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"I awoke with a dreadful sense of doom. Everything seemed to be wrong with the world," CVV (1880-1964) recalls when he arrived at Mabel Dodge's luxurious Florentine villa the day WW1 broke out. Would invading Austrians sack the villa? "Isn't this just like Florentine journalism," Mabel sighs, reading the newspaper on a balcony outside her bedroom. Never mind the war, the big story was a description of the cathedral at Arezzo which had a new façade.

It's not often that you get to read about stranded Americans-in-Europe as the Little War begins and soon becomes a 4-year conflagration that would leave 15 million soldiers dead or maimed. The war that created out of egotism, greed, betrayals, misalliances and stiff-necked diplomacy : WW2. While Dodge and houseguests figure out what do (she awaits the arrival of her younger lover John Reed), the Russians & Germans are fighting in the North Sea, the Germans are marching through Luxembourg and the Brits are landing troops in France. With a keen reportorial eye CVV records a surreal situation. "No one who was not there can imagine how fantastic this seemed on top of a sunny, peaceful mountain. I was waiting for some catastrophe which never actually happened."

But, quickly, Americans are unable to cash checks and unable to cable for money. Advised to get to a port city for passage home, CVV reaches Naples, meantime dealing with the Italian siesta when telephone operators take a long lunch, so you can't reach anyone . A rusty tub, used to take immigrants to America, charges Upper Deck Suite prices (on the Mauritania) for those eager to flee and willing to bunk with scampering roaches.

By late August, Naples is a Fellini scene of chaos with soldiers singing lustily, blind beggars, men waving counterfeit money and frenzied vendors, shopkeepers and porters shrieking constantly. "Everybody appeared to be gesticulating and screaming in Neapolitan dialect or in good-bad English." The ultramarine Med gleams, Vesuvius smokes. The American counsul urges: "Get out of Naples as quickly as possible."

The gangplank on the cattle boat (which takes 11 days to reach NYC) is swarmed with passengers, sailors, trunks, suitcases. No one knows the whereabouts of CVVs cabin, which will be shared with 4 others. In fact, nobody knows where anything is, but the boat does sail.

This piece, "July-August 1914," is a memorable sketch of historic days. Others include a nostalgic reflection of growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; watching apache dancers and their molls in Montmartre (pre 1914); and a meeting with George Moore who taught CVV: "It does not matter what a man writes about. It matters how he writes it. Subject is nothing."


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22.02.2014

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