I am, at heart, a dedicated Henry James fan and I will likely write future blogs celebrating his work. But here I want to contradict something he said in his travelogue, Italian Hours. After having enjoyed the beauties of Venice, James writes, “Exquisite hours, enveloped in light and silence, to have known them once is to have always a terrible standard of enjoyment.” I understand his point about the power of a perfect experience…it stays with us. But to me, the “terrible standard” is the wrong approach to a wonderful memory.
I’ve had exquisite hours to which I love to return, to sense again, to enjoy again. Memories, for me, are a comfort and delight of the past just as dreams are a comfort and delight of the future. Even during the dullest hours of today, I love to return to many of those experiences that were, for me, exquisite:
- To my evening a decade ago in Prague when, lost in the dark on winding winter streets, I encountered two young ladies at an intersection that none of us knew. “Do you speak English?” they asked me, shivering against the cold. “Yes,” I said, “I’m from Pennsylvania.” They were as lost in search of their hotel as I was in search of my restaurant. They, too, were from Pennsylvania and we laughed at the coincidence. It was February with snowflakes on the air and the temperature at a negative Celsius…about 8 degrees Fahrenheit. I had passed their hotel a few blocks back and I directed them as well as I could; they had passed my restaurant and hesitantly directed me…we parted and I was soon warm at table with menu in hand. I enjoyed wine with my dinner and wondered if they’d found their hotel.
- To my dinner in Vienna when a funny little sommelier—a bespectacled man who resembled Wally Cox in size and appearance—introduced me to grappa. I had had an excellent meal in the excellent company of friends and asked the server which of the two grappas on the menu was better; “Let me get the sommelier,” she said. I think the sommelier had waited his whole life for that question…he explained the prestige of a vineyard’s grappa and the process for distilling it and the tradition of the crystal bottles and the differences among vineyards that flavored each grappa. “I’ve just returned from Italy with two grappas that are not even on the menu yet,” he said. I asked him to serve me the best of the lot and he returned with two glasses, serving each of the two new grappas. Each had its own flavor, both burned the taste of dinner from my mouth and throat…I’ve enjoyed grappa ever since.
- To my visit with friends to a wine bar buried in a hotel on the twisting streets of Tangier. We had traveled all day—a 6-hour train ride from Madrid, a 3-hour ferry ride across the Mediterranean, and an hour taxi ride into the city—to find ourselves, finally, gathered at the bar. We had concocted our adventure: a visit to Morocco that would last just hours. The bartender spoke English beautifully to offer us French or Spanish wines, “…but why not try our Moroccan wine, they are just as good and only 200 dirham,” he said. We took his advice although we didn’t share his opinion…the wine was not as good as the French or the Spanish wines, but it was cheap and we were tired and it was fun to be drinking Moroccan wine in the north of Africa.
- To my habit in earlier years of taking evening walks on the beach in Wildwood, NJ, where the beaches had grown so wide that walking on the water’s edge felt miles away from the noise and bluster of the boardwalk. I was among very few people at that hour on the beach, all of whom were relaxed and purposeless. The blazing afternoon Sun had sunk to the west and the darkness rose in the east, making the beach feel impeccably private. I often spent my evening off—just one day a week—flying my red kite and enjoying an imagined notoriety as people on the boardwalk would wonder whose kite it was in the sky and I imagined how they’d trace the string back to its origin, to find not a child, but a grown man—a tall grown man—dancing his kite in the sky.
Henry James was both wrong and unfortunate: to have known exquisite hours is a wonderful well from which I draw again and again.