Love letters for Baltimore from an overseas visitor


September 16, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Seen from below, as they swim by, the rays in the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- with their large, elegant, rippling wings -- remind Dario Voltolini of white sheets lifted, thrown and draped over a bed. And that reminds him of the bed he misses in Rome. And that reminds him of his lover there. And that reminds him of get the idea.

Signore Voltolini must have been some kind of serious homesick when he wrote that.

He wrote it in a letter from Baltimore, published in a book called "Forme D'Onda," an amusing collection of colorful and peculiar observations from Voltolini's travels.

I mention this today because Voltolini is an Italian writer, and it's always interesting to consider first impressions of Baltimore from people out of town -- in this case, way out of town. And even better, we have in Voltolini a humorous and imaginative writer with a flair for the sardonic. Almost all the pieces in "Forme D'Onda," appear to be written as letters to a lover. (A friend in Little Italy translated some of the book over coffee at DiVivo the other day.)

There is a chapter, called "Obrycki's," in which Voltolini tells first of his trip to Washington, a city that reminds him of a "capital of the Soviet Empire" and that "frightens me as an operating room frightens me." He sees a beautiful woman on a Metro but declares her "fake -- like the city."

Voltolini is much happier in Baltimore. He is amused and fascinated by what he sees here. He's struck by the "domesticated ocean" of the Inner Harbor, the "glass capsules" that are the elevators at the Hyatt Regency, and the willingness of Baltimoreans to recycle old industrial buildings and schools into apartments and condominiums. He loves the aquarium but finds the idea of people watching dolphins in a tank -- and listening to them as they whistle and make noise into a microphone -- "humiliating for the human race." By the time he left the aquarium, Voltolini says, "I almost feel like breaking that tank of water and having the dolphins escape to the sea, only 10 meters away."

His most delightful observations come from Obrycki's, where, of course, he dines on a generous portion of steamed crabs. His detailed description of this -- paper on table, bibs around neck, wooden mallet and short knife in hand, big pitcher of beer -- reminded me of how peculiar and parochial this ritual is to first-timers.

Voltolini writes to his lover that a Chesapeake Bay blue crab is "about three times the size of your makeup compact and you open it the same way." He tells of splitting the shell in half and picking through "rigid skeletal casings" with the knife (Voltolini obviously had a good instructor).

"The real satisfaction comes in the claws," he writes. "You lay the knife on top of the claw, edge down, and then you hammer it. But you only hammer it into a crack. Afterwards you have to break open the claw as you would a bread stick, and the clear meat reveals itself. ...After a few minutes, crab adventurers degrade themselves to a savage state. They start tearing the claws off the crabs. They start hammering at them like carpenters who have fallen behind schedule. What you see is sauce squirting, pieces of the armor of the crab flying, you see mounds of refuse, people hammering on a knife, abandoning forks, totally primordial. They bite, they suck, they contort the crab in such a way to reach its last recesses. After they finish, they quickly put down an empty one, they drink a little bit, then they grab another crab. We become lost in ourselves and we have an animalistic satisfaction at the end of our dinner."

Paging the donor

Rose Cernak, owner of Obrycki's, wants to thank the woman, apparently a friend of Voltolini's, who left a copy of "Forme D'Onda" at the restaurant recently. Rose doesn't have your name. She'd like to acknowledge the gift and would like to hear from you.

Scenic beacon

If you've never seen the abandoned Cedar Point lighthouse in the lower Chesapeake near Patuxent River Naval Air Station, make sure you do before departing this vale. And get out there, if you can, on a hazy summer morning, at first light, with the sky pink-becoming-orange, and the breeze knocking waves gently against the jagged rock ramparts. Under those conditions, the old brick house, lifeless but for ospreys, emerges Brigadoonlike out of the pink haze and even appears to float on the choppy surf.

Late for fate

Rita Britt of Baltimore was on an MTA bus recently when she heard a passenger complaining about its tardiness. "I'm not catching this bus anymore," the griper said. "I could have been to my destiny already." Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say.

Crossing the line

A very busy businessman in Annapolis tells me that, on Sept. 4, Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile broke into one of his car phone calls and redirected it to a company rep who wanted to know when the very busy businessman intended to pay his bill. (His secretary hadn't sent in a payment for July or August.) The very busy businessman was very bothered by this intrusion, and he wanted me share his outrage. But, come on, pal. I can't get too teary-eyed. Big Brother's watching -- and listening. Get used to it.

Contact Dan Rodricks at 332-6166, or write to The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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