Chanonix/Aoste, and ride it from Chamonix, France, across the vast snowfields of Mount Blanc to the Valley d'Aosta in Italy. Ivonne once spoke fairly good Italian, and had been saying she would like to open the box it has rested in for many years and see how much remains usable. It seems like a good gift to me, and not impossibly expensive. We are already in France, and with our Eurail pass in hand, the cost of transport was low. We go.
Valle d'Aosta is a district in the Lombardy region of Italy. It's biggest town, Aosta, is only two hours by local bus from Torino. It's the valley of the river Dora Baltea, whose source is under the slopes of Monte Bianco ( Mont Blanc). The most ancient pass through the Western Alps, Great St. Bernard Pass, connects the Valley with Switzerland. The cable car traverses a part of this pass.
When we get there we find an ice storm has coated the cable so thickly with hard water that the whole system has shut down. What to do? Wait.
As we burn cash away in our cute but pricey room, another day passes without any melting. We decide to take the famed train, the Mt Blanc express, to Torino and see what we can see. It's an incredible trip. We traverse a route so wildly rugged it's hard to imagine how it could have been built.
When we get to Torino we do what we often do. We look at the wall map in the train station and ask ourselves, "how much longer can we stand to be on a train and still enjoy it? How much time do we have?". Then we draw a mental circle around our present location that includes all the places we can reach. Then we pick a destination from somewhere in that circle. Preferably somewhere totally unknown or strongly interesting to us. Our choice is a town called "Monteroso al Mare", on the coast of the Ligurian sea.
When we get there, it's after ten, and our boy is asleep on his feet. Half-carrying him, we trudge through the town to find a hotel that's open that late, and would take us. Tired to the bone, doubting the workability of our plan, we finally find one.
It's a B-movie set, a vast crumbling artifact of a building from some architectural period that prized giant Vagnerian kitsch. But the lighted sign says it's open. And, in spite of it's huge size, it's a two star. Wow. Our speed.
A vast wrought-iron gate in a columned stone arch, with small entry gate in a corner. It's not locked, so we push the gate open and trudge up the oval drive to the columned portico and into the lobby. Far away across a polished marble floor is a huge desk. Two hefty women busy themselves with arcane tasks, and make it a point to not notice us. We make our passage to the desk, and wait. Nothing. I watch as their eyes track all around us, as if our spot on the field of vision is a forbidden zone, and I know it will be tough. But the more than half-full key board is proof of the availability of rooms.
"I'd like a room for three for tonight, please"
"Sorry. No rooms."
I have a bad habit of taking people's word as good, even when there is ample evidence that they are lying through their teeth. I fear getting on someone's case, then discovering that it's I who am wrong, and making a fool of myself, and doing an injustice as well. Or perhaps I'm just easily intimidated. But Ivonne and I talk it over, watching as only a handful of people come and reclaim their room keys from the board, and the hour approaches midnight.
So in a burst of courage, I go back and lean across the desk, and say, "Look, please." in a fairly loud voice. Startled, they looked where I pointed. " "That over there is a six-year-old child who needs rest badly, and your key board shows that you have many rooms empty. What's the problem?" Long silence, exchange of glances. Then the very tall blonde lady says, in perfect English, "One night only. And you'll have to take two rooms."
We lug our packs to our two rooms, which are huge, quite nice for a two-star, and go back down to find something to eat. Sounds of clinking glasses are audible on the ground floor, and a waiter whizzes by with a plate that smells incredibly good. We know that in Italy people often eat quite late.
"We'd like to eat. Can you direct us to the dining room?"
"Sorry. It's closed" Without even raising her eyes.
That's too much even for wimpy me, and I lose it. I shout at them. I became, once again, just another loud American, but at least they looked up. "First, you would deny even a place to sleep to a tired child, never mind us, and now it's the same with food. Just what is wrong with you people? What is this- a hotel or a private club?" Another pregnant pause, looks exchanged. Finally the Teutonic Amazon says to the other, "Put them in the small room next to the kitchen. Soup, bread perhaps." In German.
Little tendrils wiggle through my brain, whispering, "B-movie. More than meets the eye here", and the smaller one leads us off. Obvious pecking order.
Another waiter, or perhaps the same one, cruises by with deserts on a huge tray, and Adrian perks up.
In a closed room just off the main hall, we eat, finally. Shaking with hunger and fatigue, we don't ask questions. The cold potato-onion soup is very good. We are also served cold shnitzel, good brown bread and water. No menu, no choice. Take it or leave it.
Adrian perks up enough to go exploring, perhaps in search of the dessert tray, and comes back and says, "Dad, you gotta see this!
Adrian is six going on twelve and a voracious reader.
I get up and walk to the door of our room, just as three waiters emerged from the banquet room at the end of the hall. They are bussing tables. As they make their exit, laden but graceful, one can see past them. A huge room, many people, with the walls covered with Nazi memorabilia- flags, ceremonial swords heraldic plaques, and huge framed photos. One stands out.
In the place of greatest honor, his face looks out over the assembled heads once again. That familiar piercing (some would now say demented) gaze is accentuated by the black and white print, rendered sepia by age. The little mustache was unmistakable. Then the doors closed.
We slink off to bed. In the morning we pack quickly and are at the huge desk early, anxious to escape the oppressive atmosphere of failed empire. But we found our credit card to be unacceptable, and Adrian and I were not permitted to leave the lobby until Ivonne had journeyed out to find an auto-teller to get cash.
Since that time we have been alert to signs of the vestiges of the Third Reich. Still-twitching pieces of the evil creature that cost so many lives. The elite did not all disappear. Nor, I suspect, did their dreams of power. Those dreams emerge from a deep, long-lived place in the German culture, the German psyche that demands control, victory in the field of dominance. An endlessly denied but easily apparent narrative that sees dominance as merely a recognition of innate superiority.
We look for their gathering places, their chalets and chateaus, and we do occasionally find them. We have been chased and threatened by their security for simply taking photographs, and we seem to learn nothing more than that they exist, so we avoid them now. But we are aware of them, and we wonder.
I do not forget how quickly and easily the German intelligence and security apparatus found common ground with the Americans after V-E day, and well before Nuremberg. I understand from personal experience some of the longer-term reasons for that ready comfort zone. And that German-US rapport continues.
The Union sought, on one level, to neutralize the potential for a resurgence of German dominant drives by enmeshing her in a web of economic and political ties too strong to break.
Could it be that what has actually happened is that a sufficient number of strings pass through the German fist to allow domination without a shot being fired?
If so, ---how convenient for the both of them.