Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Road Not Taken

I ran into myself this evening, and it was an experience both unnerving and thought-provoking.

Vienna is of course famously a city of ghosts and dreams, and while this felt a little like both or either, it was really just a moment of déjà vu in reverse, a glimpse of something that isn't but could have been.

As noted, the hotel I'm staying in is both atmospheric and really rather swish.  It stands very conveniently near the Staatsoper, whose season is now in full swing.  This evening I had come back to the hotel after a long day doing things like facilitating active-listening discussions and reviewing objective-based action plans (for such is the stuff that buys the groceries these days back home at the ex-Villa Muscato).  I had a little rest, and once evening had fallen, I ventured out to find a little something pleasant to eat and drink.

And that's where I ran into him.  Me, that is.

Once upon a time, you see, I traveled about with various of the great and the good, making their lives easier and even more streamlined than a successful international career in the arts can do on its own, absent a really first-rate personal staff.  I stayed at hotels rather like this one, just down the hall or a floor or two away from the ultra-deluxe suites occupied by people whose names appear above the title or in suitably large type just below it.

Tonight, as I headed out, I caught sight of myself in one of the venerably dim mirrors that line  the foyer just inside the hotel's gleaming mahogany and brass revolving doors: a stout figure in a large black winter coat, silver-brown hair falling  about over a flowing scarf (far more fashionable than is my wont, a much-appreciated gift from the Bahrain boys).  And so out into the night, to find a crowd gathered, eager faces lining up along the sidewalk and just across the narrow lane that divides the hotel's entrance from the vastness of the Ring Road.  They clutched souvenir programs and CDs, DVDs and bunches of flowers.  They had the air, half eager and half abashed, of fans and groupies everywhere, gathering to pounce.

Ah, thought I - the opera!  This morning I had noticed tonight's title, a glamorous one, and its cast, a starry one led off by what passes for a Great International Diva in these lesser days.  They were waiting for Madame.

And then it hit me.

Had I not changed my path those fifteen years ago or so, I might still be here, in this place, walking out - but  instead of carrying my iPad, and being on the way to dinner, I would have been carrying a score, and a valise, and a shawl, and whatever else Madame would need as she slid into the shining limousine that waited to take her the fifty yards or so from the hotel's front door to the stage door of the opera house next door.  For a moment it was as if time shifted and I had a glimpse of something else that might have been.

I walked on, deciding not to wait and see Madame for myself; I've seen plenty of star exits and entrances in my day, and done by singers and stars better far than any staying here in this hotel tonight.  I wonder, even so, who walked out ahead of her, libretto or Pekingese in hand, smoothing the way for the Great Lady's passage.

I thought of all the things that might have been if I were riding in that limousine, opening that stage door.  It would have been fifteen more years of nights like this, of gala nights and late dinners, yes, but also of living a life that was to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the star at hand, lived on someone else terms, and always very much in someone else's shadows - indispensable when necessary, invisible when not.

I thought, too of everything that wouldn't be:  all the years in Africa and Egypt and the Sandlands.  No night-sailing in the terrifying little coracles on the Niger River outside Mopti, no sunrise on the West Bank at Luxor, no Christmas picnic lunch on top of one of the bizarre and splendid  rock-cut churches in Lalibela, high up in the hills of Ethiopia.  No Koko; no Boudi; most of all, no Mr. Muscato.

I had an excellent dinner, in a slightly gone-to-seed café a few blocks off the Ring, dumplings and a demi-carafe of a strong house red.  By the time I came home, the opera was in full swing and the fans long dispersed.  I stopped at the desk to pick up my key (this is a hotel old-fashioned enough that your key really is a key, not a card, and one attached to a large and heavy fob, suitable for flinging at one's enemies but otherwise entirely meant to be entrusted to reception when you are not in your room).  I thanked the very nice Hungarian woman working the evening shift and said, "So I see from the crowd earlier that we have Madame with us tonight..."  The soul of discretion, she said nothing, but rolled her eyes, miming more clearly than language could have done, "oh, brother, you have no idea...."

Of course, as it turns out, I most certainly do have an idea.  I'm glad to learn, though, that what I have is absolutely and exactly no regrets.  Rien.  One of Grandmother Muscato's favorite poets, Mr. Whittier, wrote that "of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been!'"  I'm glad to see that even our greater Victorian poets aren't entirely infallible, for this might have been is nothing worse than a very mildly melancholy bit of food for thought - just another of Vienna's passing ghosts or dreams and nothing more.  Rien.


  1. I think the best of all worlds is having something like your former life and then moving on.

    1. Peenee's got it. Just what I was thinking.

  2. Last night I dreamt I went to Wiener Staatsoper again. It seemed to me I stood by the door leading to the stage, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me...

    1. As usual, Bill, you get it exactly.

      And at least the house didn't burn down. Well, not that house. Anything else is another story entirely...

    2. All the stories will come forth if we hang around here long enough. Can't wait for that one to be spilt. You spill so elegantly and eloquently it will seem less a mess and more like exactly what was supposed to happen.

  3. Oh how true the above all rings. Here in the Land of La, I have been and have known many 'staff to the stars'. It is a fair best not stayed too long at.

  4. How utterly fascinating your life has been - and how eloquently you write of it. We all have lived a selection of varied lives within one span, some of those passing with fond memories and some not, but that is what makes us who we are. Rien. Jx

  5. I imagine Madame to look something like Delphine Seyrig.