I certainly didn't volunteer to deliver the postcard because I wanted to make new friends in exotic foreign lands. Au contraire, I'm a person whose travels are motivated by nature, architecture and food -- in other words, all the attractions Barbra Streisand isn't referring to when she natters on about "peeeeeeople who need people." But there I was on Floreana Island, at the ass end of the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and I wanted to send a postcard home to my partner Pamela in Miami. If I expected hand delivery of my own mail, mano a mano, it seemed only sporting to pick up somebody else's.
The Floreana post office is really just a raffish wooden barrel plunked down in the middle of the sand, a descendant of one installed in the 18th century by whaling crews. In those days it was an optimally efficient system: Sailors who were passing through checked the mailbox for letters addressed to their ships' ports of call. Today the barrel is stuffed with postcards from tourists of all nations. You could schlep them home and stamp them, obviously, but the true spirit of the olde mail barrel, according to our guidebook, demands the personal touch.
The day my daughter Miranda and I were in Floreana, most of the mail was addressed to Norwegians and Argentines. But there was one postcard with frolicking sea lions on one side and Saluti scrawled on the other, intended for someone named Gina at an erboristeria, or herbal pharmacy, in Bassano del Grappa, Italy. I knew this was the home of grappa, the firewater liqueur. I had even been through it once on a train, so I also knew it was located at the foot of the Alps, in the Veneto region, about 120 miles from Venice. Pamela and I had frequent flier tickets to go to Venice in a few months. I pocketed the card.
Still, I wasn't prepared just to show up cold. When I got back home, I decided to write Gina a letter. I speak a little Italian -- that is, I know a lot of hotel and menu words, which I sometimes say in Spanish by mistake. But with the help of a dictionary, I managed to explain all about the mailbox traditions. I assured Gina that there was no social obligation that went along with her receipt of the postcard -- although I'd be glad to buy her a beer.
"Mom, you can't send this to strangers," warned Miranda, who majored in Italian. "They'll understand you, but they'll think you're a serial killer."
She rehabilitated my felonious grammar. Off went a letter to Bassano del Grappa. A month later I got an e-mail from someone named Luca. There was a note in Italian, plus a serial killer English translation that read:
"Dear Sirs VAN GELDER, let off ourself for the postpone what we replay at your letter, but we were outside for a travel. We are very happy to meet yuo in Veneto for make a friendship. If yuo send to as the date of yuor travel we can organize ourself for meeting. Reverence, Gina"
It was around this time that Pamela, who speaks no Italian at all, began asking me pointed questions about exactly how much of our time in Venice was going to be devoted to this project. But I had made a commitment to the spirit of the mailbox, damn it. I sent the dates. Gina/Luca e-mailed back phone numbers and said we should call when we got to Venice.
A woman answered the phone.
"Buon giorno," I burbled, "e Gina chi parla?"
No, it wasn't Gina. It was Edda. Whoever Edda was,
she knew exactly who I was -- "You're coming on
Monday, yes?" -- and we managed, despite my
rotten Italian, to communicate some particulars about
the railway schedules. "Just go to the counter in the
station," she instructed.
When I got off the phone, I realized that I had no
clue about which counter she meant. The ticket
booth? The postcard had been addressed to a
pharmacy. Could it be in the train station? Did it
have a counter? A few hours later I called again, and
this time a male voice answered. No, Gina wasn't
there. Neither was Edda. The male voice belonged to
Luca, my e-mail buddy, who explained to me in
halting English that the train station was not very big
and I shouldn't worry. Then he added: "You perhaps
don't know that Gina really doesn't speak any
English? As you will see when you meet her on
I was beginning to doubt her existence altogether.
Was Gina actually a dog, the mascot of the
pharmacy? Was I the butt of a joke that had already
traveled 7,000 miles?
"You really don't have to come if you don't want
to," I told Pamela. No, no, she'd come. But we just
wouldn't stay any longer than we had to.
Our doubts began to melt the second we got off the
train. There, carrying a single red rose and a big sign
that said, "WELCOME LINDSY TO BASSANO
DEL GRAPPA," were a college-aged guy and two
grinning 60ish ladies. One of them -- an Italian
leprechaun -- immediately grabbed me in a bear hug.
The more bashful of the two, dressed in brown and
wearing eyeglasses, turned out to be Gina. My new
best friend was her sister Edda, dolled up in bright
red and wearing major eye makeup. The guy was
Luca, their younger sister's son, an engineering
student who, alone among the group, had once
studied English. He had his dictionary out. So did I.
Before I could proffer the small piece of cardboard
that had gathered us together in this spot, Pamela
and I were whisked off to a restaurant for lunch. It
was like being plopped down on the set of
"Amarcord": We were joined by Luca's mother, who
tooled in on a bicycle, and briefly by his father, as
well as a parade of cooks and waiters to whom we
were introduced as the Girls from America Who
Brought the Postcard. Mounds of antipasto arrived
at the table, followed by enormous platters of pasta
with lobster and heaps of delicate baby greens.
Prosecco, the champagne of the Veneto, flowed like
the Adriatic. And a good thing, too, since most of the
conversation that we could all muster had to do with
the cuisine of the region. Someone would proclaim
sarde en saor, and the rest of the group would
mmmm and ahhhh, and then someone else would
chime in with spaghetti vongole or radicchio al
griglia, followed by more orgasmic choruses. From
time to time one of us would raise a glass and toast,
"From the Galapagos to Bassano del Grappa!" and
we would all whoop. I noticed that Pamela was not
looking at her watch.
The family's erboristeria was currently closed for
renovations, we learned, and perhaps they all had
some time on their hands. But that alone didn't really
explain the brass-band welcome. Nor did the famous
postcard, which I finally presented to Gina over
sorbet laced with a lethal dollop of grappa. She
glanced at it, remarked that it was from a customer
and packed it away in her purse, not to be referred
to again. The postcard was merely the message.
Making friendship was the medium.
And what was a little translation technicality among
friends? By the time the check was paid -- the family
refused to take our crumpled lire notes -- we were all
feeling punchily pleased with our ability to leapfrog
over the language barrier. A tour of the town was
proposed. Bassano is actually a gem of a place, with
a spectacular Palladian wooden bridge spanning the
Brenta River and a sinister castle on its banks -- the
home, Luca explained, of Ezzolino da Roma, a
bloodthirsty tyrant so infamous that he was cited in
Dante's "Inferno." Then we strolled on a bluff above
the river past a row of lollipop-like trees. Bassano
was notoriously active in the Resistance, Gina told
us, and in 1944 the German army hanged 31 of the
town's young men in retaliation -- one for each tree.
"I wrote a poem about it once," Gina added shyly.
How nice, I thought with the genteel condescension
of the professional journalist, a pharmacist who
expresses herself in poetry. We tramped around to
churches, Roman ruins, even a Museum of Grappa,
where Gina insisted on buying us not one but three
bottles of the stuff -- regular, honey and blueberry --
Certainly we would also like to see a little of the
region? Si, si, certo. Into the family station wagon
we piled, Luca trying to drive and riffle through the
dictionary at the same time. By then, we more or
less had our schtick down. The Italians spoke
slowly, with infinite patience and maximum
hand-jive. Dictionary pages flipped like decks of
cards. Somehow we managed to progress beyond
cuisine to pets, gambling, art, birth order, the
weather in Miami, the allure of Venice, Edda's
arthritis, my bad knee, our feelings about spirituality
vs. organized religion, even politics and politicians
(for that one we all used the international sign of
stuffing one's finger down one's throat). We took
pictures of each other in the main square of
Marostica, where the residents dress up as bishops
and queens every fall and enact a days-long chess
game. We climbed to the fort above the town. By
then it was getting dark, and, alas, we had a train to
But it was decided that we would meet the family
cats and dogs. At Gina and Edda's house we got
another surprise. Gina had written poetry, all right --
she brought us out copies of all her books, as well as
a CD on which several of her verses had been set to
modern classical music and sung by the soprano
Isabella Frati. These, she insisted, were gifts: one set
for us, and one for Miranda ...
By now we were sagging under the weight of three
bottles of grappa and a small library of books, plus
the CDs and a multilingual guidebook to Marostica
that Gina had impulsively bought after Luca and I
had exhausted our dueling dictionaries in the search
for words to describe chess pieces and military
architecture -- all in exchange for one lousy postcard.
Nor would the sisters dream of letting us take the
train back to Venice. They drove us all the way to
Piazzale Roma, the last niblet of mainland before
one has to switch to a waterbus or gondola. We
kissed, cried, offered our respective spare rooms any
time, promised to be fluent in each other's language
the next time we met.
And indeed, with the help of my dog-eared
dictionary, I am slowly reading Gina's poetry. The
one about the 31 martyrs is a favorite, but there are
also sexy, smoldering love poems. Pamela has been
stockpiling South Florida culinary goodies to send the
ladies. Luca and I have become e-mail pen pals. I
correct his English, he corrects my Italian and tells
me what the family is up to. Edda was recently in
Australia. Somehow I feel certain she made herself
Meanwhile, the postcard I mailed home to Pamela
from Floreana hasn't turned up yet. I find myself
getting oddly excited at the idea of meeting
whichever stranger, speaking whatever language,
eventually shows up with it. I may have been the
one who went to the Galapagos. But it was Gina and
her family who taught me about real adventure