The Brenner Pass by Bruce Gatenby

The Brenner Pass

Bruce Gatenby

I moved to Rome in August 2004. I had been offered a two-year teaching position in the MBA program at the University of Strasbourg in France, after spending three years in Germany. I hadn’t had a full-time job in five years and yet I’d somehow managed to live in the Swiss Alps, Paris, Venice, and a small country house in the Colli Euganei, the Euganean Hills near Padua, by simply taking risks and not considering or caring about the consequences.

At a time when most American men approaching fifty were invited to join AARP and were enjoying the payoff of a lifetime focused on stability, I was as unstable as a subatomic particle. I wasn’t living paycheck-to-paycheck, week-to-week, or month-to-month, I was surviving moment to moment. I felt no shame in what I was doing, but after five years of struggling moment to moment in Europe I didn’t want to struggle any longer.

The February morning I was supposed to take the train to Strasbourg for my first faculty meeting, the phone rang, as I was on my way out, ready to run downstairs and across the main town square to the Bahnhof to catch the 8 am train. It was the provost of the American University in Rome. I had interviewed for a position there as well, even paying for my own trip to the Eternal City, but I’d been turned down by email a few weeks after the thirty-minute interview. It had been a waste of time and valuable financial resources, but I did get to see the Caravaggio exhibit in Piazza Venezia, so it hadn’t been a complete loss.

So why was the provost calling? The position is yours if you want it. The woman who accepted it had declined at the last minute because she didn’t want to leave Indiana or Iowa or wherever to risk living overseas. Her loss, your gain.

This was one of those moments of decision that we all dread, having to select one of two choices, knowing that the entire course of our life is about to change and that we’ll probably make the wrong choice and regret our decision, until the process of cognitive dissonance convinces us, like the fox in Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes, that the grapes weren’t really worth considering in the first place.

I weighed the two choices. Rome, Strasbourg, Rome, Strasbourg, Rome… there really wasn’t a choice, was there? Who would turn down a chance to live in Rome? I had already lived in northern Italy, but I still dreamed of Italy, Italian food, and Italian women. Not to mention Italian weather. I told the provost I had to make a quick phone call first and then I’d call him right back. So I called Strasbourg, like the woman from Indiana or Iowa or wherever, to inform them, at literally the last minute, that I wouldn’t be coming after all (let’s just say they weren’t too happy about my decision), then I called the provost back to accept his offer. The job involved teaching three classes a semester, as well as building a writing program from the ground up. He said they would email me a contract and I said great and he said great and the decision was made. I was moving to Rome. Now, all I had to do was survive moment to moment until August.

Six months. I picked up some occasional temp work teaching corporate ESL classes in Munich for €30 an hour. One manager at an energy company hired me to eat lunch with him twice a week and have conversation in English. He paid for lunch. Another manager at the same company hired me to teach her how to do business with Americans. I started by informing her that Americans don’t respond well to the imperative form. Would you please… works so much better. I translated ads for Kinderschokolade and Newcastle Ale into English for a German advertising company. I put my own writing efforts on hold. I needed enough money to last me six months. This was my life.

August finally arrived and I’d saved enough money to get me to and settled in Rome for a month or maybe two. That first Sunday my roommate Bill and I moved out of the apartment we shared on what had been known during Third Reich days as Adolf Hitler Strasse. Hitler Street. We had looked up a map from the 1930s in the town museum and discovered all the streets and squares in the town had been named after Nazi luminaries. That had always been a sick source of amusement for us. “Hey, I’ll meet you at Joseph Goebbels Platz for cake and coffee.” “Great. 16.00?”

While disconnecting the washing machine on moving day, Bill broke the bathroom water faucet and the apartment started flooding. We were on the top floor and so suddenly we had a serious catastrophe on our hands. Water would spill down into the other apartments, ruining them, and would probably cause an electrical short and a fire as well. Plus it was Sunday and everything in Germany was shut down on Sunday, including our Hausmeister’s office. While he bailed frantically with a bucket, I called the fire department, hoping they would answer. When they did, I had a sudden blackout in my ability to speak German, thinking only how do I describe this situation to them? “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” “Nein.” Scheisse! The only thing I could think of to shout in panic was “Wasserfluten! Wasserfluten!” They got the idea. “Wo?” Where? “Fünf Adolf Hitler Strasse—I mean, 5—” Shit!

Twenty long minutes of bucket bailing later, two firemen finally arrived, went down into the cellar, and shut off the flood. They vacuumed up the remaining water and finished saving the day. The fire department later sent us a bill for a couple of hundred Euros for cleaning up our mess. After the two left, we next had to move the washing machine down four flights of stairs. Bill lost his grip on the first turn and the washing machine pushed me down a flight of stairs and slammed me into the wall, tearing the rotator cuff in my left shoulder.

After we finally got it painfully loaded into the moving van, along with our other stuff, we discovered the van wouldn’t shift out of first gear. We would have to drive all the way to Munich in first gear, where I would store my stuff at his new apartment and then take the overnight train through Austria, the Brenner Pass, into Italy, and down to my new life in Rome. He would forward my stuff later. I told him to keep the washing machine. During that slow, ridiculous drive in the far right lane of the A8 into Munich, both of us grappling with the unshiftable shifter, it seemed that the fox really had made the wrong decision. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to move to Rome, after all. I started to wonder how my life would be different if I had decided to move to Strasbourg as originally planned. At least my shoulder wouldn’t have taken the next two years to heal.


As the train pulled out of München Hauptbahnhof for the 12-hour overnight trip to Rome, I had plenty of time to think, past the pretty storybook Alpine chalets of southern Germany and Austria, across the Alps, their peaks still covered in snow caps like white chocolate, and through the Brenner Pass, where during a 3 am thirty minute stop the train engine and crew switched from German to Italian, then finally moving us into the promised land of Italy.

I had been over this pass many times in the past three years, perhaps fourteen or fifteen times, both by train and car. I moved to Germany in 2000, after being deported from Switzerland, starving in Paris, recovering in Venice, and briefly teaching in Florida to get back on my feet. Toward the end of my first year there, I met a Brit named Keith, who owned a language school in the Veneto in northern Italy. The reason I lived and worked in Germany, and not in Italy or France, was simply that, like most Americans, I couldn’t get a work visa in Italy or France. If I were an unemployed, uneducated African, Albanian or Algerian with a wife and five kids I could get a visa in Italy or France and survive on state welfare, but such were the immigration policies of the postcolonial EU. Keith swore he could get me a work visa, if I’d only come down and join him.

I think my Ph.D. impressed him, although I had thrown away an academic career to live and write in Europe, which wasn’t so impressive when I thought about the end result. So I spent a late November weekend at his early 19th century farmhouse in the Colle Euganae, being wined and dined by him and his girlfriend Rachel. This was the dream. Surrounded by hills, vineyards, and olive groves, just a few kilometers from where Petrarch and Shelley had lived and written sonnets, an olive wood fire burning in the wood stove, Costello and Bacharach’s Painted From Memory on the CD player, after several bottles of the local vino novello, intoxicated with what could be my dream life come true as well, how could I say no? I couldn’t, and didn’t.

I went back over the Brenner Pass into Germany and gave my notice. Two weeks before leaving, a colleague introduced me to her daughter at a party. Jen, who was half British and half German, worked for the Bavarian Agricultural Ministry among dairy cows, was blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful, and tattooed, and we were instantly smitten with each other. In two weeks, perhaps because of only having those two weeks, our hookup blossomed into a full-blown mad, passionate I really care about you relationship. Although I was nearly twenty-five years older, Jen was serious. What was the attraction? Philip Roth explains it in The Dying Animal:

These girls with old gents don’t do it despite the age—they’re drawn to the age, they do it for the age…but simultaneously, to give yourself over intimately to a much, much older man provides this sort of younger woman with authority of a kind she cannot get in a sexual arrangement with a younger man. She gets both the pleasures of submission and the pleasures of mastery.

Suddenly, I had a reason not to leave Germany. This was another one of those moments of decision that we all dread, having to select one of two choices, knowing full well that the entire course of our life is about to change and that we’ll probably make the wrong choice and regret our decision…instead of changing my decision at the last minute, again, we simply sighed over the bad timing of our meeting and Jen said she would come down to visit me. Our long distance relationship was the reason I’d been over the Brenner Pass so many times.

I was no stranger to long distance relationships. During grad school I’d managed to keep one going for nearly three years, racing between Tucson and Albuquerque at every free moment. It was exciting, it was exhilarating, it was energizing to be in constant motion, to be constantly missing someone and then be able to slay that aching with a short plane flight or a long road trip, moving from place to place, always having something and someone to look forward to, proving that love was realbecause of all the effort it took to keep it going. Settled couples didn’t race home from work each night in a frenzied rush just to have dinner and watch a movie together, to experience the same old routine.

The routine of a long distance relationship is that it isn’t routine. It’s an extraordinary adventure that no stable relationship could ever match in feeling and intensity. It’s addictive in a way that normal relationships never are, taking over every aspect of your life. Most couples in long-term relationships crave space and free time apart, but those in long distance relationships crave nothing but time together. LDRs are the crack of the relationship world. On the downside, they’re physically and emotionally exhausting and it’s also expensive to keep feeding that monkey. At some point you start to wonder if we’re so much in love, why aren’t we simply together? The simple answer is that it’s the journey that’s fulfilling and not the destination. The more complex answer is—well, I’ll leave that to the psychologists.

I had another LDR a few years later, racing between Los Angeles and Pocatello, Idaho at every free moment. The same reasons, nearly the same amount of energy, expense, and exhaustion, and in the end the same failed result. Making the transition from long distance to short distance is a long distance, indeed. Ordinary, everyday life is just so boring without the mad rush of planes, trains, buses and cars. Somehow, taking the trash out, picking up the towels, or baking muffins doesn’t say I love you in quite the way a midnight trip to the airport does.

As we’ll see, most of my LTRs have been LDRs.

While I taught English to Italian pharmaceutical employees and Jen worked with cows, Keith discovered that he couldn’t get me a work visa after all. Non c’e una problema, he said, I’ll just pay you in cash under the table, lavoro nero. Lots of Americans lived and worked illegally in Italy. It was the only way most of us could. I had rented a small cielo-terra village house down the hill from Keith’s farmhouse for $350 a month, and so I paid my patrone in cash as well. He didn’t register a lease in order to avoid taxes. In fact, my patrone, who sold firewood to pizzerias and private houses, didn’t give receipts of any kind in order to avoid paying taxes and as a result he was the richest man in the village. Since I was paid under the table, I didn’t pay taxes either. I was merely participating in the Italian national sport of screwing the government at every opportunity.

In Germany, I ran every day by the Danube to stay in shape; now I ran every day up and down the hills and through the vineyards and olive groves surrounding our village. One morning, while running through a particularly rocky vineyard, I stumbled and landed right on top of a 6-foot long European pit viper. He seemed more surprised than I was by this and slithered under the exposed grape roots as I staggered just out of striking distance. Perhaps there was a snake in paradise after all, as I would soon discover.

Every few weeks Jen would come down or I would go up through the Brenner Pass and we’d spend a few days together. Keith, Rachel, Jen and I became fast friends and they started encouraging her to quit her job and move down to the Colle so we could all be together. When she came down we’d go out to a private club in a converted 17th century villa and eat and drink ourselves silly for less than $20 each. By himself, Keith could practically empty the cellar of prosecco, much to the horror of the other, more Italian-mannered guests. The husband and wife who owned the club would scream and yell at each other across the dining room between piatti, because he thought she was sleeping with the cook. According to the village gossips, she was.

[Note: this was before the Euro made Europe too expensive to enjoy without money, when a pizza and a beer cost $2.50 and you couldn’t spend more than $12 on the best meal at an osteria or ristorante. That’s another reason I was able to survive so long in Europe. Sadly, those days are gone, although with the Euro now collapsing, perhaps they’ll come back.]

When I was in Germany visiting Jen and her family, her mother would push or encourage us to get married. “You two are perfect together. Jen’s mature for her age and you’re immature for yours!” I couldn’t figure that one out. Most moms would hate their daughters dating a man old enough to be…well, you know. I didn’t buy into that whole father figure diagnosis, although, come to think of it, most of the younger girls I’ve been with have had weak fathers. The psychologists call it having Daddy issues, but I was just grooving on the LDR high. Besides, I was almost twenty-five years older than her and even if I was immature for my age the last thing I wanted was kids and a family.

After nine months of the routine that’s not a routine, Jen finally broke it off because she didn’t want a long distance relationship any more and I didn’t want to get married or even just live together. Like I said, the transition from long distance to short distance is a long distance, indeed. Then Keith and Rachel broke up and a couple of weeks later Keith asked if I would mind if Jen came down and stayed with him. The snake in paradise. I flew back to America for my vacation instead of witnessing that little betrayal and when I returned on September 10, 2001, Keith had shut down the language school and fled back to England, leaving nine employees unpaid and unemployed, including me. The next day something much worse happened. And that’s how I wound up back in Germany a second time.

Now I was on my way back to Italy. In a strange sense, Italy and I were having a long distance relationship.

About the Author

Bruce Gatenby has a Ph.D from the University of Arizona, and has taught at a number of universities in both the U.S. and abroad. He currently lives in Dubai. He’s written three books, including the novel The Kingdom of Absurdities, a dozen screenplays—two with Ovideo Assonities, producer of the hit film “Scent of a Woman”—and published articles and fiction in 3:AM Magazine, Eyeshot, Gadfly, Word RiotLowestoft Chronicle, among others. He was also once deported from Switzerland, but that’s another story.