by Alaric DeArment
Gradually, the gritty streets gave way to clean pavement and mansions hidden behind iron gates. We arrived at one, an ancient but well-kept stucco villa surrounded by a wall of sandstone. A guard came out, offering the obligatory bow and “Mio Signore” before opening the gate to let the taxi in. Lush gardens lay on either side of the bow-shaped driveway that led to the entrance, from which emerged a paunchy man in his late 50s dressed in casual but still elegant attire, with an olive complexion and salt and pepper hair neatly combed back. In my jeans and T-shirt, I began to feel out of my depth.
I expected another courtly reverence, but instead they embraced with a stereotypical Old World kiss on each cheek, the older man addressing Amadeo by his first name and Amadeo calling him “Generale” before they exchanged kind words in a language other than Italian, which must have been Dalmatian.
I climbed out and took my suitcase from the trunk, feeling the hot Mediterranean sun immediately beat down on me as I stood watching the two of them. Finally, Amadeo introduced us.
“Bunvegniut! Clemente Luccari, it is an honor to meet you,” the older man exclaimed in a heavy accent, grinning with his right hand outstretched.
“He is a retired general, member of the Signoria and owner of La Gazzetta,” Amadeo gestured toward him with a big smile on his face. “We will stay with him for a few days, and you can rest here while I arrange things in the city.”
But first, the Generale suggested, we should go inside for refreshments.
The house didn’t look nearly as old inside as out, with white marble tiling, white walls tastefully hung with modern paintings, black leather sofas and – thankfully – air conditioning. Only the ornately carved beams of dark wood on the ceilings gave a clue as to its age. The sitting room featured a small bar, behind which were bottles of unfamiliar liquors and liqueurs with early 20th century-style logos and a large espresso machine like one would see in a cafe. Clemente took down a bottle with an elegant 1910s label reading “Lavachia” and featuring a black “L” within a shield with blue and gold stripes flanked by sprigs of lavender and yarrow. He mixed the off-white liqueur in a tall glass with soda and ice and handed it to me, the scent of lavender hitting my nose and a bittersweet yet floral taste filling my mouth as I took a sip.
“So what exactly am I doing here?” I asked after a sip of the surprisingly pleasant mixture.
“For now, you wait, but in a few days’ time, we present to the Signoria, that is our council of nobles,” Clemente told me, lightly tapping the Lavachia bottle as he stood like an impatient bartender. “There is a swimming pool in the back.”
The next several days, spent reading or listening to music by the poolside and eating the best seafood the Adriatic Sea had to offer, should have felt like a relaxing vacation, but instead were interminably boring. Aside from my books and Discman, there was television, but it only had two stations, TV-Stagno Italiano and TV-Stagno Dalmata; I spoke neither Italian nor Dalmatian but suspected I would find the programming of news updates, corny variety shows and low-energy soap operas dull even if I did.
The TV news focused entirely on positive domestic affairs, the lives of the wealthy and glamorous and what appeared to be a well-performing stock market, with nothing about the sort of deprivation I had seen coming into the city.
Bad news was for international coverage, which focused on crime, poverty, disease and war happening abroad. It was during a segment about a country in North America called the Atlantic Republic that I briefly heard a man speaking English before the Dalmatian overdubbing kicked in. From what I could discern, the newspapers – noticeably thinner than the ones back home – similarly provided upbeat news of domestic affairs while presenting the rest of the world as violent and destitute.
“A few days” stretched into a week or more – I lost count – with Amadeo and Clemente coming and going, always evading my questions about what they were doing and spending much of the little time they were at the house locked in Clemente’s office. Occasionally they were with a dapper man in a pin-striped suit named Raffaele who only looked at me silently and expressionless when the other two introduced me to him.
One morning, after my breakfast of cheese, fruit and espresso, I sat on the sofa looking forward to another listless day while I heard the three of them arguing upstairs. I stomped up the stairs, hard enough that the carpeting didn’t dampen the sound, and knocked loudly on the door.
“Buna desmun,” Raffaele announced as he opened it, the first thing he had ever spoken to me, apparently Dalmatian for “good morning,” based on what I had seen on the TV-Stagno Dalmata morning news.
Amadeo and Clemente stood over a map of a building on the desk, Clemente using his fingers to trace routes through corridors and doorways and saying something about “soldati” and “gendarmi.”
“Rafi, chiudi la porta,” Amadeo snapped, flashing an annoyed look. Raffaele closed the door and locked it without saying a word.