INSOMNIA HATH NO CHARMS — I know, I’ve had it in Rome, Josselin, San Francisco, etcetc. But deliberately waking up at 2, say, or 3 a.m. for a specific aesthetic purpose, now that’s something else. In San Gimignano some years ago, at the hilltop Cisterna Hotel, I ate some of the smoothest mashed potatoes I’ve ever experienced and I think there was some great chicken as well, and oh my diary for 1971 records a good osso buco I can see before me in what the writer John Hillaby calls the “skull cinema,” but the best bit at the Cisterna was my Notturno alla Toscana.
I set a mental timer, you see, so I’d be magnetized out of sleep about halfway between the midnight bells and first light, because I wanted to look out over the vineyards — we had a room with a view, it was pure E.M. Forster — and experience the utter peace of night spread before me, a stray light or two in the distance, a barking dog or two to punctuate the almost humming silence. It was if I’d ordered the whole experience off the bill of fare: everything was just as I thought it should be, a five star experience. Well, there were more twinklers in the sky than that.
There were more lights-in-the-distance another year when Anne and I were staying in Les Roches de Condrieu south of Lyon and my nocturnal Bulova shot me out of bed like Gromit’s Wallace so I could run to the window and spy in the distance what must have been the Blue Train, the posh Paris-Nice all-sleeper train. There it was, over there, gliding relaxedly by — this was no TGV — lit up like a great gleaming yardstick along its plush and dowdy corridors. I couldn’t help fantasizing for this famous overnighter a manifest of duchesses and spies, Maigret in this compartment, Poirot in another . . .
And speaking of 2 or 3 a.m., I love to look out the window from a cozy Amtrak sleeper as a dozen silvery cars are steered carefully through the otherworld of DARK. Small town stops are especially magical with their stage sets peopled by lone cyclists tooling off into limbo while faithful single taxis wait dutifully for their apparently accustomed phantasmal fares — in the case of Thebes, Greece, add a pair of sauntering nocturnal cats, our friend Juliana experienced that.
Lunch in San Gimignano puts me in mind of other romantical meals, like the buffet breakfast on the ferry carrying our night express across the sound between Sweden and Copenhagen. Seagulls worthy of a Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes or Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony squawked atmospherically outside the portholes as we dug into an array of cheeses, breads and superior strawberry jam. Then we went out on deck — brrr! — to watch the ice crack like the crinkly top of a spoon-pummelled five star custard.
And in the Nocturne department: — just before I woke up this morning I dreamt a kindly waiter set before me a plate of luscious fettuccine orchestrated with chanterelles and scallions. Calling the gastronomical Dr. Freud! “But tell me Mr. Bloomfield, why are you assigning the waiter who served you sardines at the Hayes Street Grill on Thursday the job of delivering you the unctuous homemade fettuccine you devoured at Il Borgo on Friday?”