I once had the pleasure of corresponding with my roommate’s father. In conducting the little literary business at hand (he has something or other to do with the American Chesterton Society) we exchanged a few e-mails between the two of us. At the end of our correspondence I found it fit to complement Mr. Ahlquist on producing a son of the sort as Julian, who has become a great friend of mine in the last year and a half, and with whom I am most sorry you freshmen have not have the pleasure of making an acquaintance.
And then, as I drew towards that spot in my final bit of correspondence, the point where one traditionally affixes one’s name beneath one or another courteous phrase, I paused, and I thought a bit. I thought to myself that it is certainly a time-tested truism, a truism sadly forgotten in the West, that a knowledge of the origins of a man contribute much to the knowledge of who, exactly, he is. I asked myself who Aeneas would be without Troy; who Alexander without Aristotle; who Augustine without Monica. And in the face of this argument I yielded. I confessed to Mr. Ahlquist, in the faint, glimmering hope of a solution, my bewilderment over what sort of family and father could and would produce such a thoroughly odd, yet oddly venerable creature as Julian.
Mr. Ahlquist responded graciously. For my compliments on his eldest and heir he thanked me. And then he firmly disassociated himself from any responsibility whatsoever, concurred that Julian was a through and through enigma, and then added the terrifying suffix that if I thought Julian was strange, I should try meeting his father.
At first I suspected something of paternal pride, the sort that leads a father to believe that his own son won’t and can’t surpass him, who has always been the teacher and not the taught. But now I confess that I’m not so sure; the rug has, as the saying goes, been pulled out from under my feet.
For while sitting in a Valdobbiadene pizzeria two nights ago, at a table overflowing with Julian’s relations, a very strange and unexpected thing happened. Julian, the best friend who still appears to me as a mythical creature with two heads, with a laugh as strange and mysterious as the shape of the platypus, and as large in life as any colossus, was suddenly transformed before my eyes into something as complacent and sane as any man ever was; while any number of those whose blood he shares grew ever larger and expanded until the room seemed quite unable to contain them.
But I see I am starting all wrong.
* * *
One not particularly fine October morning four young, impetuous squires struck out from the Eternal City in search of adventure. The names of my protagonists are squires Giuliano (Julian Ahlquist), Geoffredo (Geoff Turecek), Adamo (Adam Wilson) , and Giovanni (me). For this embryonic plot-line it is true I take no credit. It is the creation of one of my fellow squires. If I recall correctly my fellow squire told this imaginative and imaginatively apt version of our story to me as we drove through a particularly verdurous valley in search of particularly good wine and good company in a Northern Italian town whose name I cannot now recall. Our hostess and driver at the time was the natural heroine of such a romance; a fair and lovely native who we calculated after some measure of violent debate and any number of relational algorithms to be the third cousin of Julian’s, and who added just that aspect of believability to the claim of medievalism of my fellow adventurer.
On this October morning these four squires of a strange diversity and varied skills (bow-staff skills, computer hacking skills, numchaku skills) clambered on the back of a colossal, armoured serpent that they found awaiting their command; it awaited silently, there in between the basilicas and towering pagan monuments of The City. At our bidding it bucked and writhed its way for four and a half hours (or what seemed as many days) across the mountains and plains and through the valleys and rivers of the land called Italia.
All the while above our four heroes hung an ominous table of mist that encircled and strangled the mountains called the Apennines; it swallowed their peaks in an impenetrable and mysterious shroud. Under this table they sped, in frantic haste towards they knew not what, but that it was unknown and new and exciting.
Great rivers were as tiny rivulets to their metallic monster. Foreign towns and villages flew past their astonished vision in a haze; towns of plaster and stucco and brick that squatted on top of hills, crowded buildings huddling together, seeking warmth and comfort amidst the eerie landscape, as though overcome by a nightmare memory of the Gauls and the Visigoths whose spear-prickled armies had once marched by their feet in search of blood; towns with church spires penetrating through the table of mist that seemed less like mist and more like an entire seething ocean suspended just above the surface of earth by an inexplicable act of black magic or impossible providence.
And to the squires all of this, with all its heavy gloominess, was better than a midday sun and blue skies, for it spoke of witches and dragons, and such evil things to be slain, and ideals and damsels to be fought for.
And when at last the mist was suddenly lifted they came to what is called the sea; and they saw it shine like a jewel of great promise, blue and sparkling. When saw they could go no further, and the beast would not swim, they dismounted. A signpost told them that they had entered the province of Venezia.
Then one of the four squires looked to the East, towards the sea, and then he looked to the West and the setting sun, his eyes following the straight, deep valley that furrows swiftly towards the Alpine mountains, and he said: “Here is my home. Here live my flesh and my blood.” And it was true. For a man called Lorenzo stood at the spot where the four seekers-after-adventure dismounted from their metallic serpent, as though he had prophesied their arrival, and he looked at the one squire who had spoken, and he said “you are my nephew.” And that too was perfectly true. The two embraced then as the uncle and nephew that they were.
Now, a very wise and prophetic man by the name of Gilbert Keith, in whose hands language was always as a wizard’s staff, once said that he hoped “that the four rivers of Eden were milk, water, wine, and ale.”
With him I agree very much; and now it strikes me that perhaps we four happy squires have now felt beneath our feet the moist, rich earth of Eden. For though I have seen many a river of water, I had never before known a river of milk or ale, and certainly not so divine a thing as a river of wine. But in this land of Treviso, bordering on the province of Venezia, guarded on one side by the Alps on another by the Mediterranean, in which floats a whole city, magically suspended on water; there, in the town of Valdobbiadene, I first encountered a river of wine. For, you see, if you can believe it, wine of the highest quality flows in the town of Valdobbiadene as abundantly as water, perhaps even more abundantly.
But that is certainly not the end of the story; for of wine there are infinite varieties, of various qualities, brewed according to various secret, strict, monkish recipes, and in spite of which each brew assumes new and unexpected qualities with each coming year. Yet, of the infinite varieties of wine flowing between the banks of Eden’s most refined of the four rivers, it seems to me that God would have at least fretted and paused over the possibility of pouring forth a deluge of that wine that is squeezed from the juice of Prosecco grapes. And that is exactly the wine that is produced in abundance in Valdobbiadene. It is the wine brewed in its finest form by a jovial, inexplicable man by the name of Sergio Mionetto, whose spirit is so much like that of the wine he brews that a certain brand of it bears his own name.
Of him, and others, I will have more to say later.