mountain3

The Prisoner of Zenda

(photo by Jim Marshall)

Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.  

 

Les and Delia arrived in the middle of a downpour without their luggage.

“Bit of a monsoon,” Les quipped.

“The isobars!” Delia remarked.

I apologised for our weather. “It was lovely yesterday.”

“Our luggage is still in Vienna,” Delia said. “They’ll send it on!”

“Tomorrow or the next day,” Les added. “So, we’ve just what we’re standing in!”

They both chuckled. I don’t believe we’ve ever had such engagingly upbeat guests. They appeared to view the loss of their luggage as nothing more than a colourful mishap.

Half an hour after they arrived they were ensconced in the lounge. I brought tea and biscuits. Without their things and confined to the hotel because of the weather, we wondered how they would amuse themselves. We needn’t have worried.

“I’ve never read this!” Les said, holding up a copy of The Prisoner of Zenda.

I didn’t know we had anything so venerable among the dog-eared paperbacks on the lounge bookshelf, an accumulation of books bequeathed by previous guests. There are bodice-ripping historical romances. (Some of these arrived with two botanists from Basel, neither of whom, in manner or apppearance, gave the slightest impression of literary or actual aspirations leaning towards the vigorous unfastening of bodices.) There are also a lot of romcoms, which is a bit surprising, since most of our clients are outdoorsy sorts whom I would imagine to be more in the market for first-hand accounts of skateboarding to the South Pole than tales of off-beat intimacy.

But that’s human nature for you.

“You’ve seen the film,” Delia said. Then, to me: “He loves the classics.”

“Ronald Colman,” I said, pleased that I remembered who starred in The Prisoner of Zenda.

“He looks a bit like Ronald Colman, don’t you think?” Delia looked at me and pointed at her husband.

“Do not!” her husband said.

“He does look a bit like Ronald Colman,” Ana said when I went back to the kitchen.

“And she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow,” I said, “A bit older . . . but with that statuesque sort of . . .”

I was going to say “beauty” but my wife’s expression suggested that waxing lyrical about the physical attributes of another woman might damage the fabric of marital harmony. My ruminations trailed away to that place where ruminations trail away to expire.

“How’s the book?” I asked Les at dinnertime.

“An absolute hoot!” he said. “Thrills and spills! The film doesn’t do justice to the printed word!”

“Mine’s not bad either,” Delia said. “This was on your shelf. I’ve never read it but I’ve always meant to!” She held up a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

I considered two things:

Someone had brought this undoubtedly original but very long analysis of globalization for holiday reading;

And

Delia, without her luggage and confined by the weather to a small mountain hotel, had chosen the Piketty ouevre as a source of diversion.

Again. Human nature. Who knew?

“Delia’s an economist,” Les said.

“He flatters me!” She looked at her husband indulgently. “I just teach economics.”

“She teaches economics,” I told Ana.

“Who?”

“Gwyneth Paltrow.”

Ana gave me that look. “You know what happpens in The Prisoner of Zenda, don’t you?”

“No. Actually.”

“Ronald Colman plays the king and he also plays the king’s cousin. They’re lookalikes.”

“I see,” I said, not really seeing.

“The king is a weak sort of character, gullible and flirtatious.”

My wife’s gaze was appraising, perhaps even critical. I felt the situation moving in a slightly ominous direction.

“His cousin is a perfect gentleman, brave and strong and faithful.”

I stuck out my chest. A character like me! “The gentleman prevails?” I suggested.

“Maybe you should ask Gwyneth,” Ana said a little tartly.

“No need,” I said, leaning forward to give my wife a tender peck on the cheek.

And just then, in our own little corner of Ruritania, the sun came out.

Helicopters and hiking gear

(photo by Jim Marshall)

 

Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.  

 

The helicopter began circling above us during breakfast. It was very, very loud, which didn’t go down at all well with the two couples from Paris.

The Parisians had arrived the previous day, one couple just before lunch, one just after. They didn’t show any sign of wanting to establish a rapport with one another on the basis of common nationality. Of course, just because they happened to have come from the same city to our little bit of the Dinaric Alps doesn’t mean they had to become bosom buddies. Maybe they left France to get away from other French people. Both couples had indicated dietary requirements that were a tad health faddish (skimmed milk and such) and when they set off to hike (in different directions) they were in full kit.

The Parisians sat at opposite corners of the dining room. The third corner, next to the door onto the terrace, was occupied by Mr Archer from London. He was quite a different kettle of fish.

Fifties, quiet, and rather reserved, Mr Archer wore clothes too heavy for the season. He spent his first day (admittedly a rather wet and overcast day) in the lounge reading one of our Agatha Christies, and making notes from time to time in a little black book.

“He’s got a little black book,” I told Ana.

“So?”

“There’s something dodgy about him.” I had Mr Archer down as an arms dealer or a spy.

“You think there’s something dodgy about everybody.” (This is true: I do.) “Has he done anything bad?”

In the past we’ve had guests whose behavior was not just bad but decidedly odd, like the pair who spray-painted an antique armchair bright pink.

“No,” I said.

“Well, just let him enjoy his detective novel!”

On the second day Mr Archer went out and didn’t come back for lunch.

“Where’s he gone?” I asked Ana.

She was exasperated: “Why are you obsessed with Mr Archer?”

“I have a bad feeling.”

He returned at dinner-time, looking as if he’d just popped round the corner.

“That’s it!” I said as we watched Mr Archer take his seat in the corner of the dining room. “He’s up here in the back of beyond to meet a contact . . . on the quiet!”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“He certainly didn’t go for a hike in those shoes. I think he’s had a rendezvous, a clandestine meeting, maybe in one of the other hotels.”

Ana shook her head. “He’s just an ordinary bloke who came for a bit of peace and quiet! Anyway,” she added, “he asked one of the French ladies about a particular trail this morning and she was quite rude.”

“How’s that?”

“Told him he’d need the right gear to reach that particular bit of the mountain. Gave him an up and down look too!”

Ana has a gift for inventing English idioms. I could imagine the French lady looking Mr Archer up and down.

The third day Mr Archer stayed in and read his (our) Agatha Christie (the one where Miss Marple rescues Colonel Bantry after he’s been wrongly accused of murder) and the next morning – as the French were at breakfast (still eschewing even a soupcon of Gallic solidarity) and Mr Archer had just taken his place in the third corner – the helicopter started circling overhead.

“It’s military!” I said, looking up from the door of the terrace. There were NATO markings on the khaki underside. “Good heavens!” (I appeared to be the only person getting excited). “It’s landing!”

The helicopter came to rest on our terrace. I’ve never heard such a racket. The Parisians looked at me with irritation, as though I’d ordered up the helicopter just to annoy them.

Mr Archer got up.

The helicopter kept its rotor blades whizzing. A man in a khaki jumpsuit and an enormous helmet with a black visor jumped out and began to walk towards the hotel.

Mr Archer came out onto the terrace.

I began to follow him.

“Where are you going?” Ana hissed.

“The helicopter’s on my terrace!” I said (with a fitting degree of proprietorial hauteur).

The soldier, his face still obscured by the black visor, saluted Mr Archer.

I caught up. “Can I help?” I asked.

It was Mr Archer who answered.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I hadn’t expected my things to be brought here in quite such dramatic fashion.”

“Your things?” I had to shout over the noise of the rotor blades.

The man in khaki held up a black rucksack and passed it to Mr Archer.

“My walking things,” Mr Archer explained, and for the first time in our short acquaintance he smiled. “I had forgotten to bring them with me!”

The soldier saluted again and left. When the helicopter was airborne, it swooped down the valley with the sort of dramatic flourish you see in James Bond films. Show off! I thought. I looked back towards the dining room – but the French were still refusing to be astonished.

“So he’s not a spy,” Ana said.

“A colonel in the Royal Engineers, apparently. They flew his things out to the NATO base – a perk of the job, it seems.”

Just then, one of the French couples emerged from the dining room.

“The noise is very disturbing!” the lady remarked.

“The colonel forgot his hiking boots!” I said.  “He needs them for the more demanding bits of the mountain.”

Coming down to earth

(photo by Jim Marshall)

 

Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.  

 

“No!” Ana said.

Which was fairly unequivocal.

But I persevered: “It’ll bring in business. If we don’t snap up the opportunity, other people will!”

We were talking about paragliding – and whether we should team up with an extreme sports club from town and offer weekend packages: dinner, bed and breakfast, and jumping off a mountain.

“You don’t care about the business,” Anna said. Her tone was bracing. “You want to go up in one of those things, and if you get a taste for it, you’ll want to go up every weekend, and” – there was a little crack in her hitherto somewhat strident tone of voice – “it’s very dangerous!”

I had in fact already arranged with a friend of a friend of Dino, our chef de cuisine and general factotum, to do a trial tandem jump the following morning to see what sort of experience we might be offering our guests. I had felt it prudent not to share this information with my better half, the wisdom of which decision was now clearly vindicated.

We were scheduled to explore various grassy outcrops around the hotel at eight the following morning, and select one for takeoff.

“Let’s not quarrel,” I said. “By the way, when you go to the bank tomorrow, best to leave a bit earlier. It’ll be busy because of the weekend.”

Next day, Ana left for the bank about fifteen minutes before Dino’s friend’s friend arrived with the paragliding kit.

“That it?” Dino asked when Ricki opened the boot of his ancient Golf. A bulky nylon bag nestled inside.

Ricki nodded.

“I thought it would be bigger,” Dino said.

Ricki’s tone was measured: “Aerodynamics isn’t just about size.”

This, I felt, was no bad thing because Ricki himself was a man of large appearance and considerable weight. Later, when we were kitted up in green overalls and ready to take to the air, I found myself considering the fact that I only accounted for about one third of the parachute payload. This preyed upon my thoughts.

The pre-flight training took about three and half minutes. After that, I looked down at the red roof of our pension far, far, far below, and in the blink of an eye the chute rose above us and we abandoned the reassuring immobility of the earth for the precipitate unpredictability of the air.

The metamorphosis that accompanies unassisted flight is utterly magical. The shock to the senses is profound and exhilarating. We soared, but not just physically. We soared to a new level of oneness with our environment. It was like touching the universe.

Tapping me on the shoulder, Ricki indicated that I should have a go at steering. I reached up and took hold of the toggles. He had assured me that there was a clever mechanism, a sort of child lock, that would limit my capacity to disturb the chute’s equilibrium. I could change our direction a little, but I was unlikely to send us, Icarus-like, to the earth far, far, far below.

“Unlikely”! Never was a word more problematically inconclusive.

I took the toggles and did what any child would do. I tugged on one and then the other. With a gut-wrenching shudder (and, alas, this is an anatomically accurate turn of phrase), the whole chute went one way and then the other.

“You take over!” I shouted to Ricki over the roar of a sudden inrush of air. I surrendered the toggles: the chute quickly stabilized, even as my sense of manly self-esteem took a knock.

Still, I did enjoy the scenery as we zigzagged round and down to the terrace in front of the hotel.

I had thought of this as a superwheeze. We could have dinner ready for guests, who would land à la James Bond, step out of the jumpsuit, and metamorphose from daredevil to diner.

But as we made our approach, I saw a blue Peugeot pull up beside Ricki’s Golf.

A familiar figure emerged from the Peugeot.

“Rats!” I muttered.

As we slid softly across the grass to the edge of the flagstones of the dining area I heard the irate voice of my disgruntled spouse.

“That was a sneaky thing to do!” she said. Perhaps “screamed” is a more accurate word than “said”.

“You’re back early!” I tried to keep my tone jovial.

“Forgot the bank book,” she said. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

It took me several days to persuade Ana that my jump was a bona fide and useful market-research exercise.

Now we are offering a popular paragliding weekend package. The business has – literally and metaphorically – taken off.

Sometimes, I threaten to take to the skies again – just to keep the spark in our relationship.

But to be honest, once was enough.

The three-o’clock-in-the-morning call

I was wakened up by the telephone.

“That the hotel in the mountains?” An American voice.

“Yes.”

“Thinking of coming over. What’s the weather like in June?”

“It’s three o’clock in the morning,” I said.

“It’s six in the evening here!” The man chuckled at the quirkiness of geography. “We’re thinking of mid June, but only if the weather’s nice.” Zero recognition of any sleep-disturbance issue, apparently.

I mentioned again that it was the middle of the night. Then I asked if he knew he was calling a small hotel half way up a mountain – not an obvious venue for a trans-Atlantic chat about the weather.

“I saw you’re listing in TripAdvisor.” This seemed to suffice in his view as an explanation for calling in the small hours. I couldn’t immediately see that it was anywhere near being sufficient.

“If you send an email, I’ll make the booking and supply you with whatever additional information you may require.” My tone – it must be allowed – was a tad brusque.

“It’s just that I’m not sure we’ll come if we can’t be guaranteed good weather.”

“Weather is changeable.”

“But you must be able to give me some sort of ballpark.” He was clearly an individual of great – even disagreeable – persistence. My bare feet had begun to chill.

“The weather in June covers a broad spectrum, from bracing to balmy,” I said.

“What’s it like now?”

“Cold and dark.”

“OK.”

This last OK was indignant.  I felt the prospect of a June booking slip away to a different part of the TripAdvisor universe. The climate-conscious party from America hung up. I stood, forlorn and shivering, in the silent lobby and wished I’d been a little more gracious.

It was a long time before I got back to sleep and that was why I was grumpy as I watched the Czech hikers troop across the lobby the next morning.

“Why do they need sticks?” I said. “It’s absurdly pretentious.”

“If a thing’s pretentious, it’s already absurd,” Ana said. “Anyway, they’re poles, not sticks.”

I ignored the quibble over terminology. “Why can’t they just walk on two legs like everyone else?”

They wore hiking boots and canvas trousers and hoodies; and they had little belts to carry water bottles. But they had poles too, with straps around the handles: one pole in each hand. They looked as though they were skiing across our lobby.

“It’s Nordic walking,” Ana said. “They use twenty-five percent more muscle and they can walk much further.” Then she glanced at me with a rather theatrical expression of mystification. “That’s a well known fact.”

“I didn’t know it.”

She shook her head gently, gave my arm a fleeting and sympathetic pat and said: “There are so many things you don’t know, my love – and this is not the biggest.”

Ana views our matrimonial chemistry with engaging confidence.

“Well, at least they’ll have worked up an appetite when they get back,” I said.

“They’re not eating here.”

My face may have conveyed a certain perplexity.

“They’re dining at the new place,” she said. “The one just off the main road next to the river. Zoran is going out with one of the waitresses.”

Zoran is the local guide. When he’s not taking tourists to the tops of mountains he works on his PhD – something to do with musical theatre.

“I thought he was a friend of ours!” I felt the sharp sting of betrayal.

“Not in the same way he’s friends with the waitress.”

“You seem very relaxed?” I sensed that Ana’s equanimity might be based on one of those many things I don’t know.

“We have another booking tonight. Party of eight. They’re staying at the lodge.” The lodge is a pension about the same size as ours, another twenty minutes further up the mountain.

“Why aren’t they eating there?”

“Because Zita’s oven is broken. The repair man let her down.” Zita manages the lodge.

“When did she get in touch?”

“This morning, at six. She was very apologetic about calling so early, but I told her not to worry. A booking’s a booking – night or day. We have to welcome opportunity not chase it away.” She gave me one of her knowing looks.

I felt sheepish.

We watched a little longer as the Czech hikers propelled themselves out into the spring sunshine towards the start of a demanding but very beautiful mountain trail.

A Wedding March

“Marta’s coming for the weekend,” Ana said.

She didn’t say, “Marta’s booked a room for the weekend.” She said “Marta’s coming for the weekend.”

I was perplexed.

Marta and Ana have been friends since primary school. Marta is an aspiring opera singer, short and round, and by turns breezy and melancholic.

“She’s going through a bad patch,” Ana said. “She got turned down for Carmen.”

I could see in my mind’s eye, amid discarded castanets, the possibility of melancholia.

“But there isn’t a room,” I said. “They’re all taken!” We had full house – a wedding party arriving, nuptuals scheduled for the south terrace at four on Saturday afternoon.

“She can sleep in ours,” Ana said. “We’ll take the sitting room.”

I was momentarily speechless. Then, lamely: “Why are we taking the sitting room and not Marta?”

“Because she needs peace and quiet. She has to re-charge her batteries.”

“Can’t she re-charge her batteries in the sitting-room?”

Dino came in from the kitchen. “I need help,” he said.

Who among us doesn’t? I thought, a tad sulkily.

“What’s the matter?” Ana asked.

“Potatoes,” he replied.

Ana looked at me.

And so, having been evicted from the bedroom, I was consigned to the kitchen, there to help peel potatoes. Such is the lot of the independent hotelier.

I was still peeling when Marta arrived. She came in and bounded over to where I sat. When she smiles she looks like a sort of pleased pumpkin. She leaned forward and gave me a big kiss. “Ana says you are angry, David, and I told her I must sleep in the sitting room.”

She has known me for years but still calls me “Dah-veed”. It’s quite endearing.

“Of course not!” I lied. “You are more than welcome to our room!”

She looked at me as though she’d just been told the first choice for Carmen had come down with Spanish flu. “I am grateful,” she said. “I yearn for the peace and the quiet!”

No more than five minutes later the peace and the quiet were rather dramatically disturbed by strange sounds emanating from our (now Marta’s) bedroom. Marta appeared to be screaming.

“What on earth . . .” I began as Ana came in from Reception.

“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” Ana said.

I struggled to compute.

“She didn’t get Carmen in Sarajevo but she got Lady Macbeth in Bucharest.”

“And this is it?” I asked, nodding my head in the direction of the strangulated high pitched sounds from above.

“This is it. She has to practise. It calms her.”

We did a roaring trade in the bar on Friday evening though at one point Ana came down and asked if I could do anything about the decibels as Marta was trying to sleep. Apparently the very same Marta who had introduced a large party of affable but not (in any obvious way) modern-opera-loving guests to the atonal intricacies of the Shostakovich ouvre. Ana appeared to find the paradox elusive.

Marta was at it again first thing on Saturday morning.

“You’d better go and help Dino,” Ana said as I came into the kitchen listening (along with everyone else) to the nearby shriek of Katerina Izmailova’s celebrated “drainpipe aria”.

Dino was on the terrace standing amid a sea of tangled wire and four very large loudspeakers.

“Won’t work,” he said.

“What won’t?”

“Sound system.”

“Why not?”

“Isn’t compatible.”

“With what?”

“The band can only play over there.” He pointed to the dining area in the shade of the pension.

“That’s where they’re supposed to play.”

“But the wedding’s here” he said. We were on the edge of the terrace, where the surrounding mountains frame a glorious panorama of meadows and wooded hills. A little dais had been set in place for the exchange of vows. Seats for fifty had been placed in front of it.

“But you don’t need speakers here,” I said. “There’s no music.”

“The Wedding March!” Dino said, baffled, apparently, by my slowness of grasp.

“Ah,” I replied, and then, to my own and Dinos’s surprise, I added, “I think I have a solution!”

The bride and groom were sent off on their honeymoon around eight and the last revelers abandoned the bar in the small hours, wishing copious and convivial goodnights.

It was a wedding to remember – not just the picture-perfect ceremony against an Alpine backdrop or the banquet afterwards under the stars, but also the Schumann lieder to which the bride walked down the aisle, rendered with consummate virtuosity by the talented Marta, soon to be Lady Macbeth in Bucharest.

Things do work out, even when you have been evicted from your bedroom to accommodate a friend in need.

Snakes and Grizzly Bears

By David Alexander Grant

Ana says it’s a matter of principle – you should always tell people the truth.

I’m inclined to be more circumspect. When visitors come to stay with us they should have peace of mind – and mentioning snakes on the website won’t encourage peace of mind.

“It’s local fauna, and they’re not poisonous, so where’s the harm?” Ana asked. “It’ll add to the allure!”

But there’s little allure in the image of snakes slithering down from the rafters.

“We’ve only seen one or two, and they were very small,” she said.

“Five, and one was quite large.”

In the end, we did mention the snakes, and we also made much of our window netting, which is guaranteed to keep out anything that moves on its stomach, and every other class of creepy-crawly.

The netting was a substantial investment – we have seven bedrooms, which is a lot of gauze. But we can boast (on and off the website) that undisturbed tranquillity is assured when you stay at the Mountain View.

Tranquillity extends to the evening entertainment. We don’t have any. The only live music to be heard in our precincts comes from Dino, chef de cuisine and general factotum, when he is moved to whistle a popular melody while dicing vegetables.

“We should at least have a folk singer,” Ana suggested when we first sketched out the business plan. “Visitors will go for that. I’ll do it myself if you like.”

“My wife will not sing for money!” I replied, allowing what I felt was an edifying touch of husbandly hauteur into my voice.

“That or an erotic floorshow,” she said.

“Would you be in the floorshow?” I asked, curious.

She took umbrage.

Anyway, we have no music (or erotic floorshow). Our guests come to ski in the winter and to hike and bird-watch in the summer. When they return at dusk they want nothing more than wholesome food and a good night’s rest. If that sounds like something from a nineteenth-century health-spa prospectus, all I can say is that it seems to suit our twenty-first century visitors.

It certainly seems to suit the Schönborns from Graz, who arrived at the start of the week.

“You have wonderful mountains,” Mrs Schönborn told me. She spoke with a mixture of surprise and envy, as though I didn’t look like the sort of person who would have wonderful mountains.

“We dabble” I quipped.

She examined me with benign incomprehension.

“My husband and I are going to explore!” she announced, speaking quite breathlessly, as if she were Dr Livingston or Ferdinand Magellan.

“Watch out for the bears.”

“You have bears!”

Mrs Schönborn looked at me even more intently. I think I know what she was thinking – the presence of bears in my wonderful mountains might reasonably have been mentioned on my wonderful website.

“Oh, from time to time,” I acknowledged truthfully, “but they rarely come down this far, and when they do, they stay well away from humans.”

“But how will we know to stay well away from the bears?” Mrs Schönborn asked with disconcerting Germanic directness.

She had a point, I suppose. I felt metaphorically pinioned to the pigeonholes behind the reception desk.

I was saved from having to answer, by the timely appearance of Mr Schönborn.

“Helmut, there are bears!” said his other half.

He looked around as though he expected to find a grizzly strolling from the bar to the restaurant.

“Friendly ones?” he asked hopefully.

“Generally not at all unfriendly,” I said.

“Have we to feed the bears?” Mr Schönborn asked.

“I wouldn’t recommend it.” I tried to sound emollient. I had only mentioned the bears in a moment of discomfiture, perhaps because of Mrs Schönborn’s sceptical surprise at the beauty of my mountains. “But the chances of meeting one are very small.”

“We shall certainly tell you all about it if we do,” Mr Schönborn remarked genially, extending a companionable arm to Mrs Schönborn.

Like that, they set out to explore my mountains.

“You didn’t tell them about the bears!” Ana scolded.

“It’s a matter of principle,” I remarked smugly. “One should always tell the truth!”

“You have to go and help Dino in the kitchen. We have an intruder.”

“A bear?”

“I wish!” Ana said. “It slithered in through the kitchen window and now it’s holed up behind the fridge.”