Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dickensian God

Following the Equator,
Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar
—Mark  Twain
In a cottage in a splendid garden on the side of Nevis Peak, on the first morning of a paradisiacal vacation, my husband David asked, "Who do you think we will see today that we know?" I had awakened with the same question in mind. We had not been on Nevis for thirty-five years. The island is remote and relatively unknown. So why you might well wonder would we, two run-of-the-mill New Yorkers, expect to find people we knew, especially since we were staying in a private house and were going to spend our days walking in the rain forest and having lunches at a tiny hotel where we might see twenty other guests at the VERY most. The only reasonable assumption would be that we and all whom we encountered would remain incognito. But considering our travel history, we knew incredible coincidences could happen.

Monkey Rock Cottage
Beginning with our first trip together, and over more than three decades of marriage, we have consistently and amazingly run into friends, or friends of friends, in the unlikeliest of places. On Trip One, we met David's colleague's college roommate in the garden of the Ristorante Sibilla in Tivoli, outside Rome. On another trip, David literally bumped into a friend in Malpensa Airport. In a crowd of half a million at an antiwar demonstration on the Mall in Washington, we found ourselves picnicking next to friends we had not seen in three years.

Garden of the Ristorante Sibilla in Tivoli
The tendency may be genetic, and in fact seems to be intensifying in the next generation. At age seventeen, our daughter met a high school classmate in the fifth floor corridor of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. Last year, at a yoga retreat on a remote beach in Costa Rica, two hours by car from the nearest airport, she met two women, strangers until then, who turned out to be the wife and daughter of a Neapolitan cousin of mine.

Rain Forest Trail
How, I wonder could I ever make such events plausible if I wanted to put them in a novel? Let's imagine a scene. An American couple on vacation on a remote tropical island have had a premonition of meeting someone they know.
Walking through a rain forest on their way to lunch at a small, secluded hotel, they lose their way and stop at a beautiful house to ask directions. The lady of the house graciously helps them and tells them how lovely the hotel is, that it has all the charm of the sugar plantation it once was despite the recent renovations.
Brice Marden

"The new partners have kept everything in the best of taste," she tells them. "They are the American painter Brice Marden and his wife."
Golden Rock Hotel
The couple exclaim, "Brice and Helen! They were our next-door neighbors in Greenwich Village years ago." The New York couple walk on for a short distance and find their old neighbors as soon as they enter the hotel grounds.

Watercolour of Mr Micawber 
from David Copperfield by 'Kyd'
Some writers can make this sort of coincidence work in fiction. I believed it when David Copperfield just happened upon Mr. Micawber again many years after their first acquaintance. I, on the other hand, wouldn't have the nerve to try such a thing in a novel.

My own actual experiences are often stranger than fiction. If there is a higher power guiding my steps, I think he must be the ghost of Charles Dickens.

Annamaria Alfieri
Charles Dickens looks like God to me!

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