The literary symposium is over for the day. Wanting a bit of time to myself, I have come to this pleasant restaurant overlooking Lake Bled, that jewel of Slovenia.
The cuisine is also pleasant, somewhat Latin but something else too, which I can’t find language to describe. A stone church guards a distant bluff and another guards the water’s solitary island, which is in fact the only island in this small, lovely nation. I watch the wooden longboats full of tourists, rowed from abaft by men who lean and straighten, lean and straighten. It’s a graceful movement, dance-like.
Here on the terrace there’s actual dance: a woman singer, one man on Fender bass, another playing some sort of squeezebox, because there always seems to be a squeezebox in this part of the world. I suppose I’d call their music pleasant, too. It finds some niche between exuberant techno-pop and the classical stuff derived from folksong, of which the middle-European composers have always been so fond.
There’s an old-world melancholy here where I sit, for which I’m forevermore a sucker. The passing dancers all look thinner than they would in similar places back home. But then back home there are no similar places, really, no dancers who move as these do, with composure and flair at once. It’s suddenly easy to dream of bolting my dear country and moving to somewhere like this, leaving behind the relative absence of style and civilization, the maddening, insular frame of mind that doesn’t even know there exists somewhere like this.
I’d flee all that stuff, like those muscle-bound trucks with their decal U.S. flags and their shark-mouth grilles. I’d flee 24-ounce steaks, TVs that reach the ceiling at Walmart and Target and Circuit City.
I had wanted solitude, but it’s likely I’m only lonely.
I have no local language. Yet I do have others. Maybe in time I’d make my way.
All at once, the three musicians play a different music, however awkwardly. The lake downhill remains a gemmy teardrop, and even through the melody I hear the gentle tong of the island’s bell. The boatmen lean and row as deftly as they did before the mist and the evening settled in. I look but I can’t see that minor island.
First the band takes up “Last Date,” all sweet and sour pap — unless like me you remember King Curtis’s version on his soprano sax, glissandi flickering, wrenching. That tiny hole-in-the-wall of a club. The late great King.
The trio slides unstopping into “Please Release Me.” The pretty singer would kill to be Ray Charles. She fails. Who wouldn’t?
I had those same two bluesy anthems in that same order on my big old pickup truck’s scratchy tape deck thirty-odd years ago. My love and I, not man and wife yet, would creep after dark along the rut-and-gravel roads of our Vermont, notes spilling out the windows. Now I wonder if the thing we call coincidence is real? I’m sick for home, which is what, if you look at its roots, nostalgia means.
We hung on each other close as summer air and sang along with those tunes. Deer peeled off our headlights, thick as mice, and August’s moon looked as huge as we could ever dream.
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, recently appeared from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, was lately issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing this year published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife.